Regional History and Influence on Cuisine

Floribbean cuisine, also known as new era cuisine, has emerged as one of America's new and most innovative regional cooking styles. The fresh flavors, combinations, and tastes of Floribbean cuisine are representative of the variety and quality of foods indigenous to Florida and the Caribbean Islands. Regional chefs often make a commitment to using locally grown foods and the fish and seafood of the abundant fresh and salt waters of the area.

The cooking style and techniques used in Florida today are highly influenced by those of Cuba, Jamaica, and the Bahamas, but they are lighter, with less frying and fewer oils involved in the preparation. This current movement is, however, only a little more than a decade old. The roots of Floribbean cuisine trace back to the exploration of the New World by the Spanish.

Florida “The Sunshine State” is one of the world's strongest tourist magnets due to the abundance of sunny days. The state tree is the sabal palm, from which hearts of palm or swamp cabbage—is harvested. The state reptile is the alligator, which lives in the streams and swamplands. The state freshwater fish is the largemouth bass, and the state saltwater fish is the sailfish. The state beverage is orange juice, and the state flower is the orange blossom.

History and Influence of the Immigrants

Juan Ponce de Leon first landed on the Atlantic Coast in 1513, and shortly thereafter Spain began to colonize the area, building forts and missions. But with Florida's rough terrain and the Spaniards' supply problems and weakening empire in Europe, all of their expeditions failed. They did, however, establish a settlement at St. Augustine in northeast Florida in 1565, and this became the first permanent European settlement in the United States. The French disputed Spain's right to Florida, so they began to settle the area, too. Both sides attacked the other's settlements, often completely destroying them. Farther north, the English became worried that the Spanish and French would threaten the Carolinas and Georgia. When the French and Indian War ended in 1763, Spain gave Florida to England. After the Revolutionary War, England gave Florida back to Spain. Finally, in 1819, Spain sold Florida to the United States.

Florida Development

During the final quarter of the 19th century, large-scale commercial agriculture in Florida, especially cattle raising, grew in importance. Industries such as cigar manufacturing took root in the immigrant communities of the state. Potential investors became interested in enterprises as diverse as sponge harvesting in Tarpon Springs, and the Florida citrus industry grew rapidly.

The development of industries throughout Florida prompted the construction of roads and railroads on a large scale. The citrus industry benefited now that oranges could travel to the northern states in less than a week. Beginning in the 1870s, residents from the northern states visited Florida as tourists to enjoy the state's natural beauty and mild climate. This tourism industry drove the development of lavish winter resorts from Palm Beach to Miami Beach, nicknamed the “Gold Coast.”

By the early 1900s, Florida's population and per-capita wealth were increasing rapidly, and land developers and promoters marketed the state as a tourist and retirement mecca, resulting in a massive real estate boom in South Florida. This boom ended by 1926, and land prices plummeted. The Great Depression hit the nation and Florida's citrus industry was further devastated by the invasion of the Mediterranean fruit fly.

World War II brought an end to the Great Depression and led the reemergence of economic development in Florida. One of the most significant trends of the postwar era has been steady population growth, resulting from large migrations from within the United States and from countries throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Little Havana

Florida's most diverse cities are Tampa and Miami. Before the turn of the century, Tampa was the center of the U. S. cigar manufacturing industry. Many of the cigar makers were Cuban Americans, and southern and eastern Europe provided the rest of the workforce. With so many immigrants from Cuba, Spain, and Italy, Tampa developed a mixed Mediterranean and Latin culture.

Florida's current multicultural center is Miami. In 1959, a revolutionary army led by Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba. Castro's political foes and many professionals and businesspeople fled the island-nation, just 90 miles from southern Florida. Many of these Cuban exiles eventually settled in Miami. In 1980, more than 100,000 people left Cuba for Florida and have developed a Cuban-American economic and political presence in South Florida.

Although Cuban Americans now form South Florida's largest ethnic community, other groups have played a significant cultural role. Northern Jewish retirees moved to South Florida beaches, and today the region has the second largest Jewish population of any U.S. metropolitan area. Large populations from Haiti, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, and other Central American countries also exist in Florida. In addition, a Southeast Asian influence is beginning to be seen as more people immigrate to Florida from Indonesia, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
When the Spanish arrived in Florida in the early 1500s, they brought cattle and pigs with them to the New World. From this introduction of livestock to Florida, the Spanish are given credit for many recipes using meat in a region that formerly depended entirely on fish and game. In return for livestock, the Native Americans taught the Spanish about local fruits and vegetables, including hearts of palm, malanga, yuca, and plantains.

