Minorcan Food of Florida
January 16, 2019 8:50 AM   Subscribe

Way down in St. Augustine, Florida, America's oldest city*, jewel of the First Coast, you'll find a unique and largely unheralded culinary tradition: Minorcan food.

Drawing on a wide variety of cultural and culinary influences, Minorcan food is emblematic of the area: it's hot, it's kind of a mess, it was borne of unspeakable tragedy, and it's wonderful.

Where did Minorcan food come from? Well from Minorcans, obviously, but what constitutes a “Minorcan” is a little complicated. What's referred to today as “Minorcan” culture and cuisine is actually an amalgam of the Minorcan, Greek, Italian, and other Mediterranean influences that came together in St. Augustine after a failed colonial endeavor at New Smyrna in the late 1700s. Beleaguered indentured servants sought freedom in St. Augustine, and their descendants have lived (and cooked) there ever since.

What are the essential Florida Minorcan foods?

Datil peppers: Though their origin is disputed (some claim they're native, others say they were brought by African slaves or the aforementioned European indentured servants, while still others contend they got here via a jelly manufacturer in the late 19th Century) the hot and fruity little peppers are grown almost exclusively in the St. Augustine area. They find their way in to just about everything Minorcan, either added directly to dishes (see below) or in the form of hot sauces, jellies, relishes, and the ubiquitous pepper vinegar.

Pilau: pronounced “PER-lau,” “PER-loh,” or sometimes even “PER-loo,” this rice stew dish is part of the grand global tradition of similarly-named one-pot rice dishes. Traditionally made with chicken, sausage, shrimp, or some combination thereof, although variants include ham, fish, and alligator, to name a few. Don't forget to dress it with datil pepper vinegar.

Chowder: Minorcan clam chowder is America's “secret” chowder, superficially similar to Manhattan clam chowder (in that both are tomato based) but wildly better due to the inclusion of bacon (or salt pork), datil peppers, and a heap of fresh herbs like rosemary, oregano, and marjoram. For an authentic homemade clam stock, go to the beach and dip up some coquina!

Mullet: The striped mullet (also known by seemingly hundreds of other names, including the grey mullet and the flathead mullet) is smallish fish endemic to nearly every coastal area in the world. Minorcan fisherfolk traditionally catch mullet in nets as they run in huge schools along the beach; in years past a shout of “Mullet on the beach!” would “clear out churches, businesses, and schools as Minorcan families dropped everything and headed for the beach, hand-sewn castnets in hand.Smoked mullet is a traditional northeast Florida food that predates the arrival of Europeans by thousands of years, and is possibly the source of the word “buccaneer.” Everybody likes mullet, even dolphins.

Fromajadas: a small pastry made with spiced pie dough, and filled with a cheese and egg mixture, usually served during Easter. In Florida Minorcan tradition, young men would stroll around town, singing a song to ask for ingredients to make the dish.

Gopher: The extremely handsome and ecologically critical gopher tortoise, now heavily protected by state law, was once a common element of Minorcan cuisine. St. Augustine resident Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings included a recipe for Minorcan Gopher Stew in her Cross Creek Cookery (she even helpfully included an explanation on how to butcher the tortoise).

Intrigued, and want to dig deeper in to Florida Minorcan cuisine? There's more out there if you're feeling adventurous.

Bonus Northeast Florida food content: sour orange pie. Though not strictly Minorcan, sour orange pie is another Northeast Florida hidden culinary gem, essentially a key lime pie made with the sour Seville oranges originally brought to Florida by the first wave of Spanish settlers in the 16th century.

*continuously occupied European settlement in the Lower 48
posted by saladin (11 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
This is fascinating! I haven't dug into the links under the fold yet, but after reading the Southern Foodways link, I am looking forward to reading more of their articles.

Thanks for such a detailed post on a neat thing I knew nothing about!
posted by ITheCosmos at 9:33 AM on January 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

Wow, that blog post sure is invested in special pleading for Turnbull, the colony owner. "Sure, he didn't buy the indenturees clothes like he was legally required to, but he felt bad about it!"

Great post, had never heard of the Minorcans of St. Augustine.
posted by tavella at 9:51 AM on January 16, 2019 [2 favorites]

I was born in Florida and going to St. Augustine as a kid is one of my fondest childhood memories. If I ever go back to Florida I’m definitely making a point to visit St. Augustine now that I’m an adult. My dad grew up around Miami/Ft. Lauderdale and he has a special affinity for datil peppers.
posted by gucci mane at 9:53 AM on January 16, 2019

My mother is from St Augustine and is considered ‘Minorcan.’

There are still a couple of tiny streets in the old city that are very Mediterranean- narrow, porches overhanging the road.

