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Monday, December 2, 2013

National Fritters Day: Keys Fisheries Conch Fritter Recipe

Photo by Jing a Ling
Since today is National Fritters Day, I thought it would be an appropriate time to celebrate the popular Keys' delicacy--the conch fritter. No food is more synonymous with Keys heritage than the sweet meat of the queen conch. Conch became a staple food for the settlers of the Keys in the early 1800’s when people from the Bahamas began migrating here, bringing their love of the sea snail with them. The first people who called themselves “conchs” were British sympathizers who escaped to the Bahamas during the American Revolution proclaiming that rather than fight, they would eat conch. As their descendants made their way back to Key West, they brought the name with them. Conch takes three to five years to mature and grows to be about one foot long and five pounds. They live on sandy bottoms, among beds of seagrass in warm shallow tropical waters near coral reef habitats. Sadly, the snail was subject to overharvesting and was put on the endangered species list in the United States. Luckily, it's still available from the Caribbean islands. Celebrate National Fritters Day by whipping up a batch of conch fritters using this recipe from Keys Fisheries Market and Marina in Marathon:

  • 1 lb. ground Conch 
  • 1 cup Chopped Celery
  • 1 cup Chopped Peppers (Green and Yellow Mixed)
  • 1 cup Chopped Onion
  • 1/4 cup Ketchup
  • 3 tbsp. Oil
  • 3 Eggs
  • 2 tsp. Salt
  • 1/2 tsp. Black Pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. Tabasco
  • 1 tbs. Key Lime Juice
  • 1 tsp. Rosemary (Crush Before Adding)
  • 4 cloves Crushed Garlic
  • 2 tbs Chopped Parsley
  • 4 cups Pancake Mix
Add ingredients in the order listed and mix well. Spoon 1 inch size fritters into fryer with 365 degree oil until fritters are a deep brown. Makes about 3 dozen fritters. Fritter batter freezes well, but you must saute the onions prior to adding to the mixture if you intend to freeze the mix.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

M.E.A.T. Eatery and Taproom in Islamorada Update!

Update! M.E.A.T. has been nominated for the 2014 Burger Beast Burgie Awards. Take a minute to go vote for them. They've been nominate for best restaurant, best sausage and best chef.

M.E.A.T. Eatery and Taproom in Islamorada has quickly gained a loyal following with its “gourmet fast food.” The concept was cooked up by its owners, sommelier Tom Smith and chef George Patti. With his three new cherry wood smokers, Patti is like a mad scientist coming up with new gastro delights daily. His homemade duck sausage and porchetta topped with Guinness gravy make the A-list. Add a wide selection of craft beer, including 12 on tap, and organic wines, and you have a recipe for an adventurous meal. The intimate restaurant has the feeling of an ultra-modern pub with faux brick walls, gleaming silver chairs and a 20-foot-long bar. 

My dilemma was deciding what to order. I started with a pint of Fox Barrel Pacific Pear Cider, a refreshing brew with a sweet aroma. As Patti told me about the two-day process of making his pork rinds, I bit into one of the golden crisps. It was a light heavenly puff of pork and dangerously addictive. I followed with the juicy buttermilk fried chicken and savory duck fat-fried French fries. My curiosity was piqued by the carrot cake cupcake with foie gras cream cheese frosting — now that's something different — however, I opted for an adult milkshake instead. The Wells Banana Bread Beer from England blended with homemade vanilla bean ice cream proved to be the perfect finish to the delectable meal.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Tips for Creating Fantasy Fest Costumes in Style

Fantasy Fest is right around the corner with the Goombay Festival kicking things off on Friday, October 18. While the main theme is Superheroes, Villains and Beyond, the ten-day Halloween/Mardis Gras mash-up warrants multiple costumesFor Fantasy Fest veterans, this just means pulling their big box of outfits out of storage and shaking off the dust. For the uninitiated (or those who have simply procrastinated), here are some tips for creating costumes in style.

