Those who know me well know that I like to eat, although as I age, the weight stays on a little longer. It got me to thinking about the food early Suwannee County settlers ate and thus today’s article…
The early American settlers of Florida (often called “Crackers” today) lived a hard life, and those of Suwannee County were no different. The hardy men and women had to clear land out of the numerous live oak and pine forests to build crude homes, then clear more land for planting various crops. On top of that, there was the threat (which in Suwannee County lasted until after the Second Seminole War ended in 1842) of Indian attacks that would appear out of nowhere and just as suddenly disappear. In addition, there were the usual plethora of illnesses for which there was really no cure. Until vaccines were discovered, Florida’s summers were known as the “sick season,” during which diseases such as malaria and yellow fever (aka, “Yellow Jacket”) killed some and laid low many others.
Since stores were few and far between, settlers in Suwannee County took to the land to produce food. There was an abundance of deer and other animals; in fact, the original Spanish name for the Suwannee River in the 1500s was the “River of Deer” because of the numerous deer in the locale. Another favored animal was the “piney woods rooter,” wild hogs that were the descendants of livestock that had escaped the Spanish in the 1500s and 1600s during their possession of Florida. Fish of various types were also available in the Suwannee River, as well as turtles, alligators and other creatures. As there was no refrigeration, meats were heavily salted to keep them from spoiling. The salt was so thick that one could often scrape it off with a knife and reuse it. Possums, rattlesnakes and armadillos were also common sources of meat for the settlers.
Besides animals, there were a variety of plants that could be eaten. In the fall, settlers would gather hickory nuts and acorns. The nuts were cracked and either eaten raw or cooked with other foods; they could also be boiled in water until a butter-like oil floated to the surface. The oil could then be stored and used to make other dishes more appetizing. The acorns were shelled and the meat inside crushed and rinsed thoroughly to remove the bitter-tasting tannic acid. Once that was completed, the meats were dried in the sun and ground up. When I was a child, I had heard about the old Cracker method of eating acorns, so I grabbed one that had fallen from one of our trees and ate it without rinsing it; it tasted horrible!
The native coontie plant (also called the “coontie fern,” “coontie palm,” “coontie cycad” or “Florida arrowroot”) was a staple of Indian and the earliest settlers’ diets. The coontie plant was found in abundance in Florida, but improperly prepared, it was deadly as it produced central nervous system toxins. To prepare coontie properly, the roots were first chopped into pieces, then pounded with a mortar and pestle. The pulp was then washed with water and the starch allowed to settle on the bottom. The water was drained and the remaining paste left to ferment for several days, then set out in the sun to dry. The result was a cornmeal-like flour that could be baked. Doubtless several early settlers learned about the plant’s toxicity the hard way! History records that one of Hernando de Soto’s men, exploring the interior of Florida in 1539, as well as several Union soldiers during the Civil War (1861-1865), died from improperly-prepared coontie.
More settlers’ food next week.
Eric Musgrove can be reached at email@example.com or 386-362-0564.