Sunday, March 19, 2006


A Croqueta To Key Lime Pie Makeover

A little over a year ago, a bunch of stuff poured out of me. Croquetas? Key Lime Pie? Do these two seemingly innocuous food items lead to an identity crisis? Or, rather, are they at the crux of one? I don't think this will lead to a book, after all, as my interests have turned elsewhere, so I've decided to pass it on. The real question is: will it whet your appetite for either a plateful of croquetas, or for a slice of key lime pie? You be the judge. My personal jury's still out on this one...


In the aftermath of my various Marathon epiphanies (2/7/05), I began to think of how I could possibly collect my thoughts around the dimensions of the three pieces of key lime pie I had consumed while I was in The Keys. Something about a key lime pie makeover. But I wasn’t quite sure, yet, until the following Saturday (2/12/05), when the following happened:
Not fully sure what I was going to do with my afternoon, I wandered down Calle Ocho, and stumbled into Don Pan. There are two reasons why I did this: 1) it’s on the right side of the street; and 2) I didn’t really feel like running into anyone whom I might possibly know at Versailles, and having to make nice a la cubana. Don Pan has some Cuban touches, but it’s basically Latin American.
At Don Pan, I ordered my café con leche, and this rolled up pastry thing that resembles an elongated crescent roll. The first time I’d had it, I’d just pointed, and had been handed one stuffed with ham and cheese. This time, I had the good sense to ask what appeared to be different varieties contained. One, the familiar ham and cheese; one, ham; and the longer, skinnier one, cheese. Does the pastry have a name, I asked. Yes, it’s called a cachito. For some reason, I immediately thought of Nat King Cole singing, “Cachito, Cachito, Cachito Mio…” Which came first, I wondered.
I decided to take my chances with the ham one. The counter person made a show out of sticking it in the oven to warm it up. It certainly didn’t taste warm, but the café, at least, was as it should be. They’re pretty good at Don Pan about giving their coffee a nice head of foam: always finger-licking good, it is.
Counting fat and salt, as always, I proceeded to unroll the crescent, dunk the pieces of sweet bread into the coffee, and collect the ham bits into something that resembled a – well, something you flush. If anyone was looking at me as I performed my dissection, I didn’t notice. However, I felt self-conscious enough that I quickly covered it with a napkin before I flushed it down the wastebasket.
Before I’d sat down, I’d noticed two young women with dark tunics eyeing me as if I were from the moon. I’m used to this by now. However, on our mutual way out, I noticed they appeared to be headed toward a beauty school at the corner of the mall. As I felt I was in dire need of a haircut, I figured, why not, and headed in that general direction.
Entering the establishment, I felt both comforted, and distant. Just like I felt at the Don Pan. Eyeing a particularly expert looking hair styling teacher (or student – how could I tell for sure?), I asked her if she knew how to cut short hair. She stared at me in wide-eyed amazement, and a receptionist quickly informed me there was a long line, and they’d be closing in about a half hour. I was sad, not so much because I wasn’t going to be able to get a $5 haircut, but because the stylist had appeared to be Cuban, and my Cuban way had obviously not gotten very far with her. I guess I’ve either lost – or never had – it. Sauntering out, I realized I was more than sad. I was pissed. No “non-Cubans” allowed? Hah!
And what did I stumble into then? A tourist couple: Americans from Iowa, of all places. I guess I looked approachable, for they asked me: Where’s Little Havana? In the midst of my ranting and raving about what had just happened to me, I told them to keep going down the street. They’d run into the Little Kiwanis sign. What should they look for? Well, Maximo Gomez Park, for one thing, to stare at all the old men playing dominoes. They said something about a mall. A mall? I guess I’m not familiar with lower Calle Ocho, because I had absolutely no idea of what they were talking about. Where should they eat? That was a no-brainer: Versailles, up the block. Isn’t that supposed to be touristy? Yes… and no, I ventured. Lots of Americans love it, but, on weekends and at nights, you’ll find Cubans there, I said. OK. Maybe we’ll try it, they said as we bid each other a cordial farewell. Did they, I wonder.
In between my simultaneous praise and criticism for all things Cuban, the obviously sharp as a tack, matter of fact male half of the couple had said something I won’t forget: you’re in the midst of an identity crisis. Was he right, I had immediately begun to ask myself.
We’re on vacation down here for two weeks, to escape the cold, they’d said. Where? They’d been on a cruise, I believe, as well as had spent time in The Keys. Oh, I just returned from The Keys, I’d said. I loved it, would love to spend some time there. Property’s very expensive there, we both agreed. It turned out they’d actually seen some real estate ads. The most inexpensive they’d seen had been for a 0 bedroom, 1 bath unit for between 500 and 600 thousand. Oh, my heavens. 0 bedroom? I figured out the ad was referring to Murphy beds, which several of the journeymen I’d met at the Mallory Square sunset celebration the previous weekend had mentioned.
Before I knew it, I thought to myself: that’s precisely what I need. That’s it: A Key Lime Pie Makeover, with 0 bedrooms (a Murphy bed: up and down, like me), and 1 bathroom (to cleanse myself in between cycles).
The very astute man and his clever wife had obviously paid very close attention to whatever was coming out of my mouth, for they had said something about lows and highs, about reaching my audience like a roller coaster (my words), and then finishing with dessert (her words).
It was all beginning to make sense: to string my vignettes together from breakfast through midnight snack, from albino eggs through medianoches, crossing over the seven mile croqueta bridge to reach my key lime pie destination? To begin right before my trip to Key West: to fast-forward from my lid-flipping Backlash (Mark), to stir some Albino Eggs (Jose) into the pot, straight through the rest of breakfast, into lunch, dinner, and beyond? To somehow tie the whole book around my weekend in The Keys, around my Marathon epiphanies, around my success with croquetas, and how it all somehow ties in to key lime pie? In effect: to teeter-totter my way through the identity crisis that constitutes my existence?
Could I do it, I had immediately begun to wonder. Next thing I knew, I found myself at my Miami Source: El Vanta Koor, my first home in Miami, in the heart of La Saguesera. No tingle, no ghosts, left: I interpreted that as The All Clear.
For what it’s worth: I all but stormed into William Permuy’s salon a little while later, hoping to offset my somewhat histrionic performance of a nerve-wracking ten days earlier. With a decent – but expensive – haircut atop my scalp, I now felt I could face what lies ahead: my Croqueta to Key Lime Pie Makeover.

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