Early 1800’s Pensacolians Shared Diverse Cultures Through Food

Jun 7, 2018

This section of the 2018 Pensacola Repast dinner, hosted by the Friends of Downtown Pensacola, highlights Pensacola's culinary influences in the early 1800's.
Credit Downtown Improvement Board

First, it was Spanish foodways, highlighting the discovery of the 1559 Luna Settlement.

This year’s Pensacola Repast dinner, held last month by the Downtown Improvement Board, explored the multicultural influences of what was cooking here two centuries ago, during the Early American period in the 1800’s.

Early in Pensacola’s colonial past most of the food consumed could be categorized as inexpensive, easily preserved military rations primarily shipped in from Spain and England.

But, as war raged in Europe, a shift began to occur locally around the turn of the 19th century.

“The colonies that were here were isolated from the mother country, so they began to exchange foods and other cultural entities with each other, even it was illegal to do so,” said Parker, foodways researcher for the University of West Florida Archaeology Institute.

It was during this time in the early 1820’s that Pensacola becomes an American Territory and begins to see an influx of people from the north, as well as from Mississippi and Louisiana. 

“And with that of course, comes the food of the Creole-French and the Afro-Caribbean influence,” Parker said. “And when these people came to Pensacola they brought their food with them, because food is the last thing that immigrants want to change.”

The recent Pensacola Repast Dinner celebrated the culturally diverse foodways of the Early American period through the lives of four unique women who lived in the community 200 years ago and are all buried in Historic St. Michael’s Cemetery.

1825 ad from the Pensacola Gazette shows some of the food that was available in the city 200 years ago.
Credit UWF Historic Trust

Dorothy Walton, Marianna Bonifay, Victoire Le Sassier, and free woman of color Genevieve Ham also are likely to have crossed paths in their church and at local markets. According to Parker, the old Pensacola Gazette yielded a treasure trove of information about the bustling city of their day.

“Many travelers often commented on for the size of Pensacola they had really nice stores and shops, and part of this was the seagoing trade,” she said. “And, ships would alert the newspapers when they were coming into port and what they were bringing with them.”

Newspaper ads from those shipping companies often listed the great variety of food items that were available, including hardtack, which is also ship’s bread and navy bread. “Pensacola families from that era begin to develop a particular recipe called gaspache,” said Parker, pointing out that one of the primary ingredients of gaspache salad is hardtack. She adds that peppers and pork were shipped in.

Additionally, locals dined on dried beef and enjoyed fresh fruit such as peaches and oranges, which they were able to cultivate despite the area’s sandy soil.

In her research, Parker also identified a number of old recipes from the era.

For example, she says Dorothy Walton, of British or Anglo heritage, might have enjoyed a hot dish of Boiled Beef and Carrots with Dumplings and Burnt Cream for dessert.

Marianna Bonifay and Victoire Le Sassier of French origin might have served Salade Nicoise (nees whas) and Tart Aux Peches or tart peaches.

TARTE AUX PÊCHES

9-inch piecrust, uncooked                                  1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 egg, separated                                                    Pinch of ground nutmeg

1 ½ pounds peaches                                             Pinch of ground cloves

Juice of ½ fresh lemon                                         Pinch of salt

¼ cup white sugar                                                 2 tablespoons butter

¼ cup brown sugar                                                ¼ cup whipping cream

Brush inside of piecrust with unbeaten egg white. Peel peaches; cut each one in half and remove the pit. Arrange the peach halves in an overlapping pattern around the bottom of pie crust. Squeeze lemon juice evenly over the fruit. Combine white and brown sugars, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and salt; sprinkle this mixture over the fruit. Place dots of butter over the peaches, and bake in a 350°F oven for 25 minutes. Remove pie from oven; set aside. Heat cream to lukewarm; stir in the egg yolk with a whisk. Pour cream mixture slowly and carefully over the fruit. Return to 350° oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the top is brown and the custard is set in the center. Serve at room temperature.

   (Junior League of New Orleans, The Plantation Cookbook, 1972: 210)

Former slave Genevieve Ham, or her servant, might have been cooking up Baked Eggplant. One of the Early American recipes they may have all enjoyed was stewed okra, Creole style.

“The person who wrote this recipe the person who wrote the recipe even specified the number of Okra pods, 48 to be exact,” Parker said. “It calls for a tablespoon of butter and three nice tomatoes, one onion, one green bell pepper, a clove of garlic and a spoonful of chopped parsley.”

STEWED OKRA, CREOLE STYLE

4 dozen okras                                                         1 green [bell] pepper

1 Tablespoon butter                                            1 clove garlic

3 nice tomatoes                                                     1 teaspoon chopped parsley

1 onion

   Wash the okras and pare the [stem] ends. Place in a saucepan with one tablespoonful of butter; add a finely-minced onion and clove of garlic and [chopped] green pepper. Let all cook for six or eight minutes, and then add the three tomatoes, chopped fine; also add the juice of the tomatoes. Season to taste with salt and pepper; add a dash of Cayenne and a teaspoonful of chopped parsley. Now add the okras, and let all simmer slowly for twenty minutes. Place in a hot, deep serving dish, and cover and send to the table.

The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book, reprint of 1901 2nd edition, 2002: 227)

 

Parker says stewed okra is a dish that truly represents the exchange of cultures and ethnicities that took place in Pensacola in the early 1800’s, with the recipe featuring a mix of Old World and New World ingredients.

“The okra is from Africa; African slaves brought it with them” said Parker, adding that the butter was very British or Irish. “The three “nice tomatoes” speak to the wonderful growing soil in Louisiana, because what they really meant by “nice tomatoes” was something called the Creole tomato. Today, we call them heirloom tomatoes.”

Continuing with the ingredients, the onion is from Europe by way of the Spaniards, the green bell peppers from Mexico, and the garlic from Europe.

Parker consulted many historical resources to learn about Early American foodways in Pensacola, including The American Heritage Cookbook and The 1901 reprint of The Picayune’s Creole Cookbook from the New Orleans publication that would become The Times-Picayune.

Thankfully, Parker says many of these old recipes live on because someone wrote them down and passed them to the next generation.

“The Picayune cookbook is really an example of that because the creole cooks in New Orleans were in every household of every status, and they worked their magic and they would pass recipes down to their children,” said Parker.

Sometimes, she says, the children of the cooks’ employers would come back after they were married to ask for the recipes they enjoyed when they were young.