When planning, remember that there are at least 50 official events with their own themes like Captain Tony’s Party in Plaid, Sloppy Joe’s Toga Party and the Rum Barrel’s Pirate Bash. Dozens of other non-official parties pop up each year such as the Zombie Bike Ride and Tutu Tuesday.
You’ll even need an outfit for your feline and canine companions for the Pet Masquerade and Parade at Casa Marina Resort. A little effort may reap great rewards, as many of these events offer cash prizes for the best ensembles.
Since temperatures in Key West will still be in the 80s, less is more. Add in crowds that steadily grow throughout the week and the sweat factor keeps rising. By the day of the Captain Morgan Parade, expect to be rubbing elbows, literally, with estimates as high as 60,000 participants and spectators expected on Duval Street. Just a few of the things that don’t mix well with perspiration: water-based paint and double-stick tape.
While outright nudity is not allowed, you really can’t be too risqué. Body paint is de rigueur, and some of the top artists in the world travel to Fantasy Fest for the week. Research online, and go through their portfolios. It helps to send them your art design ideas and body type, and make an appointment in advance.
If body paint has turned your breasts into a work of art, you can only show your "canvas" in the designated Fantasy Zone. Bring a simple cover-up that's easy to throw on and off. There are families living in Old Town, who’ll appreciate your discretion. Keep in mind that restaurants may also ask you to put your assets away.
Festival organizers set up the Fantasy Zone on Friday, October 25 and Saturday, October 26. It runs down Duval Street from Front to South Streets and intersecting cross streets to Simonton and Whitehead Streets. Pink caution tape marks the zone boundaries.
If you are showing a lot of skin, consider wearing a mask—preferably one you can drink in. In this digital age where photos and videos go viral, think about protecting your identity. Do you really want to be tagged on Facebook later?
Constructing a more elaborate costume? Remember that bulkier outfits make it harder to walk through the crowds. Make sure you can easily drink, access your wallet and use the restroom. Revelers have even been known to include cup holders and battery-operated fans in their ensembles. Are you planning to carry cash inside a sweaty item of clothing? Be kind to the bartenders, and wrap the money in a Ziploc bag.
Whatever your outfit, wear comfortable shoes. You’re going to cover a lot of ground during the festival, so avoid high heels. You could end up with your feet hurting all night, and it’s not safe to go barefoot.
Shopping for costumes is easy at shops like Fairvilla Megastore (, a Fantasy Fest sponsor, which is open year-round. While they do sell adult items in the back, they also have an extensive selection of masks, head pieces, accessories and themed costumes from pirate wench to princess.
Each Fall, Fantasy Costumes opens in Searstown (305-294-1852). They’re stocked with all the body parts, scars and blood you’ll need for the Zombie Bike Ride, as well as a rainbow of tutus for Tutu Tuesday.
In the Upper Keys, Kmart is the go-to spot for their surprisingly large section of Halloween gear. Lion’s Lair Swimwear in Islamorada carries a more upscale collection of masquerade masks, hosiery and corsets along with complete costumes from mermaids to superheroes. Local thrift stores are also full of hidden treasures, but you’ll have to hunt for them.
If you wait until the very last minute, you might get lucky at some of the pop up costume shops like Outer Space ( Only open October 25-27, this outdoor garden will bring together Silver Key Lingerie, Where the Weird Go Pro and a body painting/makeup artist.
For more information, visit

This article previously appeared in L'Attitudes, Keynoter and Upper Keys Reporter.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Hot Tin Roof Brings Conch-Fusion to the Lunch Table in Key West

By popular demand, Ocean Key Resort and Spa’s waterfront restaurant, Hot Tin Roof, is now offering a lunch menu filled with conch-fusion dishes by new Chef de Cuisine, Jason Westphal. A combination of traditional Florida ingredients with Latin and Caribbean influences, his style of cooking lends itself to the warm tropical days in Key West...Read more.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

7 Insider Costume Tips for the Key West Fantasy Fest Parade

Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau
The Key West Fantasy Fest parade down Duval Street is one Florida party not to miss. If this outrageous Mardi Gras-style event is on your calendar, it’s time to start planning your costume now! Before you start getting creative, check out these dos and don’ts from some seasoned revelers.

BYO Costume: Don’t wait to buy your costume in Key West. If you procrastinate, be prepared to see at least 30 other people in the same outfit.

Less is More: Even though it’s October, don’t count on lower temps like the rest of the country. The average high in fall is 85 degrees. Add in 70,000 participants and spectators on Duval Street, and the sweat factor just keeps rising.

Be Camera Ready: If you decide to take a walk on the wild side and sign up for the body paint, consider wearing a mask. In this digital age where photos and videos can quickly go viral, think about protecting your identity.

Bodypaint? Bring a Coverup: If body paint has turned your breasts into a work of art, keep in mind that you can only show your "canvas" in the designated Fantasy Zone. Bring a simple coverup that's easy to throw on and off.

Secure Your Footing: You’re going to cover a lot of ground, so don’t wear high heels. You could end up with your feet hurting all night, and it’s not safe to go barefoot.

Comfort is Key: Wild and wacky costumes are great, but make sure you can drink, access your wallet and use the restroom easily.

Travel Light: You'll be moving in and out of the crowd, so the last thing you need is a large purse or bulky costume to slow you down.

Related Posts: 

Friday, August 30, 2013

Tropical Escape: Florida Keys Desktop Wallpaper

Dreaming about that island getaway while you're at work? Check out this Florida Keys desktop wallpaper from ISLANDS Magazine of an Islamorada Beach. Download this onto your computer for that "ahhh" moment to get you through until your next tropical escape. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Strolling the Conch Republic: Architecture Key West Walking Tour

