The state of Florida was the first Culinary Melting Pot of the Country.
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, Seminole, Soul and Cracker cooking help to create Florida’s culinary history. While Florida was the last state to emerge geographically, after dinosaurs were extent – making it the youngest landmass in the country- the discovery by European explorers makes it the oldest part of the United State, historically.
It all started with Ponce de Leon.
Juan Ponce de León, who not only named the state but, on his second voyage, he sailed along the eastern coast past Cape Canaveral and the Dry Tortugas, making landfall somewhere along the central Gulf Coast, bringing with him seven Andalusia cows and laying the foundation for America’s first cattle industry.
Spanish settlers eventually turned Florida into America’s first cattle-raising and citrus state.
In addition to starting the cattle industry, the roots of the citrus industry were planted when the Spanish Crown ordered all ships bound for the west to carry cargoes of plants, seed and domesticated animals.
The first pigs, Christmas and Thanksgiving.
In 1539, Hernando de Soto, along with several hundred men, brought a herd of swine, today known as piney woods rooters or razor back hogs, and introduced the first pigs to Florida. De Soto marched inland, into the territory of the Timucua and Apalachee, through present-day Dade City. Along the way the group ran out of potable water and several people died as a result, in Zephyrhills. Ironically, today the city is known for its fresh spring water.
When de Soto and his men reached the Tallahassee area they decided to camp for several months, until winter was over, before leaving the state. The first Christmas in Florida, and possibly North America, may have been at this campsite in the Apalachee Indian village, in present-day Tallahassee.
One of the most notable explorers and colonists was Pedro Menéndez de Avilés who, in 1565, founded the first permanent settlement in America: Saint Augustine.
This happened 42 years before Jamestown was settled in 1607, and over 50 years before the Plymouth landing in 1620.
Menéndez celebrated the first Thanksgiving dinner with the Native Americans.
The Sunshine State’s first Thanksgiving dish might have been a Spanish stew with pork, garbanzo beans, sausage, fresh local vegetables, garlic and olive oil. Timucuans likely contributed local game and fish such as mullet, catfish, tortoise, oysters or clams.
Later this multicultural society would lay the foundation for a state that gives us 500 years of recorded history.
The first public market and gluten-free bread.
In 1598, a gristmill and the first public market in what became the United States was established in Saint Augustine. A standard system of measures and weights, used to protect the consumer, was also created. In her book, The King’s Coffer, Amy Bushnell describes the scene at the time, “Indians paddling canoes or carrying baskets brought their produce to the market on the plaza: twists of tobacco, pelts, painted wooden trays, packages of dried cassina tea leaves, rope and fishnets, earthenware and baskets, dried turkey meat, lard and salt pork, saddles and shoe leather, charcoal and fresh fish and game; especially they brought maize…Maize, not wheat, was the staff of life in Florida.” The Spanish also enjoyed their imported olive oil, wheat flour, wine, sugar and chocolate. (Joy Harris, A Culinary History of Florida)
William Bartram, a thirty-five-year-old Quaker naturalist, explored the Florida wilderness and recalls some of his experiences in a book, published in 1791, called Travels and Other Writings. Bartram wrote of wild orange groves and alligators, along with various and abundant fish. Returning to his camp one night, he recalled a dinner of broiled fish and rice “and having with me oil, pepper and salt and excellent oranges hanging in abundance over my head (a valuable substitute for vinegar).”
He describes the bays and lagoons being full of “oysters, and varieties of other shell-fish, crabs, shrimp…The clams, in particular, are large, their meat white, tender and delicate.”
Bartram’s Orange Broiled Grouper
William Bartram, in Travels and Other Writings (1791), described the broiled fish he prepared for himself while exploring the flora and fauna of Florida. It sounds like gourmet dining by today’s standards. It was freshly caught fish, cleaned and broiled, served over a bed of rice with a drizzle of wild, sour Florida orange juice. Combining orange and lemon juice mimics the taste of sour orange and can be drizzled over fish with olive oil before broiling or grilling. Cooking the fish ten minutes per inch of thickness is recommended; if the fish flakes easily with a fork, it’s done.
Anthropologist Alanson Skinner, working for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, observed the Seminole and noted: “Early in the morning one is usually awakened by the thump, thump, thump, of the women pounding corn, the squealing of pigs, and the crowing of roosters. After a heavy breakfast, the men take their rifles and depart, some to hunt, some to cultivate their cornfields, and others to spear turtles and fish…one of the houses of the village (usually the large one) is reserved for eating, and here food, generally sofki (sofkee–a ground corn dish), venison, biscuits or corn bread and coffee, is always ready for the hungry.” Twice a day, in the morning and evening, the Seminole had regular meals, but eating between times was a common practice.
These Native Indians’ resourcefulness in extracting foods from plants that appeared inedible such as the coontie plant and sabal palm was remarkable.
Some of the native plants growing in Florida eaten by the aboriginals are still grown and enjoyed today, either raw or cooked in recipes. One of the most notable early accomplishments, arguably South Florida’s first industry, was the introduction of processing starch from the roots of the coontie plant (a species of Zamia, also known as comptie, Koontie or Indian bread root) which became a staple of the South Floridian diet, both for settlers and Seminoles. Laborious and time-consuming, the process involved extracting starch from this ancient fernlike plant (used in landscaping and floral arrangements today). The roots, stems and leaves all contain a poisonous toxin if left raw, but the abundantly growing underground tuberous roots contain both the water-soluble toxin and the edible starch. After digging up the root, it was washed, chopped, pounded with a mortar and pestle, ground into a pulp and then mixed with water. Using a straining cloth, the starch was separated out into a container and would settle at the bottom while the water was drained off. A starchy paste was left to ferment before being spread on palmetto leaves to dry in the sun.
The fund of knowledge necessary to maintain the technique was passed along to the Seminole from the former native tribes in the area and they used the starch to make bread and pudding. Later settlers improved upon the crude methods by using processing mills and increasing the number of fermentations, thereby producing a more refined product of pure white. MacCauley was at a factory in Miami where he was served coontie pudding with milk and guava jelly, which he found delicious. Commercial mills sold the starch to national baking companies for biscuits, crackers, cookies and spaghetti. Recipes are found in early cookbooks for puddings and jelly using various forms of the product. Northern biscuit makers called it Florida arrowroot starch. (Joy Harris, A Culinary History of Florida)
Dr. Anita Spring, University of Florida, Department of Anthropology, pointed out that this was possibly the first gluten-free bread in Florida.
One more first: Joe’s Place in Miami Beach opened over 100 years ago and then, around 1921, they began serving the first stone crab claws. The discovery of stone crabs for eating is credited to a Harvard ichthyologist and Joe’s Place… which is now Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant. Seventy-five cents for four or five crabs was the price at that time.