Source: A Culinary History of Florida: Prickly Pears, Datil Peppers and Key Limes by Joy Sheffield Harris. 2014
The kitchen in the de Mesa-Sanchez House at the Colonial Quarters Museum in St. Augustine sparked my interest in the food and cooking of that era. I saw the open hearth, and the colorful fruits and vegetables sitting on the worktable in the kitchen. There were large pots, dippers with long handles, brooms, earthenware bowls and other kitchen utensils. Baskets, canvas bags, boxes and crates for storing food were scattered about the room.
So when I visited the Barnes and Noble bookstore and the Florida shelves, A Culinary History of Florida jumped off the shelf and into my hands. I could not resist its lure. What was it like cooking in a colonial kitchen? What did colonial era families eat? Most years I buy a new book about Florida. Last year I went back north with The Voyage of the Sea Turtle, sometimes I read about plants, sometimes people.
This book begins with information about Paleoindians who lived in Florida as long as 12,000 years ago. I soon turned to the chapters on Colonial times when the Spanish, then French and the British and again the Spanish colonized and governed St. Augustine, or in the case of the French had settlements up the Atlantic coast and also brought French-Creole foods from Louisiana into North Florida. Juan Ponce de Leon sailed with Andalusia cows on his second voyage, and the Florida cattle industry began. The Spanish government required all ships bound for Florida to carry plants, seed, and animals. De Soto brought hogs. Native Americans influenced what Europeans ate when they left behind stores of food while escaping the approaching European invaders. The Spanish planted corn and other crops. Florida lakes, rivers and oceans provided seafood, and forests yielded wild game.
The Spaniards brought the Asian Loquat tree to Florida. A loquat grows on the grounds of the Colonial Quarters Museum. Its yellow fruit ripens about this time of year and tastes like apricots. It can be cooked and eaten in combination with other fruits or to make jams and jellies. As early as 1699 large orchards of oranges, lemons, limes, figs, and peaches grew in the St. Augustine area along with Indian corn, peas and herbs.
One hundred years later the ethnic mix in the city became even richer. Minorcans, Greeks and Italians walked the seventy miles to St. Augustine from a large failed indigo plantation near New Smyrna. Among the foods introduced by this group was the Datil pepper to flavor stews, sauces and the like. These slender homegrown yellow-green peppers are still used in restaurants and homes all over St. Augustine. Shrimp and mullet, sea turtles, lemon and eggplant were common and largely familiar foods they found in St. Augustine when they arrived. Some cooking was done outdoors as kitchens were small. Breakfast for the Minorcans and others who shared their traditions might be bread with oil, grated radishes, minced onion, chopped tomatoes, garlic, basil vinegar and lemon. Sounds like bruschetta, doesn’t it?
Colonial kitchens contained an open hearth for cooking and often, there was an outdoor wood-fired brick oven as well. A moveable crane supported large pots over the fireplace. Potatoes and eggs could be roasted among the ashes. Andirons with spits were used for roasting meat. Pots with legs, known as spiders, sat in the hearth atop hot ashes and coals. Potatoes, tomatoes and other vegetables, as well as meats and wild game were often used to prepare the stews so important to the diet of the time. Mission Stew combined the foods of native and Spanish culture: pork, beef, chicken, squash, beans and corn.
Turtle meat was enjoyed all over Florida. William Bartram wrote in detail of eating during his travels in 1791. With the Seminoles at Paynes Town he was served venison stewed in bear’s oil, fresh corn cakes, milk and hominy. They drank honeyed water. Later his party ate barbecued ribs, and kettles of stewed fish, but the soft-shelled tortoise was a favorite.
This book also has chapters on the Early Seminoles, Florida Cookbooks, Soul and Cracker Cooking and recipes. More reading about Florida Food through the years is ahead for me. I like learning about food from an earlier time.