Key WestStroll the lanes of Old Town Key West, a National historic district, under the canopy of gumbo-limbo and banyan trees, past white picket fences that hold back lush gardens of orchids, banana trees, pink hibiscus and red bougainvillea, and you’ll feel like you’ve lost yourself in the 19th century.
“Key West is special because we have so many single-family homes from around the 1800s that have been stringently preserved,” says Tom Hambright, historian for Key West’s Monroe County. “Walking around Old Town brings back memories of the ways that people lived.” A mix of cultures from the Bahamas, Cuba, Europe and the eastern seaboard of the United States has resulted in a unique blend of wooden architectural styles adapted to make the best of the tropical climate. “They added large porches, high ceilings, deep roofs, scuttles to ventilate the attics and louvered shutters,” Hambright notes.
Seaworthy One block off the bustle of Duval Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, folks gather regularly on the lower veranda of the Heritage House (410 Caroline Street) for a guided tour of the 1834 home that’s now a museum. The two-story, blue-green structure evokes the ocean and is a stately example of Classical Revival Conch, also called a Bahama House. “The home was originally built by shipbuilders, who also built many of the other historic homes on the island,” says the museum’s Karen Sadof. “They built sturdy vessels and in turn sturdy homes, which have stood the test of time.” Builders even salvaged wood from ships that wrecked on the reefs. “I’ve always said that shipbuilders were definitely the original recyclers,” Sadof says.
Hidden Gems Head right onto Duval and then left on Eaton Street to the Artist House (534 Eaton Street), built in 1887. In Queen Anne tradition, the octagonal turret soars three stories high. Look up, and you can almost see the well-known Florida artist and previous owner, Gene Otto, painting by the splendid light in that room.
As you walk down Eaton, the small lots and intimate spacing of the houses give you a sense of the close-knit community. The sun glistens off the metal roofs, which became common after several fires ravaged Old Town. Stop and look closely past the palm trees that partially obscure the unusual façade of the Richard Peacon House (712 Eaton Street), and you’ll see one of the two octagonal houses in Key West built in the 1890s.
Next you will find the imposing Freeman Curry House (724 Eaton Street), which was built in 1885. Although stark in its black-and-white color scheme, peek at the ceilings under the porches, which have been painted a surprising light blue. This was thought to keep wasps from making nests because the color mimicked the sky.
Weddings, Winks and Everything in Between On the right-hand corner as you cross Southard Street is the William Albury House (730 Southard Street). Despite having fallen into a bit of disrepair, architectural details, such as limestone piers that were used to anchor the home to the bedrock, are spectacular. These piers lifted homes three feet off the ground, which allowed cool air to circulate underneath the floorboards. During storms, the raging winds and high waters could also pass through easily. Walk around to the backside for an excellent example of a widow’s walk, which is a square fenced perch that provides a view over the city. The legend is that the wife would wait there for the return of her husband lost at sea.
As you make your way down the street, you’ll find the Edward Roberts House (643 William Street), where the second-floor windows look at you drowsily from under an extended eave. Built in the 1800s, this home boasts an architectural style unique to Key West; it’s called an “eyebrow” house due to the eaves that shade the upper story (and catch cool breezes). Make a right onto Windsor Lane and then another right on Elizabeth Street to find a frothy pink concoction of a house built by Benjamin Baker in 1872 (615 Elizabeth Street), often referred to as the Gingerbread House. Baker gave it to his daughter as a wedding present; the explosion of ornate Victorian-style millwork, including the balustrades, friezes and brackets, gives it the feel of a wedding cake.
Keys Handiwork Millwork, which Hambright says was added all over the island with no apparent rhyme or reason, became the rage during the latter part of the 19th century. “It was a way to make your house different from the other guy’s,” he says. Pick up a copy of The Pelican Path at the Chamber of Commerce for a self-guided tour. The 51 historical points of interest in the brochure are marked with pelican signage.

Originally published in Florida Travel + Life magazine

Related Posts: Photo Essay Exploring Key West Architecture

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory Adds Flamingo Duo

Photo by Rob O'Neal
It doesn't seem possible that the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory could add any more color to their already stunning collection of 800 butterflies and 37 species of birds, but their new residents--a pair of flamingos--certainly do the trick.The male and female duo round out the exhibit in the 5,000-square-foot glass-enclosed atrium located on Duval St. in Key West... Read More.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Photo Essay: Exploring Key West Architecture

It's hard to believe that so many distinct styles of architecture are present on the tiny island of Key West. You can find quaint conch houses, Victorian mansions and Civil War era forts just in Old Town, a U.S. historic district.

Homes like the Cypress House, built around 1886, showcase Bahamian architectural influences like window shutters that could be closed for protection during storms. 

The third-floor has eyebrow-style windows--the roof eaves extend below the top of the façade partially obscuring the windows. This construction shades the upper story of the house and catches cool breezes.

Cypress House is unique to the island, as it's the only property that has remained paint-free with a natural wood exterior.

With its Queen Anne-style turet, the 1896 Southernmost House is one of the most photographed buildings in Key West.

Its features include bay windows, a Tiffany stained glass canopy, decorative corner brackets, turned pillars and delicate balusters. 
The wrap-around porches offer a shady place to while away the hot summer days.

Decorative millwork is common throughout the island. Some styles were mass-produced, while others were custom made with symbols such as the owner’s initials or hints to their occupation. For example, the balustrades at the Speakeasy Inn feature bottles and card symbols--a not-so-subtle sign that drinking and gambling were available inside.
There are three Civil War-era forts in Key West--Fort Zachary Taylor, Fort East Martello and Fort West Martello. Fort Zach (as it is known by the locals) is a treasure trove of brick arches and galleries. 

If you head 70 miles offshore to the Dry Tortugas National Park, you'll be wowed by Fort Jefferson--America’s largest 19th-century fort on the isolated 16-acre Garden Key. The hexagonal fort was built using 16 million bricks in 1846, and it's easy to get lost in the honeycomb of 300 masonry arches and crumbling windows.

What's your favorite building in Key West? Let me know in the comments below.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Zac Brown Band Jumps Right into Islamorada

The Billboard topping country group, Zac Brown Band, recently released the video for their new song, "Jump Right In," and I was delighted to see a few of my fave Florida Keys spots. The band took over the tree-house-style tiki bar, Rumrunners, at Postcard Inn at Holiday Isle, as well as the gorgeous beach at Morada Bay Restaurant in Islamorada. In the bar, you'll spot the patrons drinking potent rumrunners, which were actually invented at Holiday Isle. In the spirit of product placement, they're also quaffing Land Shark, a beer from Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville Brewing. Perhaps a quid pro quo, since he appeared in one of their past videos, "Knee Deep?" Full of sand, palm trees, and tropical breezes, the locale looks like it could be anywhere in the Caribbean, but you can find it right here in the Keys.

