Sunday, March 25, 2012

Conch Republic Independence Days Celebration in Key West

April 23rd will mark the 30th anniversary of The Conch Republic.  For those unfamiliar with the story of the Conch Republic, here’s the Reader’s Digest version.  

In 1982, the drug trade was booming in South Florida.  A good amount of the contraband was making its way into the US via the Florida Keys.  In response, the US Government imposed a checkpoint on US1 just north of Key Largo.  Every person and vehicle entering the mainland was searched. 

This was only a minor inconvenience to the drug traffickers, because word quickly spread and they simply revised their game plan.  However, it was a major inconvenience for residents of the Florida Keys, who quickly grew tired of the searches and began to feel they were being treated like non-citizens.  Dennis Wardlow, mayor of Key West at the time, petitioned the Federal courts to have the road blocks removed.  They refused, so a plan was hatched.  

“If they’re going to treat us like another country, we will become another country”, proclaimed Wardlow on April 23, 1982, announcing that the Florida Keys were succeeding from the Union and that he would now be known as Prime Minister Wardlow of The Conch Republic.  Thereupon, he declared war on the United States by symbolically breaking a loaf of Cuban bread over a nearby Navy officers head.  Then, just as quickly, he surrendered to the same officer and applied for one billion dollars in foreign aid.  Since then, the Conch Republic has lived on in spirit, and we’re all happy to hold dual citizenship.  However, we could still use that billion in foreign aid.

The military, tongue in cheek, indulgently recognizes our independence from the US, often flying the American flag, as well as that of the Conch Republic, on the front of their official vehicles during military exercises.  The US Coast guard annually participates in a mock marine battle with the Conch Republic Navy, the reenactment a highlight of each year’s Conch Republic Days celebration.  Boiled eggs and water cannons are the weapons of the day.  

There will be a week-long celebration in Key West to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Conch Republic from April 20th-29th, with hotels and guest houses expecting to be filled to capacity.  The high point of the Conch Republic Independence Celebration week will be a mock Navy battle in the harbor, pitting civilian sailing vessels of every description against the Coast Guard.  Inevitably ending with the Coast Guard’s surrender, the victory party has already been scheduled to commence at 9 PM.  

Friday, March 9, 2012

Schooner Western Union is to be Florida's official flagship!

The Florida House on Tuesday presented a bill for final vote that will designate an official flagship, in keeping with the state's history that is steeped in maritime tradition.  The Senate has already approved, and it is expected to pass the House by the end of the current legislative session today.  Passage will elevate the Western Union, Key West's own flagship, to the status of Florida's official flagship.

Construction of the 130-foot pine-and-mahogany working schooner began in Grand Cayman and was completed in Key West in 1939. She did duty as a repair and maintenance vessel for the Western Union Telegraph Company for 34 years, tending undersea telegraph cables serving Key West, Cuba and the Caribbean.  

Upon retirement from the cable company, she served for many years as a charter boat until maintenance and renovation costs forced her owners to cease operations.  In 2007, she was donated, under condion that she be restored and remain in Key West, to a preservation society that arose from a grassroots movement to do just that.  

The Western Union under full sail off Mallory Square in Key West

Today, the Western Union is one of the last traditional American coasting schooners and is the world's only surviving sailing cable ship.  She plies the seas of the Gulf of Mexico offshore of her home port as a floating museum, charter boat, and provider of educational and recreational sails.

Auspiciouly, the moon will be full this weekend, illuminating the waters with a magical glow as guests enjoy evening sails under the stars, in celebration of the schooner's newly-bestowed designation.  If you are lucky enough to be in Key West right now, why not add a dimension of adventure and romance to your stay by sharing in this historic occasion?  The concierge at your B&B, inn, or hotel will be glad to make the arrangements for you!    

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Best Key Lime Pie: IMHO, Pepe's Cafe!

