I began 2016 with little to no direction, having recently left my full-time job.
Naturally, I turned to the Internet for solace. Search results for my situation resulted in three main narratives: do nothing, travel the world, or cry. (I did all three.)
Some days I expanded my comfort zone by exposing myself to new people, places, and experiences. Others I pushed myself to try new foods, or find comfort in the familiar. And on all the other days, there were cookies. A lot of cookies.
Great food is one of the many joys of my everyday life. So while I could easily have written a reflective and introspective recap of 2016, it somehow feels more appropriate to unveil the story through food. Here goes…
Anna Maria Island / Longboat Key
The year began with my grandparents officially becoming “snowbirds.” They spent all of January and February in beach rentals on Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island, and at such an emotional time in my life, nothing was more comforting than having family close at hand.
I showed them to the perfection that is Joe’s Eats and Sweets Ice Cream, while they introduced me to an entirely new perspective on the island and countless new restaurants.
I learned that my grandpa has an insatiable sweet tooth (even worse than mine!), and witnessed him drink wine straight out of the bottle while watching the sunset. I savored long talks over wine with my grandma, so thankful to be able to have those moments again.
As I drank my tropical mojito and savored my fresh grouper dinner plate one night, I realized leaving my job wasn’t the end of the world. Career uncertainty wasn’t consuming my thoughts. Instead, I relished in the beauty of watching the sun dip below the water, and drank up the simplicity that is dinner on the beach at sunset with people you love.
A few months into the year, I was tired of doing nothing and had launched this blog. Coincidentally, my mom was in Florida spending an entire month with my grandparents. We took the opportunity to bond on a new level, which means I promoted her to my official blog day-trip buddy.
On one day trip, we hopped in the car (armed with caramel creams) and spontaneously headed to Jupiter. True to form, it wasn’t long before we located a tiki-bar. Colorful tables became the backdrop for our beachy cocktails and overpriced-but-yummy tacos. We laughed over drinks and good food, then left and kind of broke in to a nature preserve after hours. Typical.
Another day, we hit the road and headed to Dunedin. After a day spent exploring colorful homes, Honeymoon Island State Park, and the local marina, we shared tater tot poutine at Dunedin Brewery. Easily one of my favorite breweries, and eateries, in Florida so far.
It was through these day trips that I forged a new relationship with my mom, while also realizing how much diversity Florida has to offer, much of it found not far from my home. These trips were the foundation for numerous day trips to come.
Family support was a huge factor in me making it through the year with my sanity intact, and I was able to make it back to my hometown of Columbus, Ohio several times.
It was exciting, yet strange, to dine out with my family. We ate at their favorite places, all new to me, and I felt the sensation of visiting a place I’ve been thousands of times before through an entirely different perspective.
A strange thing happens when you grow up and start making your own home away from home. Your “home” as you know it – frozen in time – changes and evolves without you. The people who make home are still there, but the place changes.
While my favorite establishments are still there (HELLO Graeter’s milkshake and Worthington Pizza) countless new places have popped up.
I was a bit mad that Cookie Dough Creamery didn’t exist when I lived in Columbus. Soft serve ice cream layered with edible cookie dough and endless toppings? This is basically my dream come true. Then there’s the influx of breweries, like Lineage Brewery. I will always remember their hand-pie, basically the lovechild of a calzone and a fancy grilled cheese. And then there were the coffee milkshakes and a pretzel bun stuffed with herbed cream cheese at Fox in the Snow Café. (Orlando, you have work to do.)
I was craving the home of my past, but learned to love the home of now instead. It was a pivotal moment in realizing that everything changes, and we can choose to fight that flow and drain ourselves, or accept it and welcome the new.
Belize was a blessing. John and I had already planned for the trip in 2015, and I had money saved before I left my job, so I knew our trip in April was still possible.
We visited new parts of the country, spent much needed quality time together, and ate ALL of the things. It was vital time we needed to reconnect, unplug from work and stress, and focus on each other and having fun. And the food, as usual, knocked my socks off.
It started with daily gourmet meals at Vanilla Hills Lodge, then progressed with a life-changing gelato experience at Tutti Frutti in Placencia, a gelato shop owned by two Italian expats. Since that glorious cone, I haven’t tried gelato elsewhere. John and I sat down in an open-air restaurant in Placencia one night and indulged in the best meal: fresh grilled hog snapper so good I almost forgot I was getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. And then there was that time I stuffed my face with carbs and chicken for breakfast. (This was vacation, after all.)
