Wednesday, January 2

Kitchen to Classroom: Grad Student Spotlight

Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1943. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Today's "Kitchen to Classroom" post is written by Anna Hamilton, a first-year MA student in Southern Studies here at the University of Mississippi. Anna is a native of St. Augustine, Florida. She tells us about her final project for Professor Angela Jill Cooley's Foodways and Southern Culture class. 

Photos by Anna Hamilton
The datil pepper is a knock-your-socks-off spicy pepper that is foundational to much of Saint Augustine, Florida’s cuisine. There’s the fiery, tomato-based Minorcan clam chowder, fennel-seeded datil sausage, and a wide array of datil-based sauces, to name a few. You can find it on Saint Augustine menus and nestled in worn family cookbooks.

An intriguing myth circulates concerning the datil pepper: that it was brought to the First Coast in the 1700s by indentured laborers from Minorca (or Menorca, in Spanish), a small island in the Mediterranean Sea belonging to Spain's Balearic Islands. Today, many natives of St. Augustine still trace their heritage back to Minorcan-immigrant ancestors. However, in recent years, doubt has increasingly been cast on the accuracy of the origin myth of the datil pepper as a transplant from Minorca. Not long ago, a 1937 article from The Saint Augustine Record resurfaced pointing to the datil’s introduction from the Caribbean in the 1800s. Additionally, anecdotes speak of the vast differences between the datil and the peppers cultivated in Minorca today.

My concern for Dr. Cooley’s final paper was the controversy and divisiveness stirred over this question of the datil’s origin. Some Minorcans are adamant about the pepper’s roots in Minorca. For this camp, the pepper is an invaluable lifeline to the Old World. According to the opposition, the specifics of the connection to a place of origin are less important; the birthplace itself is minor. They believe that the Minorcans are responsible for the pepper’s presence in Florida and have been the stewards long enough to establish an inextricable association. One datil lover weighs in: “As far as I’m concerned, even though they didn’t bring the pepper from...Minorca, they still own that pepper...They’re the culture that has used it all these years.”

I conducted oral history interviews and analyzed local cookbooks to examine the role of the datil pepper in Florida’s Minorcan culture. As an ethnic symbol, the datil illuminates the importance of a cultural narrative in identity formation. The datil’s highly symbolic nature exemplifies ways in which foodways can empower and lend agency to distinct cultural groups. I look forward to further pursuing this little fireball for my thesis.