A Culinary History of Florida: Prickly Pears, Datil Peppers and Key Limes.
Florida Food History
How has Florida become the culinary melting pot of the country?
What did the first Floridians eat and how did they prepare their food?
The answers go beyond the Seminole Indians and European exploration, back to an ancient prehistoric culture when man first walked among mastodons and mammoths, right up to moon walks and space exploration launched from the Florida coast and beyond.
A trip to the east coast with Jackson Harris and Lisa Tamargo to see the final launch of the Space Shuttle, video by Anthony Marchi:
Our culinary history parallels our academic history with over 500 years of cultures blending their cooking styles to produce the most diverse cuisine in America, and the oldest. Spanish, Italian, French, Creole, Cuban, Greek, Mexican, Minorcan and Caribbean, along with Southern, Soul and Cracker cooking is all a part of Florida’s culinary history. From historic restaurant dinners of the Gilded Age to roadside diners’ tattered menus, the food style changed with emerging populations.
Prickly Pears, Datil Peppers and Key Limes
The old and the new is one reason Florida is an exceptional place for foodies from around the world.
Prickly pear gelee was served as part of a dessert featuring poached pears, in a restaurant just around the corner from the Miami circle, an archeological site in downtown Miami believed to be around 2000 years old. It is surreal when you realize many of the dining options of Floridians at that time were the same as today, just prepared differently, as prickly pears were a common food source for early man. The gelee was served in portions smaller than an eraser on the end of a pencil. You can see one of the dots of prickly pear behind the “snail” tail. After working with the prickly pear myself I appreciated all the effort that went into those three little dots.
RECIPE: Key Lime Pie is the state pie of Florida. A recipe for one of my versions can be found in Easy Breezy Florida Cooking or you can watch the video to see how easy it is to prepare; it’s called Flamingo Pink Lime Pie.
Another Key Lime Pie recipe, this one with a coconut graham crust and Kahlua Whipped topping can be found in A Culinary History of Florida.
The Changing Coastline of Florida
The Sunshine State emerged on the planet after eons of change creating a unique peninsula that is geographically the youngest part of the nation yet the oldest part of the United States. Millions of years ago the supercontinent Rodinia, during the Precambrian era, gave way to another supercontinent Pangaea that was surrounded on all sides by a single ocean, in the Paleozoic era. As tectonic plates moved and shifted, mountains formed and volcanoes erupted while the planet earth gave birth to the continents we recognize today. The Mesozoic era, lasting roughly from 65 to 250 million years ago, gave us dinosaurs but they never made it to the water-submerged state before becoming extinct. The Cenozoic era started 65 million years ago until present, and encompasses the time periods for the developments of mammals and man as Florida was beginning to emerge from the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico on the west coast and the Atlantic Ocean on the east. Still vastly different from the climate and terrain that today we call Florida.
My son Jackson drew the following two depictions of the growing coastline of the Sunshine State.
Dinosaurs were already extinct before the Sunshine State took it’s final shape. The story is important when describing foodways as the formation of Florida helped to determine who and what roamed the land long before we arrived.
Looking out from the top of the tower at Bok Tower Gardens one can see the beautiful rolling hills of orange groves that have benefitted from the distinct landmass that formed there thousands of years ago. Standing on the white sandy soil at Kissimmee State Park in the middle of the state it isn’t hard to imagine that area as a beautiful sandy beach.
Heading west to Titusville is the Windover Site. A burial place of Early Native Americans who inhabited this region 7,000 to 8,000 years ago. “The burials were placed underwater in the peat of the shallow pond. This peat helped to preserve normally perishable artifacts and human tissues. The site contains the largest skeletal sample in the New World and the oldest bottle gourd found north of Mexico…The remarkable state of preservation has allowed archaeologists to reconstruct some of the earliest New World diets based on contents from their stomachs and on scientific analysis. Archaeologists from Florida State University were among those who explored the Windover site.”
Over 10,000 years ago when the Paleoindian came in search of new food sources he brought with him the knowledge of cooking along with the skills needed for hunting and gathering.
Museums across the state feature reconstructed skeletons of the large animals that were considered a major food source for early man.
Hunting for prey large and small, involved skill, determination and luck. Wooly mammoths or mastodons, giant ground sloths, and sabre tooth cats are no longer on the menu.
Without the distinction of breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals would most likely be served when the food was available or after a big hunt.