Update: I finally tracked down the home of the hammock on the dock--the Moorings Village Resort, located right across the street from Morada Bay.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Top 10 Places to Shop Near the Cruise Port in Key West

Once you disembark from the cruise ship in Key West, find most likely find yourself in Mallory Square on the lower end of Duval Street. Duval is the main thoroughfare through historic Old Town and is about a mile of bars, restaurants and shops. The first few blocks you might feel overwhelmed with stores selling cheap knickknacks, “Cuban” cigars and $5 t-shirts. Just keep walking, and you’ll quickly find a rich variety of funky shops and boutiques that capture the authentic flavor of the island... Read more.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Fresh Catch: Chef Michael's in Islamorada

In September 2012, the sign for famed Chanticleer South Restaurant in Islamorada was suddenly hand-painted to read Gone Fishin’. The culinary rumor mill began to churn. The owner, chef Jean-Charles Berruet, had retired to enjoy his other passion, fishing. A series of mysterious and clever signs ensued like Aesop’s Table and Herondipity Café. In January, Chef Michael Ledwith hung his final shingle and opened Chef Michael’s, an American bistro with French flair. A long-time fixture on the Islamorada dining scene, last at Kaiyo Grill, Ledwith highlights the fresh local catch with eight different preparations on the menu. When I dined at the intimate 40-seat eatery, I popped back into the kitchen to say hello. “We usually know the source, the name of the captain and the way the fish was caught,” he said. 

The dining room was a soothing cream and chocolate palette highlighted with soft warm lighting. Business was brisk with a mix of well-heeled locals, winter residents and tourists. My knowledgeable waiter, Jared, guided me to the Ambassador preparation of mutton snapper. This generous serving of thick-cut fish was sautéed with blue crab, shitake mushrooms and capers and served with a Key lime-cream sauce. It melted in my mouth. A sip of Cartlidge & Browne Chardonnay, with its toasty oak tones, made for a strong finish. Dessert was a decadent six-layer spiced carrot cake with rich cream cheese frosting, topped with crunchy pecans, coconut and a drizzle of caramel. As I polished off my dessert, I spotted a head-turning braised lamb shank served at another table--next time. Chef Michael’s is located at mile marker 81.6 off U.S. Highway 1. Call 305-664-0640 for reservations.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Key West Insider's Travel Tips

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been to Key West, and every time I go, I discover something new. Over the years, I’ve noticed that it’s easy for visitors to focus solely on Duval Street and miss out on the island’s other charms. Check out these travel tips that will help you get the most out of your time in the Southernmost City.

Rent a bicycle and cruise the shady residential streets in Old Town. You’ll find a wealth of historic 19th-century conch houses and Victorian gems. Print a copy of the Pelican Path brochure filled with 51 historical points of interest.

Jump on the Conch Tour Train. If this is your first trip to Key West, the tour will give you an overview of the city’s rich history and highlight the areas of interest. You can make notes on the places you want to explore in-depth later.

Visit the Key West Cruise Ship Calendar. It tells you arrival and departure times, as well as the number of people on each ship. You’ll know what times to avoid Mallory Square and lower Duval, and if more than one ship is docking, that might be the day to schedule your on-the-water adventure. 

Have any questions? Send me a tweet @KeysClaudia or leave it in the comments below.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Supermoon Shines in the Florida Keys

While it was set to peak on Sunday, June 23rd, the "supermoon" did not disappoint stargazers Saturday night in the Florida Keys. I was on the docks in Islamorada where a small group had gathered after the sun went down. We watched over the Atlantic in anticipation, cameras at-the-ready, for the moon to rise above the horizon and a low bank of clouds. Also known as a perigee moon, it appeared 14% larger and 30% brighter, making it perfect for photo-ops. While you'll be able to spot another "supermoon" on July 22, it won't be this close again until August 10, 2014.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Peaceful Parasail over the Florida Keys

Photo by Craig Zabransky
As I floated on a rainbow parachute above the Florida Bay behind the Key Largo HiltonI got a birds-eye view of the Florida Keys. My first few minutes parasailing were spent with a white-knuckled grip on the straps, but soon, I simply forgot to be scared. Small puffy clouds decorated the azure sky, and I could see 20 miles in each direction.
To the west, the uninhabited islands and green mangrove nurseries dotted the Everglades National Park. To the east, I could see across the island of Key Largo to the expansive Atlantic Ocean. The skinny islands of the Keys were strung together in one long line. The shallow water below was a painting of abstract swirls, circles and stripes in a palette of aquamarine, indigo and powder blue. The water, lightly churned by the wind, had a soft opalescence, interrupted by the circular wake of the Caribbean Watersports boat.

It was so peaceful and quiet floating up in the clouds. I relaxed into the seat, swinging my legs back and forth like a kid. I laughed each time a gust of wind tugged me up, as if being pushed on a swing. Then, I would hang there, seemingly weightless. On the way back down to earth, I had a refreshing toe-dip like a fish skimming across the surface of the water. Sliding gently back onto the boat, the only thing I didn’t like about my time in the sky was that it was over too quickly.

