In Miami, everything has to do with migration, especially our food. In her new book, The Sizzling History of Miami Cuisine: Cortaditos, Stone Crabs and Empanadas, author Mandy Baca traces the story of our town from pre-Colombian times to the present. Food is the dynamic main character, not Julia Tuttle or Henry Flagler, although both of them play a part with their oranges and railroads.
In Miami, talking about an "old" restaurant can easily mean a place that has been open for ten years. In her book, Baca traces longer terms trends, the polyglot stewing and population shifts that led to Miami being a hub of Cuban eateries as opposed to say, a nexus of Chinese restaurants.
In her research, Baca found that the first recorded Chinese restaurant in Miami was Wo Kee and Son, which opened in 1920. Northerners were settling in South Florida and they brought with them a familiarity and taste for eating at Chinese restaurants. The Miami Herald wrote on Jan. 24, 1920:
The Chinese-American restaurant of Wo Kee and Son Company in the McKinnon hotel building, on Avenue C, is an innovation in Miami. Hung with unique tapestries and lanterns, with screens of elaborate Chinese character and heavily carpeted floors this new eating place is cosy and attractive... Both American and Chinese dishes will be prepared by a Chinese chef and a particularly attractive feature will be afternoon tea served from four until five-thirty.
Of course, due to the populations that immigrated here, Chinese food didn't take hold the way it did in other cities or in the way that Cuban food spread in Little Havana.
However, before that area was known as Little Havana, it was two neighborhoods: Riverside and Shenandoah. Bahamians made up a significant part of the community, bringing with them signature foods like conch fritters, conch chowder, yams and cassava. Between the late 1930s and 1960, an Eastern European Jewish population established itself in the area, replacing the signs of Bahamian cultural life with their own. Restaurants that became popular were The Pizza Palace, Sorrento and Velvet Creme.
In the 1960s, the Cuban influx started after the Castro government took power. The neighborhood was a cheaper place to live and thus attractive to new arrivals. Thus dawned the age of the ventanita--the window at restaurants and cafes where patrons stand and drink cafecito.
Although the area is still known as Little Havana, more Central Americans started moving into the neighborhood in the 1970s. Now the neighborhood is in flux again. On Calle Ocho, you'll find Versailles as well as Mi Rinconcito Mexicano.
Twenty-five-year-old Baca was fascinated with the history of Miami food and informally researched it for years. Her fascination with food culture and history led her to the University of Gastronomic Science in Italy (created by the founder of Slow Food International, Carlo Petrini).
In 2012, she serendipitously received an offer from History Press to chronicle Miami's food culture. She churned out the product of her research in six months, fueled by Coca-Cola--not cafecito--as well as pastelitos and empanadas.
Mandy Baca presents The Sizzling History of Miami Cuisine at Books & Books in Coral Gables on Friday, June 19th at 8 p.m.