The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

On The Table

June 20, 2012

Key cuisine: Chefs follow tourists to vacation spot

JOPLIN, Mo. — When it comes to variety, let’s just say that the Key West, Fla., cuisine has come a long way since the days when the menu choices were seafood and more seafood.

In her book “The Florida Keys Cookbook,” travel and food journalist Victoria Shearer explains that because of their remote location, early residents of the Florida Keys had to survive on what they could gather locally. Much of that gathering took place in the warm Atlantic and Gulf Coast waters. Snapper, grouper, yellowtail, shrimp, lobster, crab and conch were common foods, along with the then-abundant sea turtles and an occasional deer.

But as more and more people discovered the Keys, such as the Spanish in the 1500s and the English in the 1600s, Key West food began to evolve. The island’s proximity to Cuba Ñ just 90 nautical miles south of Key West Ñ resulted in foods prepared with a Cuban flair. In the 1800s, the influx of Bahamians, descendants of English settlers who fled to the Bahamas during the American Revolution, brought with them the spices and flavor of the islands.

As a result, by the early 1900s, Key West food Ñ called “conch cuisine” Ñ took on a blend of English-Bahamian and Spanish-Cuban cooking. The result was spicy, flavorful food, which was important because even in the early 1900s locals were pretty much dependent on foods native to the area.

All of that changed in 1912 when Henry Flager built the first railway into the Keys. Known as “Flager’s Folly,” because many believed such a railway couldn’t be built, the railroad opened up the Keys to a host of outside foods, fruits and vegetables. However, in 1935 the island was again isolated after the rail line was destroyed in a hurricane.

It took until World War II before Key West was fully opened. The military, seeing the Keys as a strategic Navy base, poured millions of dollars into the island. It oversaw the construction of the Overseas Highway, which links the Keys to mainland Florida.

With a clear route to the Keys, tourists began flocking into Key West, and with them came a number of talented and creative chefs to serve those tourists.

Today it’s possible to walk the streets of Key West and sample foods from literally around the world. In the mood for Cuban food? For a sample, you can try the ropa vieja or a big bowl of paella at El Siboney, a locally owned Cuban restaurant located at 900 Catherine St.

For a taste of the laid-back, funky Key West attitude, you can stop in at the Blue Heaven, 729 Thomas St. The restaurant, founded in the early 1980s by two self-described free spirit baby boomers, has become a favorite of locals and tourists alike. Jimmy Buffet immortalized the restaurant in the song “Blue Heaven Rendezvous” in the early 1990s. Eclectic is the best word to describe the menu at Blue Heaven. Seafood, of course, is a part of the menu, but so are items like wild boar short ribs and carrot and curry soup.

The now upscale Louie’s Backyard, 700 Waddell Ave., first opened in 1971 as a restaurant and bar that seated 12 and had one lone waiter. In the early 1970s, Buffett rented an apartment next to the restaurant. In fact, Louie’s Backyard is the bar Buffett “stumbled next door to” in the song “Trying or Reason with a Hurricane Season”.

The restaurant greatly expanded in the early 1980s and now specializes in fine dining while still holding onto traditional Key West cooking styles.

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