Originally published on

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Florida Keys Sunset of the Week: Wind & Wine Cruise

I caught this on-the-water shot aboard the Danger Charters Wind & Wine Sail in Key West. The limited number of passengers and world-class wines make it my favorite sunset cruise in the Florida Keys. Coasting through Key West Harbor, you have plenty of opportunities for stunning silhouette shots. The main challenge: taking a steady picture on a moving boat!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Relax at the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory

Whenever I close my eyes and envision my “happy place,” it closely resembles the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory. I was enchanted when I entered the 5,000-square-foot glass-enclosed greenhouse tucked away at the southern end of Duval Street, the main drag in Key West's historic district. More than 800 butterflies fluttered merrily about the bright tropical blooms, accompanied by melodious birdsong and a splashing waterfall. Designed around a Victorian theme with a soaring 37-foot ceiling, a koi pond and a white gazebo, the garden was a natural theater with one small drama after another.
Two large Blue Morpho butterflies shimmered as they danced a circular mating path along the pebble-line stream. Turtles jockeyed for the best spot to sun themselves on the footbridge. A pair of candy-colored striped Lady Gouldian Finches puffed up their feathers in a brief territorial dispute among the branches of a Jatropha tree. I had to watch my step, as Painted Button quail, small brown-and-white balls of feathers, were underfoot along the winding brick path. Flitting from red powder-puff flowers to fuchsia impatiens, the butterflies stopped just long enough for a sip of nectar and a photo-op. An orange-and-black longwing butterfly landed on my toe, and a woman walking by commented, “When a butterfly lands on you, it means good luck.” The butterflies come to the conservatory from farms around the world in the chrysalis stage. I watched as they brought out some hatchlings, and a Blue Morpho made his first flight into a new world.

Originally published on

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Florida Keys Sunset of the Week: Tall Clouds

Living in the Florida Keys, all you have to do it look up at the sky to keep things in perspective. Because these dramatic storm clouds were moving in across the water, I chose to pull back for this sunset shot. Check out the size of the people on the dock on the lower right hand corner to get a feel for just how small we are in the face of Mother Nature.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Chefs Norman and Justin Van Aken at Father's Day Event

Father-and-son chef team, Norman and Justin Van Aken, have joined forces with Keys chef, George Patti, to host a Father's Day dinner at M.E.A.T. Eatery and Taproom in Islamorada. The creative menu will include alternating courses from each chef starting at 4 p.m. Sunday, June 16.

The Van Akens met Patti when they dined at M.E.A.T., and both said they bonded over a love of making chorizo from scratch. They were soon coming up with different ways to collaborate, and Father's Day seemed a perfect fit.

"We really enjoy George's gutsy, hip, pub fare," said Justin Van Aken. "He and I are both first-time fathers, and we'll have our dads in the house as well. The event is really going to be something special."

Norman Van Aken is known internationally as the "founding father of New World Cuisine." Currently, he is the chef and director of restaurants at the Miami Culinary Institute in Downtown Miami, and he is the chef-owner at NORMAN'S at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando. He is the only Floridian inducted into the prestigious James Beard list of "Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America."

Recently he co-wrote "My Key West Kitchen" with son Justin. Written as an homage to the multicultural cuisine in the Florida Keys, the cookbook features recipes inspired by some of their favorite people and eateries in Key West past and present.

At the Father's Day event, the duo will whip up several dishes from the cookbook such as Shrimp Po' Boy with hot sauce vinaigrette, fashioned after the dish at Half Shell Raw Bar in Key West.

"Like many things in the book, we eat something somewhere--like the Po' Boy at Half Shell or the pork chops at El Siboney--but we don't ask for a recipe," Norman Van Aken said. "We go home and try to recreate it somewhat faithfully and somewhat with the Van Aken spin."

They'll also be serving the unique Milk-Braised Pork Tacos with quick-pickled red onions, which was originally inspired by an Italian recipe.

"You don't normally think of braising in milk," Van Aken said. "You'd think that it would separate and break down, and that's exactly what happens. It does separate, but the sweetness of the milk becomes almost like a flan in a way. The pork becomes quite moist and delicious."

Patti, the chef/owner at M.E.A.T. and Tasters Grille and Market in Tavernier, will serve some of his specialties like lobster empanadas and homemade chorizo sliders. He will also put a spin on chicken and waffles by doing a Chicken Fried Quail and Waffles with a maple syrup gastrique.

Known for its "gourmet fast food" concept, M.E.A.T. has gained a loyal following, especially for savory items like bacon and porchetta that Patti cooks up in his cherry wood smokers. The restaurant has been garnering media accolades such as being named one of the top five best new restaurants in the Keys on and highlighted in Florida Travel and Life Magazine for their duck fat-fried French fries.

Beer expert, Rich Abrams from MicroMan distributing, will pair each course with an array of five craft beers. "We'll be using regular craft beers, as well as seasonal drafts," said Patti. "It's just like you're pairing wine, and I like a yin and yang approach. If a beer is sweet, pair it with spicy food, and if the beer is bitter, it gets sweet food."

Nutella-and-Guinness Adult Milkshake Shooters by Patti and a Georgia Peach and Pecan crisp with Sour Cream-Vanilla Ice Cream by Justin Van Akin will top off the meal. The Van Akens will also be on-hand to sign copies of "My Key West Kitchen."

M.E.A.T. Eatery and Taproom is located at mile marker 88 Oceanside in Islamorada. The event is $80 per person. Limited seating is available, so reservations are required. Call 305-852-3833 for more information.

Originally published in L'Attitudes in the Keynoter and Upper Keys Reporter.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Florida Keys Sunset of the Week: Honeymooners at Sea

My favorite time of day in the Florida Keys is sunset, and each one is always unique. Every Sunday, I will share with you my favorite sunset of the week. This one I snapped on the Danger Charters Wind & Wine Cruise of a lovely couple from Holland who were in Key West on their honeymoon. As the sun was putting on its colorful show, I yelled across the boat at them, "Kiss! You'll thank me later!"

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Key Lime Pie, Florida's Slice of Heaven


A quintessential Florida Keys experience, indulging in a slice of refreshing Key lime pie is on every visitor’s to-do list.

“Key lime pie is our number-one seller,” says Angie Wittke, who owns Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen in Key Largo. “People walk in and say, ‘We’re here for the pie.’” 

