Growing St. Augustine’s Story: One Food at a Time

We eat history everyday. We grow traditions in our gardens. And culture simmers in our kitchens. Our culinary and agrarian story in St. Augustine is a unique and complex layering of culture, history, and geography. It is both grounded in our soil, water, seasons, and flora – as well as influenced by the globe. What better way to peel back the past, then to chow down on some of the plants that fed St. Augustinians – and the cultures that brought them to our shores.


Corn

Can you imagine St. Augustine without shrimp and grits? We do not even want to try. A staple of southern cuisine today, the story of grits (stone-ground cornmeal) and corn go way back. The humble – yet handy – starch began thousands of years ago in Mexico with the domestication of a grass called teosinte. People across the Americas – including in Florida – soon adopted the new crop known as maize.

Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues drew Timucua planting seeds – most likely corn. (UFDC)

When the Spanish arrived in La Florida in the 1500s, they noted the maize grown in Central and Northern Florida. Narratives – such as that of Rodrigo Ranjel (a member of the Hernando de Soto expedition from 1539-1543) – provide a snapshot into the fields and foods of indigenous Floridians:

“They came to the plain of Guaçoco [most likely a town and/or plain in the Tampa Bay Area], and the soldiers went into the corn fields and gathered the green corn with which they cheered themselves a little, for it was the first they had seen in that country.”

– Rodrigo Ranjel in Narrative of De Soto’s Expedition Based on the Diary of Rodrigo Ranjel, His Private Secretary, translated by E. G. Bourne in 1922

Ranjel’s accounts go onto describe how indigenous groups in Florida would boil fresh maize in the summer months and grind the dry kernels for meal in the winter months. De Soto’s expedition learned to create a mush (a version of grits) from the meal as well as cakes (similar to hoecakes) on hot stones.

Later European colonists adopted maize – mostly because wheat suffered in Florida. The adoption of corn became a part of a larger collision between the Americas and Europe that historians call “the Columbian Exchange.” Colonists introduced pigs to the Western Hemisphere, for example, and took home tomatoes, corn, and hot peppers never before seen in Europe. Today, corn serves as one of the most important crops grown around the world and the cornerstone of St. Augustinian cuisine.


Southern Peas

A staple of traditional soul food, the Southern Pea is a term for a broad range of field pea varieties. The most common varieties include: crowder, cream, and black-eye. Often referred to as cowpeas or field peas, these legumes may have originated in West Africa. They spread by trade and migration through Africa, India, and ancient Greece and Rome – long before reaching the Americas.

A woman prepares peas in the village of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé. (UFDC)

A part of the Columbian Exchange, southern peas began arriving in the Americas with colonists and West African slaves. They came along with other African plants – such as okra, sweet potatoes, and melons. The easy-to-grow peas found roots in Florida – adapting well to their new environment. The plant improved soil quality, weathered droughts, and thrived during long hot summers. So the legume became a staple on Floridians’ tables – especially in cuisine referred to as “soul food.”

What is soul food? The term refers to traditional southern African-American food. The term – coined in the 1960s and 1970s – goes much further back in history. African slaves and freemen – who began to arrive in the 1500s – brought cooking traditions with them. Their food knowledge continued and adapted to life in Florida over generations. For example, Hoppin’ John – a rice and southern pea dish – resembles the West African dish Waakye (pronounced waa-che). It is through these passed-down recipes that we enjoy some of our favorite dishes today.


Datil Peppers

Datil peppers (a variety of Capsicum chinese) are endemic to St. Augustine. “The Datil pepper is a small lean yellow green pepper, Spanish or Minorcan in origin, very hot and of distinct pungency,” as described in Marjory Kinnan Rawling’s 1942 Cross Creek Cookery. The heirloom pepper’s story is actually vaguer than Rawling imagined, yet still romantic.

Mrs. Donnie Gader gardening datil peppers in St. Augustine. (Florida Memory)

Folklore connects the pepper’s introduction to the city’s Minorcan population. Minorcans came to Florida as a multicultural group of indentured workers (mostly from Minorca) in the late 1700s. Some recount tales of Minorcans sewing seeds into clothing before boarding ships. Historians and botanists curious about the plant offer alternative theories. Some suggest an African connection to the pepper. Another plausible hypothesis sources the pepper from South America via Caribbean traders.

Whichever story holds truth, one cannot underplay the role of the pepper in St. Augustine. Here the pepper appears in jams, hot sauces, pilau (pronounced “purr-lo”), and anything else you can imagine. The most likely reason behind its wide-spread adoption may go back to a practical reason – preservation.

“Not having refrigeration, it was hard to keep foods fresh. Particularly meets or fish . . . Datil peppers were certainly something you had access to [in St. Johns County]. You might have to conceal the taste of something once in a while, and I guarantee you that sufficient Datil pepper will conceal the taste.”

– Frank Usina interviewed for Southern Foodways‘ Oral History Program in 2015

We may never know the full story behind the Datil pepper, but we are sure happy to eat them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s