In the days when Central Avenue was the racial dividing line in Tampa, a barbecue pit was where men found their common ground.
"Barbecuing was a masculine, interracial activity. It wasn't unusual seeing people of both races tending a spit over a pit fire," food historian Andrew Huse told a group Monday at the Brandon Regional Library.
By day, Huse is an assistant librarian at the University of South Florida's Special Collections Department. But he's also a food maven and a recognized authority on Florida's historical food culture.
He's co-authored a cookbook and, more recently, authored a centennial cookbook for Tampa's Columbia Restaurant that's due out later this year.
His interest in food began when he took a college course about Southern history. Before long, he'd developed an itch for researching food culture.
"I thought, 'What a cool cultural barometer,' " he said. "It's something people feel comfortable talking about."
Florida's culinary traditions, Huse explained, are quite diverse and intertwined with the state's history and people: swamp cabbage made from the hearts of cabbage palms, pork barbecue, Cuban deviled crabs, paella from Spain, and Caribbean rice pilau.
Huse's passion for food brought old Tampa to life in the Brandon library with turn-of-the-century photos and colorful stories about how people dined in the luxury of the Tampa Bay Hotel and the Columbia Restaurant during preprohibition years.
"At that time, it was assumed men couldn't control themselves," Huse said.
Because of that, restaurant owners such as Victor Licata of the Seabreeze Restaurant would have the women in the family prepare food specialties at home and send them to the restaurant to protect them from indecencies.
Things hardly settled down during the Prohibition Era. Bootleggers were often busted in Ybor City and moonshine stills were tucked away in the swamps nearby, Huse said.
Food, or sometimes the lack of it, can help define a period in history. Soup kitchens afforded striking workers the opportunity to hold out for as long as six months or a year to win more rights on the job, Huse noted.
And politicians learned early on that a way to a voter's heart was through the stomach. All it took for some savvy Florida politicians to be remembered on Election Day was a free fish fry for the public. That, Huse noted, is a far cry from what happens today.
"Now, it's people paying [big] dollars to attend political dinners," he said.