The Pioneer Kitchen

Fort Lauderdale’s pioneers learned to cope with an interesting array of unusual food. Wild game was plentiful and provided a source of meat in the days before cattle. Deer, squirrel, rabbit, wild turkey and even bear graced pioneer tables. Pompano and fresh oysters were particular favorite dishes. Loggerhead turtles, weighing up to 100 pounds, provided a substantial portion of beef-like meat, usually pan fried. The less digestible bits were used to make soup. Fish were often pan fried with a batter or baked in a hole in the sand beachside.

Fort Lauderdale’s many farms provided a large selection of vegetables and fruits by the 1890s. Tomatoes, beans, cabbage, peppers, potatoes and pumpkins were favorite crops. Locals learned about the delicacy “swamp cabbage,” the heart of the sabal or cabbage palm, from the Seminoles. It was cut into small cubes and boiled, then seasoned with drippings. Fresh fruit of all sorts – citrus, guava, bananas, pineapples, coconuts, lemons and strawberries were eaten raw or incorporated into pies and various dishes. The native fruits like sea grapes were usually enjoyed as jellies and jams.

Cows and other livestock were in limited supply in those early days, so the pioneer cook learned to make do with canned condensed milk. This practice brought about the development of one of Florida’s best known products, key lime pie. Chickens and eggs were scarce so there were many eggless recipes. A corn meal mush or hominy grits were a substitute for cornbread or pancakes. Turtle eggs were common in the summer months; these were carefully gathered and used for baking. The whites of the turtle eggs were often thrown away and only the yolks used. The whites were palatable if the eggs were boiled an hour and a half and combined with salt and pepper. This was deemed to be a great delicacy for the egg-starved settlers.

The earliest pioneers cooked outside over an open campfire. By 1900, however, many households boasted a wood or coal burning iron stove. Later, the easily transportable kerosene stove was very popular in South Florida. Fresh water came from tanks which caught rainwater on the roofs of local homes or was pumped through a pitcher pump from wells. In the early days, no refrigeration meant things had to be eaten quickly or smoked. After the railway arrived, ice was delivered daily from Miami until the first local electric ice plant was built in the 1910s.

Despite the many “Southern cooks” in the early days, the southerners were surrounded by pioneers from the northeast, midwest, and the islands of Jamaica and the Bahamas. They struggled with tough or fat meats, less-than-fresh ingredients and the high cost and difficulty of obtaining most spices. All brought their own traditions and influences to the local cuisine.

by Susan Gillis, Curator, Boca Raton Historical Society