Miami’s Culinary History is one of much diversity, going from Native Americans only relying on what the land gave them, to non-Hispanic whites establishing their culture, to Jews migrating to avoid persecution, to the eventual influx to Cuban and Haitian peoples into the city. Because there has always been a fairly active form of immigration due to the subtropical climate and eventual widespread adoption of the Spanish language, Miami has become a large fusion of cultures and cuisines that allow us to find anything we want today.
Earliest evidence of Native American inhabitants in Miami can be dated as far back as 10,000 years ago, when the region was covered with forests of pinewood and wild animals such as deer and bear. These people settled along the Miami River, giving them access to plenty of fish and the vegetation found in the area. Although these early inhabitants, who would eventually become a group called the Tequesta people, relied on fish, game, fruits, and plants for food, everything they ate came from what the land provided instead of them creating any sort of agriculture system.
From the 1500s to the 1700s, there was interaction between Spanish conquistadors and the Tequesta. The Spanish brought with them disease and foods that the Natives were not accustomed to, and although the Spanish did not stay for a long time, the influence that their presence had stayed in the area that is now called Miami. Eventually, the Spanish returned in hopes of converting many of the Natives into Christianity, and with them came crops and livestock that the Tequesta had never known. Eventually, conquistadors from other countries began coming as well, which led to them overtaking the land and began plantations. Within these plantations, they grew crops such as sugarcane, bananas, corn, and tropical fruit. Of course, plantations meant slavery coming in the forms of Caribbean and African slaves, so food pertinent to these cultures eventually made their way into the culinary scene. Still, there were no major settlements of people coming into the area until the late 1800s, when they became attracted to promises of free land by the United States federal government.
Right before the 1900s, a woman named Julia Tuttle bought massive amounts of land and tried to convince Henry Flagler, a railroad magnate, to begin expansion into the Miami area. At first, Flagler was not easily persuaded, but after a brutal winter led to Northern Florida losing much of its citrus crop, Tuttle tried again and was able to prove that Miami was a good place to begin developing. Today, Henry Flagler is considered the “Father of Miami” due to his help in developing the area, so it can be safe to say that Miami’s weather and ability to grow citrus fruit throughout the year with ease is what pushed Miami’s enlargement. Because of Henry Flagler’s involvement in expanding his railroad to the southern part of the state, massive amounts of people began migrating from northern states in hopes of getting away from the cold and beginning a new life. These people were the ones to eventually found the city that today is called Miami.
From that point until post World War II, there was not much change in gastronomy when it came to the diet in Miami, as immigration from other countries did not see Miami as a prime destination when it came to finding a new place to begin a life. On the other hand, World War II led to an influx of immigrants, most of them Jewish, into the area. The Jewish immigrants brought with them their culture and food, eventually opening restaurants and markets such as Herman’s Meat and Poultry, a kosher meat market in the ’50s and ’60s, and Goldstein and Gilbert’s kosher restaurant.
During the 1960s, Miami saw its first major Cuban wave. Most of the exiles settled into the Riverside neighborhood, which began to be called “Little Havana” after the region in Cuba. By the end of the 1960s, more than four hundred thousand Cuban refugees were living in Miami-Dade County. This massive influx led to Cubans bringing along with them their Spanish-influenced culture and food.
Up until this point, Miami was still predominantly white, but the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, the largest transport in civilian history, brought more than 150,000 Cubans into the city. Since most of the immigrants coming into Miami were poor, prisoners, or mentally unstable, this led to much of the non-white Hispanics leaving Miami, taking with them much American culture. This made it easier for Cuban culture and food to overtake that of the United States. From 1960 to 1990, the percentage of non-Hispanic white people in Miami went from 90% to 10%. The 1980s also came with an increase in immigrants from other nations, such as Haiti. Because the area eventually became mostly Hispanic, it became a popular destination for immigrants from other Latin countries looking for a place to begin their lives. Little by little, people from these countries began inhabiting Miami, bringing along with them their food and culture.
Convincingly, it can be claimed that because Miami has been such a commodity when it comes to immigration, it has created its own culinary scene based on the blending of cultures. It is something Miami’s inhabitants truly appreciate, as it allows them to sample their way through the globe without having to leave.