So, you might remember our last trip to the Key West Food & Wine Festival, at which I almost poked my eye out with a long stick and set my own eyebrows on fire, agreed to mud-wrestle my friend Donna for the last of some coconut vodka, tried to strangle Angel over a wine-filled cheesecake pop, and forgave him only after he brought home the coveted Silver Platinum Coconut at Coconut Bowling.
I am happy to report that this time around I behaved myself much better. Chugging Champagne straight from the bottle while dressed like a naughty Marie Antoinette doesn't count, does it?
Photos courtesy of KWFWF/Sheel Photography
Our first order of business upon arrival was to visit the festival's Hospitality Suite to pick up our VIP passes. Our friend Mark, the wine-swilling Svengali who runs the Key West Food & Wine Festival, had read my write-up of the KWFWF last year, in which I called him a sick $%@# and a liver-loathing genius, and then inexplicably proceeded to invite me back this year to once again blog about it. Which just goes to show you: He really is a sick %$#@.
I already knew it was going to be a good festival when I spotted this classy chicken-pooping-an-egg wine in the hospitality suite. So what if it was 11 a.m.? Mark's friend Deborah, a volunteer at the festival, poured me a generous glass and didn't even blink, and that's when I knew we'd be friends for life.
Plus, I later learned that the fabulous Deborah went to the University of Pittsburgh, and if yinz can't bond over chipped ham n'at, yinz can always bond over the Stillers.
That evening we set off for the Barefoot Beach Party, where people dig their toes in the sand, sip fantastic wines, nibble on tasty snacks, and laugh, Dr. Evil-style, at those suckers back home suffering through single-digit temperatures.
There I ran into Qmitch, the outrageous star of 801 Bourbon's Drag Queen Bingo. A few years ago I did a "Key West Top Ten list" blog post, and Drag Queen Bingo of course made the list. Qmitch then left a comment on the blog that read, "I'm Number Two!!" However, because I am what people pityingly call "book smart," it took me forever to realize that he was referring to being #2 on the list and not just to suffering from low self-esteem. Don't worry, Qmitch: Anyone who can rock a Chiquita Bananalily hat like you is #1 in my book.
Indeed, elaborate headgear was de rigueur at this shindig, and I sure wish I'd have known that ahead of time. God knows I'm not above duct-taping a pineapple to my head for the sake of fashion.
This year's beach party featured a slew of different wines, a roast beast carving station, and some lady making what I thought were mini crab cakes, but turned out to be tuna sliders. I don't mind the old switcheroo if you replace my cheeseburger with a double cheeseburger, but fooling me into a eating a tuna slider by shaping it like a mini crab cake is just . . . fishy.
Indeed, everywhere you turned, someone was offering food or wine or bendy straws.
When we weren't eating, we were drinking, and when we weren't drinking . . . well, whatever. Let's just say that in between sips, we managed to chat with friends Donna, Greg, Claudia, Alden, and some guy who slyly inquired as to the whereabouts of my red super-straw. I'll bet he says that to all the girls.
As soon as the sun went down, it was time to board the trolley for our Wine Around the Neighborhood Stroll. This guy was filling wine glasses as we waited for everyone to board, a move that could go a long way toward making the subways bearable if adopted here in NYC. I'd recommend serving a wine called something other than "New Age," though, to avoid getting stabbed.
This year our group voted to do the "Quieter Side of Duval" stroll, which I knew right away was a mistake since nobody in our group is ever quiet about anything. We started at Croissants de France, where we were served a little skewer of lemongrass beef paired with a Lichine Le Coq Rouge from France, which I believe translates to There's a Red Chicken in my Pool, n'est pas?
I'm not sure what has so frightened Angel and Greg, but whatever it is . . .
It's probably under the table (though Greg is clearly skeptical). Maybe Angel's skewer fell on the floor? Maybe I'm already under there scrounging around for scraps?
Our next stop was Le Petit Paris, a cute new cafe that served us a plump, perfectly cooked black pepper and lavender dusted sea scallop, which was paired with Napa's Caymus Conundrum. The only conundrum here, however, was how to stuff a half-dozen more scallops into my purse without arousing suspicion.
