Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Price of Fried Chicken in Old Florida

Winter Haven, 

When Cypress Gardens opened near Winter Haven in 1936, it was billed as Florida's first commercial theme park. Carved out of a swamp, the botanical gardens later added water-skiing shows and other attractions like their hoop-skirted “Southern belles” who strolled through the grounds, chatting with guests and posing for photographs—a little like Mickey Mouse, but prettier. The park was also the filming location for a number of travelogue romances in the 1940s, including the musical comedy “Moon over Miami,” starring Betty Grable and Don Ameche. It was also the site for a string of movies showcasing aquatic-actress Esther Williams.1 In the 1950s and 1960s, the gardens were used as an exotic backdrop for television specials and print advertisements.

Included among the alligator ashtrays, flamingo figurines, and other souvenirs were postcard-size menus with scenes of the park, promoting the specials at their Palm Terrace dining room. Reminiscent of a bygone era in tourism, three menus from 1949-1952 show that food prices suddenly began to rise faster than inflation, reflecting a societal issue that is still with us.

As shown on this 1949 menu, one of the perennial favorites at Cypress Gardens was their peach shortcake made with fresh-frozen peaches and “gobs of whipped cream.”

Although prices were the same during the following summer, the menu below from 1950 offers an additional dinner for $1.25—Southern fried chicken dinner served with popovers, honey, and cole slaw. Situated in the scenic Orange-Belt ridge of central Florida, the park exclusively served Donald Duck orange juice, the brand of a local canners cooperative (and Disney licensee since 1941) that processed boxcars of citrus fruit each day at nearby Lake Wales.

Beginning in 1951, Cypress Gardens promoted its own brand of orange juice, a change that may have been prompted by rising food costs, as indicated by the higher prices on this menu. Driven by memories of shortages during World War II, consumers went on a spending spree when the Korean War broke out in June 1950, sparking eight months of soaring inflation. However, when the feared shortages never materialized, spending fell off sharply. The reduction in consumer demand in early 1951 was so dramatic that it had a deflationary effect, largely counterbalancing the influence of increased military spending.

Economic statistics show that consumer prices increased 10% between 1950 and 1951, and that food prices went up even faster. As shown, the price of the fried chicken dinner rose to $1.85, a whopping increase of 48% over the previous year, well above the official rate of inflation. Since the average annual income was then about $3,000 per year, tourists felt the sting of these higher prices, just as they do today when food prices rise faster than wages.2 (Modern economists ignore the costs of food and energy when calculating the core Consumer Price Index, deeming them too volatile for inclusion.)

Ironically, the Donald Duck brand that Cypress Gardens featured in 1950 was an unwitting reference to their future competitor. Five years before the first Disneyland opened in California, little could they have imagined that the cartoonists who created the irascible duck would become a powerhouse in the theme park industry. In 1971, Disney World, the self-contained resort in Orlando, opened as their center-state rival and would slowly ease them out of business.

After Cypress Gardens closed in 2009, its 150-acre site was converted into Legoland® Florida, the fifth park of the global franchise. As with most such corporate ventures, legoland theme parks are as interchangeable as lego pieces, lacking the quirky charm of old Florida. Fortunately, we still have Weeki Wachee Springs, home of the “live mermaids,” situated on the Gulf Coast just north of Tampa.3

Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum meet Alice
Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida

1.  Released on July 4, 1941, “Moon over Miami” begins with a bouncy dance sequence at the Texas Tommy Hamburger Drive-in where Betty Grable and Carole Landis show off their talents, before leaving for Miami in search of a rich husband. Filmed in Technicolor by 20th Century Fox, one scene that is revealing with regard to culinary history comes when “Aunt Susan” hands “Jack” a jar of her famous guacamole sauce whose contents are bright red, not the green color of an avocado-based sauce. The consumption of avocados was not widespread in the country until the 1950s, except oddly in California and Florida where the movie was shot.
2. The national average wage was $2,973 in 1952, as compared to $40,711 in 2009. Today, the cost of the seared chicken breast entrée at the Coral Reef restaurant in the Walt Disney World Epcot Center is $20.99, roughly equivalent to the price of the fried chicken dinner at Cypress Gardens sixty years ago.
3. The mermaids performing in the underwater theater at Weeki Wachee Springs are now state employees. In one of the less-heralded government rescue plans, ownership of the venerable roadside attraction was transferred to the state Department of Environmental Protection in 2008. The following year, the manager was fired for illegally altering time sheets and making inappropriate remarks toward one of the mermaids. By all accounts, things have been going swimmingly ever since.