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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.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Key West History with a Side of Rum at Speakeasy Inn

image-speakeasy inn bahama bob photo edit verticle

Originally published on

Intricate gingerbread millwork is one of the more intriguing features of Key West architecture. Most of the patterns are abstract and strictly decorative, but if you visit the Speakeasy Inn at 1117 Duval Street, take a closer look. The elaborately carved porch balustrade features bottle shapes, as well as the spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs from Spanish playing cards. (Enlarge the photo to the right, and watch the shapes appear like an optical illusion.) During Prohibition, rumrunner Raul Vasquez brought the piece back from Cuba instead of his usual load of liquor — much to his wife’s dismay. He wanted a subtle way to advertise the speakeasy he ran behind his home called the Florence Club. The card symbols also indicated that there was gambling on the premises. 

The small club only had a shelf with bottles of liquor, eight chairs and a bench that had been moved inside from the street. If Vasquez was away, customers could come help themselves and write on a white marble slab what they had consumed. They would pay up later, and no one ever stole a single bottle. At the front of the building today you’ll find the Rum Bar carrying on the tradition of serving up quality spirits. Stop in and visit bartender and resident rum expert, Bahama Bob, and sample rums from the era. Settle in for some great stories about the colorful characters, who ran amok on the island during that era. Ask him about Key West’s very own gang of bootleggers called the Pelicans.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Luscious Key Lime Pie at Hot Tin Roof Key West

Originally published on
I’ve had my share of Key lime pie; it’s the quintessential Florida Keys dessert. The luscious version at Hot Tin Roof Restaurant in Key West just shot to the top of my short list of favorites. I was hooked at first bite. Executive chef Brendan Mica has mastered the delicate balance between sweet and tart in a smooth creamy filling. No small feat! In a creative twist, crushed cashews add a light crunch and a nutty flavor to the graham cracker crust. For a topping, he’s solidly in the whipped cream camp (as opposed to meringue) with a light layer spread atop the generous slice. Even the presentation impresses with a dusting of cinnamon in the shape of a palm tree on the plate. Dining alfresco on their patio only adds to the experience. The sounds of Jimmy Buffett classics waft up from the band on Sunset Pier, as boats ply the aquamarine waters in the harbor. Perfect Key lime pie with a view? Who could ask for anything more?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Five-Star State Parks: Bahia Honda Florida Keys

In honor of the Florida State Parks System’s 75th anniversary, we head outdoors, FT+L-style. As it turns out, roughing it is — thankfully — not what it used to be. 

Photo by Claudia Miller
Bahia Honda Park 
Big Pine Key 

BASICS: Between Marathon and Key West, Bahia Honda consistently ranks as one of the best beaches in the United States thanks to its sandy shores and crystalline waters in the shadow of Henry Flagler’s ill-fated railroad. 

STAY: Hidden on the north side of the park are six two-bedroom cabins on stilts that afford striking bay views. Sleeping up to six, they’re furnished with the basics, including air conditioning, a full kitchen and a waterside grill, but it’s the view that’s the real star here. Prepare for fierce competition from return guests who stalk these rooms year-round. No TV, phone or Wi-Fi welcome. 

PLAY: Do some recon to see which of the beaches here suits your mood. Sandspur is our fave, with its isolated wide shoreline and sea-oat-covered dunes—a rarity in the Keys. Low tide is prime time on Loggerhead, revealing long sandbars where you can walk hundreds of feet from shore. 

DIVE: Take the ranger-led tour out to the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, part of the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States. Brightly colored corals provide a backdrop for angelfish, hogfish and snapper, as well as camouflaged critters like grouper, horseshoe crabs, stingrays and moray eels. You can easily find yourself surrounded by a school of yellow and black sergeant majors or eye to eye with a four-foot barracuda. 

DINE: Take a quick jaunt back over the Seven Mile Bridge to Marathon for dinner at Lazy Days, known for chef Lupe’s signature fresh catch encrusted with bread crumbs, sautéed and topped with tomatoes, scallions, Parmesan and Key-lime butter. The waterfront view is lauded as one of the best in town. 

