St. Augustine’s Mystery Pepper
By Geoff Dobson
There are national cuisines, regional cuisines, and finally local cuisines.
We are all familiar with the national cuisines, represented by the ubiquitous Chinese restaurants all featuring menus inviting us to choose one item each from Columns A, B. and C; Mexican restaurants with combination dinners with variations on tacos, tamales, enchiladas, chiles rellenos, chimichangas, and nachos.
The latter two items were invented in the United States. In many instances, there are myths surrounding the origins of popular “foreign” dishes which are infrequently found in the alleged country of origin.
It has been said that the Chinese standby chop suey was invented in the United States by workers on the Union Pacific Railroad or that it was invented to satisfy both American and Chinese tastes. It has been said that name “chop suey” or “shap sui in Cantonese and “za sui”, when used in Mandarin, means cooked animal offal or entrails.
Regional cooking is represented by cuisines such as Cajun, Sonoran, and Caribbean. Each type of cuisine originally used local, readily available, inexpensive ingredients. In restaurants, regional dishes have typically been modified so as to bring them down to a common denominator. Thus, the writer’s wife, who loves true Cajun cooking and actually attended, albeit briefly, a Cajun cooking school in New Orleans, was horrified to order a jambalaya in a local restaurant only to be confronted with a soupy mess topped with cheddar cheese. She has taken a so-called New Orleans restaurant in an adjacent city off the “A” list and put it on the “F” list because their crab cakes failed to meet the test of authenticity.
Recently, she ordered Bahamian chowder and found herself looking at something which resembled a New England clam chowder. Bahamian conch chowder is similar to Minorcan clam chowder. It is based on the lowly tomato, not milk which must be imported. The point is, however, that many diners want a dish that suggests a regional dish, but they don’t really want the true thing.
One time, the writer was asked to do a “Cowboy Night.” The writer dutifully prepared the expected steaks and pinto beans. The diners liked the “Rocky Mountain Oysters” — until they found out what they were. Then the tender morsels couldn’t be given away. Nor could the writer give the oysters to big, brave members of the local Gator Club.
Nor is one likely to find in local Mexican restaurants “manudo,” a stew made from tripe, calf’s or pig’s hooves, and posole. It is kind of like the old trail drive “S.O.B. stew” in which the chuck wagon cook put everything in the pot except the hide.
And, like the regional cuisines, local cuisines such as our own Florida and Minorcan recipes originally used cheap, readily available ingredients. Many Florida and St. Augustine dishes have often been homogenized to meet expected tastes. One should not have to ask whether the “Key Lime” pie is yellow or green. Some restaurants actually serve a green pie made of something that resembles a whipped topping.
One may search almost in vain in local eateries for a good perlou. The South Seas and the St. George Pharmacy both of which used to serve perlou [pronounced “per loo” not “pee laf”] are both gone. Perlou could be made with whatever was available. That always is the secret of local cooking, whether it is jambalaya, Brunswick stew, perlou, the original Spanish paella, or French Bouillabaisse. People were poor, and they threw into the pot whatever was available. Thus, perlou can be made with shrimp, fish, Minorcan sausage, chicken, or pork.
The fish of choice used to be mullet. The advantage of mullet was that it was free. When cry of “mullet on the beach” was heard, many would gather on the beach with cast nets. Cast netting is an art, Fold the net over the shoulder, hold the net by lead sinkers with one’s teeth, and cast in a neat circle. Some who are more skilled do not have to put the lead line in their mouth. Putting it in the mouth is not only uncomfortable but, if one values one’s teeth, dangerous.
Our northern brethren, of course, were nervous of mullet. Apparently in the North there is a bait fish called mullet, quite different from Florida mullet. Florida mullet [with or without roe] was at one time a staple of restaurants throughout the state, school lunches, and political rallies. The rallies always had mullet, grits, and swamp cabbage.
To overcome the Yankee fear of mullet, the State of Florida in its infinite wisdom spent a fortune in taxpayers’ money attempting to promote the fish as “lisa” in much the same manner as the State of Hawaii changed the name of dolphin to mahi-mahi to overcome diners’ fears that they were actually eating Flipper.
The State of Florida has now declared mullet to be a “restricted species.” See Florida Administrative Code Section 68B-39.000, et seq. The rules are so complicated as to make the catching of mullet risky from a legal view point. Thus, the mullet has disappeared from Florida menus. It is illegal to have in one’s possession a mullet whose head has been removed. Old fashioned fish fries are now expensive and typically use a fish that comes in a box labeled “product of the Peoples’ Republic of China.” Like Marie Antoinette, the state has declared that the poor should eat cake.