Again, I fell in love with Belize. But I also experienced it with another person I love dearly in a completely different way, while being at a completely different point in my life. This time I was stronger, more confident and sure of myself, and more open to challenging my comfort zone. I chose food as my reward!
Anna Maria Island (again)
Every year, two of my best friends, Sarah and Jimmy, come to visit me and John. This year, the visit was extra special because John and I both knew Jimmy was going to propose to Sarah. We planned for months, picking a location on the island, and when the time came everything was perfect. And we got to photograph the whole thing!
The rest of the weekend was full of celebration, which materialized in the form of tacos and margaritas.
We found ourselves at Wicked Cantina, and a few tacos and margaritas later, Steph’s Taco Blog was officially born. (Thank you Jimmy for the name.) We returned to Wicked Cantina again the next day, indulging in the same routine, worrying that it wouldn’t be as magical as the first time while delighting in the fact that it was. Some things just never get old, and good times eating tacos and drinking margaritas with friends is one such example.
Of all the places I’ve visited in Florida, St. Augustine is in the top five favorites. I love the architecture and history, I love doing all of the cheesy tourist things, and I love exploring something new each time I visit.
Near the end of the year, my mom, stepdad, John and I planned a day trip (I really like day trips) to St. Augustine. It had been a few years since our last visit, and I admit I was somewhat motivated by food (The Ice Plant).
The day began with a ride aboard The Old Trolley, followed by a tour of Flagler College. Lunch #1 was tacos, but lunch #2 was the real treat: a cookie dough milkshake (The Stevesie) from Cousteau’s Waffle and Milkshake Bar. I attempted to walk off the calories for approximately 10 minutes before re-boarding the trolley.
For dinner, I was excited to finally try the infamous Ice Plant, known for craft cocktails and incredible food. It’s also attached to a distillery, so…there’s that. At first glance, the menu was intimidating, but after receiving our food and drinks we all realized we could do no wrong. (Especially those among me who ordered the wagyu beef burger – holy crap.)
It was a year of trying new things and taking risks, some easier than others, but each time I was rewarded with the discovery of new favorites or lessons learned. And of course, the cocktails helped.
If I could sum up my September trip to Miami in one word, it would be: firsts.
Pretty much everything I ate in Miami was foreign to me. From curried octopus to bacon-wrapped dates, sushi and sashimi to lobster rolls, it was all new to me. The trip was a huge exercise in expanding my comfort zone in multiple areas of my life, while also learning when to treat myself to a little time spent in my bubble.
The rich, buttery, warm lobster roll I ate at Izzy’s Fish & Oyster taught me that trying something new can result in discovering a new favorite.
And the tacos at Coyo Taco and craft beer at Concrete Beach Brewing reminded me that sometimes, you just need the comfort of going back to what you know works. (Tacos and beer will ALWAYS work.)
It’s cheesy when people say that you should live a life you don’t feel the need to escape from, but I learned this year that it’s true.
If you take the time to find (or create) small joy in every day, and do things that fill you up and align with your personal values, the need to escape disappears.
As a result of this outlook, I discovered endless things about Florida. And locally, I explored Orlando and its culinary scene more than ever before.
I found a new favorite in KrungThep Tea Time, which has inventive and delicious desserts that make my sweet tooth do back-flips. I tried bao for the first time at King Bao, signing the praises of those steamed buns filled with culinary delights, like coconut shrimp. And I found a local taco go-to at Bartaco in Dr. Phillips.
In the span of a year, I faced the what-ifs, the creative blocks, the self-doubt and the fear. I built myself back up this year based on what I love, building my career as a freelance travel writer and photography business owner, and while it hasn’t been easy it has been worth it. I’m challenging myself creatively daily, I’m happier in all areas of my life, my anxiety is practically gone, and I no longer feel the need to escape into a fantasy life, or destination.
I learned that fear never really goes away, you just learn to live with it without letting it control your life.
I discovered that travel isn’t just about going to far-flung places, adventures await in your own backyard if you’re willing to look.
I experienced the strength that comes from having loved ones who support you, and that it’s so much easier to choose community over competition.
…And, of course, I ate some really damn good food.