Next up, nine one five, where we were herded upstairs to Point Five, the restaurant's charming wine bar.
Unfortunately the bottleneck at this spot meant that we were left waiting right in front of the open kitchen, where this guy cruelly prepared pizzas and homemade potato chips right in front of me.
I guess he didn't realize that I carry my own Freeloader Fork.
After a few minutes spent sampling the Justin Sauvignon Blanc from Paso Robles, it was time to move on to Blackfin Bistro. Blackfin is notable for being the only restaurant on the Stroll that actually allowed us inside: The rest learned from last year that it's best to keep the drunken hordes far away from the paying customers.
At Blackfin we sampled a conch cake with dijon remoulade and a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, then moved on to Better Than Sex for the, er, climax of our evening: The Popcorn Pimp.
Better Than Sex described the Popcorn Pimp as follows: "This cheesecake manages to expose itself freely while allured to rest on top of a sweet sugar cookie dough crust. His velvet creamy filling remains protected with a robe of soft caramel and eventually gets dressed smartly with a white chocolate bark poked with salted popcorn, and a dark chocolate dribble!" No, none of that makes any sense, but I'll still have what she's having.
As the stroll was winding down, a few of us were still hungry and began making plans to get some dinner. Part-time Key Westers Stephanie and Ari have a townhouse not far from the last stop on the stroll, so they invited us to continue our revelry there with more wine and some food delivery. Yes, invited. Though by the end of the night it was clear why I usually have to crash house parties rather than wait for an invitation.
But first things first. We arrived, and were greeted by this:
You know it's going to be a good night when someone's kitchen counter is strewn with half-empty wine bottles as soon as you walk in the door.
Once we'd all settled in with some wine, it was time to order food. Stephanie suggested we order from The Flaming Buoy, a well-regarded seafood restaurant nearby, and everyone agreed . . . except me. Isn't it common knowledge that that after a long night of drinking, the body requires pizza and Death Dogs, not tuna ceviche and grilled shrimp? It's like they were trying to give me a hangover.
After much haggling, we decided on three large pizzas -- one for me, and two for everyone else to share.
I ordered my usual with pepperoni and extra sauce, and as I was scarfing it down . . . plop. A blob of sauce landed right on poor Stephanie's couch.
When you are as clumsy as I am, however, you become pretty good at on-the-go stain removal, emergency toe repair, and the like, and you understand that time is of the essence. I therefore immediately shifted into crisis mode.
"Quick!" I hollered to Stephanie. "Get me a Tide stick, stat!"
"Oh, we don't have one," she replied casually.
"No Tide?!? Ok, how about some Shout?"
"Nope, no Shout, either," she said, reclining on the couch like there wasn't a dime-sized orange stain on it, beginning to set.
"For god's sake, man, don't you people eat around here?!?" I asked, incredulous.
"Of course we eat," Stephanie replied, "We just don't wear it."
Oh. Well. I guess we know which one of us is the Tasmanian devil in this scenario.
"I do have some hydrogen peroxide, though," Stephanie finally offered, seemingly unconcerned that her household's lack of stain removers was costing us valuable time.
"But that's bleach!" I responded, horrified. "You can't put that on your couch!"
"Wait, peroxide is bleach?" she asked.
Really? I'm the only one who ever turned her entire head orange with a bottle of Sun-In back in the 80s? I'm no Bill Nye, but you don't soon forget the active ingredient that turned your hair from "sun-kissed blonde" to "carrot-tinged tangerine" in the space of one ill-fated summer afternoon.
I am happy to report that we were able to eradicate the stain with some homemade club soda, saving me from having to buy a brand-new couch and earning Stephanie the coveted title of Most Nonchalant About Stains. Me, I'm Most Likely to Obsess Over and Finally Burn Said Couch.
Besides Stephanie's admirable laissez-faire attitude toward Scotchguard, the other reason to visit is her adorable puppy, Babka, who is sweet and soft and snuggly and unfortunately did not fit in my purse. Must've been all those scallops in there.
The next day we were scheduled to attend one of the festival's many seminars, Tacos and Tequila, at Agave 308. Last year's seminar was a little heavy on the talking and light on the eating, but I knew this one would be more interesting, since everything is more interesting after a few shots of tequila.
