Isabella Garcia is a sophomore receiving a Bachelors of Science in Biology on a Pre-PA track at Florida International University. She has a passion for being outdoors and exploring, mainly for the ocean and is a Cuban-American.
Spanish influence on Caribbean and Floridian food
The Power of Gluttony
by Isabella Garcia of FIU
When thinking about food, right off of the bat, the first idea is that it is something necessary to live, like water. Over the years, as cultures have developed, food has a much greater meaning now than it did for nomads thousands of years ago. Now, it is very common to sit down at a meal for special occasions, such as big holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving. When sitting down for a meal, this is when most social interactions occur. There is time to have meaningful conversations and create a deeper connection with the people that you’re with. In today’s culture, food has become the root of social interactions.
Pork in the New World
When looking at the influence that Spain had on the food in the New World, Cuba is one of the greatest components because of these two countries’ historical ties. As soon as Spain colonized Cuba, the culinary traditions followed with it (Rodriguez, 3). One of the most surprising elements of Cuban food that is from Spain is actually pork.
The Spaniards plan to have an abundant source of food not only worked, but it ended up being the main source of protein for the small island. Iberian pigs were first introduced to the New World by Spanish explorers when colonizing (Boyd, 5). They relied on pigs because of the fact that pigs are able to be self sustainable and took little to no work to maintain them. They also reproduce extremely fast and are able to be cured with salt in order to preserve the meat for months on end for the colonizers (Vann, 2). Christopher Columbus, on his second voyage, brought 8 pigs with him so that they could reproduce and they could have a steady source of food for the voyagers (Boyd, 6).
For Cubans, pork is a staple, as seen in dishes such as Cuban Sandwiches, Ropa Vieja, and even ham croquetas with a side of rice and beans. Another extremely important Cuban tradition is called La Caja China, which is when a whole pork is placed to cook in a wooden box on special occasions, mostly Christmas Eve. Pork is one of those proteins that’s seen as almost the identity of Cuba because of how well rooted it is in so many dishes, varying from a breakfast meat to lunch and dinner as well.
Coconuts in the New World
Sharing common ingredients and techniques in their food is Jamaica, which Spain had a great influence on as well. Their cuisine is known to be full of spices and natural island vibes, which many actually come from Spain (Stewart, 3). When thinking of Jamaica, I automatically think of tropical coconuts, which they find a way to amazingly incorporate into every meal, whether it be a savory rice, a tangy cocktail, or a sweet dessert. Surprisingly enough with how tropical and Caribbean a coconut may seem, the Spaniards actually brought them to the New World when colonizing, so they are not native at all.
In the late 1800s, a Spanish ship called Providencia was on its way from Cuba to Spain, but had malfunctions and ended up crashing off of the shore of Florida. This ship had 20,000 coconuts that ended up being scattered all over Florida and drifting across into all the Caribbean islands, and with the fact that they aren’t native, they spread like wildfire without any natural predators (Brouwers, 1). These coconuts were reproduced so quickly and matched the environment so well that they became the face of the tropical vibe and lifestyle. This one food surprised me the most because of how full of coconut trees the Caribbean and Florida are. Miami Beach is known for its nightlife and its coconut palms on the beach, but they aren’t native to this continent at all.
Coconuts, unlike many other crops, actually have many different uses, making them an extremely diverse crop and tree. With many main uses for coconuts, their top use has to be their fresh water and coconut meat. Being lined along salt water beaches, the fresh water of the coconuts comes in handy, especially when taking environmental factors of the 1800s into consideration. Along with the advantages of the fruit, the actual tree has many benefits as well. The author Lucas Brouwers of the article Coconuts: not indigenous, but quite at home nevertheless for Scientific American explained that “Alcohol and sugar can be extracted from its sap, and cocos oil from the nut itself…” making it a tree that has multiple uses for its bark (Brouwers, 4). Another use that ultimately changed architecture and societies was Tiki Huts. This one crop that was accidentally brought to the New World ended up providing palm fronds that would be used for shade and shelter, which is a major advantage in a sunny area such as the Caribbean islands.
Sugar Cane in the New World
Another staple that Spain is responsible for bringing to the Americans is sugar, and this drastically changed caribbean foods and surprisingly enough, the society as well. Sugar cane, being a valued crop and having a complex history, came from Spain to completely change the Americas. Even though at first thought it may not seem like it, the rush for growing sugar cane led to a trickling effect of slave demand and disease spread. Even though Brazil was the capital for sugar cane plantations led by Portugal in the New World, Spain didn’t fall behind, with many of their plantations ending up in Cuba (Hancock, 11). The profit that sending sugarcane back to Europe made them was too hard to resist, so insane amounts of slaves were sent to Cuba from Africa for the Spanish to profit off of. The demand led to the island’s population growing from about 150,000 people to 1,300,000 people between the years of 1763-1860 (Britannica, 2). In regards to today’s society, this may not seem like much of a spike, but being that it was in the 18th and 19th century and the spike was predominantly from the sugar cane industry, this statistic itself puts into perspective how much effect something as simple as a crop can have on a civilization.