These are Persian limes.  Use only for the garnish!
Guests at the Tropical Inn often arrive with a list of "must do's" in hand, and near the top is always to try the ubiquitous and (sometimes) authentic Key Lime Pie offered on virtually every menu in Key West.  Most are surprised to find that, with the exception of a tree here or there in someone's garden, key limes are no longer commercially grown in the Keys.  The groves long ago gave way to development, so most of the limes that turn up in Key West pies come to us from from Mexico, or in the form of (gasp!) reconstitued bottled juice of unknown origin.  

Each year there is a contest to determine the "best" key lime pie recipe.  The ingredients are pretty standard, so it's always interesting to see what is done to distinguish the various renditions.  Even though it's not a consistent award-winner, my favorite has always been the version served up at Pepe's Cafe, billed as Key West's "eldest eating house in the Florida Keys ... a fairly good place, for quite a long while ... open under old management", over by the Bight.   

They're very generous about sharing the recipe (in fact, it's right there on their website), so I'm giving away no secrets by posting it here --just annotating with a few tips.  The surprise note of cinnamon in the crust and the fact that they whip the egg whites before folding them into the filling set this recipe apart. The airiness of the egg whites give it a texture that compliments the delicate sweet-to-tangy balance, rendering it all "just so". Heavenly.

In a mood to try it yourself?  Begin by setting your oven at 325 degrees, and while it's heating up, make the graham cracker crust:

Pulse in a food processer enough really fresh graham crackers to make a cup and a half of crumbs.  Add 1/3 cup of melted unsalted butter, 1/4 cup of sugar, and one teaspoon of cinnamon.  Continue pulsing until all ingredients are nicely blended.  Press into an 8 or 9 inch pie pan.  Bake it about 10 minutes on the middle rack of your oven, then remove to cool completely.  

Then, make the filling:

Separate two eggs, reserving the yolks for later.  Whip them on high in your stand mixer with paddle attachment until they are stiff.  If you have a hand mixer, no worries; it'll just take a bit longer to achieve the same volume.  Set aside.

In another bowl, separate two more eggs, adding the yolks to those you reserved from the egg white whipping step. Discard the whites, feed them to the cat, or make a healthy omelet.  Beat the four yolks up really well, again with your mixer on high, until they are thick and creamy.  Blend in a can (14 oz.) of sweetened condensed milk. 

Key limes:  smaller than Persians, and not as pretty.
Now, Pepe's says that, at this point, you can use ½ cup key lime juice, fresh or bottled.  No.  As good as their finished product is, this is where it falls short of perfection. We'll forgive them because they are feeding the masses. You're only doing one pie.  We're going for cuisine art, here.  It gets a little tedious, but it's definitely worth the effort to squeeze fresh key limes. You'll only get about a tablespoon of juice out of each, but hey -- this is a labor of love -- so if your own "Love" is hanging around, drooling in anticipation, see if you can solicit a little help!  

Then, have Love-y drizzle the juice over the egg-and-milk mixture, while the mixer is still going.  Once it's all blended, you're ready to step back in to show off your expertise in the delicate art of Egg White Folding.  This must be done by hand.  Every accomplished cook has a technique all their own, but the common thread is Body English. They're not stingy with theirs, so don't you be, either.  Ever so gingerly, fold the egg whites into the filling mixture.  Scoop from the bottom of the bowl, then sort of flop what you come up with over the stuff at the top.  Don't stir.  Use the biggest spatula you have, trying not to deflate the egg whites.  Repeat this motion until the ingredients are all evenly distributed.

Mmmm mmmm mmmm ....
Pour the batter into the pie crust.  Bake about 20 minutes or until just set (it'll go from gooey to jiggly).  Remove from the oven and cool completely before refrigerating at least 2 hours.  To serve, top with real whipped cream (if you have some of that aerated-oil-fake-whipped-cream stuff on hand, this is definitely NOT the time to use it, but don't throw it out; who knew it makes a great face cream?) and garnish with a twist of lime (for this, use one of those big, shiny green Persians; key limes are too thin-skinned and not very pretty).

They say the pie keeps well in the fridge for up to 3 days.  Couldn't prove it by me.  Around here, one never has a chance to last that long!