Black Betty’s Pan-Cooked Yellowtail jumps out at you in this new collection of recipes and stories from chef Norman Van Aken, but this is no ordinary recipe book — it thinks nostalgically about the author’s cooking past, his mentors, and the memories therein. In other words, the stories come first and the recipes emerge from the beautiful, local tales.
Growing up in Illinois, Van Aken knew restaurants from his mom who was a hostess and cashier. "I grew to love the infectious spirit of restaurants," he told The Daily Meal. The book has family written all over it, given that it is co-authored by his son Justin Van Aken.
As for his love of Key West, he ran away from the life of winter to go to a place where life was different. "Key West struck an absolute note with me," he said. "The food is honest, clear, potent, and delicious, not self-conscious and not following any fads."
Learning from local Cubans, Haitians, and bohemians, Van Aken, who never went to cooking school, forged his own nostalgic homage to his teachers. There was not much of road when he arrived and everyone who came, came by boat, bringing in a fusion of myriad food cultures. The result is a family book about local culinary splendor, suffused with humility.
When asked to choose an ideal meal from his book, this is what Van Aken offered:
Woman Gone Crazy Bloody Mary
Caramelized Plantain Soup
Hot Fried Chicken Salad
Flan con Coco
There is a musicality to the stories embedded within a symphony of recipes. Van Aken, who is also an accomplished harmonica player, brings a certain lilting harmony to the prose, while presenting Key West recipes you will never, ever forget.
My Key West Kitchen is available through Kyle Books. Read an excerpt below:
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 "hippietill- 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.