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Community Sunday Favorites: A Traditional Florida Feast


Jacques LeMoyne depicts how the natives roasted their food in this 1591 sketch. 

Photo: Florida Memory Project

BRADENTON –We just finished stuffing our bellies full of turkey, mashed potatoes and green bean casserole. We said our thanks for our family and friends and participated in the American tradition of watching a good ol’ football game. Hundreds of years ago on the same land that we now inhabit, Calusa and Timicuan natives were also fond of having grand feasts. Instead of turkey, they would dine on roast sea turtle. They sipped delicious coquina soup and passed a pipe around the campfire, shooting the breeze with family and friends.


If one were to go to a feast hosted by one of the native Florida tribes, they might be surprised by how they would be fed.  The table would likely be decorated with coco plum and hog plum seeds, which contained considerable amounts of oil and were used like candles to burn at night. Bottle gourds were used for all types of things including bowls, dippers, cups and spoons.


An appetizer might consist of sea snails, scallops, oysters clams or whelks, all of which were gathered and eaten on an everyday basis. The whelk shell was often used as a tool to poke holes in the crown of a king conch for consumption or utilized as a soup dipper. The original Floridians also caught many fish with hooks, spears nets and traps. According to Hernando De Fonteneda, who lived with the natives for 13 years in the 1500s, the tribe “at no time lacked fresh fish.”


While natives routinely hunted rabbits, squirrels, deer, large rats, alligator and snake, which were speared or trapped, they also dined on more unusual delicacies like sea turtle, manatee or shark liver. According to Robin C. Brown in “Florida’s First Peoples,” sea turtles were turned on their backs after they had finished laying eggs on the shore. The meat was eaten fresh, or smoked. Brown also states that shark liver was an excellent source of iron and protein.  The book “The Edge of Wilderness,” by Janet Snyder Matthews describes how the natives would lasso a manatee, then drive a stake through one nostril and “rode the seacow as the Spaniards rode horses.” (Note: seaturtles, seaturtle eggs and manatees are now protected under federal law.)



In this sketch by LeMoyne the natives prepare for a feast.

Photo: Florida Memory Project

Through escavations of native middens, acheaologists discovered that hickory nuts were gathered in the late fall and stored for the winter. They were cracked with a nut rock, or a rock that had a nut-sized depression in it which cupped the nut while it was pounded with another rock.  The nuts were boiled in hot water. A “butter” would gather on the top, this was scooped and eaten it was one of the few sources of vegetable oil available to the aborigines. The natives also drank the milky emulsion, or nut and water mixture


Acorns were boiled then pounded into a powder and used as flour. They could also be used for oil, the powder was added to water and a oil would form at the top and could be skimmed off with a feather.


The natives used the roots of a catbriar vine to make what would be comparable today as cornstarch. They did this by chopping the root into pieces then pulverizing it with a mortar. I could be added to water to make a kind of pudding or used to thicken other dishes.


Berries were collected and dried on either in the sun or on woven wooden racks over a fire. Wild grapes including mescaline, frost grapes, summer grapes, sea grapes and the pigeon grapes could be served fresh or dried. Hog plums were dried into prunes and persimmons were gathered in the fall and preserved by removing the seed and shaping them into half-inch cakes, which were dried in the sun. The cakes would keep for months and were similar to a candy. Other berries that were gathered seasonally were blueberries, huckleberries, blackberries, red mulberries and elderberries.



Natives plant sqash, pumkins and beans in this LeMoyne sketch.

Photo: Florida Memory Project

One likely side dish was swap cabbage, which could be made from the heart of a Sable Palm or from a saw palmetto.  The natives farmed a type of corn, squash, pumpkins and beans. Bread was made from fine cornflower and placed in a flat ceramic pot covered by another pot and left over the hot coals. Bread was flavored with cooked pumpkin, sunflower seeds. or nuts and berries. Thin corn batter was cooked on a flat stone or an earthenware griddle to make a kind of tortilla. Thick corn batter was rolled into ball and wrapped with a cornhusk and boiled into to a type of dumpling.


The men at the table might indulge in “the black drink.” According to Brown, women and children were not allowed to drink the strange tea made from cassina leaves, which was an important factor in social settings and rituals. Because the natives were unfamiliar with alcohol, the caffeine in cassina stimulated the mind and caused them to feel more alert. During ceremonies other medicinal plants were brewed with the concoction sometimes causing vomiting, which was considered part of the ritual.


At the end of the meal, natives would pass around a pipe filled with native tobacco that contained four times the amount of nicotine in tobacco used today. In low does it had a soothing effect, but in high doses it could produce hallucinations. Tobacco was often mixed with other plants like dogwood bark, sweet gum and southern arrow-wood.  After all that, it was off to bed.


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