En la Cocina | In the Kitchen

We gather in our kitchens today – drawn by the promise of good food and company. For St. Augustinians, this vital space brought cultures and people from across the world together over the centuries. Let us step back in time and into la cocinas (kitchens) of some of the city’s earliest residents.

A black and white copy of a book page featuring an illustration of Timucua men and women cooking.

When St. Augustine appeared on the map in 1565, the Timucua settlement of Seloy gathered around food. Mealtime involved the whole community with everyone contributing ingredients and labor. Women worked together (with the help of their children) in a central outdoor location to prepare meals using cookware such as pottery and basketry (and not metallic discs as seen in this Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues reproduction).

With the establishment of St. Augustine, Spanish colonists – in unfamiliar lands with few things from their homeland – developed a new way of life. They blended Spanish, Native American, and African cultures while creating new practices. These multicultural infusions especially appear in kitchens. For example, archaeologists often find Native American cooking implements – such as Mexican corn-grinding stones and local earthenware – throughout the city. This blending of traditions during the First Spanish Period (1565-1763) helped people cope with isolation from Europe and a difficult environment.

A color photograph of a metal pot hanging over a fire in a yard.

As the presidio grew, cooking moved indoors. Colonists constructed independent cocinas – usually from wood or tabby – separate from their homes. This practice kept smoke and odors out of living quarters. And lowered the chances of a fire burning their entire estate.

So what did you find in a St. Augustine cocina?

Spanish colonial kitchens throughout the Americas commonly featured a fogón – a large wood or charcoal burning stove and oven. Unlike campfires and hearths, fogóns provided a convenient height allowing users to stand over their cooking. A draw back of this innovation: smoke. As a solution, a draft from a well-placed window or door helped push smoke out through roof vents.

A rendering of a St. Augustine kitchen based on John Bartram’s description. (UFDC)

Furniture and cookware in these early kitchens served utilitarian purposes and were not as decorative as our pots and pans today. This room remained busy all day with women prepping, cooking, and preserving everything their households ate. So each piece needed to work and stand up to the constant ware. For example, large wooden tables with stools or benches offered both work and dining spaces.

As for storage, you most likely think of large, ceramic olive jars. You are not wrong. These jars – many from the Iberian peninsula – held everything from dried beans to wine. The flexible vessels served as the “Tupperware” of their time. In addition, families hung their possessions on walls or placed them upside down in simple cabinets (alecenas) to deter pests. This included food. Hanging items – such as herbs and peppers – in the smoky kitchen also offered an opportunity for preservation.

As we look toward the holiday season, we anticipate spending extra time in our own kitchens for the rest of 2020. While you cook and bake for yourself and your loved ones this year, see if you can spot any similarities or differences between the cocinas of Spanish St. Augustine and the modern American kitchen.

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