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2000s Archive

Counting Sheep

Originally Published May 2003
Brake before you hit Key West. Enter a tragicomic realm of outlaws and rumrunners, pink flamingos and yellow limes that drop off trees into the palm of your hand. These are the other Keys—languid, laid-back, full of light and salt air.

Few lines are as clear as the line between life and death when “breaking” a stone crab. Pull a live stone crab from a trap off Marathon, as I am hoping to do in a minute, and the only part of the crab that can be harvested are the claws. To be specific, one is allowed to break off any claw—the crusher and/or the cutter—as long as the business end measures at least two and three-quarter inches in length. The crab itself is then tossed back in the water and commences the process of regenerating its appendages.

“It takes around three years for them to regrow legal claws,” says my host, Butch Hewlett, a second-generation fisherman and a native of Marathon, which is two thirds of the way down the serpentine string of coral limestone islands that drip off the southern coast of Florida like a coccyx.

But there is a catch.

The best way to harvest the claws, he says, is to grab the crab with two hands and bend the claws toward each other until they break off. If you do this at the “shoulder” joint, a small diaphragm slides over the hole so the crab doesn’t bleed to death. If you snap off a shoulder socket with the claw, however, the crab dies.

“In the old days, we used to break the crabs on the way back to shore. Now, I got a crew of three who can do it right away, out on the water. We’ve nearly doubled our performance rate.”

He slows the boat down as we arrive at the first traps, a few dozen miles offshore. “Let’s see if you qualify to be a part of my new crew,” he says, as he reaches over, grabs the buoy, and begins to pull in the trap.

To hear the guidebooks tell it, the Keys are the last bastion of paradise in the continental United States, an idyllic Eden of sandy beaches and emerald isles, a necklace of romantic sunsets and majestic bridges that transport visitors to shimmering heights of escape. “Ours is a land of dreamers, doers, and do-si-doers,” writes one breathless tour guide, “of train makers, treasure trovers, and time-honored tranquillity.”

Has she been on U.S. 1?

This is what the Keys are and this is what they aren’t: The Keys are a chain of nearly 800 mangrove-wrapped islands that stretch south by southwest off the tip of Florida in the direction of Cuba. They have virtually no beaches. Only 46 of the Keys (the word key is believed to derive from the older English word cay, which in turn derives from the Spanish word cayo, or “island”) are inhabited, and they are connected to one another by 43 bridges. These bridges form the backbone of one of the more impressive engineering feats of the early 20th century, which has become one of the more egregious tourist monstrosities of the early 21st century: U.S. Highway 1, also known as the Overseas Highway.

For hundreds of years, the Keys were an anomaly—closer in personality to Cuba than to the U.S. In the Civil War, for instance, Navy-dependent Key West never sided with the Confederacy. By 1890, it was a thriving community of 18,000 (the largest in Florida), made up of cigarmakers, pineapple farmers, and outlaws making a living by looting wrecked vessels. But it was still isolated, until Standard Oil magnate Henry Flagler hatched a preposterous plan to stretch a railroad 128 miles from Miami to Key West, over solid rock islands, open waterways, and mosquito-infested flats.

“Flagler’s Folly” commenced operating on January 22, 1912, and brought with it increased trade but few tourists. Bugs were too plentiful, freshwater too scarce. And then, on Labor Day 1935, a hurricane blew the entire railroad away.

It was never rebuilt, though its foundation became the basis for the Overseas Highway, in 1938. Today, that highway is the only direct thoroughfare between Miami and Key West. U.S. 1 is so vital that all addresses in the Keys are referred to by Mile Marker, as in MM 26, Oceanside, or MM 97.5, Bayside. Until recently, even mail was delivered this way.

These days, U.S. 1 is a virtual 100-mile traffic jam that gives drivers time to marvel at the endless line of pink flamingo motels, sand-dollar bazaars, and tiki-carving stands. The Keys were once home to the Millionaires Club, but things have changed. When I stopped at a gift shop in front of the historic Seven Mile Bridge, I was overwhelmed by the array of plastic pelican toilet seats and talking Key lime flashlights. “Is there a giant knickknack factory someplace where all this comes from?” I asked the attendant.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s called China.”

The unending parade of look-alike kitsch actually masks a quiet revolution in the life of the Keys. During most of the last century, Key West was the only incorporated municipality on the Keys, which gave it a lock on all tax dollars. Key West viewed the Upper and Middle Keys as mere funnels and discouraged even stoplights that might slow people from arriving at land’s end. But the other Keys have been fighting back, incorporating themselves, husbanding tax dollars for road beautification, and—gasp—installing stoplights. Today, for the first time in Keys history, the Upper and Middle Keys together boast more residents than Key West—a total of two thirds of the 80,000 people who live permanently on the islands.