Another staple of Minorcan cooking was chowder. Originally there was clam chowder and fish chowder. The clams could be gathered along the Matanzas River in some of the small tidal inlets on the west side of the Intracoastal. One would feel for the clams in the mud with one’s feet. Fish chowder would be made with mullet.
Shrimp for perlou could be purchased from the back of a pickup truck coming down the street. The pickup trucks with the coolers on the back have disappeared. St. Augustine was once the center of a thriving shrimp industry. Shrimp is now expensive, or is “farm grown” in the People’s Republic.
On the other coast, people drove miles to Cedar Key to sample Bessie Gibbs’ red fish chowder. Both the red fish and Miss Bessie are gone now. Miss Bessie in her final years was confined to a wheel chair. She died in a fire.
The red fish was caused to become nearly extinct by Paul Prudhomme and the demand he created for blackened red fish. The difference between Miss Bessie’s Red Fish chowder and Minorcan fish chowder, beyond the species of fish, is the presence of bacon and datil pepper in the Minorcan chowder and lemon in Miss Bessie’s chowder.
Miss Bessie also served a heart of palm salad which featured fresh heart of palm from Gulf Hammock rather than canned heart of palm from Brazil. Fresh heart of palm is, of course, no longer available commercially. As far as the state is concerned, one may cut down one’s own palm tree. Beware, however, most cities and counties now require a permit from a certified arborist before the palm may be cut down.
Therefore, as a practical matter, unless one is willing to drive down to the everglades and purchase a heart of palm from a Seminole Indian, fresh hearts of palm are illegal.
The secret of Miss Bessie’s salad in addition to the heart of palm was the salad dressing made with vanilla ice cream, mayonnaise, and peanut butter with a few drops of green food coloring so it wouldn’t look disgusting. On the salad, in addition to lettuce and the heart of palm, was fresh pineapple dates, and candied ginger.
The datil is also an essential ingredient of perlou and Minorcan sausage. Johnny’s Sausage stand on San Marco Avenue has now closed, but Minorcan sausage may still be obtained from a local grocery on Anastasia Boulevard.
The mystery of the datil is its origin, surrounded in myth. In actuality, datils are a variety of a Native American pepper, Capsicum sinense, belonging to the same species as the habanero from Cuba.
Some claim it was brought to St. Augustine by the Minorcans when they left New Smyrna. Most likely, it was brought to St. Augustine by Stephen B. Volls, a manufacturer of marmalade, guava jelly, and preserved figs. Valls moved to St. Augustine from Cuba about 1868. Valls’ products were displayed at the Paris Exposition of 1889.
But regardless, by 1895 the pepper was common enough for its name to be applied to an agricultural journal, The Datil Pepper, published by Lewis W. Zim at Evaville, one of St. Johns County’s forgotten ghost towns. Zim later published the St. Augustine Meteor and served in the Florida Legislature representing St. Johns County.
(all ingredients approximate)
Package of bacon, diced (Sufficient quantity of bacon to sauté with vegetables).
2 onions diced
2 carrots diced.
2 celery stalks, diced
1 16-oz. can of chopped tomatoes
1 6-oz can of tomato paste
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil
2 potatoes, peeled and diced,
8 cups fish stock
1 1/2 lbs of skinned and filleted mullet.
1 or 2 datils minced or to taste. Green datils are hotter than orange. (Note: do not substitute hot sauce for datils. Datils give a distinct flavor to chowder. Do not rub eyes while mincing datils.)
Optional ingredients: 1 thinly sliced seeded lemon, and for “high Minorcan,” 1/4 cup sherry.
Sauté onions carrots and celery with the bacon. When onion translucent, put vegetables, bacon and drippings in soup pot. Add tomatoes, tomato paste and spices, bring up to simmer for about 10 minutes, add stock and potatoes. Simmer until potatoes soft. Add mullet fillets.. When fish done so as to flake with fork, remove from heat. Chowder is better the next day.
Options: Add lemon slices at same time as fish fillets. Leave in soup when served. Add about 1/4 cup sherry at end.
For clam chowder: substitute clam juice for fish stock and clams for fish, adding the clams toward the end so they will not turn into rubber.
For coquina chowder: At low tide, gather a half bucket of coquinas at beach. Place coquinas in cheese cloth sack and let sit in bucket of clean sea water overnight for coquinas to cleanse themselves. Place coquina in pot, cover with fresh water, bring to boil and simmer for three minutes or so. Coquinas will open themselves. Drain broth into smaller pot. Use coquina broth in lieu of clam juice.
Note: There are many, many variations on the recipe for Minorcan Chowder.
Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 33 years, is a western and Florida history writer and was former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Transportation. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org