Other food sources for early man are a part of the Florida landscape today.
The Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay now stands where the Paleoindian once stood, over 8000 years ago, leaving artifacts buried deep beneath the shoreline all the way to Pinellas Point. At Fort Brooke and Harney Flats in Hillsborough County, artifacts were discovered while excavating the sites. Today the Fort Brooke site is a parking garage and Harney Flats looks lush, green and swampy, with I-4 and I-75 running through it.
Little Salt Spring was most likely an oasis in a barren wasteland, used as a seasonal camp at the time of the Paleoindians. The sea level ledge of the Paleoindian Period is now 85 feet below the surface of the spring.
Along with an oak mortar probably used for grinding nuts or seeds, one of the most intriguing finds was a now-extinct giant tortoise discovered upside down, impaled with a stake, over a charcoal pit, on a ledge 80 to 90 feet below the surface of the spring. The water level was even with the ledge 12,000 years ago. Evidence gathered at the now-submerged site show an informal hearth and charred remains indicating man cooked at the site.
Giant ground sloth, mammoth, bison and mastodon remains as well as hickory nuts and gourd remains were also found. One place on the underwater slope before the deep-water drop-off, a series of stakes were driven into the ground, possibly a kind of trap for catching the abundant deer in the area.
The hunting-gathering-fishing culture of the Archaic Indians emerged thousands of years after the first man arrived in the area. From cooking directly in the fire to roasting meat and other foods on a stick, the foods and styles of cooking changed and improved during this time.
2300 BC Stonehenge was created in England during the Late Archaic Period
When Stonehenge was created around 2,300 BC, long gone were the Paleoindians who roamed about in search of food to cook over a campfire. The Archaic cultures were fully developed, relying on hunting, gathering and fishing to procure their foods. Cooking methods consisted of basic roasting over an open flame or on a spit, along with using earth ovens or boiling stones for stew-like dishes. Periods of starvation were not as common as with the Paleindians since the Archaic cultures devised ways of preserving foods for later consumption.
Around 500 BC, at the close of the Archaic period, 24 circular holes were cut into limestone at the area now known as The Miami Circle. Located where the Miami River meets Biscayne Bay, the area is still being explored.
170 BC First Public Bakery opens in Rome
Here in Florida the Native Indians were developing complex cultures and establishing trade with other groups in the Southeast of North America.
Jesus Christ was born
As the Roman Empire was growing, unique cultures were being developed across the state of Florida. Each of these cultures depended on food sources based on location. Stews, smoked foods and dried meat with berries were common. Food was plentiful enough at times to have a celebration or feast for the local community.
The cultivation of maize had begun around this time as indicated by findings in Northeast Florida.
Between the time of the construction of Notre Dame and the Eiffel tower, European contact was made with Native Floridians and these groups were classified as tribes and given names.
1450-1550 The Renaissance
The Columbian Exchange
1492 Christopher Columbus discovered the New World and The Columbian Exchange began
A Renaissance was occurring halfway across the globe as the prehistoric period of Florida was about to come to an end during the early sixteenth century with the arrival of European explorers such as Juan Ponce de Leon, Panfilo de Narvaez, Hernando de Soto and Don Tristan de Luna. The state’s Spanish Colonial heritage began in April 1513 when the conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon named it La Florida. At one time La Florida stretched across southeastern North America, as far west as the Mississippi River and north to Virginia.
Ponce de Leon may not have found the fountain of youth or gold but he must have tasted the roasted pumpkins and seeds the Native Americans ate at that time. Buried in ashes the pumpkin was slow roasted and could be used as a container for soups and stews. Eaten whole or ground into a flour-like substance these dried seeds were a great source of nutrition. Although cleaning the pumpkin, scoop, scoop, scoop, takes time, patience and can be very messy it’s a wonderful fall treat when paired with a great stew.
Pumpkin Pot of Gold Stew
1 medium size pumpkin
1 tablespoon oil
1 quart of your favorite stew
Heat oven to 425oF.
Cut a hole in the top of the pumpkin then remove seeds and stringy fibers; using a small knife to scrape the sides and a melon-baller or large spoon for scraping the bottom.
The seeds and fibers clog garbage disposals so throw them in trash or reserve the seeds for roasting later.
Brush inside of pumpkin with olive oil.
