Feeding the Muse: Ernest Hemingway

Feeding the Muse: Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway with Sailfish
Hemingway’s Catch of the Day – Sailfish. Ernest and son Jack in Key West, 1929.

As we prepared for “The Hungry Muse,” our 29th annual Seminar, in January of 2011, we consulted the letters of the great writers of Key West’s past to learn what they ate in the island city and create a selection of historically plausible menus. First up: Ernest Hemingway.

Like Hemingway’s prose style, his diet in Key West was composed of basic elements and depended upon an active sporting life. He spent weeks fishing and hunting shorebirds in the Marquesas and Tortugas, clusters of islands 30-60 miles west of Key West, and the quarry from these trips seems to have been his culinary staple. He was also an attentive gardener, planting fig, coconut, lime, and avocado trees on the grounds of his house on Whitehead Street, and joking to John Dos Passos that they were fertilized with the “ton of crap” he’d cut out from each day’s first drafts. “I wish you could plant a gin tree,” he joked to Maxwell Perkins, and in fact he hunted for booze too, once robbing the cargo from a reef-wrecked ship that had been carrying a shipment of liquor and wine.

A locavore before his time, Hemingway’s menu makes certain demands on the home chef. Consider it an invitation to adventure.

“We’ve been living on shorebirds, snipe and plover, and doves… Started out on absinthe, drank a bottle of good red wine with dinner, shifted to vodka … and then battened it down with whiskys and sodas until 3 am. Feel good today. But not like working.”

DRINKS: Absinthe

FOOD & DRINK: Fresh figs, Archibald MacLeish’s special ham, and Champagne. “I never ate anything better than the ham… Truly not only best ham but one of the very finest, rarest fine thing we ever ate.” (sic)

DRINKS: Gin & tonic, with a twist of lime from Hemingway’s trees.

SALAD: Fresh avocado, dressed with lime.

WINE: Chateau Margaux*.

FOWL: Roast snipe, terns, plover, and doves. “They are very good with the Bordeaux.”

SMOKED FISH & DRINKING: Buttonwood-smoked kingfish, Spanish mackerel, and amberjack. Vodka, then Whiskys & Sodas.

* Not only because it is so expensive to purchase, but because it will taste much better, we recommend salvaging the Chateau Margaux from a shipwreck where possible. As for the now-endangered species of fowl Hemingway shot in the Key West National Wildlife Refuge, you may wish to find an alternative. The fish, though high in mercury, remain plentiful. Bon Appetit!

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