KEY WEST, 1973
“Then the static hum of the radio stretched into a languid Latin Rhythm, a distant faraway throb of rhumbas and saltwater breakers striking sandy shores. The music from Cuba filled the back room of the grocería with the swish of swaying palm trees. Bang! Justo’s grandfather’s cane would strike the pine-plank floor. “Niño!” Justo’s abuelo called to him ‘Mas marquitas y bollos!’ Off Justo went running with the single-minded intensity of a bird dog about to jump a covey of quail, returning to Abuelo and the men with bags of fried green plantain bananas and boxes of sweet bollo penny cakes. Abuelo then poured out shots of compuesto. The fiery sugarcane liquor fueled talk of cockfights and revolutions past and future”. — “Mile Zero”, Thomas Sanchez
We rode through the late night catching the last Greyhound bus out of Miami. We were dead to the world from our 30-hour straight-through drive from Chicago and we collapsed onto the hard bench seats and made pillows out of our rucksacks. The small silent community of fellow travelers only held my conscious mind for minutes. I tried to see who we were bound together with on this journey to Key West, but in the darkness and in the inky black of the unilluminated but for starlight of the upper Florida Keys my eyes struggled and then crashed into a few hours of heavy sleep. My two friends slept too.
We crossed over the Keys whose names I would begin to know by heart over the years. For now they were exotic references to a land more sea than dirt. The road stretches down like necklace of concrete laying over the Ocean’s gently rocking body tracing the trail of Henry Flagler’s dream and amazing reality of building a railroad that connected the mainland with the town of Key West over 150 miles to the South and West. His dream cost over $50 million dollars and over 700 lives in the making. The highway we were on that night was made over that original rail bed which was sent to its ruin in the horrific hurricane on Labor Day of 1935. Over 400 bodies were recovered in the days and weeks afterward. Much of this “land” was not the land I grew up on but outcroppings of reef and the calcified detritus of accumulated sea life. A great deal of it continues to be made of fill and marl. The land does not hill and drop. The highest point of all of it is a mere 16-foot perch on the rare “true” island known as Lignumvitae where giant mahoganies once loomed. Gone now, long gone.
I walked down to the corners of Simonton and Greene Streets, met the manager. His name in Key West parlance was, “Bud Man”. He hired me on the spot. No application, no résumé, no two-week stint as a stagier, no nothing. “Get an apron on and start cooking” he said warmly. “You’ll be fine”. I was not so sure. I’d cooked breakfast in Illinois. This was MEAT. And then Bud added, “Sammy will teach you the ropes. You’ll be working the graveyard shift to start. I warned him that I wasn’t much more than a breakfast cook so far and didn’t know how to make barbecue and the like. He said, “That’s all right. I’ll teach you. Just relax kid. The people who eat on your shift are 90% shit-faced anyway.
Sammy became my Chef, my teacher and my boot camp drill sergeant. I was afraid of and fascinated by him. He was the de facto “head chef” because he commanded it. Bud Man didn’t cotton to hierarchy or authority of any kind and he imagined us cooks all working without any “pecking order” aging hippie that he was. Sammy had other ideas, hippie that he wasn’t!
Sammy worked with a type of grace I hadn’t seen in the kitchen until him. The veins in his arms throbbed as if he was willing some kind of fuel from his brain to them in an effort to get the food out of the kitchen as fast as he could. He was probably about sixty years of age when I came to work at The Midget. His skin was a dusty black when he was cold and just having his first coffee, but an hour or so into the shift his sweat turned it into a slick of wet leather. He had ramrod posture and although he was not large his chest showed the definition of a man less than half his age. His voice was a Satchmo-esque rasp most of the times but he said more with a look in too many cases.
When it was slower he would have me cook and he would expedite, (a restaurant term which means call out the orders to the cooks) but the tickets and what he would yell out would be far different things than what had been scribbled down by the waitresses and he made me learn the language he held on to from cooking days long ago. The menu at The Midget had to be broad enough to handle the 24 hours of service we offered. Sammy would sit on a warped wooden chair smoking when one of the gals would hand him a ticket. He’d peer over his large dark-framed glasses looking for any mistake first and then when he was satisfied her “dupe” (the paper copy of the order) was okay he’d translate what she’d written to ‘Sammy Speak’.
“Ordering!” He’d yell it out like we were half a mile from each other rather than the ten feet of the tiny kitchen area.
“Adam and Eve on a Raft…Float ’em!”
After a few false starts I learned that this was to be two poached eggs on toast.
