The science of Southern living

Flavors of Florida showcases the Plant Innovation Center and the UF/IFAS plant breeding Program

WE’RE CREATING Southern lifestyle in a lab. Weeks, months, even years of trial and error … Then, in a single night it all bursts forth in a night of only-in-Florida cuisine. How many dinner parties do you attend where the hosts invented the food?

The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences recently hosted Flavors of Florida at the Old President’s House. It’s the foodie event of the year, an only-in-Florida feast.

Among the dishes were two Southern-style entrees: Florida beef fillet with Sunlite™ potato and sweet corn soufflé, smoked “Garden Gem” tomato chutney and Sugar Belle® citrus shooter, and petite Florida beef strip steak with Sunlite™ potato croquettes and Florida olive butter.

Locally sourced cuisine was our pathway to promote the modern South, one that’s banking on discovery as an increasingly central part of its economy.

We officially formed our Plant Innovation Center just a few hours before the March 23 event with the signing of the final documents.

Flavors of Florida showcases the Plant Innovation Center and the UF/IFAS plant breeding program. Plant scientists/breeders are just one part of the group. Other faculty include sensory experts who understand how a better color or flavor affects human behavior, and they find out what people like. They work with plant scientists who identify the genetic and biochemical components of fruits and vegetables.

The Center’s success can contribute to the evolution of a Southern-style cuisine that will continue to be the envy of the rest of the nation, but with ingredients that are even healthier, tastier, and more profitable for producers. To supplement the great dining room table traditions of our region, Center scientists are working on coming up with the genetic recipes for new plants that people will like more and pay more to consume.

It’s the brainchild of Dave Clark, the Center director. His office is the Center’s headquarters, decorated with a whole lot of academic honors, an Elvis on velvet, and Gator football memorabilia. He has more National Academy members than staff.

The land-grant university plays a special role in the South. Because of our climate and our ingenuity, Floridians make outsized contributions to feeding the nation and the planet. The service-oriented mission of the land-grant university in general, combined with the breadth of UF specifically — we’re one of only six universities in the nation with colleges of agriculture, law, medicine, and veterinary medicine on one campus — means we deliver Southern solutions to global challenges.

Southern cuisine is, of course, central to what makes our region distinct. But at UF/IFAS, we’re helping to define Southern lifestyle as one that embraces innovation, risk and global outlook.

The taste of feeding Florida can be sweet. But as I reminded the folks who sipped and supped at Flavors of Florida, the event was a taste, a whiff, and a glimpse of how a preeminent university operates.

The possibilities for the Center are limitless. Veggies that taste so good that even the fussiest of eaters will make healthier choices. More nutritious versions of the foods we already eat. Even medicines for kids that aren’t such bitter pills to swallow.

Like discovery, social change is hard work. We have big dreams of making the world better by helping people change the way they eat. At IFAS, we have a distinct advantage over other social change agents. We don’t have to open people’s eyes and ears. We can reach them through their taste buds, Southern-style.


article by JACK PAYNE

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jack Payne is senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida’s Institute of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

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