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Key West: A Major Award at the Conch Fritter-Eating Contest

You know it's not going to be a normal trip to Key West when you text a friend who lives in Old Town in order to make plans and he casually mentions, "By the way, you're busy on Sunday . . . because I entered you in a conch fritter-eating contest."

Then again, when is any trip to Key West a normal one???

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We arrived on a gorgeous October morning and were quickly whisked away to the Paradise Inn on Simonton Street, a secluded oasis of calm amid the cacophony on Duval Street of noisy bars, drunken boors, and the kind of people who participate in competitive eating contests.

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But peaceful as Paradise Inn may be, this is still Key West.

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Our "usual" suite on the second floor overlooking the pool was unavailable, so we took the one next door instead.

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After a quick change of clothes, we headed over to Lagerheads, a cheery Caribbean-style spot on the water near the Key West Bight.

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We snagged two seats at the bar, then ordered up crab cakes, fish tacos, some smoked fish dip, and a couple of frozen drinks to get ourselves into island mode.

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Afterwards we biked around for a bit, then headed back to Paradise Inn to laze around the pool.

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Later, we stopped by Louie's to usher in the sunset.

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We checked out some of the island's Halloween decorations on our way back to the hotel.

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Back at the hotel, we devoured the pizza we'd picked up along the way, then called it a night.

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The next day we met up with friends Stephanie and Ari at Hot Tin Roof for brunch.

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It's always nice when they're expecting you.

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Hot Tin Roof has a great brunch deal: For a set price, you can order anything on the menu -- in any order, and as much as you want -- and they'll serve it up with unlimited bottles of Prosecco and OJ, or unlimited Bloody Marys if that's your thing. And so what is billed as "brunch" is really an all-you-drink vodka-and-Prosecco party with everything from chicken and waffles with cayenne maple butter to compressed watermelon salad with tequila and feta to sesame tuna with crispy pork belly. Oh, and pancakes.

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That afternoon, our friend Mark invited us to stop by for a slice (or three) of the homemade key lime pie he'd made for me.

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Which was one of the nicest things anyone's ever done for me, especially after I've shamelessly accosted them on social media every time they post a photo of anything even resembling a pie.

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He even saved the limes as proof that he really made the pie from scratch, since he knows I am suspicious of anyone who claims to use their oven for anything other than shoe storage.

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That evening it was time to start preparing for the conch fritter-eating contest, so I did what any competitive athlete would do: I headed over to Abbondanza for some carbo-loading.

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I love pasta, but I was even more excited about the meatballs.

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That cheesy chicken parm was no slouch, either.

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The next morning we made a beeline for Agave 308 for some last-minute preparations for the conch-fritter eating contest: Tequila for courage and tacos for...ever.

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The conch fritter-eating contest was the brainchild of the aforementioned Mark, he of the fabulous key lime pie and even more fabulous Key West Food and Wine Festival, an annual bacchanal of food and booze at which I have engaged in various questionable behaviors that I have heard rumors about but do not actually remember. The fritter-eating contest was just another of Mark's evil plots to make sure everyone who visits Key West leaves with an XXL pair of elastic-waist pants and plans for a juice fast.

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A big crowd turned out to watch us all make fools of ourselves.

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I checked in with our friend Deb (who was clearly skeptical that a skinny chick like me stood a chance at this thing -- especially one who doesn't particularly like conch fritters), then signed a waiver that said something about how I wouldn't sue if I ended up in a ditch with a belly full of fried dough.

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We'd arranged to meet up with friends Jessica and Jeff, who came to cheer me on (and, in Jeff's case, be goaded into participating himself).

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Of course, I dressed appropriately for the big event.

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Or at least I thought I did.

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I'd told Mark beforehand that I would be wearing a conch dress in honor of the occasion, and at the contest he sweetly presented me with an award for "Best Dressed."

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However, when I tried to duck out of the contest since I'd already "won," he snatched my Major Award back, forcing me to actually participate before he'd turn it over.

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The competitors were grouped into four heats, mine being the last. Of course, because this is Key West, it wouldn't be enough to just have a conch fritter-eating contest; there had to be a twist.

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We couldn't use our hands.

And adding insult to injury, the day was windy. Really windy. I'd worn my hair down and didn't have anything to pull it back with. And so I suddenly realized that while I had no chance of winning a conch fritter-eating contest that day, I stood a very good chance of winning a hairball-eating contest.

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Of course, that didn't stop Mark from drawing a tapeworm on my name card, or stop me from bragging that I'd already won (at least the fashion portion of the competition).

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The first three heats were a tough act to follow, putting up some impressive numbers.

