From barbecued alligator to Key lime pie, Florida’s culinary history is as diverse as the people who have called the state home. In her beautifully illustrated new book, “A Culinary History of Florida: Prickly Pears, Datil Peppers & Key Limes,” Joy Sheffield Harris examines the Sunshine State’s long culinary history in an informative style that is both enlightening and entertaining.
Tampa-based author Joy Harris and her husband, 970 WFLA news radio host Jack Harris, served up a taste of Florida history at Gainesville’s Matheson History Museum on May 23. Joy arrived at the museum with Cuban bread fresh from La Segunda Central Bakery in Ybor City, tupelo honey, Florida’s Natural orange juice, and homemade Key lime pie and peanut butter bars that she shared with the audience. She also passed around authentic Key limes and datil peppers, a hot pepper that has been a staple in St. Augustine kitchens ever since the Minorcans first arrived there in 1777.
Joy Harris’ talk focused on the abundance of fruits, vegetables, seafood and animals that make Florida cuisine unique. Her talk and book feature stunning images and analysis of the Native Americans who lived in Florida before the arrival of Spanish colonizers in the sixteenth century. She discusses the different foods Florida’s first human inhabitants hunted and gathered, ranging from shellfish to alligator to manatee.
Harris also focuses on the ways Native American, African and European cultures clashed and created new forms of Florida cuisine. During Joy and Jack Harris’ presentation at the Matheson, Jack shared the ironic story of conquistador Hernando de Soto’s march through present-day Dade City, where several of de Soto’s men died in Zephyrhills when they ran out of potable water. Today Zephyrhills is famous for its fresh spring water.
Spanish colonizers’ culinary legacy includes introducing citrus, cattle ranching, horses and pigs to Florida. In March the Ybor City Saturday Market made Florida culinary history by hosting the inaugural Baconalia celebration. As the originator of the Cuban sandwich, which the Tampa City Council recently renamed the “Historic Tampa Cuban Sandwich,” Tampa also holds an annual Cuban Sandwich Festival.
Joy Harris excels at blending Florida history and food history, supplying the reader with the cultural context behind Florida’s foodways. For example, she elucidates the connections between four styles of Southern cooking, which is best defined as comfort food. “Seminole, southern, soul and Cracker cooking are all rooted in the past,” Harris explains, “with a common thread of freshly picked or harvested fruits and vegetables; fish and shellfish found in the myriad lakes, streams and coastal waterways; barnyard chickens, wild hogs and venison; basic cooking skills; and a taste that is recognizably the South with seasonal treats such as cane syrup, boiled peanuts, muscadine grapes and tupelo honey.”
“A Culinary History of Florida,” which retails for $19.99, is priced right for gifts and is guaranteed to increase your appreciation for Florida history and cuisine. Joy Harris shares Florida food history and recipes on her blog, Joy Harris Cooks.