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.
At a butcher stand in an open-air market nearly 5,000 miles from home two young girls gossiped and cut up chickens. The snapping sounds of scissors clipping and the hissing near-silence of knives slashing played in the light air of Barcelona. I asked them if they’d let me take their picture as they used a vice-like shear to cut the heads off of the birds. The thinner one closest to the guillotine-like device with streaked blond hair didn’t understand my choppy Spanish fully and started to pose, holding up a bird by the neck. She didn’t smile for the camera. She held the dead bird outright with a locked elbow to her side. I asked her to look at the camera. She faced me, smiled and tilted her head theatrically. I took a picture and then I asked her to let me take another of her doing her work with the shears. She understood and posed at the chicken’s last blink. She clicked. I clicked. The head dropped.
“How many chickens do you cut a day?” I asked. She looked at her dark-haired colleague and they both agreed in joyful English, “Many!”
“50, 80, 100?” I venture. She circled her bony arm in large rolling loops as I spoke, “More, more, more.”
“Who is faster at cutting?” I asked.
They did not understand me again. “Quien mas rapido?” I tried.
The skinny one beamed and raised her arms in a “champ’s pose.”
“ME!” she cried. “I am. I am.”
The great cuisines are born in the spice bazaars, meat stalls and fresh markets of the world. This tableau before me was a kind of reverse Nativity Scene. Two figures stood on each side of a creature. Then there was an unfolding death. But death begets dinner. The circle of existence continues and, I have to say, these two Spanish girls made me feel better about our reasoned brutality.
When you go to the great markets of Europe, South America or Asia, it is not the sanitized world of the Great American Supermarket. In our Disneyesque creation, death and such are so far from our thoughts. But then as algebra reminds us…so is Life. The miracle and sacrifices made are not in the arc of our understanding at Wal-Mart nor at Whole Foods, and so perhaps that is why we consume more than we should. Maybe the best seasoning for our meat-eating would be a devout apologia or maybe better…saying Grace. Grace is more often done communally and that is more often how we sup. I’m not particularly religious, but the Spirit invades me at times when I see Nature so unvarnished as I do in the markets. It makes me cook in a way that is fully attentive. I killed a turtle once and have never made any dish with more care or served it with such sacramental reverence.
I can imagine a scene as might be directed by Tim Burton and starring Robert Mitchum. In it the tough actor is joining me at an altar somewhere in the eternal mists, our hands folded in front of us, a smile invading his craggy handsomeness as we bow and accept the holy wine.
Mitch intones, “Death. It’s whats for Dinner”.
So please join me in this benediction…and then, pass the chicken.