by Ron Whittington
Although no one really knows the exact location of the original Fort Caroline, where the French were the first Europeans to construct a permanent base in Northeast Florida in 1564, we do know that there were no celebrated French chefs among the group that founded the doomed settlement in Jacksonville. And even if a French chef had come along, it would have been difficult to prepare a meal like those in the Old World, since many of the foods that we eat in the U.S. today weren’t available.
“Most people have no idea of all the foods we take for granted that weren’t here prior to the Europeans settling the continent,” says Jeffrey Spear, author of The First Coast Heritage Cookbook. “Today, we think of Florida as the Orange Juice State, so people are amazed when I tell them there were no oranges, lemons, limes, grapes or anything like that growing in Florida in those days. Likewise in Georgia, there were no peanuts or peaches. They didn’t exist here until we were fully settled by the Europeans.”
Spear says that limitation extended beyond fruits and vegetables in sixteenth-century America. “Pork is a mainstay in our diet now, but there was none of that here until [explorer Pedro] de Mendoza arrived,” he says.
In Spear’s book, he notes that many of the ingredients we are familiar with when it comes to French dishes had also yet to be introduced to the continent at the time, including pork, beef, wheat, potatoes, tomatoes, cherries, peas, chocolate, and vanilla.
At the Fort Caroline settlement, there were no chefs, hunters or farmers in the expedition—only soldiers, many of whom were ill-prepared for what they found waiting for them that summer in Florida.
“Many of them were adventurers from noble families…city folk,” says Craig Morris, lead park ranger at Fort Caroline. “They weren’t farmers and weren’t used to living off the land or fending for themselves. They were used to other people doing that work for them.”
The first 300 to settle the fort expected to be resupplied with provisions but, according to Morris, the ship never came and they had to wait for the second expedition to arrive a year later. As their provisions began to run low, they had to rely on the natives to help them find sustenance.
The irony, says Morris, is that the river was brimming with fish and wild berries were abundant, yet the French were reluctant to take advantage of those food sources.
“It’s hard to understand in this day and age, but these settlers were afraid to lose their Frenchness and their identity as Frenchmen. They didn’t want to become like the natives.”
While the first expedition didn’t die in a mass starvation, many did as the native Timucuans became more reluctant to share their own limited food supplies with the European settlers.
Spear notes that the first Thanksgiving the French and Timucuan shared in the New World was nothing compared to what we see at our tables each holiday. He says that archeological evidence shows most Indians ate lots of squash, beans and corn along with an abundant amount of edible greens.
“I describe their first Thanksgiving as more of the ‘surf and salad’ variety,” he says. “Of course, the Indians ate any four-legged critter they could get their hands on, but their primary diet consisted of pumpkin, corn, squash and seafood, which was a very big deal.”
According to University of South Florida’s Center for Instructional Technology, the Timucua were skilled hunters and fishermen. “Some of the game that they used for food included bears, deer, turkey and alligators. They smoked the meat over open fires.”
Oysters were a mainstay of the natives’ diet, confirmed by the number of huge shell mounds known as ‘middens,’ or refuse heaps, that have been discovered throughout the Fort Caroline area.
In 1565, Morris says a second expedition of about 800 men did finally arrive at the fort, bringing with them chickens and other livestock, beans, wheat, flour, and lard.
“For a six-week period after that, it looked like they were going to make it,” Morris says.
But the Spaniards down the coast in St. Augustine, and some native tribes, had other plans. The French would eventually be routed from the fort—either dying at sea or being slaughtered by the Spanish explorers.
When Rene de Laudonnier established Fort Caroline on the banks of the St. Johns River on June 22, 1564 (its 450-year anniversary will be celebrated in Jacksonville this year), French chefs were considered the darlings of the culi- nary world throughout Europe—a reputation they still enjoy around the world today.
If Laudonnier would have had the chance to do it all over again, he probably would have brought along more of the food staples from the Old World for their first landing.
And bringing along a French chef or two wouldn’t have been a bad idea, either.