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  • Bottling HellMarketing St. Augustine, Florida’s Datil Pepper
  • Anna Hamilton (bio)

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Widely accepted folklore connects the Datil pepper’s earliest seeds to the arrival of the Minorcan laborers. Some St. Augustinians recount tales of Minorcan immigrants sewing Datil pepper seeds into articles of clothing before boarding ships to the Florida colony. For nearly one hundred years, these stories have contributed to an assumed history of the Datil. Signs in David Vander Bush’s yard for fresh Datil peppers, Elkton, Florida, 1982, by Merri Belland (collector), State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, floridamemory.com.

[End Page 59]

Datil peppers sun on five bushes by the pool in Mary Ellen Masters’s backyard next to Faver Dykes State Park—a wild, scrubby preserve in south St. Johns County, Florida. Masters, whose family has lived in the area for nearly six generations, is renowned for her seemingly masochistic love of the spicy, heirloom peppers (a variety of Capsicum chinese similar in heat to the habanero) that are endemic to St. Augustine, Florida. Each year, she cooks 130 gallons of Datil-infused Minor-can clam chowder for the St. Ambrose Catholic Church Fair in Elkton, Florida, garnering her the undisputed title “Queen of Chowder.” “We have wimpy, mild, medium and hot—Minorcan hot,” she says of the chowders she prepares. “The Minorcan hot’s hot. I mean, it’ll make your nose run and your eyes run.”1

Masters is a descendant of St. Augustine’s Minorcan population, a multicultural group of indentured workers brought to Florida in the late 1700s from Minorca, an island off the coast of Spain in the Balearic Sea. Since the time of their arrival in St. Augustine until Florida’s induction into the United States, the Minorcans sustained the city as its backbone population. For Minorcans like Masters, who can trace her lineage back to 1100, the legend of the Datil is a family tale. Widely accepted folklore connects the pepper’s earliest seeds to the arrival of the Minorcan laborers. Some St. Augustinians recount tales of Minorcan immigrants sewing Datil pepper seeds into articles of clothing before boarding ships to the Florida colony. For nearly one hundred years, these stories have contributed to an assumed history of the Datil.2

“I’ve been told my whole life growing up that they came from Minorca,” Masters says of the pepper. “But I think people are deciding that that’s not true.” Her ambivalence is characteristic of the resurgent interest in the Datil pepper’s history and the vague, yet romantic, details of its introduction to Florida. Increasingly, historians, botanists, and curious community members are challenging the lore’s likelihood and positing alternative provenance theories. Some have suggested an African connection to the pepper, while another plausible hypothesis sources the pepper from South America via Caribbean traders.3

Yet Minorcan mythology persists, incubated and proliferated through generations of northeast Floridians. The tenacity of the folklore speaks to its value in a cultural tourism context, where, in St. Augustine, visitors are eager to consume the town’s unique historic resources and profit-driven producers are happy to oblige. Located on the northeast coast of Florida in St. Johns County, St. Augustine owes its title of the “Nation’s Oldest City” to a legacy as the longest continually occupied European settlement in the United States. Juan Ponce de Leon, the first European to sight Floridian soil, is credited as the first St. Augustine tourist with his purported search for a “fountain of youth.” Today, St. Augustine’s tourism industry is bursting: an estimated 2 million tourists visit the city each year, hungry for its Old World charm. And in 2012, visitors to St. Johns County spent [End Page 60] almost $712 million. The tension between conflicting Minorcan folklore and recent scholarship about the Datil pepper sheds light on the complex and subtle inner workings of heritage tourism in St. Augustine. That localized myth has long supplanted historical fact attests to power of exploitation and commercialization on collective memory.4


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“I’ve been told my whole life growing up that they came from Minorca,” Masters says...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 59-72
Launched on MUSE
2015-03-29
Open Access
No
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