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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 was invited to El Paso, Texas to speak and cook at a conference held by Oldways Preservation, a non-profit organization based in Boston.

Oldways is one of the premier educational forums for focusing on healthy, culturally diverse and historically respectful eating. They gather in various places on the globe with scientists, farmers, professors, chefs and the food wine media to promote positive lifestyles.

Oldways was key on identifying the Mediterranean “pyramid” diet that popularized the benefits of olive oil, pasta, grains and red wine beyond the warm hills of Italy.

The first night we had barely landed in El Paso when we were whisked off to cook at the old train station for over 300 guests. We had shipped almost all of our food on from the restaurant but it still always a scramble.

The next morning we had to get up at 6 a.m. to cook a “New World Cuisine”–themed luncheon for the attendees at the Camino Real Hotel.

Rhum and Pepper Painted Fish, My Pork Havana with Plantain Mash and a Key Lime Natilla with Exotic Fruit Salsa was how we represented South Florida.

Finally we got a break, cleaned up and walked over the bridge, past the border guards to Juarez, Mexico.

Dusk was falling and we hadn’t had more than coffee all day. We stepped along the broken sidewalks, shopping with our noses. Mariachi and accordion music punctuated the air. Then we saw and smelled what would halt us, a jaunty little stand selling “tacos al pastor” (tacos of the shepherd’s or of the pastures). Remember it was the Spanish who brought meat to Mexico. The custom of spit-grilling predates Caribbean-born barbeque and was mostly made with lamb on that side of the Atlantic Ocean. We can thank the Middle Eastern civilizations for that. Pigs became the default in Mexico and yet the custom of keeping it cooked on a spit and thinly sliced with deep flavors remains. The meat was expertly shaved by a woman not much taller than the counter we placed our crumpled dollars on. She pared the meat with a long slicing knife from a “top-like” device called, fittingly, a trompo. A pineapple section rested on top of the turning pork and dripped its sweet candy on the caramelizing, aromatic meat. We each got four little stuffed tortillas which we devoured standing up against that crooked counter with America 1⁄4 mile and a world away.

Read last week’s Word on Food: Lampredotto Sandwiches