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Jeff Houck

The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.

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Norman And Justin Van Aken Remember Key West’s Food As It Was And Is Now [‘My Key West Kitchen’]

Posted Nov 25, 2012 by Jeff Houck

Updated Nov 25, 2012 at 10:56 AM

My Key West Kitchen

Chef Norman Van Aken knew the real Key West.

This was before every grey-beard with a pot belly and a cable-knit sweater tried to look like Hemingway. Long before women with too much access to body paint and public nudity pranced in front of desperate men with cameras. It was back in the early 1970s, before Parrotheads turned Duval Street turned into what author Randy Wayne White once described as “a drunk hatchery.”

“You could roll a bowling ball down it in July and threaten almost no one,” Van Aken says in his new book “My Key West Kitchen,” written with his son, Justin. The book (Kyle, $29.95) is a culinary love letter to the town Norman first visited from Illinois in 1971, and brims with recipes from the era and recollections of people like Bicycle Sammy and Sunshine the pie lady that early Jimmy Buffet songs would go on to capture.

The book also includes Justin’s current take on the island town he was born in and the modern place he returned to in 2007 after cooking in kitchens around the country. Despite having become a mecca for tropical intoxication, Key West still retains its own identity. It is simultaneously isolated and yet overrun with visitors getting away from it all.

“It’s a real community where people live year-round,” he says. “I like to say that it could have been many small towns in the South that had just been broken off from the mainland and set out to drift in the sea.”

Forty years ago, the best way to experience the island was to walk or ride a Conch Cruiser. Back in the late 1970s, Norman and his new wife, Janet, moved full-time to the island and discovered a place full of flavors and aromas.

“Riding up and down those streets, you could smell the food cooking in the homes. You smelled the flowers. You smelled the ocean. You have time to think about it and immerse yourself when you’re on a pace like that.”

Even then, the 127-mile umbilical cord from Miami to Key West known as the Overseas Highway had begun the Americanization of the island from its Caribbean roots. The influence hit Van Aken in the 1980s, when he started seeing hamburgers and hot dogs show up on menus that previously had featured only Cuban and Bahamian food.

“I thought, ‘Oh, no. This is going to become like everywhere else if we’re not careful,” he says.

Norman and Justin Van Aken

Justin Van Aken, left, and his father Norman Van Aken, authors of the book “My Key West Kitchen.”

Those early days spent absorbing the mixture of culinary cultures inspired his pioneering vision of what he dubbed “fusion” or “New World Cuisine,” which melded American flavors with Caribbean, African and Asian ingredients.

The melding of those influences is more difficult to find in tourist-choked spots like Duval Street, but they’re still there. The place is, after all, completely surrounded by water and in constant contact with it. The peel ‘n’ eat shrimp at Pinks and the conch salad at the Hogfish Bar & Grill are great launching points for the taste buds of any first-timer. Anyone who can’t find authentic local food in a place surrounded by spiny lobster, stone crab, grouper, snapper and fresh tropical fruits and spices should consider turning in his fork and knife.

But to find Key West’s essence today, it helps to travel the interior of the island. It’s there you’ll find more home-style cooking. It’s there you’ll find black eye’d pea bollos fritters, or the fried, meat-filled mollette sandwiches at 5 Brothers Grocery and Sandwich Shop.

The island’s inner streets are “not necessarily where you’ll find all of the fresh seafood that we’re so lucky to be in such close proximity to,” Justin says. “But there are more direct ties to the roots of our culture there. To the Bahamian food, To the Cuban food.”

It was his idea to write the book in chapters according to neighborhoods instead of the traditional appetizer/entrée/dessert formula. Eventually, his father agreed. What both want most is to give readers a true sense of a place they dearly love.

“You know that when you drive around Tampa or Ybor City, how different neighborhoods have different feelings and different avocations of food? Norman says. “We hope that readers will come to Key West and take the book with them.”

Then, in true Key West fashion he says, “We don’t care if they make a drinking game out of it.”

Just like the old days.

* * * * *

Sunshine's Key Lime PieSunshine’s Key Lime Pie

Norman Van Aken: The first time I saw a key lime pie was a few days after I started at the Midget. It was about eight a.m. and I was having a cold beer, reading a newspaper, and getting ready to go home to bed. I noticed a young lady named Sunshine arriving through the doorless bar on her bicycle, wearing a cotton barely-there dress, a large hibiscus flower behind her left ear and bearing a tray containing two pale yellow pies. She explained that she only prepared two at a time or the taste would “get lost”; besides, she only had room for two pies in her bicycle basket. I drained the beer and saved my pie for later. (By the way, Sunshine went on to manage some business affairs for a guy named Jimmy Buffett, so she probably makes pies only for pleasure now.)

Yield: 2 pies (of course!)

For the crust:

¾ cup sliced almonds, lightly pan-toasted

One 4.8-ounce package graham crackers, crushed in the bag

½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg

2⁄3 cup unsalted butter, melted

Two 14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk

One 12-ounce bottle Key lime juice

10 extra-large egg yolks (reserve the clean whites for the meringue)

For the Swiss Meringue:

2 cups granulated sugar

1 cup egg whites

Pinch kosher salt

Place the almonds in a food processor and pulse a few times. Add the graham cracker crumbs, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pulse until well ground, but not quite dust. The mixture can be kept in the refrigerator for up to a week if not using right away.

Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and add the melted butter to combine. Divide evenly between 2 pie pans. Press the crust firmly onto the bottoms and up the sides of the pans, making a small rim.

Bake the crusts until bubbling and turning from shiny to matte, 10 to 12 minutes. Cool in the pans on a wire rack. Pour the condensed milk into a large bowl and stir in the Key lime juice. In another large bowl, whisk the egg yolks until pale yellow. Add the Key lime mixture, stir well and pour into the pie crusts. Tap the pans on the countertop to remove any air bubbles and bake for about 15 minutes, rotating halfway through the baking time. Let the pies cool to room temperature, then wrap and refrigerate for up to 10 hours.

When you are ready to serve the pies, make the meringue. Set a pan of water large enough to fit the bowl of your mixer to a simmer. Add the sugar, egg whites and salt to the bowl and whisk gently by hand over the simmering water until the mixture is room temperature and you can’t feel any sugar granules when you roll the mixture around in your fingertips. Transfer the bowl to its mixer and whip on high speed until the meringue turns bright white and holds medium peaks. Apply the finished meringue to the chilled pies. Torch at will.

Ingredient Note: The so-called key lime, a small, round fruit with a thin skin and a mottled yellow-green look, is, according to some, the “true” lime, Citrus aurantifolia . It is more tart than Citrus latifolia , the lime commonly found in the produce section of most grocery stores. Key limes are also known as Mexican, West Indian and Bartender limes. Key lime trees love the warmest weather and only grow down in the Keys in the United States. Trees were established as early as 1839. Gail Borden invented condensed milk in 1853 to give people in pioneer conditions safe milk that would keep longer than fresh whole milk. Some creative genius in the Keys combined sweetened condensed milk with Key lime juice and eggs to make the first key lime pies.’ He (or she) would not be the last!

Source: “My Key West Kitchen,” by Norman Van Aken and Justin Van Aken.

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