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Jared and Kevin were tied for first with 14 fritters each, but then Big Don ascended the dais . . . and quickly ascended to the top of the pack.

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But not without some not-so-gentle "encouragement" from his girlfriend, who pounded on the table so violently that we figured Big Don was Dead Don if he didn't top 14.

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Luckily, having downed an impressive 16 fritters in three minutes flat, Big Don seemed like a shoo-in to win . . . until my heat. I'm not saying this thing was rigged, but it can't be a coincidence that The Tapeworm was seated between two guys who ended up placing in the top three.

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Sadly, however, I failed miserably when it came to living up to my reputation, at least for eating food. I'd downed roughly 2.5 fritters and an entire head's worth of human hair before giving up and chugging some wine.

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Which did not go unnoticed by at least one disgusted competitor.

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Meantime, Big Don's record of 16 fritters was about to be shattered by the unassuming Pac-Man on my left, Loren, who was gobbling up fritters as fast as they could bring them.

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In the end, Loren bested everyone, including Big Don, to take home the prize, having somehow managed to scarf down a whopping 19 conch fritters in just three minutes.

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It's always the skinny ones you gotta watch out for.
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Wanna stick it to Hurricane Irma and your own liver? Get your tickets for January 2018 Key West Food and Wine Festival here: https://www.keywestfoodandwinefestival.com/

Posted by TraceyG 09:01 Archived in USA Tagged key_west abbondanza conch_republic lagerheads agave_308 Comments (4)

Back to Key West: I'm Sorry I Ate Your Birthday Present

Of course, I didn't mean to eat someone else's birthday present. Especially since it was intended for a man of the cloth.

More precisely, it was intended for the Reverend Gweko W. Phlocker, a delightfully raunchy Key West DJ, who then proceeded to tell the entire island about my transgression on the radio.

But let's start at the beginning.

For this trip we stayed in a charming Conch cottage in the Meadows, which satisfied my four main requirements for a vacation rental: Lots of outlets, lots of towels, lots of privacy, and lots of goodies left behind in the fridge.

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We unpacked our things, plugged in the 17 iPads/Pods/Phones we'd brought along, and inventoried the aforementioned fridge, before jumping on our bikes and making a beeline for the Southernmost Beach Café.

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There, we had a couple of key lime coladas for lunch.

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Oh, and sandwiches.

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We spent the rest of the day in a haze of sun, salt water, and wine, which in Key West is called "Tuesday."

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As is so often in the case in Key West, we were joined by a random cat. We didn't know her name, so we decided to call her Joan Jett. Obviously.

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Soon it was time to get ready for our visit to Big Coppitt. Yes, I know that name sounds vaguely dirty, and it sounds even dirtier when you consider that it's a derivation of an old English word meaning "thicket." But our friends Donna and Greg live on Big Coppitt, and you might remember that last time we saw them, they'd been living in a trailer dubbed the Redneck Ranch while they waited for their new home to be built. The new house was completed last year, but we'd had yet to see it, so Greg kindly drove into Old Town to pick us up, then ferried us back to Big Coppitt to check out the new place and enjoy some wine on the deck for sunset.

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The new house is gorgeous, with spacious rooms, richly stained wood floors, and a fantastic wine cellar.

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But even that wine cellar had a hard time competing with the view.

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After a few bottles of wine, a lovely assortment of cheeses and crackers, and no small amount of drooling over the size of Donna and Greg's closets, we headed back into Key West for dinner at Square One . . . where they tried to kick us out.

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But let's start at the beginning.

After the short walk over to twinkly Duval Square, we arrived at Square One and were led to a private corner table, which I have noticed is always the case when I am out with one of my girlfriends. Between the foul language, the reckless imbibing, and the oinks of laughter, we just aren't fit for public consumption.

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We started with a lovely un-oaked Chardonnay, then moved on to goat cheese ravioli, seafood ceviche, a creamy pasta with seafood, and scallops in a rich balsamic drizzle. I'm not sure what Angel, Donna, and Greg ate.

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We were just enjoying our desserts when the lights went out. Or, rather, Square One not-so-subtly hinted that it was time for us to go home by cutting the lights. Later they claimed that someone had turned them off by accident, but I guess they also "accidentally" forgot to turn them back on again.

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Not fit for public consumption indeed.

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The next morning we had plans for brunch with our friends Mark and Steven at Hot Tin Roof. But what was supposed to be a sedate brunch for four ended up turning into the Prosecco version of the Ice Bucket Challenge for eight.

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But let's start at the beginning.

