While in Key West last month, I visited the home of Ernest Hemingway, famed author and American icon.
When Hemingway lived on the property, he shared it with his wife (at the time) Pauline and their two young sons, Patrick and Gregory. According to Patrick, his childhood at the Key West house was magical. Magic hung in the warm air the day I visited.
The house is the largest single family home on the island and still functions as a residence…to 45 cats. Legend says these cats are all descendants of Hemingway’s six-toed cat named Snowball, a gift from a ship’s captain. Some accounts say Hemingway’s pet of choice while living on Key West was peacocks, not cats. Either way, Hemingway owned several felines throughout his lifetime, stating, “A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.”
It’s hard to believe the cats currently roaming Hemingway’s house aren’t the great-great grand kitties of Snowball, since half the cats I saw have Snowball’s trademark six toes. Their little paws resemble mittens.
I could hardly tear myself away from the cats as they wandered through the trees and lounged on the lush grass. But I did manage to go inside for a little while. The Hemingway House is lovely with first and second floor verandas, shuttered windows and high ceilings. Traditional in its layout, the house has a center hallway with a dining room to the right, living room to the left, and a small kitchen toward the back.
The grounds surrounding the house are both calming and invigorating, complete with towering palm trees and secret nooks carved among the greenery. The pool, which set Hemingway back an unheard of $20,000 in 1933, is huge even by today’s standards. Because Key West did not have running water when the pool was constructed, the builders drilled down through hard coral to hit salt water, then pumped the water up and into the pool. Hemingway was so fed up with the endless costs of the pool, he threw a penny down at his wife’s feet and cried, “Pauline, you’ve spent all but my last penny, so you might as well have that!”
Naturally, Pauline had the penny embedded into the concrete patio.
The best part of the house (besides the cats) is Hemingway’s study, which is above the coach house, right by the pool. Hemingway’s Royal brand portable typewriter sits on a dark, heavy table and his books perch on white shelves under the watchful gaze of several animal busts. Hemingway wrote seven novels in this room, including A Farewell to Arms and Death in the Afternoon.
Hemingway stayed in Key West off and on for 12 years and enjoyed a productive but playful life. It wouldn’t be hard to feel creative in such a place; the house felt expansive yet secluded, cozy yet full of light and air.
When asked about his days on Key West Hemingway said, “It’s the best place I’ve ever been anytime, anywhere…flowers, tamarind trees, guava trees, coconut palms…Got tight last night on absinthe and did knife tricks.”
So now we know what Hemingway drank on Key West, but what did he eat? The Hemingways enjoyed hosting dinner parties with seafood, so plentiful on the island, as the star ingredient. In a beloved food quote, Hemingway extols the transformative nature of an oyster: “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy, and to make plans.”
Good food always inspires me to make plans. Maybe Hemingway and I are kindred spirits.
Hemingway’s Ropa Vieja
As I left Hemingway’s home, I was struck by the contrast in his nature. His love for the delicate flavor of a single oyster, his affinity for a sweet kitten, his appreciation for flowering trees juxtaposed with his appetite for more “manly” pursuits like big game hunting, fishing, boxing, drinking, and knife tricks.
Hemingway wrote in the morning surrounded by his beautiful landscape and frequented Sloppy Joe’s bar every afternoon. While there, he may have eaten Ropa Vieja, meaning “old clothes,” a tangy, spicy Cuban dish robust and interesting enough to satisfy both a refined palate and a ravenous appetite.
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 pounds flank steak, cut into 1 inch strips (make sure to cut against the grain of the meat)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 medium sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 yellow bell pepper, thickly sliced
1 green bell pepper, thinly sliced
2 ounces tomato paste
1 tablespoon cumin
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tablespoon dried oregano
6 cloves garlic, finely choppped
1 bay leaf
1 dried Jamaican Hot Chocolate Pepper, slightly crushed (This pepper was from my Peppermeister stash. If you don’t have this type of pepper, no worries. Just substitute any kind of dried pepper, red pepper flakes or a fresh jalapeno here.)
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 cups beef stock
1 pint jar whole peeled tomatoes, crushed ( or 1 16-ounce can stewed or diced tomatoes)
1/2 cup pitted green olives, halved
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
Cooked white rice for serving
Season flank steak generously with salt and pepper. Heat oil in dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering (get it as hot as you can). Working in batches, cook the steak on both sides until browned, about 6 minutes. Transfer to a bowl. Add onion and bell peppers. Cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add tomato paste, cumin, thyme sprigs, oregano, garlic, bay leaf, and Jamaican Hot Chocolate Pepper. Cook until well combined, about 3 minutes.
Add tomatoes, beef stock, and flank steak to the pot. Bring to a boil. Turn heat to medium low and simmer, covered, for 3 hours, or until the steak is very tender. Remove steak and shred with a fork. Return meat to the pot with the olives and vinegar. Cook, uncovered, until slightly thickened, about 30 minutes.
Taste for seasoning and add salt if necessary (those olives add a nice briny saltiness). Fish out the bay leaf and thyme sprigs. Place a scoop of white rice in bowls and top with the Ropa Vieja. Garnish with cilantro just before serving.
(Next time I might just throw everything but the olives and vinegar in a crock pot for 8 hours on low, and add the olives and vinegar during the last half hour of cooking.)