If he added “and a slice of Noah’s boy” my Bible teaching would commence with the good Reverend Sammy in that it meant add a slice of ham…since ham was Noah’s son…obviously…
“One, Shipwreck”, he might add.
My mind raced as to what the menu item could mean. Did this have something to do with boat shaped food??? With great disgust and he’d shove the ticket in my face and I’d read, “two scrambled eggs” and my education would continue in the only cooking school I would ever attend. Sammy was my first black professor.
Lionel and George were both nighttime bartenders. We fed them a shift meal too.
When George was working his nights Sammy would shout out his order to me. Typically it was, “Burn One!” It meant; put a burger on the griddle. If George made a “thumbs up gesture” it meant that George wanted the burger with lettuce, tomato and onion and his ulcers were not fucking with him and Sammy would wheel back to me and add, “Take it through the garden … and pin a rose on it”.
If George won at the track and was feeling particularly expansive it would show in a rare wide smile on his rubber mask of a face and Sammy would boom, “Kid! Pop a “Bun Pup” on for Georgie!” but sometimes he’d mix it up and call out “Coney Island Chicken” and it was still the same hot dog a “bun pup” was. But it tickled him to see me wonder what it was until he’d either tell me or hop out of his chair and show me how to make it right. “Sammy Style”.
I’d clear out of his way but still watch from the back. How did this man make so few moves and get so much done? Just because he was cooking didn’t mean he was done smoking and I could see the thick white smoke curling around his black skin and up into the fluorescence of the bulb that illuminated our dark nights at “The Midget Bar and Grill” together. He’d lay the cigarette on the window sill and cut off a piece of a “First Lady”, which referred to Eve of Adam and Eve and dubbed so because she was biblically created out of his rib, (stands to reason)…
The rasp came out of Sammy’s larynx somewhere, like coal cars shuttling up a mineshaft.
“Hey, you still watchin’ me Kid? Good. You might learn something someday, though I doubt it.”
Sammy grimaced tightly. Something didn’t meet his approval in this slab of ribs he was sampling.
“Hand me Mike and Ike.” These were also called “The Twins” and were really salt and pepper. He seasoned the pork with some rapid jabs a young boxer could appreciate; taste again, “that’s better”, he’d pronounce to himself. I wasn’t sure which of the Mike and Ike were salt and which was pepper. Maybe Sammy wasn’t so sure either because if he wanted just salt he call out for “Sea Dust” and by the way, in case you wanted to know, “Yum‑Yum” was sugar. My personal favorite was, “Gentleman will take a Chance”. But it didn’t inspire my takers. It was corned beef hash.
The exception was Lionel. He ate everything. He was short of stature yet movie star good-looking and French Canadian. His accent added to his mystique and savoir-faire. His hair was jet black and swept up into a quasi-Pompadour. Not some foolish Elvis death wish for a man of about 50, but maybe more like the craggy handsome actor Richard Boone of the old Western TV show “Palladin” fame. He even reminded me of my own father in this way.
Lionel had been on a drinking jag for two or three days when I got to work one night for my eleven to dawn shift. Old Town was quiet as it was June now and much too hot for tourists. It was still about 90 degrees most nights and the heat from the charcoal grill burned into my back bringing horrible blisters on to my skin…something I’d never had before, but down here in the tropics my blood had no immunity to some of these things and a lot of us Northerners suffered all kinds of skin ailments until our systems figure out how to re-code. With no one in the place I walked out to the “staff table”. Back then there was often a place the staff just took over and sat and smoked, snacked and drank coffee at. Even the customers accepted that back then. There surely was no employee cafeteria or break room so we sat at the worst table, (this one was immediately down wind from the charcoal grill) and passed the hours when we could.
A tall woman named Suzy was working and when I got there she said, “Norman will you cook me some ribs? I’ll share them with you and I’ll pay.”
I said, “You’re a vegetarian, girl”. I had been feeding her what could be found on a menu such as this and I was appalled at how much crap she ate to be one.
She said, “Wrong. Not anymore. My fucking ex-boyfriend was forcing that on me and I caught him in bed with another woman so I moved out last night. I want some damn meat!”
“Okay. Be just a few minutes. Meat it will be for Ms. Suzy!”
