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. 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 hard at work on his next book, My Key West Kitchen, due out in fall 2012. Each week, he contributes to Food Republic with his “Word On Food.” He’s on Twitter: @normanvanaken.
“Cold Meat or hot meat,
Sliced thick or thin.
I guess I’ve just got meat
Under my skin” — Roy Blount Jr.
I walked into our kitchen on a quiet Saturday morning and I inhaled an aroma I’d known
before I knew its name. It was blood. It spiraled me back in time to a grocery store/butcher
shop where my mother routinely shopped for our family. She probably carried me in there
before the age of one and slung me from hip to hip while she selected our food and put it in
the small cart. By the time I was five I knew the owners names; Mr. and Mrs. Petersen. I
knew their children too. The store was across the small lake from where I grew up. It is
called Diamond Lake due to its shape more than the clarity of the water.
The store was pretty amazing for the time. They had a full butcher case that Mr. Petersen
manned. He had a box of sawdust that he used to toss like chicken feed onto the wooden
floors to sop up the blood that fell off his knife. I imagine the meat came from the famed
Chicago Stockyards. A produce section lined one whole wall of the store. It relied on area
farms and orchards. Though the fish choices were few, they were fresh Great Lakes fish.
There was even a baked goods cabinet by the check-out area. Mrs. Petersen added in her own
home-baked Greek specialties that lent a sense of exotica to the rural store in our town of
17,000. We were up in farm country, just fifteen miles south of the Wisconsin border. It was
close enough to a bigger town, (Waukegan) for my Dad to run a used car lot but speed home
each night in the summer to walk my sisters, Jane and Bette and me to the beach up two
steep, narrow hills for a swim before it grew dark and the mosquitos came after us.
The blood smell at work took me back to all of that. And then it hurled me forward to Spain.
Saturdays in markets all over the world bustle with energy. At Barcelona’s famed La
Boqueria market on a sun-drenched September morning Janet and I felt as alive and excited
as we might have if we had been walking into Woodstock in 1969.
We entered under the archway of the market and soon confronted a meat case. It was a jaw-
dropper. It was called “Despojos Selectos” and it’s all about the “off-cuts” of meats. A pretty
young woman of no more than 22 attended the stall. She looked South American and I
asked her where she was from.
“Ecuador,” she smiled.
She, too, was a long way from home. Her name was Anna. We took in the view around her.
It was hard to grasp the totality of it at first. Each item in this otherwise mundane meat case
held products you simply do not see in most of America. Even if we have the occasional
tongue, liver or tripe it is almost certain to be found in the freezer section.
It was as if a butcher took apart a whole animals, saved the familiar primal cuts we see in
meat cases back home for some other purpose, and arranged them in that cold case of glass
and light. They were raw, fresh, and a carnal as meat has ever looked. From there my eyes
scanned…EYES…still in a bony head, huge testicles, (maybe not for a cow but by human standards, huge!), bulbous kidneys and a whole, deep, royal burgundy colored liver hanging on a sharp steel hook through a membrane.
A sign hung over that. It read, “carne cula.” Anna smiled again and even did a half turn and
pointed demurely to her own cula (ass). I suppressed a remark. There were intestines,
cheeks, what seemed to be wide arteries that were attached to a heart. I asked a woman
about them and she pointed to various parts of her small, old body to help me understand
where on each animal the parts came from. She made the animal’s most typical noises to
clarify what was what in this surgically altered barnyard.
I asked Anna what the square block of muted red “butter” was in the case…knowing the
answer before it exited her full lips.
“Sangre,” she uttered…adding, “blood.”
And smiled once more.