Finish reading at Visit Florida....

Friday, May 17, 2013

Co-hosting the #FriFotos Fun!

Today I'm taking a break from strictly covering all things Florida Keys and will be sharing amazing photos from people all over the world! I'm excited to be a guest co-host of the #FriFotos Twitter event, which happens all day each Friday. It's one of my favorite events on Twitter, and I'll share some of the best photos throughout the day here in this blog post. If you've never participated before, you can check out the guidelines for more information. Each week there is a different theme, which can usually be interpreted in all kinds of creative ways. Today's theme is "steps," and I can't wait to see what people come up with!

UPDATE Even more great images:

Eric Larsen @ELexplore posted these tiny baby turtles making their first steps!

Embedded image permalink

Love the local color on the steps of Plaza de Espana in Seville by @ebdoherty.

Roseate spoonbill is my favorite bird! Awesome shot by Annette Baesel @abaesel2 of this little critter taking a walk one step at a time. Eckerd College, St. Pete, Florida.

Now we're talking some serious steps with this pic by AntiTouristTraveler @AntiTourist. Getting water from a well in India.

Or these steps to enlightenment by Laura Bly @LauraBly ‏of Bumthang, Bhustan.

And a completely different take on steps with a young child's tentative steps in the water, Kotu Beach, The Gambia by Kathryn Burrington @TravelWithKat.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Paintings of the Key Largo 'Hermit'

Originally published in Keys Sunday

Artist found ideal canvas in the Upper Keys

In 1992, collectibles dealer Chuck Faulkner made an unusual discovery in a bag that was discarded from a storage unit in Kissimmee. It was filled with close to 170 paintings by Harry J. Sonntag, who was also known as the “Hermit Artist of Key Largo.”

The woman who had cleaned out the unit said she and her husband had found the bag under a bed in a rooming house in St. Thomas in 1960.
Faulkner was intrigued by the artwork, as well as the photos of the artist and newspaper clippings from the Miami News dated 1952, ’53, and ’54 that were also in the bag. He began to do some digging into the life of the artist and brought the collection back to Key Largo.
“When you open up a bag of artwork that somebody is ready to throw away and find this guy’s life just laid out there, you realize that there’s a person there and a story to be told,” Faulkner said.
In July 2000, four pieces of art and a history board about Sonntag were displayed at the City Hall in Kissimmee. Soon after, a local woman, Lyda Hadley, contacted Faulkner and told him that she knew Sonntag in the 1950s in the Keys. She gave him photos of Sonntag working in his studio, at his gallery and at his home tending the garden. She also passed on a signed watercolor and an essay that she did on Sonntag for a creative writing class in 1952.
Sonntag was born in Astoria, N.Y., on Oct. 12, 1900. When he was 16 he started his art studies in New York City at the Pratt Institute and later at the Art Students League. He left New York in the ’40s because he felt like the artists were copying each other’s styles and there were no fresh ideas.
“He didn’t want any influence, so the only way to not have any influence was to get away from artists altogether,” Faulkner said.
For almost 10 years he traveled around the United States, visiting New England, Arizona, California and Washington. He lived in the Devil’s Lake area of Wisconsin for three years before settling in Key Largo in 1948 or 1949.
Sonntag built a wooden shack from driftwood and other debris down by the bay near Rock Harbor. He grew a garden and lived off the land, and fishermen would often throw him a fish or a turtle to eat. Faulkner said that he talked to locals who recalled that Sonntag always had a fire going, so he could use the smoke to cover his body and keep off the mosquitoes.
In Hadley’s essay, she paints an interesting picture of how Sonntag viewed his place in nature. When she was visiting him, he called a pelican that was always around his camp his “guardian angel.”
“Whenever I’m hungry, she comes along and shows me right where the fish are,” he said.
When a hurricane was approaching the Keys, Hadley tried to persuade him to come to Miami, but he wouldn’t budge. He said, “No, this is my place here, with nature, and nature will take care of me. The old pelican is not going to Miami, why should I?”
When she returned to the Keys after the storm, the area was demolished, but the pelican was still there sitting on a rock, basking in the sun with Sonntag nearby cooking fish.
Sonntag took over an abandoned key lime packing shed along U.S. 1, where Anthony’s clothing store is today, and converted it into the Key Largo Art Gallery. It was one of the first art galleries in the Keys.
He painted what he saw around him every day using vivid watercolor paints and fluid brushstrokes. He often portrayed the local fishermen at work and the natural scenery, creating a visual history of the Keys during that time. Faulkner said that some of the works had prices on the back that ranged from $55 to $65.
Many of the works in the collection portray places that are recognizable like the waterfront of Rock Harbor, which was known for its commercial and private fishing, as well as the Mandalay. He also painted Rusty’s, which was a bait and tackle shop on Tavernier Creek near the bridge and the Upper Keys Sailing Club. While he was at an art show in Key West, he even painted the street where he was selling his works.
In 1952, Sonntag told the Miami News, “Art is the universal language, and my desire is to bring beauty to the multitude so people may realize how lovely is this world.”

