Caribbean Dining Etiquette

For many people, those from the United States included, the Caribbean is a great playground of tropical islands strung together like jewels in a sparkling azure sea: a marvelous place for a midwinter escape, but not much more than that. But the Caribbean is far more than just the perfect destination for a relaxing getaway. For starters (and admittedly, we are going back pretty far here), it is believed that the Caribbean was formed a couple of million years ago when a giant asteroid smashed into the earth; not only did this event destroy the dinosaurs, but it collapsed the geographic area that is now the Caribbean Sea. Once humans arrived on the scene, the area was populated mainly by oftentimes warring indigenous peoples, the Tainos (mainly of the northern and western islands), the Arawaks (mainly of the eastern and southern islands), and the Caribs.

Following the Spanish conquest, most of the native indigenous peoples, were wiped out through a combination of slavery, displacement, and disease. In an effort to perpetuate the convenient free labor system that they were used to, the conquering Europeans (and the Spaniards were not the only ones: the British, French, Dutch, and others joined in the colonization of the islands) began to import slaves from Africa into the New World; the Caribbean served as the major entry point in the north (Brazil was the major area in the south) for the entry, sale, and enslavement of Africans by Europeans in the New World. Slaves from the Caribbean were then sent throughout the New World, mainly working the sugar, coffee, hemp, and other agricultural plantations. Slaves were imported, sugarcane was cut, much of it was turned into rum, and the goods were shipped to Europe. With the ascendance of the United States, the industrial revolution, and the demand for independence, the Caribbean colonies, each in its own way, struggled for autonomy from Europe and the United States. The struggle continues today.

Demographically, this history has resulted in one of the most incredible mixes of cultures and peoples in the world. The peoples are mainly, to varying degrees, descendants of indigenous, African, and European forebears, speaking a variety of representative languages, each having influenced the other. The diversity, while dizzying, is, of course, from time to time and place to place, prob­lematic (for example, Haitians and Dominicans, who share the same island ­Hispaniola-have long-simmering resentments); nevertheless, most inhabitants of the region share many similarities. The cultures are primarily agriculturally based (sugar and its main by-product, rum, is still the base of most economies), resulting in behaviors that are oriented around family, group-dependency, a very relaxed orientation toward time and planning, and a traditional differentiation of roles between men and women. The various cultures all share a gorgeous para­disiacal landscape, which does occasionally wreak havoc on the local life and economy in the form of earthquakes and devastating hurricanes. And they all share the mixed and terrifying legacies of conquest, slavery, and exploitation by the developed world.

Getting Oriented

This remarkably culturally diverse region can be divided mainly into three major cultural subgroups, all of which are influenced by Africa: Hispanic-African (cultures formed by Africa and the Spanish conquest), Franco-African (cultures formed by Africa and French colonization), and Anglo-African (cultures formed by Africa and British colonization). These cultural groupings do not necessarily follow the basic geographical division of the region, that being between the large islands of the Greater Antilles chain stretching in the northwest from Cuba to Puerto Rico in the northeast, to the smaller islands of the Lesser Antilles chain stretching from the Virgin Islands east of Puerto Rico south to the ABC's (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao) just off the coast of Venezuela. Anglo-African, Franco-African, and Hispanic-African cultures are mixed throughout, like dominoes tossed on a tabletop. Let's begin with the major Hispanic-African cultures.

North America

These links will take you to pages with dining etiquette information for the region. Where a particular country's dining etiquette dominates a region, those dining etiquette rules are incorporated by reference with a link to the page with the dominate dining etiquette.

north america map