Sugar cane was an extremely booming industry because of how much Europeans loved it, and Cuba had the perfect climate for growing the crop that there was no stopping Spain from profiting off of the New World. Sugar was a new, extremely high calorie food that was used in things from drinks like tea and coffee to foods like bread and fruits (Nunn, Qian, Sugar Cane 2). There was enough sugar cane produced that even the commoners would add sugar to everything.
Towards the middle of the 19th century, the author of Sugarcane and the growth of slavery explains that “…the sugar industry accounted for four-fifths of all exports and in 1860 Cuba produced nearly one-third of the worlds sugar.” This author puts into perspective just how massive this industry turned out to be and the intensive contribution that Cuba had to it. Along with the slave and disease effects came the industrial advancement. Spain’s desire for higher production rates led to steam powered mills and railroads being utilized (Britannica, 3). This completely transformed the terrain of Cuba by knocking down most of its hardwood forests and creating large railroads running all throughout the island to move the crops, workers, and tools. This particular crop shows us that food has more of an effect than just eating to survive, but there are domino effects that stem from a crop and the history is much more complex than initially thought.
Plantains in the New World
Cuba is known for the fact that they take full advantage of the cheap food they have and find many ways to make dishes. One of the other crops that they’ve learned to switch up and make variations of is the plantain, and not surprisingly, but surprisingly at the same time, Spain introduced this crop to the new world. This crop was as surprising as the pork to me because plantains are integrated in every single meal, whether it be tostones, maduros, plantain chips, or fufu de platano, they’re everywhere in this small Caribbean island. They not only created so many recipes using this one crop because of how delicious and easy they are to make, but the main factor was the economical side of things. Plantains are cheap and filling, making them easy for a small island to prosper out of (Ramirez, 7).
This crop was actually brought to Cuba in order to feed the slaves, and like sugarcane, this industry ended up being heavy on slaves and once again, transforming Cuba because of it’s ideal growing conditions (Ramirez, 8). The rush to produce this crop for its monetary profits in the early 1800s brought in a wave of demand for slaves and even though slavery was later abolished in Cuba in 1886, this doesnt mean that slavery actually ended. The demand for plantains is still intense because of its versatility and the fact that they are cheap and filling, leading to modern day slavery being in full effect in those plantations. Even though it’s better than slavery before, modern day slavery in Cuba accounts for the workers that are extremely underpaid, on punishment, and even unpaid, having both adults and children working on the plantains.
Spices in the New World
As I go further into research for this paper, I realize just how powerful the vice of gluttony is. With food comes the desire to enhance it to make it as delicious as possible, which is exactly what spices did, and this too was another trickling effect throughout the competitive European countries. When it came to Spain, their neighboring country of Portugal always had the upper hand in the spice trade. Portugal was the first country to make it to India and they began the spice trade and the newly found obsession (Silk Road Spice Merchant, 7). Because of Christopher Columbus’ failure to bring back black pepper from the America’s but actually showing up with chile peppers in hand, Spain was eager to grow in the spice trade.
With Cuba being one of their great colonies, spices ended up making their way back to the small island to influence their cuisine incredibly. Not only did the Spanish bring along their spices from their travels but the slaves did as well (AmingoFoods, 4-5). Africans are known for having extravagant spices and herbs, and with the demand for slaves in the plantations, their traditions influences Cuban cuisine as well.
This particular subsection of food shows just how much power culinary has over people. There were dozens of trips funded by the country’s governments for the spice trade in order to travel the world for new spices (Silk Road Spice Merchant, 7). Spices were seen as a status symbol and gave a country power, which is mind blowing considering that it’s a plant used to add flavor to food. Without even knowing it, the Spaniards were spreading spices making cultures more diverse and personal, along with spreading nutritional powerhouse which transformed the medical industry for countless countries.
In summation, Spain had an incredible contribution to Caribbean food. Even though it all came naturally without any premeditation, the Caribbean countries would not be what they are today without European influence. Spain brought pork, sugar cane, coconuts, plantains, and spices to the New World. Caribbean countries are known for their tropical coconuts and plantains and the islands thrive off of pork dishes, which are actually not native at all. Sugar cane is one of the world’s most desired crops which lead to a massive increase in plantations and slaves. Going into depth with the research for this paper, it opened my eyes to how much powerhouse countries from the other side of the world can influence small Caribbean islands. Cuba’s whole identity is actually rooted in the Spanish colonization, from the language to the rituals to the food.
Amigofoods, and AmigofoodsOur blog is all about sharing our love of Latin American foods & drinks. We will bring you articles and recipes of the very best Latin American & Spanish cuisine. Amigofoods was founded in 2003 and is the largest online grocery store offering a . “Cuban Food – What Is It, Its History & 6 Traditional Dishes .” Amigofoods, 13 Nov. 2021, https://blog.amigofoods.com/index.php/cuban-foods/cuban-food-history-dishes/.
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