By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
We sat, lone customers in an empty restaurant, drawing unsympathetic portraits of each other with crayons on the butcher-paper-covered tables, in that lazy late-afternoon lull when the waitresses chalk elaborate specials on the blackboard and sing along to Fiona Apple tunes. Their distant voices were comforting in the way that distant voices sometimes are. Then, on the stroke of 5 p.m., as if a bell had gone off at a racetrack, every seat in the house was suddenly full of people awaiting dinner. So we shook ourselves loose and drove down the highway.
Reason to Get Lost Number 4: My former fast-lane friend Cara works for an attorney named David Horan these days. Horan's one of the guys who buzzed a U.S. Border Patrol blockade in Florida City with a biplane and started the conch rebellion of 1982. It was after that fly-by that Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow announced the Keys would secede from the United States and rename itself the Conch Republic. (Within days, the secessionists surrendered and demanded $1 billion in foreign aid.) Horan and Cara spend their time sorting through the legal implications of treasure hunting and the rights of owners of polydactyl cats -- cats with extra toes are a Key West genetic specialty. "Up north, opposing lawyers eat each other alive," Cara told me. "In the Keys, it's like, 'Can we just resolve this? I want to go fishing tomorrow. '"
One of Cara's clients is a woman who traipses around in a big red wig with green and blue feathers stuck in it. She calls herself Madame LeFeye, and from her I learned that there is more than one way to get "pickled in Paradise." Madame LeFeye produces jars of the best sweet-dill Cajun-style pickles you've ever eaten. The pickles are fat and crunchy, sour and sweet, hot and cool, and they hit your taste buds as if they'd been timed to go off in sequence. You will find new uses for pickles. You'll want to put up your feet, crack open a jar of those Extra Spicy Chipotles, and write a song full of melancholy and longing about the mysteries of the briny cuke.
30813 N. Watson Blvd.
Big Pine Key, FL 33043
Region: Florida Keys
Madame LeFeye's real name is Orva Gaille Clubb (you can see why she needed a colorful pseudonym). She and her husband came to the Keys on a cruise for their 25th anniversary. Guess what happened? They never left.
Clubb learned to make pickles from her grandmother. They brined bread-and-butter pickles, dills, and gherkins in pots and left them for the summer under the front porch. "One summer, it got way too hot," she told me, "and we made a great big old batch of dill pickles, but they got ruined. They were really limp, but they tasted good, so I tried to stiffen them up by adding sugar to turn them into sweet gherkins. We just kept working at it, layering in more and more different spices -- I won't tell you which ones; that's a secret -- and the result was delicious. It just so happens I lucked out."
Madame LeFeye says that while she's making pickles in her kitchen, steaming the jars, pasting on the labels, and packing them into boxes, she often loses track of time and goes into a reverie. "The whole family loves pickles," she says, "even my two grandbabies -- I call them 'picklettes. '" About a dozen stores in the Keys carry Madame LeFeye's pickles -- like Albertson's and Worldwide Sportsman. You can also order them by the half case ($25) or the full case ($45) at www.madamelefeye.com.
Reason to Get Lost Number 5: Imagine you are following that very tall, very ample woman wearing the leopard-print chef's pants, a string of pearls, and a pair of cat's-eye glasses. There's something about the way she looks that reminds you of the way passion fruit tastes -- sun warm and sweet. And when she turns into the door at 1114 Duval St. and disappears like Alice down the rabbit hole, you follow her through the door into Alice's Key West (305-292-5733).
The furthest Alice Weingarten has moved since she came to Key West as a fresh-faced Culinary Institute of America graduate for a three-month internship is across the street and back again. Alice is by all accounts the Goddess of Fusion Confusion. She adds vanilla flavoring to savory dishes, infuses sushi rice with coconut, and tosses mango and goat cheese salad in a passion-fruit vinaigrette.
Alice makes up recipes like Asian spiced wild boar baby back ribs, jumbo stuffed and baked artichokes, and Cuban-style mojo marinated ostrich. You can have any of these if you stop by for dinner. Or like us, you can go specifically for the brunch-time mimosas ($6.50). Alice's highly drinkable potion of champagne, orange liqueur, and a dash of orange juice is the best breakfast drink you will find in Key West, home of the crack-of-dawn cocktail. A plate of soft-shell crab Benedict with key lime Hollandaise sauce is $17.95, and a Key West-style Philly steak sandwich is $11.50. After three or four mimosas and a veggie omelet with sun-dried tomatoes ($12.95), you might think you don't need to get into the whole question of what, exactly, a dish of "tropical fruit shortcake with passion fruit Chantilly cream" ($8) will do for you. But you are wrong. You need to stay a while and examine that question.