Cuban, Miami Culinary History on Display at University of Miami

Although Miami has a long, colorful history as one of the top destinations for international tourism, the Magic City’s culinary offerings weren’t always limited to high-priced restaurants on the beach and celebrity-chef outposts. For years, Miami has been a hub for Cuban cuisine, fine dining, and plenty of locally grown food that hits its peak during what is loosely called "season." However, without a proper history lesson and a place to take a trip down memory lane, the scope of Floridian cuisine might otherwise be lumped into what’s new on South Beach, and nothing more. Luckily for us, several directors in the University of Miami's library system have taken to documenting the rich culinary past of South Florida, giving us residents a chance to love where we live even more.

The first stop in any tour of South Florida’s diverse culinary history should be at UM’s Special Collections Department, located on the eighth floor of the Richter Library. There, department director Christina Favretto, along with librarian Beatrice Skokan, is building the Culinary History Collection of Florida, "a locally grown smorgasbord snapshot of our unique food scene." Speaking about the recently inaugurated collection, Skokan said, "We already have books on different culinary traditions from South Florida and the Caribbean, but this is a focused project where [Christina] wants to document more of what's out there." 

On a recent visit to the department, I had the opportunity to see about a dozen menus from old Miami restaurants, many of which no longer exist. Before buzz diets like gluten-free and Paleo or light everything took over beach cuisine, restaurants such as Sherry (menu below) were serving everything from turtle steak to broiled Key West pompano amandine for prices that nowadays won’t even get you a cup of coffee. 

As part of a library-wide exhibit about food and food cultures, a Special Collections Department exhibit on the Richter’s first floor is titled "Tropical Gastronomies: Documenting the Food Cultures of South Florida." Open to the public, the exhibit draws from the collection’s more than 50,000 rare books, papers, and more. "We have close to 50,000 rare books, 500 archival collections, so what we did was cull from that any culinary related items," said Skokan, my tour guide through the exhibit.

On the walls and under glass, visitors to "Tropical Gastronomies" will get to see a wide variety of what Special Collections has to offer. Selections from the Florida Postcard Collection have been blown up and hung on the walls. Under glass, rare, one-off books, menus, and photos from the Pan American Airlines Collection, and even excerpts from the Food Justice Collection, deliver a small taste of how deep the culinary arm of Special Collections goes. 

On the second floor of the Richter Library, the Cuban Heritage Collection is also represented in the culinary-focused installations, with two exhibits. "Food is a universal language, and that’s the fun part about working on this topic," said Maria R. Estorino Dooling, chair of the Cuban Heritage Collection.

The first, "Spare Beauty," is a series of photos that highlight the work of photographer Ellen Silverman. The photos show Cuban kitchens as still life, spaces where decay meets utility, where a country holds onto its culture through cuisine. Silverman has garnered acclaim for her work on The Cuban Table, which was released in late 2014.

Complementing "Spare Beauty" is "Food and Memory: An Exploration of Cuban Cooking 1857-Today." Co-curated by Cuban Heritage librarian Meiyolet Mendez, the exhibit offers guests a sampling of the collection’s books, papers, and other ephemera that track Cuban cuisine from some of its earliest founders to the present day. One of the more notable pieces on display is the original recipe for the daiquiri, as written by the drink’s inventor, Jennings Cox. The handwritten recipe has been so well preserved on its original piece of paper that it looks as though it could have been penned yesterday.

Much like the exhibit from the Special Collections Department, the Cuban culinary exhibits are just a sample of what guests at the library will find. “It’s a story that we’re telling, but it’s really the tip of the iceberg of the collection that we have,” Dooling said. “We have hundreds and hundreds of menus from restaurants from throughout the 20th Century. The exhibit will hopefully be an entry point.”

The three exhibits have been on display since February, but there’s still time to see them at Richter Library. "Tropical Gastronomies," "Food and Memory," and "Spare Beauty" will be on view until July 31. Afterward, all of the materials will still be available to the public. "Monday from 9 to 4, you come, say you want to see something, and we’ll get it out for you. We are open to the public, not just to UM students and faculty,” said Skokan, eager to let the public know about the treasures waiting to be discovered at Richter Library.

Before you make your next reservation for an overpriced cocktail or plate of food, take a trip to UM and see what Florida has offered in the past. Whether it’s a dish of broiled scallops or a glass of fresh orange juice, it might just inspire you to expect a little more from your local restaurant than the latest decor or the celebrity chef du jour. 

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Patrick Hieger
Contact: Patrick Hieger