The Sunday brunch at Hot Tin Roof is one of the best deals on the island, particularly if you like to start drinking before noon and plan to continue straight through to Happy Hour. Service begins at 11:00 a.m., and then it's all the food you can eat, all the Prosecco you can drink, and all the hangover you can handle until 3pm, a cutoff which has to be strictly enforced since they can't just turn the lights out on you at that hour.

I was the first to arrive while Angel secured our bikes, and as the host led me to our table, someone called out, "Oh! You come into town and you don't even call me?" I wasn't sure if it was my parole officer, that guy whose handlebar mustache I twirled the wrong way at Funk Night at the Green Parrot, or one of the poor souls I doused in Champagne at the Let Them Eat Cake party, but thankfully it was only Stephanie, a woman whose dog I tried to stuff in my purse last time I visited her house. Whew.

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And so, joined by Stephanie's friends Darren and Denis, we pushed the tables together and started calling out orders like a bunch of tipsy auctioneers: "Baaaaaacon-cinnamon-rolls-lobster-mac-and-cheese-key-lime-stuffed-French-toast, do I hear short-rib-hash-and-another-mimosa from the young lady in the blue dress?"

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This contraption is a dual salt-and-pepper shaker. I'm sorry, but asking me to operate anything more complicated than a fork at an unlimited-booze brunch is asking way too much . . . and even the fork is really pushing it.

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We continued to order food like drunken sailors on leave, the Prosecco continued to flow like water . . . and then the tongues came out.

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Although no Prosecco ended up being poured over anyone's head, I kind of wished it had. Because have I mentioned how face-meltingly hot it was during our visit? Meteorologically speaking, 95 degrees + 100% humidity x 0 breeze = hot enough to have fried that key lime French toast on my forehead.

After brunch Mark invited us over to see his orchids, so we made a pit stop back at our house to grab our bathing suits. Not because we expected to go swimming, mind you, but because at this point we realized that if you're going to sweat through your clothes anyway, you might as well be prepared.

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And so we showed up at Mark's just in time for . . . more Prosecco.

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Of course, we didn't intend to drink his entire supply. But when it's 122 degrees outside, it's not like you have much choice.

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The orchids were spectacular. Then again, New Yorkers are easily impressed with anything that doesn't grow through cracks in the sidewalk.

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The next day, Mark berated me for being a bad influence. "But we only had three or four bottles of Prosecco at brunch!" I protested. "Right . . . plus the three or four at my house," he reminded me. Oh, right. I can't imagine how I forgot about those.

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That evening we were feeling a little too, um, forgetful to do much, so we ordered a pizza, floated in the pool for a bit, and then called it a night.

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The next day we awoke early to get in a bike ride before the day got too hot.

And by "bike ride" I mean, "raiding the gift shop at the Casa Marina, followed by pina coladas at Louie's Afterdeck."

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Later we swung by Old Town Bakery to pick up some sammiches for lunch.

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We both decided on the Italian, which came with ham, soppressata, basil pesto, fontina, spinach, tomato, and a prescription for Lipitor.

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Angel once read somewhere that drinking a hot beverage on a hot day can help the body stay cool, so he suggested we stop by Cuban Coffee Queen on the way home. I'm pretty sure that I read somewhere that drinking a hot beverage on a hot day can help the body throw up, so I went for cupcakes instead.

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That evening we met up with Mark and his partner, Steven, for dinner at Abbondanza. Mark hates this place, Steven loves it, and I don't care what either of them thinks because meatballs.

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My family is of Irish, German, and eastern European descent, but we have always wished that we were Italian, for the food. And so when I was a kid my father fibbed his way into a membership at the local Italian Social Club, where we'd go for Sunday Gravy most weekends. The little old Italian grandma who cooked at the Club knew her stuff, including gigantic, tender meatballs just like Abondanza's.

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Are these polpette in the same league as, say, Locanda or The Little Owl? Of course not. But they are the closest thing I've ever found to that Italian granny's meatballs, and that's good enough for me.

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The next day we biked over to Santiago's Bodega for lunch.

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Obviously, they understood how hot it was and that one might need to, er, freshen up a bit before entering the restaurant.

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Santiago's is one of our regular haunts in Key West, so this time around we decided to try a few new items, including the burrata with walnut pesto and the beef short ribs with cherry-hoisin glaze and orange-miso slaw.

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Then it was on to some old favorites, like the patatas bravas with aged Gouda, and the croquettes, which are pan-fried potatoes stuffed with ground prosciutto and provolone cheese and served with scallion-studded sour cream.

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Later that afternoon we stopped by Louie's again, this time to meet up with some folks from our condo community.

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The condo contingent had warned us that they might not be able to make it, and after Angel had downed a few of Louie's dark rum mojitos in quick succession while we waited, I was secretly glad they didn't.