And Datil peppers are delicious.
posted by rock swoon has no past at 10:18 AM on January 16, 2019 [3 favorites]

This post is the greatest ever.

My family is going to St. A. to celebrate a couple of big-zero birthdays, and we have a whole week to fill. Now we have a bunch of cool stuff to check out when we're done with the beach and the fort and the fountain of youth and the wax museum and Ripley's and the jail and the school and after we've been to all the dippin dots, shave ice stalls, and olde fudge shoppes. Thank you so much!
posted by Don Pepino at 10:31 AM on January 16, 2019

Thank you for the pedantic asterisk, very important. (Acoma Pueblo is the oldest continuously occupied non-European settlement, the Cahokia mound city is even older but no longer occupied, and there are older continuously occupied European settlements in Puerto Rico but that's not continental US.)
posted by vogon_poet at 10:43 AM on January 16, 2019 [5 favorites]

An amazing post! Here in Menorca, everyone has a vague idea that there's some kind of community in St. Augustine, but no one knows anything at all about it. One friend told me they had dreamed of going there one day to see what it was like. I'll be forwarding this around to all the Menorcans I know who understand English.

The only thing recognizably Menorcan about the recipes I've seen so far is the fromajada, which sounds like a corruption of the Menorcan pastry formatjada. The name comes from the Menorcan/Catalan word formatge, which means cheese, but in Menorca it's a joke on foreigners like me that the first time you bite into one, you discover that the formatjada is filled with meat, not cheese. In Florida, they take the name literally.

The rest is all a New World invention. The pilau is nothing like any of the local rice dishes. I've never seen anything here that looks like a datil pepper, there are absolutely no traditional dishes that require hot peppers, and people don't like much heat in their food. But Menorca is the only place in Spain where they use green pepper in the sofrito, so maybe they tried to substitute it with the datil when they got to Florida and liked it.

There are some really interesting song lyrics in the "feeling adventurous" FPP link. They sound like they're in some kind of weird 18th century corrupted version of the Menorquin language (which is already a weird patois of Catalan). Maybe it's like a older version of the language frozen in time, like the way that Quebecois has lots of elements of 17th century French or Ladino is full of medieval Spanish.
posted by fuzz at 3:48 PM on January 16, 2019 [8 favorites]

Wow. I'm pretty surprised to come across this post. I'm a Minorcan from St. Augustine, and my 5th great grandfather, Don Francisco Pellicer, led the exodus from New Smyrna to St Augustine in 1777. Just last June, New Smyrna celebrated the 250th year anniversary of their founding. Also, the best pilau in St. Auggie is made by my mom. Shrimp and sausage pilau is the way to go. And I've never heard any Minorcan pronounce it any other way but "perloh," and I've often seen it written "perlo." Kyle's Seafood on US1 does a pretty good job with smoked mullet, and O'Steen's is the way to go for clam chowder. My grandfather provided them with datil peppers from his plants in his backyard, up until he passed away. I would've been proud to carry the mantle, but I was living in NYC at the time of his passing, and now live in LA. I look forward to moving back home one day, and growing some datil peppers of my own.

You can take the boy out the country as long as he has a valid passport, but you can't take the country out the boy.
posted by Human's Nephew at 7:26 PM on January 17, 2019 [8 favorites]

Man, when I was putting this post together I never in a million years thought that multiple members of the Florida Minorcan diaspora would see it, nor did I imagine someone who currently lives in Menorca would chime in either. This website can be so rad sometimes.

Human's Nephew, I'm gonna need you to go ahead and have your mom share that pilau recipe, thanks very much.
posted by saladin at 6:19 AM on January 18, 2019 [7 favorites]

This post is lovely, thank you.

Coincidentally our "hot sauce of the month" club just shipped us a bottle of Old St. Augustine's Venom Datil Pepper Hot Sauce. Despite the stupid name it's pretty good sauce. Definitely has a strong fruity flavor of the kind I've often heard described with habaneros. But most habanero things I've eaten have been too hot to get much fruity flavor; comes through much stronger in this hot sauce. Scoville-wise datils are about as hot as habaneros so I guess the pepper really just has more fruity flavor in it, not that there's more of it. Anyway it's good hot sauce and seems at home with Caribbean-themed hot sauces.

I don't think it has anything to do with Menorca, but St. Augustine is also home to a good craft distillery. Must have been a hell of a project getting it set up given Florida's liquor laws. They make excellent gin. I'm told it's fun to visit, too.
posted by Nelson at 12:11 PM on January 18, 2019

saladin, I'll get back to you soon with that recipe. Turns out, the written recipe is quite different from what's in my mom's head. I'm working on getting it from her. I've just had a cold for the last week.
posted by Human's Nephew at 7:37 PM on January 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

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