Later, the abundant finfish attracted Cuban fishermen to the harbors and bays. They salted and dried their catch, and then shipped it to Havana and other Spanish colonial settlements. Before the Civil War in the 1860s, the commercial red snapper and grouper industry was active, as well as industries developed for harvesting and processing clams, scallops, turtles, oysters, and shrimp. The spiny lobster, actually a large sea crawfish with no claws, is found in the waters off lower Florida's west coast. Stone crabs are trapped and fishermen remove one of the two claws, tossing the crabs back into the water to grow the missing claw back. The conch that is found in the spiraled seashell has sweet but tough meat that is chopped up for fritters and chowders. The conch was so popular in Key West that it was hunted to near extinction, leading to dependence on Costa Rica and the Bahamas for harvest.

Greek sponge divers settled at Tarpon Springs in 1905, and other immigrants, including Italians, Chinese, and Cubans, brought their cooking traditions with them.

The Florida Panhandle

Inland toward the center and north of the state, the food is more Southern in character. In the mid-1600s, the Spanish conquistadors brought many thousands of slaves from Africa to Florida and the Caribbean Islands. The slaves brought with them the skills and knowledge to grow, cook, and prepare the types of foods they were familiar with: yams, eggplant, sesame seeds, and okra. Many of the regional specialties, like field peas and okra, came from this period.

In the mid-1700s, a group of Minorcans—people of Catalan descent from the Spanish Balearic Islands—were brought to the Florida region as indentured laborers. Their foods and cooking influenced the existing Florida cuisine, particularly in the use of peppers.

South Florida and the Gold Coast

Agriculture has fueled much of the area's economic development. Draining the Everglades uncovered rich soil, permitting the development of sugarcane fields, and helped turn the area southwest of Miami into the winter vegetable capital of the country. Today, Florida is the nation's top producer of sugarcane, and Florida trails only California in the production of fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, greens, beans, and peppers. Florida is one of the largest producers of citrus fruits in the world, and Florida oranges provide nearly 80 percent of the orange juice consumed in the United States. Florida also produces grapefruit, limes, lemons, and tangerines. Some of the more exotic citrus fruits from the region include kumquats, tangelos, pummelos, and calamondins.

Latin Caribbean Influence

Latin Caribbean cooking offers complex, flavorful ingredients from diverse cultures. Ingredients introduced by ancient Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas are combined with flavors and recipes of its diverse groups of immigrants, including the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italians, Middle Easterners, Africans, Chinese, Japanese, and Germans. Cooks from regions that include Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic flavor their foods with relatively mild seasonings—oregano, tomato, garlic, black pepper, and mild chiles. Rice is a staple and seafood, fruits, and root vegetables like cassava, boniato, and malanga are abundant. Ground meat dishes called picadillo, rice and beans, mofongos (mashed plantain with pork crackling), escabeches, seviches, frijoles, and paella are commonly found. Recipes are flavored with adobos, mojos, coconut milk, and cilantro.

Salsas are now the most frequently used condiment in the United States, and are an essential part of Latin regions. Salsas come in many forms and flavors. Spicy and hot with vegetables such as tomatoes, beans, corn, peppers, and cucumbers, or tart and acidic with fruits like mango, pears, pineapple, and grapefruit, they are used extensively to provide flavor. The word mojo comes from the Spanish word mojado, which means “wet.” Mojos are more liquid in consistency than salsas and are used as sauces or marinades. The heat of the salsas and mojos are adjusted with the choice of peppers, from the fiery Scotch bonnets to the milder banana peppers. By using any of the countless vinegars or fruit juices combined with choices of oils that include olive, walnut, hazelnut, and avocado, salsas and mojos can provide a wide range of flavors. In addition, they have the benefit of being very low in calories and cholesterol, making them healthy alternatives to heavier, cream-based sauces. They require little or no cooking and the fresher, more colorful, and more flavorful the ingredients, the better the salsas and mojos are. These sauces are served with chips, or with any type of meat, fish, or poultry.

Probably the greatest influence on Floribbean cuisine began in the 1950s, with the large migration of Cubans to South Florida. Caribbean and Latin American immigrants have followed the Cubans and have found that many of their native ingredients are indigenous to Florida. They brought with them all of the rice and legume dishes from the Caribbean, like rice and peas, or beans. Coloring foods, like adding turmeric and saffron to rice, reminded them of the palm oil that is used in West Africa, from where many Caribbean slaves originated. They used cane sugar in oil, caramelized to give a color and flavor to their stews. Dried and smoked ingredients as well as pickled pork and vegetables are important in intensifying their foods. Seasoning pastes, salsa, rubs, and hot sauces are used not only for flavor but also to enhance digestion and encourage perspiration in order to cool off in the hot environment. By balancing the hot spices with cool, tropical fruits, this cuisine has captured the attention of the more adventurous American palate.

In the 1980s, a talented group of local chefs recognized these exotic ingredients and the cooking traditions of the immigrant population. With Miami's explosion as a new and exciting playground for the hip, rich, and famous, they have developed and marketed what has become one of the next acknowledged regional cuisines of America.
(American Regional Cuisine. John Wiley & Sons 4.2.1).