DON’T MISS: Hike through one of the two remaining natural habitats of the endangered Miami blue butterfly to the top of the Old Bahia Honda Bridge. Offering a unique view of a vertical section of Flagler’s railroad, which was destroyed in the 1935 hurricane, it’s the perfect panoramic perch for sunset.

Originally published in Florida Travel + Life magazine

Monday, April 8, 2013

Key West Street Art, the Mystery Blob, Gains Fans

Resembling an abstract SpongeBob SquarePants on acid, the Key West Mystery Blob, started out as a small street art project but has quickly gained a loyal following. Two years ago, the whimsical character began popping up around the island on unexpected spots like lamp posts, sides of buildings, fire hydrants, street signs and dumpsters, and he was always doing something unexpected. The Blob’s been spotted suited up for snorkeling, dressed like Charlie Chapman, riding a dragon, drinking beer, defusing a bomb and getting arrested. There have been over 500 Blob installations made with a technique called wheat pasting. Thin paper is pasted onto a surface with corn starch and water, eventually to be worn away by the weather.

Most cities would consider the Blob graffiti, but this is the fun and funky Key West we’re talking about. While there are some naysayers, many of the locals have embraced the character, especially children. It’s become a popular activity to hunt down and photograph the critter and post his location on the Blob’s Facebook Page. Yep, the Blob has his own Facebook page with over 1200 followers. You might say he’s even becoming a bit of a mascot. Visitors have become hip to the phenomenon and set up their own Blob walks or rides, as a sort of scavenger hunt. Local businesses even got in on the action. Harpoon Harry’s installed a gigantic Blob at Christmas on their roof; he wore a sailor hat and had a contingent of joyful penguins. In June, he had his own successful art show at Art Space Gallery, and now he’s started a Kickstarter project to raise funds to produce a book of Blob drawings. One of the most impressive feats--the artist has managed to stay anonymous all this time.

Originally published on

Best Cuban Food in Key West

You have to get off the beaten path in Key West for some of the island's best Cuban food. Navigating the residential neighborhoods, I came upon El Siboney on the corner of Catherine and Margaret streets. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it red brick building was bustling with the local lunch crowd and a healthy dose of visitors in the know. Although I was welcomed by a hearty greeting in English, a mélange of languages from Spanish to Japanese filled the air. I was quickly seated at a simple diner-style table covered in a chili pepper-patterned tablecloth. Photos of Cuba and a life-size wooden Indian — a nod to the namesake Cuban tribe — served as décor. 

The waitress brought out a basket of fresh Cuban bread, and I tore into the addictive crispy slices. The warm puffy center was slathered in melted butter, and I was in heaven. I barely looked at the menu, as the roast pork sandwich is my usual. It came with two lime wedges on the side to squeeze onto the moist pork, bringing out the garlic and citrus flavors of the mojo marinade. A side plate overflowing with fried plantains was so sweet, I didn’t even need dessert. 

Originally published on

Hemingway Cats in Key West Lose Lawsuit

Photo by Chris Lee
Last month the Hemingway Home and Museum lost a decade long legal battle with the U.S. government, giving the U.S. Department of Agriculture authority to regulate the famous resident six-toed cats. The USDA argued that the 40 to 50 cats roaming the property had more in common with performers in a zoo or circus  than your regular house cat. Now the museum is required to get a Federal Animal Welfare License and adhere to any restrictions that come with it. That left me wondering. Have they actually seen the cats in action — or should I say inaction? When I visited the two-story Hemingway Home, the cats had free reign of the one-acre grounds. They lounged under the shade of tropical fruit trees and sipped water at the urinal-turned-fountain from the original Sloppy Joe’s. Exhibiting the same ambivalence that I’ve seen in most house cats, they stopped for a petting if, and when, they felt like it.

Many of the cats are descendants of Snowball, who legend says was the first six-toed cat given to Ernest Hemingway by a ship’s captain sometime during the '30s. The felines seem to take their lineage seriously, regally doing as they please, and they’ve all been named after famous people. During the tour of the home’s interior, a black-and-white kitty named Greta Garbo dozed atop a glass display case full of Papa's memorabilia. As we entered Hemingway’s bedroom, a tan-and-white puss named Fats Waller jumped up on the antique bed and looked expectantly at the tour guide, who reflexively reached in his pocket for a bag of treats. After his snack, the cat gave a big yawn and stretched out on the bed for a snooze. When you visit, spend some time observing these furry felines.


