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Excerpt From My Key West Kitchen By Norman Van Aken And Justin Van Aken

Kyle Books

In My Key West Kitchen: Recipes and Stories, father-and-son chefs Norman Van Aken and Justin Van Aken present recipes inspired by Key West foods their family has relished throughout the decades, including Captain Tony's Sunday Fish Fry, Dennis Pharmacy Navy Bean Soup and The Midget's Brunswick Stew.

The Midget was one of the first places Norman Van Aken cooked in Key West after arriving from Illinois. 

The Van Akens presents their new book at Miami Book Fair International this year.

Below, an excerpt from the Van Akens' book:


In the Spring of 1973, I walked into a shack of a restaurant (even by Key West standards) and was handed a sea water–damp menu with items like turtle steak, jewfish chowder, fried bollos, tostones, guava milkshakes, and a meat dish, ropa vieja, that translated as “old clothes.” Coffee was served in plastic thimble-sized cups and called buches. A mix of customers sat around the counter that morning: two rummied out shrimpers eating large steaks piled high with onions; a triple-tinted sun-glassed, stiletto thin, tense young Latin man eating nothing and watching the harbor; a “hippie-till-I-die” Janis Joplin–twin Earth Mama with a dozing baby; one rock-solid, leather and laced police sergeant finishing a Marlboro and a cortadito (Cuban espresso); a few dead to the world cats; a woman (?), bearing multiple tattoos and a shaved head; and a grand old Miss Havisham-type gal, replete with a conch pink–colored parasol who offered to read my palm. As fate would have it, I sat down next to a gentle goateed mountain that I came to know as “Bud Man.” He offered me a job cooking ribs, Brunswick stew and chowder in an all-night, open-air barbecue joint about four blocks from the Gulf of Mexico, called The Midget.

Once I got started there, Bud Man introduced me to Bicycle Sammy, who had a voice raspier than Louis Armstrong’s. Sammy was trim, almost muscular, despite his 70 years of age and he did not suffer fools gladly. Sammy had a bicycle that was his statement. The basket was large enough to hold a box of plantains or a case of shrimp.

The horn was the size of a trumpet and could be heard from some distance. I worked the graveyard shift; Sammy’s followed mine. Every morning he would arrive just as the sun was coming up, sound his horn, park his “steed” and, dressed in freshly bleached and starched chef whites, take over his kitchen. Sammy taught me how to say things like “Adam and Eve on a raft, float ’em!” for poached eggs on toast or “Shipwreck!” for scrambled eggs.

From My Key West Kitchen: Letters and Stories (Kyle Books, 2012)