We started with a silver, or "pure" tequila, then moved on to the "reposado" (rested) and "anejo" (aged) tequilas, an order which also describes how you will feel as the tasting progresses. Luckily we stopped before they could get to the "muerto."
Heck, for a while I even thought that lovely cannibis sculpture behind the bar was actually changing colors, but that was just the tequila talking.
The tasting ended with a roasted pork taco with spicy slaw. That's right, just one.
It was delicious, to be sure, but I don't know what kind of stunt these Key West people are trying to pull here. I repeat: A single taco, a small bowl of tuna ceviche, or a skewer of grilled shrimp are simply not acceptable apres-drinking foods. The bread-to-cheese ratio is way too low, and the lack of grease is downright appalling.
Afterwards we caught up with two new local friends, Sue and Jack, at Agave's bar, where I sampled the fantastic Paloma de la Fresa, a sweet-tart cocktail made with strawberry-infused tequila, agave, strawberries, and fresh grapefruit, and Angel was the lucky recipient of a serious over-pour. Sure, tequila can make you love almost anything, but Agave 308 doesn't need much help.
A mere two hours and one pepperoni pizza later . . .
. . . and we were off to the highlight of the festival, the "Bottles and Busts" Grand Tasting at the Mallory Square Sculpture Garden.
You might remember that last year's Grand Tasting was held at the Key West Aquarium, where the temperature hovered somewhere around Turkish Baths. This year's outdoor tasting was much more comfortable, though a little harder to navigate since the wine vendors were scattered about the sculpture garden, instead of lined up all in a row like they'd been at the aquarium. No matter: I just kept visiting my same three favorites while pretending to be disoriented.
Toward the end of the tasting two guys sidled up to me and Donna and began chatting us up. Without missing a beat, Donna stuck out her hand and said, "Hi, I'm Diane." Diane, eh? "And I'm Trina," I added. Later we clarified that that's Dianne with two Ns, which is much more exotic. And fitting for a woman who works at a strip club and hangs out with the likes of Trina.
I know what this looks like, and it's terrible. Who wastes good wine on a dog??
Just kidding! Of course no animals were harmed at the Grand Tasting. Dimples, however, were brutally violated.
After two hours of tequila tasting and two more hours of wine guzzling, you might think that we'd finally head back to our hotel, and indeed we did. Where else could we change into our Marie Antoinette attire for the "Let Them Eat Cake" masquerade party?
Now, the Let Them Eat Cake party was probably originally intended to be elegant: There was a delightful assortment of miniature cupcakes and petit fours, fluted glasses of Champagne, charmingly mismatched silver forks engraved with the words "Eat Cake," and a DJ playing subdued music in one corner.
This, of course, would not do.
With Mark's blessing, I grabbed a bottle of Champagne and began filling friends' and strangers' empty, and not-so-empty, glasses, adopting a "one glug for you, two glugs for me policy" that left me and everyone else covered in Champagne, and later found me fluffing up this nice woman's tulle at every opportunity, accepting an invitation to arm-wrestle the policewoman in the purple wig, and flapping my poufy Victorian sleeves on the dance floor like an injured seagull. Not for nothing was this time period called the Reign of Terror, people.
Also at the Let Them Eat Cake party, I finally had the pleasure of meeting in person an online friend from Tennessee, the fabulous Vicki H, who, like me, blogs about her traveling and eating adventures and, unlike me, is a proper Southern lady whose ears were likely scandalized a dozen times over by me and Dirty Dianne (two Ns). Vicki is also to be commended for donning a costume -- and a tres magnifique one at that -- when no one else in her party did. Let them eat . . . their hearts out.
Not counting the slutty costumes and Champagne-chugging and tulle-fluffing and arm wrestling, the most interesting thing at the cake party was apparently . . . Angel. Despite numerous trips to NYC's famous costume stores and a significant outlay of cash, we'd still had a hard time nailing down the appropriate period menswear, leaving Angel dressed less like a member of Marie Antoinette's court and more like an artist/mime (look it up, millennials), decked out in a pair of my knee-highs and a fur-trimmed beret.