In 1955, the Key Largo Art Gallery burned, and Sonntag told everyone that his life’s work was in the building. But Faulkner has photos of the gallery’s interior that shows many of the paintings now in Faulkner’s collection, so the collector knows that wasn’t true.
An article ran in a Homestead newspaper with a headline that said, “Famous art gallery destroyed by fire Saturday.” Faulkner didn’t find out about the gallery burning until about five years ago, when historian Jerry Wilkinson found that article while doing research.
After his gallery burned down, Sonntag moved to the Virgin Islands, and Faulkner has several works from his stay there, which came with the other paintings. Sonntag then went on to St. Petersburg, where he died in 1991, just one year before the collection was found. Faulkner has found no other works by the artist.
“I wonder if he was sitting in St. Pete frustrated and asking what happened to this art,” Faulkner said. “Did it get thrown away? Did it get destroyed? And it was sitting only 70 miles away in a storage unit.”
It is fitting that Sonntag’s works are now on display at the current Key Largo Art Gallery. Faulkner is selling prints from the collection, but he has not sold any originals. His goal is to keep the works together and find them a home where their historical value will be highlighted.
“This story needed to be told, and this work needed to be seen down here,” Faulkner said. “It’s part of this history.”

Friday, May 10, 2013

Sunset with a Side of Blues at Bayside Grille in Key Largo

At Bayside Grille in Key Largo, you can get a slice of orange sunset with a side of blues. If you haven't checked out the amazing new beach at this property, you're missing out on one of the best sunset spots in the Florida Keys with stunning views and fab bartenders. Added to the toes-in-the-sand experience is a full schedule of world-class Blues musicians like Mac Arnold & Full Plate O' Blues.

This week, we listened to Mac jam with his gritty Chicago sound as the sun gave us not one, but three outstanding looks. The clouds worked in our favor first towering over the crowds in a dramatic arch.

Then, the fiery ball began to descend into a dark bank of clouds, positioned perfectly to catch the sinking orb.

Mac called Kim, bartender and conch-blower extraordinaire, onto the stage for the final blow to sound the end of the day, but Kim knew the sunset wasn't over yet. She pointed to the sky just as a huge pink ball dropped below the dark clouds. Everyone stopped to watch, including the band for the very few last minutes of surprising color. Then, Kim blew the conch shell, and after a hearty round of applause, the party was back on.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Curtain rises on Bogart Film Festival in Key Largo

Originally published in L'Attitudes section of the Upper Keys Reporter and Keynoter.

Curtain rises on Bogart Film Festival

Here's looking at you, Key Largo. On Thursday, May 2 cinephiles from around the world will flock to the Upper Keys for the inaugural Humphrey Bogart Film Festival.

Hosted by Stephen Humphrey Bogart, the son of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the four-day festival will feature a cocktail party, 38 film screenings, workshops, a memorabilia exhibit, rides on the original African Queen and a formal ball. Film critic, Leonard Maltin, will appear as a special guest.

The festival opens on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. with a cocktail reception and an outdoor screening of Key Largo at the bayfront Murray Nelson Cultural Center. Bogart and Maltin will be on hand for the opening remarks. Maltin said that he became involved with the festival because Bogart is his "all-time favorite actor."

In addition to putting Key Largo on the map as a tourist destination, the 1948 movie is the fourth and final film that Bogie and Bacall made together, showcasing their legendary on- and off-screen chemistry.

"Key Largo has a strong storyline and a great cast, working under the direction of John Huston," said Maltin. "It deals with such timeless subjects as power, ambition, and integrity."

The festival theme is film noir, a genre in which Bogart excelled during Hollywood's classic noir period of the 40s and 50s. Screenings will include 10 Bogart films and 10 other iconic films within the genre. Additional venues include Tavernier Cinema 5, Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Key Largo Bay Marriot Beach Resort, Hilton Key Largo Resort and Founders Park.

"We have a great slate of movies," said Bogart. "My father worked for Warner Brothers for a long time, so they've given us access to a lot of films."

On Friday night, fans can choose between two outdoor double features. Event coordinator Suzanne Holmquist said that the Bogart Family Estate pushed for the outdoor screenings in order to highlight the tropical beauty that makes Key Largo a unique destination.

At 8:15 p.m. "The Maltese Falcon," Bogart's original hardboiled detective Sam Spade, and "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," Bogart as a down-on-his luck prospector in Mexico, will be shown at Founders Park. Maltin will introduce the films.

At 9 p.m. "The African Queen," Bogart's only Oscar-winning role as steamboat captain Charlie Allnutt, and "Casablanca," the actor's first real romantic lead as Rick Blaine, will screen at the Murray Nelson Center. Bogart will provide the introduction.

Sue Woltanski of Tavernier said that she plans on making the screenings a family affair. "I'm hoping to introduce my kids to these classic films," she said. "Living in the Keys, I feel they should see 'African Queen' and 'Key Largo.' Black-and-white films are so much better on the big screen. I don't think watching the videos at home will have quite the same impact."

Saturday, May 4 is packed with special events in addition to movie screenings and two more outdoor double features. At 10 a.m. inside the Murray Nelson Center, critically-acclaimed documentary film director, Billy Corben, will discuss his cult classics like "Cocaine Cowboys," as well his features for ESPN, The U and Broke.

"Billy Corben is a dynamic character, and he'll share behind the scenes information and clips that haven't been seen yet from his projects," Holmquist said.

At 12:30 p.m. at the Holiday Inn, Bogart and Maltin will discuss Bogie's life and career. They will also share the stories behind memorabilia items on exhibit such as letters, signed contracts, movie posters and awards.

At the Holiday Inn docks, people will be able to book trips on the recently restored African Queen, the boat featured in the namesake movie. Stephen Bogart recently took his first voyage.

"It was fun to sit in the same spot as my father and Katharine Hepburn," he said. "It's something that everyone can do that was really part of cinema history."

At 6 p.m. the Casablanca-themed Bogart Ball at the Hilton Key Largo Resort will include a red carpet cocktail reception in a casino setting, a Moroccan-themed dinner and dancing. Maltin will give a presentation on the actor's trademark persona - the cynic with a noble side.