Sculpture Key West Transforms Fort Zachary into an Art Gallery

image-sculpture key west with people by emily sorkinThe 17th Annual Sculpture Key West exhibition has transformed Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park into an outdoor art gallery. With the Civil War-era fort and crystal-clear waters of the Atlantic Ocean as a backdrop, the 13 large-scale sculptures by artists from around the country are truly interactive with their environment. Many of the pieces along the sandy beach change with the landscape, weather and time of day. As I walked along the path beside the shipping channel, a towering cruise ship glided past, adding extreme contrast to works like Tebelio Diaz’s Flotilla. His collection of rafts cobbled together using found materials tell the story of the mass Cuban migration during the Mariel boatlift in the 1980s.
I climbed to the top of the fort for a more comprehensive view of some of the larger sculptures like Bill Wood’s Dense Pack Park and Jiwan Noah Singh’s Home. Using 32 20-inch polished aluminum discs, Wood creates a highly concentrated field of light and reflection, which brings the blue sky down to earth. The intricate spiral pattern of Singh’s geometric wood stacked sculpture also takes shape from afar. The representational piece references his childhood during the construction of the nearby Truman Annex neighborhood. Whether on foot, bicycle, WaveRunner or boat this exhibit should be on your Key West must-see list. Two other venues for Sculpture Key West include West Martello Tower and Higgs Beach, and the installations will be on exhibit through March 23.

Tour Kona Kai's Botanic Gardens in Key Largo

Joe and Ronnie Harris, 20-year owners of Kona Kai Resort in Key Largo, have taken landscaping to a new level. They’ve transformed the resort's grounds into a botanic garden with more than 250 tropical species. The focus is on ethnobotany — the interactions between plants and people. I recently joined resident ethnobotanist, Rick Hederstrom, for a 90-minute tour through the property, which overlooks the Everglades National Park. With his engaging manner, Hederstrom combines science, botany and history with a solid dose of humor. Engaging all the senses, we touched the dry Spanish moss and leathery banana leaves. We smelled sweet Arabian jasmine and citrusy pomelo blooms and heard the ocean waves lapping the shore as squirrels, butterflies, lizards and birds bustled about the garden. Groundskeeper Veronika Milar climbed a ladder to pluck small, ripe red berries from the Jamaican cherry tree. They tasted like cotton candy.

Hederstrom led us to pineapples (see photo), which turn red in the middle of their 12- to 20-month growth cycle. My award for best-named plant went to the Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow tree, with blooms that change from purple to lavender and then white. The head-turner was the Blue Tango bromeliad, a vivid cobalt blue with hot pink stems. I now understand why some guests plan their vacation around what’s blooming in the garden. Joan Riley, visiting from New York, couldn't have said it better, “There are a lot of passionate flowers in this garden.”

Originally published on

Why You Need an Anti-Vulture Kit in the Everglades

Why You Need an Anti-Vulture Kit in the Everglades

January 3rd, 2013
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Vulture Warning Sign in the Everglades
Photo by Claudia Miller
Alfred Hitchcock would have been impressed. Migrating vultures, which winter in the Everglades National Park, seem to be reenacting scenes from The Birds. They flock in the parking lots and attack cars, trucks and trailers, feeding their recently developed taste for rubber and vinyl — think windshield wipers, sunroof seals, door seals and anything else they can rip off. While I love going to the Everglades to see the gorgeous egrets, storks and other wading birds, I’ve always been leery of the hulking black vultures with their creepy featherless heads. They linger beside the trails with little fear of humans.
Park rangers have experimented unsuccessfully with different ways to discourage the vandals from destroying vehicles, including hanging road-kill vultures from the trees near the Anhinga Trail. (I’m glad I missed that horror movie tactic!) They’ve also posted signs: “Warning Vultures May Cause Damage to Vehicles.” Now they’ve moved on to more preventative measures, issuing all park visitors “anti-vulture kits” (blue tarps and bungee cords) to cover their vehicles. For frequent visitors, they advise BYOT (bring your own tarp). Ironically, the scavengers aren’t even ripping apart the cars because they are hungry. They typically discard the pieces without eating them. Where’s Tippi Hedren when you need her?