Photo courtesy of KWFWF/Sheel Photography
Still, once he got to shaking his ascot, women started crawling out of the woodwork to bump and grind with the Count de Cayo Hueso. Indeed, at one point someone noticed that a very well-endowed woman was gyrating against dancing with my husband out there on the dance floor, and wasn't I upset? Of course not. That's as close as the poor guy's gonna get to some big ta-tas, having married the honorary president of the IBTC.
After I'd gone through about a half-dozen bottles of Champagne and Angel had gone through about a half-dozen dance partners, we decided to head home . . . to Grand Vin Wine Bar. Donna and Greg do live there, you know.
There we discussed a very urgent matter: Where could I get a cheeseburger at this hour? When the consensus was that Denny's was probably the only place still open, I realized that as much I love Key West, l will obviously never be able to live in a town where I can't get a decent burger after midnight.
Luckily, however, I had some provisions back at the hotel. These were supposed to be for breakfast, but an emergency is an emergency.
The next day we were scheduled to go Coconut Bowling so Angel could try to win me the coveted Golden Coconut, but hurling coconuts at plastic pineapples when you feel like hurling yourself is never a good idea, so instead we headed over to Sunset Pier for a quick lunch before Duval Uncorked got under way that afternoon.
There we had some conch fritters, followed by grilled mahi-mahi for Angel and a grilled chicken Caesar salad for me. Naturally the grilled stuff cancels out the fried stuff.
Over lunch we perused the photos I'd taken thusfar, and realized that Dianne and Trina's antics had apparently set tongues wagging all over town.
At 3:30 sharp our group of ten -- me, Angel, Donna, and Greg, plus New Jersey friends Mike and Ann and Tennessee friends Vicki, Matt, Teresa, and John -- gathered at the foot of Duval Street to begin our mile-long wine wandering. Keeping this many people together and on track while they imbibe at almost 40 stops might seem almost as impossible as finding a decent midnight snack in this town, but Greg, our epicurean Drill Sergeant from last year, was promoted to Colonel (Un)Corked, and fearlessly led the way.
Duval Uncorked started off the way all good parties do, with a couple of hippies and some food wrapped in bacon.
Next it was on to Cork & Stogie, where we sampled some wine and checked out their wares.
Then we made a beeline for Key West Cakes' miniature cupcakes. Sadly, they weren't as pretty as last year's peacock-hued extravaganza, but at least that made it easier to gobble them up without feeling bad.
Our next stop was the Green Pineapple, where the Stoned Crab brought their namesake stone crab bisque. This stuff was so good that Angel got the munchies afterward. Me, I always have the munchies.
In short order we made our way across the street to the Rum Bar at the Speakeasy Inn, where we took a break from the wine with some Painkillers.
Because we'd only had bacon, cupcakes, and Painkillers so far, it was obviously time for some chocolate cake and key lime pies over at the Key West Key Lime Pie Co.
Then it was on to Grand Vin for more wine and a group photo.
Following Cabernet-and-Champagne sorbet at Flamingo Crossing and the Cubanisimo rose at nine one five, it was on to sauteed calamari at Le Petit Paris.
As we strolled down Duval past the Tutti Frutti drink stand, I noticed this bright red Batphone. I don't know about you, but I will definitely sleep better knowing that an emergency fish replica is just a phone call away.
Next up, curried chicken salad at Croissants de France, and samples of T-Vine at Vino's on Duval. Now, there's no denying that the T-Vine wines are both excellent and expensive. Still, given the minuscule pours we experienced at the Grand Tasting, I suspect that Mike and Ann are probably haggling with Mr. T-Vine for a tasting poured from the bottle instead of parceled out with an eyedropper.
Across the street, 801 Bourbon served up pink Jell-O shots, which provided quite the unexpected, um, pick-me-up.
One of the most anticipated stops on the crawl was DJ's Clam Shack, which serves a tasty clam chowder and even tastier puppy kisses.
Speaking of tasty kisses, we then moved on to Leather Master, where all the boys were decked out in their best "My sex dungeon or yours?" attire.
Indeed, Donna couldn't pull her eyes away from the, uh, back entrance.