Place the pumpkin and lid on an oiled pie plate; bake for 35 minutes, or until it starts to soften but is still somewhat firm.
Spoon stew into pumpkin, place the lid on top of stew and bake for 20-25 minutes.
Pumpkin will be soft so be careful when serving, but be sure and spoon out a little pumpkin with each serving.
(note the pumpkin seeds needs to be left out to dry overnight before cooking the next day)
2 cups pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons butter, melted
2 teaspoons sea salt
Spread clean pumpkin seeds in a single layer on a large baking sheet.
Let seeds dry out overnight.
Heat oven to 200oF.
Toss seeds with melted butter and salt.
Return to large baking sheet in a single layer and bake for 45-60 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes until seeds are lightly browned.
Panfilo de Narvaez might have enjoyed fish and corn with the Native Americans but instead he and his men practically starved to death since they were not on the friendliest terms. The few remaining men by the end of the journey must have enjoyed some of the beef they brought with them before they resorted to more untraditional foods. Short ribs are fatty and tough cuts of meat and are traditionally braised, but if grilled long enough and with moisture they can be tasty chewy meat. You might have to gnaw on the bone as Narvaez and his men probably did, they out of starvation, while you can enjoy this culinary delight for the rustic flavor of grilled meat.
2 pounds beef ribs, cut into 6 inch pieces
salt and pepper to taste
Prepare the grill for indirect heat cooking. Place a drip pan with water in the grill.
Soak the hickory chips in water at least one hour and drain.
Place chips on coals, being carful not to put out the fire, adding more as needed.
Sprinkle the ribs with salt and pepper and oil the grill.
Place ribs, meaty side down over indirect heat.
Cover and cook 80-90 minutes or until done.
1565 – Pedro Menendez founded St. Augustine
1600’s – A National Historic Landmark: also know as the González-Alvarez House the oldest house in St. Augustine had been occupied since the 1600s, however the present house dates to the early 1700s.
1607 – English settle in Jamestown
1656 Mission San Luis
1747 Benjamin Franklin began experimenting with electricity
Ice cream’s origins begin around the second century B.C. but the first official account of ice cream in the United States comes from a letter written in 1744 by a guest of Maryland Governor William Bladen. Ice cream was a dessert enjoyed mostly by the elite, becoming more common when insulated ice houses were invented in the 1800’s.
Cattle, Citrus and Fishing Industry take root
The last of the native Indian tribes left Florida as the Creek and Seminole Indians arrive. Minorcans arrived in St Augustine and a new term was coined calling many pioneer settlers “Crackers”. The citrus, cattle and fishing industry has its roots in this time period.
1789 George Washington becomes the first president
Yeast had been around for thousands of years but the use of Pot Ash or Pearl Ash began in the late 1700’s, later to be replaced by baking soda and baking powder.
1806 Pikes Peak was named after the man who failed to reach the top.
1821 Florida became a territory then a state in 1845.
1889 Eiffel tower was built in Paris.
Turn of the Century
The turn of the century and the pre-electric era found Florida more heavily populated than ever before, with most of the Native Floridians gone.
William Bartram, Jonathan Dickinson, the Minorcans, Seminole Indians, plantation owners and slaves, the patrons of the Gilded Age, followed by the depression and Cracker cooking, all add to the culinary richness of the Florida we know today.
Henry Bradley Plant and Henry Flagler built railroads and resorts across the state. Gas lamps and kitchen pumps were soon replaced with electric lighting and indoor plumbing.
1905 Sponge diving began in Tarpon Springs
1912 The Overseas Railroad arrived in Key West
1941 The faces of Mt. Rushmore were completed.
Electric cookware was introduced and by the 1940’s the Electronic Era brought television sets and automatic dishwashers.
1954 With its iconic modern architecture the Fontainebleau opened in Miami.
Push button living and microwave cooking were the hot new trends in the 1960’s and 1970’s.Today the state is a popular tourist destination with beautiful beaches and theme parks.
1971 Disney World opened and in 1975 the Carousel of Progress was added which showcases the changes in lifestyle throughout the 20th Century.
In 2012 the new Fantasyland opened and alcohol is served for the first time in the Magic Kingdom.
From the pre-electric era at the turn of the century with gas lamps and a kitchen pump to electric lighting and cookware in the 1920’s right up to the computer age of today, our culinary heritage is a reflection of our historic past.