Sunset at La Concha Key West

Sunset at La Concha Key West

August 30th, 2012
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Sunset La Concha Key West 
Photo by Claudia Miller
Perched atop the Crowne Plaza La Concha Hotel on Duval Street, I experienced the famed Key West sunset from an entirely new perspective. At seven stories, this National Historic Landmark, which opened in 1926, was — and still is — the tallest building in Key West. After finding the elevator tucked away off the lobby, I rode up to the indoor bar where I snagged a rum punch. Out on the quiet rooftop deck, I surveyed the sweeping 365-degree view of Key West and the island’s water borders. I was reminded of how small the vibrant island really is. I could see clearly down bustling Duval Street to the placid Gulf of Mexico at one end and to the Atlantic Ocean on the other.
In the harbor, sunset-cruise boats, their sails backlit by the sun, headed out for tours. I imagined how Ernest Hemingway must have felt when the towering La Concha was his first glimpse of Key West upon arriving by ferry from Cuba in 1928. It must have made an impression; he later included it in his classic work, To Have and Have Not. Across the street, the white façade of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church turned a delicate shade of pink. A gentle breeze caused the tops off the palm trees and the red Poinciana flowers below to sway amidst the conch architecture. I spotted church spires, widow’s walks, patterns of gingerbread millwork and the purple Victorian turret of the Artist House across silver rooftops. Instead of being on the ground looking up, I was looking down at the sunset. As the large fireball dropped into the ocean, a dark swirl of clouds tinged in orange seemed to form a question mark in the sky. What do you suppose it was asking?

Truffles 101 at Key Largo Chocolates

Truffles 101 at Key Largo Chocolates

August 15th, 2012
image-truffle crop by pr
Champagne Raspberry Truffle 
Photo by Hibiscus Marketing
When Key Largo Chocolatesannounced their first class, A Night of Chocolate, I couldn’t sign up fast enough. Tuesday evening, I joined 10 eager pupils in the factory behind their store tucked away in the Florida Keys. We donned snazzy hairnets and brown aprons with “Nobody knows the truffles I’ve seen” scrawled across the front. Who knew that would prove prophetic?
To help keep a casual feel to the class, chocoaltier Kristie Thomas kept the wine flowing. We broke into small groups to make ganache — the creamy center for our truffles. Sipping a glass of chardonnay while stirring 60% dark chocolate, triple sec, orange extract, heavy cream and butter left me feeling a bit like Julia Child. (Today would have been her 100th birthday!) 

Next, we made small balls from a chilled champagne raspberry ganache, rolled them in a melted dark Belgian chocolate and followed with a swirl through crushed macadamia nuts. As we moved on to a large batch of hazelnut ganache filled with Pailleté Feuilletine, a finely crumbled biscuit, I realized I was running behind. The ganache was melting in my hands and the dipping chocolate was hardening. I felt less like Julia and more like Lucille Ball.
Kristie, in her trademark pink and green chef’s outfit, watched our antics, er, progress, with a bemused smile and gave us encouragement. Coasting on a chocolate high, we had smears on our faces, edible glitter in our hair and ear-to-ear grins. As we began to divvy up seven huge trays of truffles to take home, we sampled our final product. While I’d gained a newfound appreciation for the patience and skill required to create the gemlike concoctions, I'm still an amateur, but one whose truffles tasted divine!

