When it comes to Florida cuisine, the conversation starts with Norman Van Aken. The chef and author was among the first to realize the tropical food goldmine of the region, and his restaurants and cookbooks have had a huge influence on chefs in Florida and beyond. Now the chef/owner of Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton, Grande Lakes, Orlando and Director of Restaurants at Miami Culinary Institute, Van Aken is also hard at work on his next book, My Key West Kitchen (Kyle Books), due out in fall 2012. In the meantime, he’ll contribute to Food Republic with his “Word On Food.”
I drive 60 miles round-trip sometimes to get our tortillas. I don’t want to think how much gas that costs but the tortillas are worth it, if only to see the face of the 70-something woman who sells them to me from her little bodega down in the bosom of our South Florida growing region which circles the appropriately named village of Homestead. I am the only gringo I think she has seen inside her shop. I make her laugh. José Coronel Urtecho wrote in “A Text on Corn” that “the tortilla is at one and the same time a plate, a meal, and spoon or scoop. It can be eaten by itself or can accompany other foods…it is the perfect every day food.”
When I think of perfect foods I often think of bread-type conveyances for a wide hosts of fillings or toppings: pizzas, pitas, bagels, burritos, sandwiches, roll-ups are all perfect. One of the hottest food concepts going in the past years, after all, has been “wraps.”
Before I became a cook I worked for a short time spraying concrete out of fire hoses in remote Western Kansas. We were building pit silos in cattle feed lots. I was 19 and living with a couple of buddies in a Holiday Inn just trying to make enough bucks to hitchhike to Alaska and maybe help on the pipeline being built. I hated the near-constant taste of dust in my mouth from the Kansas sun-baked earth kicking up around us, but the majority of other workers were from Mexico, and sometimes they offered me a portion of their warm, tasty tortilla lunches filled with the likes of scrambled eggs, sweet onions and spicy chorizo.
Tortillas are made of carefully selected dried corn and just the right amount of lime too. A properly made tortilla almost melts in your mouth. I was in Mexico City not so long ago and before heading to the airport I bought two bags of hand-patted tortillas from a small Indian woman wearing a stovetop hat. They were heavenly just plain out of the paper bag. You see…I’ll go a long way for a tortilla.