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Florida fusion is the real story of past 500 years

When Spanish seafarers returned from their voyages in the 16th century, they reported to the most secret room in Spain. In Seville's Casa de Contratacíon (the House of Trade), cartographers and cosmographers created a map of the known world. A new world unfolded on vellum and linen.

At some point in the early 16th century, a map identified a spit of land north of Cuba. A series of voyages revealed that the land mass was a peninsula, part of a vast continent. Florida became the pathway between the Americas, a gateway to dashed dreams and new hopes.

The voyages of Christopher Columbus and Ponce de León wrought profound consequences. The significance of 1492 or 1513 lies not in what Columbus or Ponce discovered, but rather in the interaction that followed.

Castilians and Asturians, Apalachee and Tequesta, African slaves and Irish priests, became agents, wittingly or unwittingly, of a powerful new force: globalization. Natives who had lived on the Florida peninsula for millennia, who had survived alternating cycles of global heating and cooling, lacked immunity to small pox, measles and influenza.

Florida became a global incubator. Imagine an idyllic Florida bouquet: Cross Creek oranges, Pine Island mangoes and Islamorada key limes, with garlands of bougainvillea, frangipane and hibiscus. All the above came from somewhere else. But so, too, did Floridians.

The greatest consequence of 1513 may have been what the historian Alfred Crosby called "the Columbian Exchange." The collisions between the New and Old Worlds resulted in terrible tragedies, but also stirring new ideas and developments. The journey of Iberico hogs, Castilian cattle, Andalusian chickens, Canary Island sugar cane and Valencian oranges to Florida enriched our diet and enhanced our stockpot.

The journey went both ways: Andean potatoes to Ireland to consecrate potatoes O'Brien, Mexican tomatoes to Naples and Rome to adorn pizza and pasta, Plymouth turkeys to Turkey, maize to the bemused French and Mexican chocolate to complete sachertorte. Columbus sailed west in search of the spicy black peppercorn, but instead found fiery chili peppers that enriched the cuisines of Hungary, China and India.

New sounds and sights invaded the Florida landscape. The cattle that Ponce brought on his 1521 voyage and the pigs that accompanied Hernando Soto in 1538 proliferated. Other newcomers included horses, goats, chickens, swans, geese and rats.

Food defines. To Spaniards accustomed to the holy trinity of bread, wine and olive oil, supplemented by roast lamb, La Florida proved disappointing. Wheat, olives and European wine grapes failed miserably in the hot and humid environment, while sheep died by the flock.

Food divides. Spanish elites dined on imported wheaten bread served on china, while ordinary soldiers and workers ate maize and beans on Indian pottery.

Food can also unite. In 2013, the Columbian Exchange is alive at the supermarket and café. Stroll any food aisle and behold Vietnamese oyster sauce, tandoori spices, and iberico jamón. A profusion of new (actually old) foods tempt our modern palate: jicimas, tomatillas, prickly pears, bok choy, mung beans, and Thai basil. "Fusion," the trendiest cuisine, allows ravioli stuffed with kimchi and General Tso's swamp cabbage and curried mullet.

But it is water, more specifically the Fountain of Youth that has dominated the public debate over the remembrance of Ponce. For centuries, the fable that Ponce was searching for a fountain of Youth has tantalized chambers of commerce and vexed historians. Since the 19th century, tourists have sipped restorative elixirs at St. Augustine, Warm Mineral Springs and St. Petersburg.

But legends of Amazonian women, cities of gold, and fountains of youth pale when contrasted to Spanish real-world encounters with the Gulf Stream, the Alachua Savanna, primeval creatures lurking as alligators and rattle snakes, and natural springs so powerful and mystical that they seemed other worldly.

The American Dream, an elixir of inextinguishable optimism, began with yearnings for new and better worlds. "Thank you, Ponce de León," writes the Florida poet Campbell McGrath, "because if local history teaches us anything it is the Fountain of Youth is no illusion — it is real and it flows around us, everywhere, always — and that the eternal font is youth itself, each generation encountering the new planet with fresh eyes and minds, remaking the world as it sees fit."

In William Shakespeare's The Tempest (1610), a storm — perhaps one inspired by what Taino Indians of the Caribbean called el huracán — tossed the ship-wrecked survivors onto a mystical, tropical island. Merciful Miranda and the magician Prospero rhapsodize about a "brave new world" where "such stuff as dreams are made on."

As we ponder dreams, let us toast the residents of the Fountain of Youth Retirement Home in Tampa: To the state with the prettiest name, a drink with the most beautiful name, Morir Soñando (To Die Dreaming). A Dominican concoction made with orange juice, milk and vanilla extract, Morir Soñando is pure Floribbean.

Gary R. Mormino, co-founder of the Florida Studies Program at USF St. Petersburg, is USFSP professor emeritus of history and scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Florida fusion is the real story of past 500 years 05/11/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 7:07pm]
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