A Caribbean Feast according to Labat

Another interruption of our regular 15th-century diet for a source I dug up in the course of researching buccaneer food. Dominican friar and polymath Jean Baptiste Labat describes a Native American feast:

Kalinago man from the 1742 edition of Labat’s works, courtesy of wikimedia commons

When the fish over the fire are cooked and the men have gained an appetite, the women bring two or three matatous (serving bowls) full of fresh and still hot cassava and two large couis, one of which is filled with the taumalin of crabs, the other with pimentade. This is accompanied by a large basket of boiled crabs, some coffres (boxfish) which were over the fire and some large-scaled fish (prob. tarpon) which were cooked in the same manner.

Kalinago woman from the 1742 edition of Labat’s works, courtesy of wikimedia commons

Labat does not identify the people involved beyond “Indiens” and “sauvages“, but it is likely they were Kalinago. Various Kalinago groups coexisted with the French colonists in the Antilles in the late 17th century and relations were often friendly. Labat describes numerous meetings and proved an interested observer. His short description can be fleshed out with references to other parts of Labat’s writings and parallel sources. We can thus arrive at a broad reconstruction of a feast very different from the foodways of the Native Americans of the mainland described by Lionel Wafer.

The Kalinago Labat met were a maritime civilisation. The sea provided them with the mobility they prized and the high-status foods of their culture, though they likely got more of their calories from cassava and plantains than fish or crustaceans. On this festive occasion, seafood reigns. Along with roasted cassava root, the men are served boiled crabs and two varieties of roast fish. The coffre is most likely some variety of boxfish while the “fish with large scales” may be a tarpon. Labat tried both on other occasions and wrote approvingly of their culinary qualities, though he admits not everyone appreciated them.

Finally, there are the condiments. The taumalin of the crabs is an internal organ removed from cooked crabs. Labat misidentifies it as the milt and writes that it is processed into a sauce with lemon juice, salt, and chili pepper. Pimentade is a kind of sauce described in many sources as very widespread among both Native Americans and European colonists. If we can trust Labat’s description, the Kalinago prepared it from boiled cassava juice, grated chili pepper, and lemon juice.

Interestingly, the descriptions of buccaneer feasts we find in a number of sources often share features with the way Native Americans cooked and ate, and descriptions of Native American cookery often include ingredients and occasionally techniques that were imported from the Old World.

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