The barbequed ribs were truly great at the Midget, but when payday came we cashed our checks down the street at First State Bank and raced back to the little rickety restaurant to have the meal we’d been making all week long and lusting after, The Midget Burger. Eight ounces of oval shaped ground chuck with a crosshatch pattern scored into the tops of them. Most crucially they were cooked on the hardwood charcoal on the outside grill. Real flames lick the meat and create the char that takes us back to our primal selves. It would be years before I’d be discussing them in terms of “the Mailliard reaction” with the like of Charlie Trotter, José Andres, Wylie Dufresne, Thomas Keller and his brother Joe and food science genius Harold McGee in Madrid). The burgers were served on appropriately large sections of garlic buttered and toasted Cuban bread with caramelized onions that came off the ancient and perfectly seasoned griddle. Incredible. Sexual. Redemptive.
We only had one dessert available and it was Key Lime Pie that was made by a gal named ‘Sunshine’ Smith. She delivered them on her bicycle each day. The large basket up front held two pies. If we ran out, we ran out. She simply wouldn’t make three because that meant she’d have to make two bicycle trips. She went on a few years later to become Jimmy Buffett’s business partner in a little venture called “Margaritaville”. So who can argue with her business sense now?
Lionel had us all worried. He was like a zombie, dressed head to toe in black. He was standing for hours on end at the end of the bar. It was George’s night to work but Lionel chose to do his drinking at the same place he worked. Loyalty. He smoked and slept standing for long passages, re-awake, and order another whiskey by tapping on the shot glass with a fingernail that he had on his right forefinger that would be the envy of a banjo picker. George didn’t speak with him. He was watching over his co-worker, silently, waiting for him to fall into a coma or to erupt in some volcanic Cannuck madness he’d seen occasionally in their 20-odd years of tending bar together.
Around five a.m. Lionel appeared at our staff table and slowly took an empty chair. Suzy pushed our plates of now gleaned pork bones aside. He said nothing. His head was large and bobbed like a cork in a very still river, his face a mask of numb, mute pain. He smoked holding his two hands in front of him with his elbows resting on the wooden tabletop. The smoke spiraled out into the window-less humid summer night air. After a while I resumed my idle chatter with Suzy and her back with me. About 20 minutes later, when we thought Lionel had finally had enough of this marathon and lapsed into a seated coma he spoke.
“Have you ever been to Africa?”
Suzy and I exchanged sidelong glances. Is he talking to us … or is this sleep talking?
“Have either of you … (long gap of time)…ever been to Africa?”
“No” we chimed but not too loudly in that this was ultra weird and we were not sure if we risked waking him, which we deemed as likely to be dangerous. But he was awake. He smiled a twisted down sort of smile and opened his eyes into narrow black bottomless slits.
“I worked there as a ……. surveyor for ………….. Standard Oil…………
twenty-three …………. years”.
This was the first whole sentence out of Lionel in days. We were now mute.
“Twenty three ……. years!”, he repeated.
He seemed to trail off for good again.
Then he cleared his throat and said. “There was a priest I came to know there. Big fat, tall, guy from Boston, like a football player but older. He took me around to show me Africa since we were the only two white people for hundreds of miles. He ………. even spoke their language”.
Lionel’s words fell on us like stones, each one larger than the next.
“He took me to a feast. It was a big deal feast. The natives were drumming and painted up and they sat us at a long table to eat with them. The priest sat down next to me at this big long table”. Lionel stretched his arms out to show us how long the table was and seemed disgusted his arms couldn’t reach out fifteen feet in each direction to give us the more accurate idea. He shook his head at the uselessness of the situation. But he had things to say.
He said they passed a big platter of meat down the table and since we were the guests we were to be served first, even before the Chief. I turned to the Priest and asked him what we were eating. He just looked at me and said, “Eat it.” “Eat it or we may be next”.
Lionel tapped his nail on his empty whiskey glass and another whiskey appeared quickly.
He drained it and looked out over the quiet empty street outside of “The Midget Bar and Grill”, past the street and seemingly over the entire dark maw of the Atlantic Ocean until his eyes got to that place in Africa he was at with the priest in a little muddy village so many years ago.
He turned his gaze to Suzy and me. The usual rouge-brown of his eyes were now sunken black stars.
“We taste like pork”.
“What do you mean “we taste like pork Lionel”? I asked after a full awful minute.
“Humans…we…taste…like…pork. That damn priest made a cannibal out of me”.
And he collapsed on the table.
His head almost bounced. He was done now.
Suzy and I looked down at the rib bones and a fly that was circling and buzzing amongst them. We looked away.
Excerpted from, “No Experience Necessary, the Culinary Odyssey of Norman Van Aken”. (Taylor Trade)