The earliest evidence of human habitation in northeast Florida extends back to 14,000 BC. Accordingly, our culinary heritage, and a true Paleo-Indian diet, would embrace the edible plants and animals that indigenous Indians consumed at that time.
Considering that Mastodon, Woolly Mammoth and Giant Land Tortoise are now extinct, and camel, armadillo and horse have questionable culinary appeal, this is easier said than done.
Fortunately, an archaeological record of more familiar foodways is available for us to sink our teeth into.
For proteins, fish (mullet, catfish, flounder, croaker, black drum) and shellfish (crab, shrimp, oysters, clams and conch) were important dietary staples to natives. When it comes to land-based proteins, some of the more familiar include alligator, possum, duck, rabbit, snake, squirrel, turkey, and deer. When cooking, the Paleo-Indians grilled and smoked their meats on a wooden structure erected over hot coals; the first backyard barbecue.
While not grilled, Bear Head Hash was a favorite. The bear head would be boiled and stripped of its meat, chopped and subsequently fried in fat along with vegetables and seasoning. Since bear and other indigenous game may be difficult to obtain today, and considering that both beef and pork were not available prior to European settlement, turkey is a wonderful substitute if you want to go authentic.
The Indians also ground and milled a variety of grains and flours to make porridges, stews and breads. Ingredients included acorns, pumpkin seeds, chestnuts, sunflower seeds, corn (meal) and coontie (arrowroot).
From a vegetarian perspective, their diets relied heavily on a culinary foundation of corn, beans and squash, referred to as the “Three Sisters.” In addition, and with over 200 varieties of edible plants, this region was a virtual salad bar of enormous proportions that included garlic, watercress, lettuce, prickly pear, kidney beans, basil, sumac, grapes, onion, persimmons, rice, and paw-paw. Swamp cabbage is one of the more distinctive vegetables in this assortment, getting its name from the young fronds of Florida’s state tree, the Sabal Palm, that look somewhat like a head of cabbage. Known as “hearts of palm” today, it is enjoyed primarily as a gourmet addition to salads.
One of the more endearing qualities of Paleo-Indian life was hospitality. Whenever visitors arrived, and before discussing anything of importance, they would offer drinks and a welcoming dish called sofki. While sofki is traditionally made as a stew with hominy and venison, it can include other meats and vegetables as well.
While contemporary American diets include a large number of foods that were not present prior to the arrival of European explorers, (take peas, cherries, wheat, citrus, peaches, tomatoes, beef, pork, and potatoes to name a few), a Paleo-Indian diet offers plenty of variety and contributes nicely to a clean and healthy culinary regimen.