This practice of smoking foods such as meat, fish, oysters and clams, over wood fires is a method still in use today. The Native Americans smoked meats cut into thin strips and also fish by a slow process, which sterilized and dehydrated the foodstuff, making it safe to eat for weeks. A Barbacoa, which is a wooden frame built of green wood so it does not burn with vertical poles holding a grid above the fire was often used. This was the precursor to the barbeque grill we use today. Another process used small huts with hickory or oak wood fires that were kept constantly burning which reminds me of the smokehouse my grandmother often referred to. Many of our smoked products today are prepared for immediate consumption only in order to enjoy the smoky flavor, and cannot be kept for long periods of time without spoiling. Ted Dahlem explains in his book “How to Smoke Seafood” the different smoking methods and choices of hard woods to use. Mullet is one of the best fish to smoke due to its high oil content, which helps to keep it from drying out.
The Calusa had access to mullet as well as a variety of woods used for smoking today. If you want to give it a try at home here is the recipe I tested in 1983 when I worked for the Florida Department of Natural Resources.
3 dressed medium-size mullet fillets, butterflied (remove head and entrails, split form head to tail to butterfly)
1 pound hickory chips, soaked in 2 quarts of water overnight and drained
1 cup salt
Make a brine with the salt and 1-gallon water; add fish and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Remove from brine and dry off.
With a charcoal grill set up as you would for indirect grilling with mounds of hot coal on either side of the grate, place about 1/3 of the damp wood chips on top of the hot coals being careful not to put out the fire. The remaining chips will be added as needed.
Place the fish skin side down on the center of the well-oiled grill about 4-6 inches from heat.
Close the hood and open one vent slightly to keep smoke circulating.
Smoke 1-2 hours adding more chips as needed.
The cooking time varies based on the heat generated and a hotter grill takes less time.
The fish is done when the flesh flakes easily with a fork.
Smoked fish can be kept in the refrigerator for 2-3 days or up to 3 months in the freezer.
One convenience food of the past still eaten today is jerky, the meat usually bear meat or buffalo was dried over a fire or in the sun. Today you can find, beef, buffalo, gator and venison jerky at grocery stores, roadside stands and other stores all around Florida. As the indigenous people of Florida roamed about they could carry jerky along with them for a snack. Jerky is still very popular today and some of the first cookbooks published in North American featured recipes to Jerk Beef by following the Native American principles.
2 pounds round steak
salt and pepper to taste
Start with partially frozen meat, as it is easier to cut.
Cut into 1-inch wide strips about ½ inch thick.
Sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper and refrigerate overnight.
Bake at 175 degrees about 7-8 hours, turning occasionally until thoroughly dried
Digging for clams is something I have never done but as a home economist for the state of Florida I worked with our executive chef to introduce Florida Clams to food editors across the country. We invited them to come to one of the barrier islands off Florida’s central west coast, Caldesi Island State Park (known as Hog Island-in the 1800’s due to the wild razorbacks living there). Accessible by boat, this wildlife sanctuary with pristine white sandy beaches provided a native backdrop for the Florida seafood buffet served that night. The Florida clams were the star of the show, served in a variety of ways as the island helped show off Florida seafood in its natural environment. Today delicious Florida clams are farm raised off the coast of Cedar Key and recipes for a variety of Florida seafood are on the Fresh from Florida website.