About 15 years ago, a short-lived S&M-themed supper club opened in NYC that was considered quite risqué for the time (this is before the Real Housewives, remember), and I teasingly suggested to my sweet but naive friend Janet that we should check it out. "What do you think they do there?" she asked, all wide-eyed innocence. "Oh, come on, " I said. "Surely you have some idea." Janet hesitated, and then said, "Well . . . I guess they probably shove your dinner plate at you all mean-like, and then they say something really nasty to you." "Really?" I asked, trying not to laugh. "Like what?" "Oh, you know," Janet replied, blushing. "Here's your dinner, you dirty hog!"
As we were leaving Leather Master, I playfully asked the guy on the left if he'd be willing to paddle his buddy for the camera. Let's just say that I didn't have to ask him twice.
"Thanks, you dirty hogs!" I called as I walked away. It figured it was the least I could do.
One of our last stops was at the bright and cheery Island Style, where we were treated to some steel-drum music and J. Lohr wines and cheesy lobster pesto pizzas from Cafe Sole.
There I got to chatting with Cafe Sole's Chef Correa and his adorable wife Judy, the former of whom makes the world's most amazing portobello mushroom soup and then doles it out in little finger bowls just to torture gluttons like me. When I rambled on for the next 20 minutes about mushrooms and heavy cream and bigger bowls, the chef took pity on me and kindly wrote out a coupon for two free bowls of it, redeemable the next day at Cafe Sole.
The next morning I bolted straight out of bed at 5 a.m. and hollered, "MUSHROOM SOOOOOOUP!!!" by way of an alarm clock for Angel. We quickly showered, dressed, and biked over to Cafe Sole for brunch.
They didn't have the soup.
The waitress told me some cockamamie story about how it wasn't ready yet. "Just nuke it, man, I don't care!" I implored her, my forehead breaking out in a cold sweat. "I need that mushroom soup!" She went back to the kitchen to see what could be done, but apparently the soup hadn't even been made yet. I thought about offering to help chop the shrooms or stir the pot or whatever, but Angel gently reminded me that we had other plans for the day, so I ordered the Jan Brady of the menu, the French onion soup, plus a crab cake.
Afterwards, we biked around a little, and I happily came across some additional possibilities for my future Conchmobile, if I can't get my hands on a VW Thing when the time comes.
Then it was off to the Outdoor Wine Market on Eaton Street. We'd skipped this market last year on the incorrect assumption that they sold nothing but bottles of wine, which we didn't want to carry home, and wine gadgets, of which we have enough to build our own rocket.
Later, however, we learned that the wine market offers everything from artwork to marinades to puppies (for petting, not purchasing) to . . . still more wines by the glass.
Oh, and rubbers. Of course.
Best of all, they had purses with chicken-pattern lining. Go ahead and drool.
Even with the large crowd, we still managed to bump into the town's resident lushes.
The highlight of the market was the Seafood Shakedown, a cook-off where the contestants were required to create dishes using Key West pink shrimp. The four competitors squared off face to face across the small parking lot, two on one side and two on the other, and we were given wooden "nickels" to drop in a bucket in order to vote for our favorite.
It was therefore quite important to be memorable.
We started with the jambalaya, then moved on to simply grilled shrimp with assorted dipping sauces, a fantastic paella, and a spicy shrimp with collard greens.
The dishes were all unique, yet equally delicious, and it was difficult to choose our favorites. Actually voting, however, was next to impossible: There they were, all four contestants (each of whom we'd spent a fair amount of time chatting and laughing with), staring us down as we stood in the middle of the square debating which buckets we'd drop our wooden nickels in. Did I mention that the buckets were located at each contestant's stand? I attempted a fake-out by wandering around a bit before stealthily approaching the paella stand to give them my vote, and I thought I'd gotten away with it . . . until they all started whooping and cheering, alerting the other 3 cooks that I certainly hadn't voted for them. Angel was up next, trapped in the square like the unlucky winner in the "The Lottery," trying to avoid being stoned by the three cooks he wasn't voting for.
Despite the awkwardness, I'm actually thinking of entering this thing myself next year. No, I can't cook, and yes, the humiliation of receiving just one wooden nickel -- Angel's -- would be worse than being called a dirty hog, but just look at the crown I could win!
It's sure to be the talk of the Barefoot Beach Party next year.