I remember being enamored, at the age of 20, of the epic road trip…from the very top of Maine to the southernmost point of Key West. This is what I had in the crosshairs.
When you’re 20, you can find a carful of crazy friends eager to do the same. They were game, and so we decided to go. It was on!
Our adventure chariot It was one of those American land yachts, circa 1975, that seat five very comfortably. Six if need be. We took off from Central Maine, and wound our way down Atlantic Rt. 1, all the way to the Florida Keys, stopping to marvel at the warm weather in Georgia, then pressing on to Key Largo where a crash pad and a meal awaited.
Waking up to palm trees, Cuban coffee and warm Jasmine scented breezes possibly changed my life.
The warm, shallow aqua blue shoals, mangrove wilds and fish life charmed and amazed me. I was basically a suburban kid from New Jersey, newly established in Maine (the Appalachian Trail being the initial draw to Maine) and although I had tasted the Caribbean, this place was exotic. Sadly, when you’re young and footloose, there never seems to be any money to enjoy the finer things. Honestly, looking good in a bikini probably outweighed any drawbacks, we had the kind of fun that money can’t buy.
After a few days, onward we went to the promised land…Key West. Duval Street and its debauchery and tea parties, that’s where I learned to drink, a White Russian, a drink I could order with confidence. Kinda girly, but I am not even sure I was “of age” at that point, still much to learn.
But the shrimp, those perfect pink shrimp native to the Keys are what hooked me. Those and the Cafe Con Leche, making mornings right, the raucous bars, high rollers with cash to burn, the beautiful waters that washed it all away the following day. I decide to stay. Doug, Lorna and I were able to get an apartment, right on the edge of a huge open field bordering the Navy Base. We had a huge tree in that field that saw many gatherings. We were situated on the edge of the Cuban section. I made daily forays there for “bolos”, black eyed pea fritters, shaped into little balls. Those slightly greasy white bags held 20 minutes of bliss. I’ve never been able to replicate them, although I’ve tried. Unforgettable. Ditto the conch fritters and Key Lime pie.
Mind you, this was way before I became a chef. I guess I’ve always had a fascination with food and culture. This place was rich indeed.
I returned every winter for the longest time, enjoying the counterculture, the music, dancing and fantastic waters of the Florida Keys.
I agreed to meet some of the ol’ crowd 40 years after. The difference between 20 and 60 is, well, astounding. But we lodged, dined, drank and danced very well even after all those years!
Here’s a recipe for Cuban Style Bollos. I’m not sure if it was the initial novelty of “that first time” that made them so memorable, but DANG…I still think they’re delicious!
or black eyed pea fritters, makes 40 fritters
2 cups of black eyed peas
4 large garlic cloves
1/2 tsp hot sauce
1 tsp salt
Oil for frying
Soak the beans overnight, covered weight water.
Drain, reserve the water
Puree the beans until they are as fine as corn meal (food processor is fine).
Add, the seasonings and 1/2 cup of reserved liquid. Stir well.
Preheat oil to 350 degrees in a high edged pan.
Drop in teaspoon full for the bean mixture, a few at a time. Don’t crowd for best results.
Deep fry the bollos for 2 minutes, then drain when golden brown.
Eat right away, I dust mine with a finishing salt. Enjoy!