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Because it’s strange and beautiful and hot, people from everywhere converge on Florida and they bring their cuisine and their traditions with them. The Zest celebrates the intersection of food and communities in the Sunshine State.

How Florida Became 'The Birthplace Of Fusion Cuisine'

Nuts and blueberries in bowls

We’re traveling back to a time long before podcasts existed: the 17th and 18th centuries. That’s when our guest says Florida became the birthplace of fusion cuisine.

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Here’s something you may not have learned in history class: The original Underground Railroad traveled from North to South. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Spanish Florida offered refuge to people fleeing enslavement from British colonies.

So what does this have to do with food? Well, the mingling of Spanish settlers, free Blacks and indigenous people in St. Augustine led to some pretty unique ways of eating whose influence shows up on our plates even today. That’s why historian Andrew Batten says Florida is the birthplace of fusion cuisine.

“Nothing brings people together like food,” says Batten, co-director of Florida Living History Inc., an educational nonprofit based in Central Florida.

From their native Spain, colonists brought staples like pork, wine, garbanzo beans, garlic and olive oil.

“They very quickly start latching onto native dishes that are going to supplement what they can’t provide themselves,” Batten says.

From indigenous people, the Spanish learned to barbecue their meat. To their stews, the Spanish began incorporating foods native to the Americas, such as sweet potatoes, pumpkins, squashes, sweet peppers, hot peppers and corn. Add to that the influence of formerly enslaved Africans, who cultivated West African staples like okra, yams, collard greens and black-eyed peas. And of course, being good Catholics, the Spanish ate lots of fresh Florida fish.

A typical breakfast consisted of bread and wine, even for children, because the water wasn’t potable. The main meal, lunch, was stew made of pork, beans, broth and vegetables. The evening meal was lighter—often a slice of cake, hot chocolate or coffee and reheated stew.

As Spanish, Africans and natives intermarried, their foodways became intertwined. So the next time you sit down to a plate of barbecued pork, candied yams and collard greens, imagine the diverse denizens of colonial Florida enjoying similar cuisine five centuries earlier.

“The great irony of all of this is that out of this came what we consider all-American food—which of course, it isn’t,” Batten says.

For more Florida food history, check out these previous episodes of The Zest:

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