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The next day we again set off for an early-morning bike ride to beat the heat.

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Soon we found ourselves sitting outside the 8,000 degree kitchen at Sandy's while Angel nursed a 185 degree coffee. Forget air conditioners and swimming pools for keeping cool, Key West. What you really need are more coffee shops.

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Later we stopped by Bad Boy Burrito for some takeout.

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I went back and forth between waiting in the shop, where it was approximately 115 degrees, and out on the sidewalk, where it was approximately the inside of a clothes dryer. No matter where I stood, though, I couldn't help feeling that I was being watched.

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We devoured our burritos in sweaty silence, then spent the rest of the afternoon alternating between floating in the pool, sunning ourselves on the deck, and arguing over a cat.

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One of my and Angel's long-running disagreements is what to do about cats that we meet on vacation. I, of course, am happy to give them free rein of the place.

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But Angel steadfastly insists that they remain outside, which often results in a sneaky game of cat and Tracey, in which I repeatedly sneak the cat inside and Angel repeatedly deposits it back outside. On this trip, however, because the pool area led directly to our bedroom, Angel put his foot down. Although he claimed to be worried that Joan Jett might get so comfortable that we wouldn't be able to get her to leave when we checked out, I knew that he was really worried about finding a single cat hair on one of his shirts. And so Angel refused to allow her inside at all.

Which is how we ended up with one very disgruntled cat outside our door for the next three days.

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And one very disgruntled wife.

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On our last day, we headed over to Lush Bar so Mark could show us his new toy: Wine on tap.

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Despite my pleas, however, he wouldn't let me stick my head under the tap and pour the wine directly into my mouth. I guess after the Prosecco Incident, he was afraid I'd drain the tap.

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In addition to wine-on-demand, Lush Bar offers carefully selected wine and chocolate pairings, beer tastings, coffee and tea, plus dozens of organic and fair-trade chocolate bars. Get 'em liquored up, then set 'em loose in a room full of sugar. If this place doesn't need rubber walls, no place does.

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Mark closed up shop a few minutes early and we popped across the street to the Speakeasy Rum Bar.

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It wasn't long before I dumped both Mark and Angel and cozied up with this cool cat who'd just walked in and sauntered up to the bar. Not being the jealous type, however, Angel shrugged his shoulders and said, "Canoodle all you want, but you can't take him home."

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The Speakeasy boasts a menu full of yummy rum-based concoctions, including our beloved Painkillers.

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As we sipped and gabbed, Mark suddenly spotted a friend of his. "Oh! You have to meet this guy!" he exclaimed, dragging me by the arm to make the introduction. "Tracey, this is Mozzarella Mike," Mark said. "Um, actually, it's Mark," his friend replied. "Whatever," Mark replied to his namesake. "Listen, Tracey has a tapeworm and a blog. You two should know each other."

After some polite chit-chat, I got right to the point: Do you make mozzarella? If so, where is it? And more importantly, can I have some?

And like a mootza-rell magician, Mozzarella Mark pulled a plastic-wrapped log of fresh mozzarella out of his backpack . . . along with a cutting board and an 8-inch butcher knife.

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Eyeing this spread, my brain was immediately flooded with questions, to which I received the following responses: No, he's (miraculously) never been mugged for his backpack full of mozzarella. No, that knife has never (accidentally) poked through the backpack and stabbed him in the butt. Yes, I could (thankfully) have some mozzarella. No, we (happily) don't have to share it with anyone else.

And yes, he's (definitely) from Jersey.

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And so we drank and chatted and scarfed down pinwheel after delicious pinwheel of fresh, creamy hand-made mozzarella rolled up with salty prosciutto and peppery arugula, while I thanked my lucky stars, and both Marks, for my good fortune.

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When we finally gave up after eating almost three-quarters of the log, Mark distributed the last few bites to the other patrons at the Speakeasy, then started packing up his significantly lighter, but still magical, backpack. "So, yeah . . ." he began, "I guess I'm gonna have to explain this somehow . . ."

Wait, explain what?

Oh, just that the log of mozzarella I'd just devoured was actually intended for the aforementioned Reverend Gweko W. Phlocker's birthday, to which Mark had been en route when he (naturally) had to stop for a drink.

Reverend Phlocker, I'm sorry about that ugly paperweight you probably ended up with for your birthday. I'd like to think that if I'd known that mozzarella was supposed to be your birthday gift, I would have restrained myself.

But who are we kidding???
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Posted by TraceyG 15:52 Archived in USA Tagged beach key_west abbondanza louie's_backyard bad_boy_burrito santiago's hot_tin_roof Comments (7)

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