"Bogart played anti-heroes so well-and that kind of character never goes out of style," Maltin said. "In his best roles he projected a kind of honesty that's very appealing."

The festival was made possible by a joint effort between the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce and the Bogart Family Estate, and according to Craig Cope, chamber president, they have already sold tickets in 27 different states and six foreign countries.

Georgia Lagounaris from Australia has been a passionate Bogie fan for over 42 years, and she decided to make the long journey to Key Largo when she saw the festival details on Facebook. "I knew this would be like a dream come true," she said. "To be with other die-hard Bogart fans and Stephen Bogart was too good an opportunity to miss, and I understand that the Florida Keys are incredibly beautiful. I'm looking forward to the Bogart Ball the most, but whenever I think about just being there at any of the events, my excitement level goes straight through the roof."

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Key West Songwriters Fest is Smokin' May 1-5

Get ready Key West, Country's comin' to town. The annual pilgrimage of Nashville's finest songwriters to the Southernmost City begins on Wednesday, May 1 for the 2013 Smokin' Tuna 18th Annual Key West Songwriters Festival presented by BMI.

The largest of its kind in the world, the festival draws more than 100 top songwriters and up to 10,000 audience members each year.

Five days and nights will be filled with more than 40 free shows, staged at an array of the island's most popular watering holes, resorts and hot spots where the artists will share the stories behind their well-known songs.

Sara Haze, whose song "Moonshine" was recently featured on the Safe Haven soundtrack, was a newbie at the festival last year and said that there's a buzz about the event in the Music City.

"I feel like all of Nashville takes off that week to go to Key West," she said. "Everyone is rocking flip flops and drinking piña coladas at 2 p.m. It's definitely a more casual atmosphere, and it's a great bonding experience for the songwriters. We're always sitting in rooms and writing with each other, but here we're out on a beach or snorkeling."

The festival had a modest debut in 1995, but when Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) stepped in as a partner and sponsor the following year, the event began to blossom.

"BMI helped bring a lot more writers down every year," said Charlie Bauer, who is the festival founder and director as well as the managing partner of Smokin' Tuna Saloon. "They have been instrumental in making the event grow."

He added that in addition to the artists, more industry people are attending the festival.

"The past few years it's become almost like a South by Southwest. Key industry people are coming down--record labels and publishers."

The festival gained even more notoriety in 2003 when producer Greg Travis featured the weekend on his television show Country Music Across America, which aired on Great American Country (GAC). They've filmed at the festival each year, and in 2009, Storme Warren, the host of GAC's Headline Country, took over coverage of the event.

Some of the performers have been coming to Key West over 16 years in a row and have developed their own fan base at the festival.

"The fan base builds every year because they get to know these writers on a more intimate level," Bauer said. "It's just grown on both ends--the fans that come down to see the performances and the performers themselves."

Jan Wang from Islamorada said that she enjoys attending the festival for the diversity of music, as well as the interaction with the songwriters.

"We get to experience music in a small intimate setting that we usually can only get at a big concert venue, and it's different from the island style music down here," she said. "We also enjoy meeting the musicians."

This year, critically acclaimed young blues journeyman Gary Clark, Jr., who recently appeared on the "Tonight Show" with Jay Leno and the "Late Show" with David Letterman, will headline the festival's official kick-off party. It will be on Wednesday, May 1, at 6 p.m. on the Sunset Pier at the Ocean Key Resort.

"We've got a little something different this year with Gary Clark Jr." said Bauer. "He's a major blues artist right now. He's been touring with Eric Clapton, and we're so excited to have him."

A free street concert at 7 p.m. on Saturday, May 4, will fill the 200 block of Duval Street with the sounds of the six-man country-rock band Bush Hawg, singer/songwriter Joanna Smith and X-Factor winner Tate Stevens.

The rest of the weekend is jam packed with concerts by performers like the original Blues Brother, Steve Cropper, who's known for such classics as "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" and "Knock on Wood."

Grammy nominee, James Slater, who wrote "In My Daughter's Eyes" recorded by Martina McBride, will be on hand to sing Key West's official song, "Key West Address" and more. Also expect country hit-writers Jeffrey Steele, Paul Overstreet, Bob DiPiero, Lori McKenna, Bobby Pinson, Keith Stegall, Liz Rose, Paul Jenkins, Doug Johnson and Even Stevens, as well as revered Texas singer/songwriter Robert EarlKeen.

The power-trio, The World Famous Headliners, made up of chart topping writers and musicians PatMcLaughlin, Shawn Camp and Al Anderson and top-flight guitarist and songwriter Guthrie Trapp are some additional highlights.

Chuck Cannon at 2012 Festival
Known for the 90s hit "I Love the Way You Love Me," songwriter Chuck Cannon has attended the festival since the early days. He cautioned that while many of the artists are known for country music, the festival transcends genres.

"We have to be really careful when we talk about genres," he said. "The vast majority of songwriters will tell you they just write songs. When you put it to synthesizers and extremely processed lead guitars, that's going to make that song a pop song. But you wrap twin fiddles and steel guitar around it, and it's going to be a country song."

Haze, who is currently working on a new record with Gammy Award-winning producer, Paul Worley, said that the festival is an opportunity for audiences to hear new songs that haven't been released yet.

"We can test out new material and see what connects with the audience," she said. "We can navigate certain songs for our record and maybe take certain songs off. The festival is also a really good way for people to get to know songwriters before the rest of the world does."

Originally published in L'Attitudes section of the Upper Keys Reporter and Keynoter.