Let’s all just take a moment to be thankful for our modern-day supermarkets. Gone are the days of coot liver pilau, donax/coquina broth, and gopher tortoise stew. (Don’t even try that last one; the gopher tortoise is now an endangered species.)
Pioneer food seems to me a thing that we today might poke and ask dubiously, “What is it?” But early residents on the peninsula, from our indigenous cultures through the pioneers, simply had to discover, invent, and sometimes settle for whatever could be scrounged or caught. Their recipes were often a scrappy mélange of New World ingredients and Old World traditions from varied cultures – Greek, Spanish, Southern, Jewish, Minorcan, Seminole, and more.
Recently, I tried my hand at recreating a pioneer meal. I chose an eclectic menu of items, including fromajardis, chicken pilau, and potato candy.
Fromajardis, Minorcan, late 1700s
These cheesy turnovers came to Central Florida through Minorcans, who were brought to St. Augustine and indentured to nearby indigo plantations. The “Fromajardi Serenade” is celebrated around Easter each year for the anniversary of their arrival. Singers stroll around crooning a Fromajardi folk song, and in response residents bring out drinks and these gooey pockets of goodness. If no pastries are forthcoming, the singers do not hesitate to belt out their criticism. Today, they are most often given to those who agree to stop singing!
Chicken Pilau, Persian with Spanish influence, unknown date
Chicken Pilau, pronounced per-loo, actually has roots in Persia, and though nobody seems quite sure how it got here, it may have been brought by the French Huguenots around 1690. Unlike today’s more verbatim recipes, historic pilau was just meat and rice, a Spanish-inspired amalgam of paella, arroz con pollo, and whatever Florida spices, add-ins, and meat the pioneers could scrounge up. For example, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ ode to Florida pioneer food, “Cross Creek Cookery,” includes versions for chicken, pork, possum, oxtail, alligator, coot liver and gizzard, shrimp, or mutton. Rattlesnake was reserved for hors d’oeuvres.
Just for giggles, I used an old pioneer recipe, but adapted it for ye olde Instant Pot and the results. Were. Delicious. This toothsome dish of meat-soaked carbohydrates could stretch to feed a slew of people or cowmen—in fact, we ate it for a week, and I’m not sad about it.
Potato Candy, German/Irish, late 1800s
Last but not least, we rolled ourselves some potato candy. You read that right—candy made from potatoes (and a whole lot of powdered sugar), because why not. Whomever invented this recipe was either out of groceries, super frugal, or a genius. The starch in the mashed potatoes blends with the sugar to create a fudge-like quality. Smear that with peanut butter, roll it up, and voila! You have candy so sweet, one piece will last you a month and your teeth a lifetime.
It is thought to be of either German or Irish roots and not quite as old as these other recipes. Originally made with cherries, nuts, or whatever was on hand, the peanut butter is definitely an American alteration that likely originated during the Depression era because it was cheap.
My next foray is sure to include pot roast of bear, swamp cabbage, hush puppies, and sour orange pie. To get copies of these recipes, be sure to visit our mini-exhibit at the History Center for 3rd Thursday this month!
What are your historical Central Florida family recipes, delicious or not? Share them with us at email@example.com.
Pam Schwartz is the Chief Curator at the Orange County Regional History Center.