Chasing Papa's Ghost at the Hemingway Days Festival in Key West

2012 Hemingway Look-Alike winner Greg Fawcett
Photo by Andy Newman
With a copy of To Have and Have Not in my bag, I spent a long weekend chasing Ernest Hemingway’s ghost in Key West. Since it was Hemingway Days on the island, I found him in the most unusual places. I wandered through La Concha Hotel, featured in the hard-scrabble novel about the Florida Keys during the Depression. The macho author called Key West home during the 1930s — the most productive decade of his life. Photos of the writer fishing on his boat Pilar stared down at me from the walls. On the elevator, I ran into a doppelganger, wearing a Sloppy Joe’s t-shirt with Hemingway’s picture on his chest. It was like being in a hall of mirrors. At the Custom House, his well-worn boxing gloves were on display from the days he would spar with local fighters in the arena — now the spot where the funky Blue Heaven restaurant stands.
At the Hemingway Home & Museum, the penny he tossed on the ground in protest of the $20,000 price tag for the swimming pool remains enshrined under glass. His wife, Pauline, put it there after he claimed she might as well take his last cent. I spotted another twin roaming the grounds, or perhaps he was a ghost? At Sloppy Joe’s, Hemingway’s fave spot for knocking back Teacher’s scotch and soda with owner Josie Russell, a sea of about 140 bearded men in fishing garb gathered to compete in the Look-Alike Contest over three days. On Saturday, Hemingway’s 113th birthday, the finalists made their case to the judges, and I had a celebrity sighting of a different kind. Paula Deen, Food Network star, was cheering on her husband and contestant, Michael Groover. Many of the contestants had the author’s bravado down pat, often playing to the overflowing crowd with a song or a poem. Greg Fawcett of Cornelius, North Carolina proved that persistence pays, taking home the “Papa” crown after competing for the 10th year.

Originally published on

Chocolate & Wine Pairings are a Hit at Key West's Lush Bar

Chocolate &Wine Pairings are a Hit at Key West's Lush Bar

July 16th, 2012
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Mark Certonio at Lush 
Photo by Claudia Miller
Hidden at the back of Key West's Green Pineapple boutique on Duval Street, Lush Bar has a low-key hedonism. Mark Certonio, director of the Key West Food & Wine Festival, opened the intimate spot devoted to organic wine, chocolate, coffee and tea six months ago. It’s developed a cult following, especially for the Thursday organic wine-and-chocolate-pairing classes. Stools crafted out of old wine barrels and a bar made from reclaimed Dade County pine served as the perfect place for my tasting. 
My mouth started to water when Certonio brought out a large block of Brix extra dark chocolate on a carving board and began chopping off chunks with a large silver knife. Made from beans sourced in Africa, Brix is formulated to pair with different wines. I tried all four concentrations from 40% to 70% cocoa paired with the sweet Trinitas Cellars Revelation Cuvée, a late-harvest Zinfandel from California. Certonio taught me how to properly savor the chocolate's texture, flavor and aroma. I first coated my mouth with the wine, and then let the chocolate slowly melt on my tongue. This was followed by another sip of wine; its hints of cherry, vanilla and smoke intensified the complex chocolate flavors. The final pairing was his own homemade concoction — a piece of Brix dark chocolate, sprinkled with coarse artisanal Florida Keys sea salt and drizzled with Florida Keys black mangrove honey. Paired with Fonseca's Terra Bella Organic Port, it sent all of my senses reeling.

Lionfish Derbies in the Florida Keys

Lionfish Derbies in the Florida Keys

July 5th, 2012
image-lionfish by scott nielsen 3 edit
Lionfish by Scott Nielsen
Divers in the Florida Keys are being encouraged to catch as many of these zebra-striped spiky critters as possible at lionfish derbies slated for July 21 to 22 in Marathon and September 8 in Key Largo. This species is an immediate threat to the living coral reef system that makes the Keys so famous for fishing and diving. Known for their beauty and voracious appetite, the lionfish could decimate commercially- and ecologically-important natives like grouper, snapper, shrimp and parrotfish.
Local conservation groups, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Reef Environmental Education Foundation, have teamed up to host weekend derbies where teams compete to collect as many lionfish as possible. The first of these foes appeared in the Keys waters in 2009, and since 2010 derbies have removed more than 2,100 from sanctuary waters. Their poisonous spines can be quite painful, so each tournament begins with training on how to handle the creatures with puncture-proof gloves and catch bags. The derbies end with a lionfish tasting, using recipes from The Lionfish Cookbook.