So how are these other Keys different? For a start, they are less about debauchery and crowded cruise-ship nightclubs, and more about a small-town pace. Outside of a few dolphin shows and Hollywood’s African Queen incongruously docked on Key Largo (the connection seems to be Humphrey Bogart), there is little of interest in the Upper and Middle Keys.

The only thing to do is go out onto the water.

And that’s where the Keys come alive.

As tacky as the land is in this part of Florida, the water is serene and complex. Because they jut so far out from the mainland, the Keys are something of a maritime lightning rod, whose waters mingle with those of the Gulf of Mexico, the Straits of Florida, the Gulf Stream, the Atlantic, and the Caribbean. Deep ocean currents rise to the surface of this unique confluence, summoning a smorgasbord of phytoplankton and other organisms that a variety of fish live on.

Since the islands are composed of coral limestone, they have few beaches and are wrapped instead with protective layers of sea grasses and plants. To kayak off the ocean side of Marathon, for example, is to wend through mangroves, turtle grass, and manatee grass. The root system traps nutrients, which feed shrimp, crab, and other crustaceans. Anglers stalking bonefish that eat these animals propel their boats with poles so that the fish are not scared away by the motors.

Farther south on the ocean side is the only living coral reef in the continental United States, extending more than 200 miles from Fort Lauderdale past Key West to the Dry Tortugas. Parts of the reef have died from pollution and other abuse by humans (including poaching by locals for tropical fish to stuff aquariums), though federal and state legislation protects the entire area.

The mother lode of the Keys is still fishing, whether it’s recreational; competitive, for tarpon, swordfish, dolphin, shark, and marlin; or commercial, for lobster, grouper, snapper, and, of course, stone crabs.

Back on the boat, Butch Hewlett places the buoy into a hydraulic lift, which quickly retrieves the crab trap from the floor of the bay. The trap is made of black plastic and is about the size and shape of a milk crate. Hewlett opens the top and examines the contents—three crabs. Stone crabs have oval bodies mottled with gray and two large claws tipped in black.

The first one he scoops up is clearly alive, but has no claws. “Butthead!” he cries, using the nickname for clawless crabs, and throws it overboard. The next one has claws that are too small. Overboard. The third is marginal. He grabs the crab with his right hand (covered with a white cotton glove), then raises a metal gauge to measure a claw. Just legal.

He takes a claw in each hand and forces them toward each other until first the right claw, then the left, snaps off. He tosses the claws into a bucket, then returns the crab to the water. The bucket has no ice, because icing the claws makes the meat stick to the shell. Finally, he drops a frozen pig’s foot into the trap as bait and lowers the trap overboard.

Hewlett’s wife, Barbara, advances the boat to the next buoy, and we repeat the process. Now it’s my turn to break off the claws. I grab a crab from the trap and am instantly surprised by its strength. The two claws are clamorous, snapping furiously.

“The cutter is really the more dangerous one,” Hewlett observes dryly. “If it catches hold of your finger it can pretty much cut it off with the bone.”

Mustering more strength than I had anticipated, I begin to force the claws in toward the belly of the crab. I notice I’m straining. A drop of sweat trickles down my cheek. It feels like I’m arm wrestling a football player—but it’s a puny crab. I’m a little humiliated at the thought of losing to an animal roughly 1⁄200 my body weight. I could only imagine how loud this crab would brag in some locker room under the sea.

At last the right claw begins to yield, then suddenly snaps off in my hand. I nearly stumble. The disembodied claw now seems very light.

Relieved, I pitch the claw into the bucket and concentrate on the left claw. It has not given up the fight. Struggling to find a grip, I push the claw inward until I hear a slightly different crackle, accompanied by a gurgle of liquid. I look at the crab and realize the unthinkable. I have pulled out the socket.

I have killed the crab.

I’m sad. I feel as if I’ve let the crab down: All I had to do was break off the claw correctly, and we both could live. Hewlett gestures for me to pull myself out of my funk, and I feebly toss the still-moving body into the water. Over the next half hour we hasten our pace and my performance slowly improves. I send live buttheads overboard with satisfying regularity. My percentage makes me eligible for his crew. Finally, our bucket brimming, we head back to shore.

Beyond fishing, the other great trademark of the Florida Keys is a certain miniature citrus fruit. I stopped by a small shack around MM 95. The sign out front said “Key Lime Trees, Tropical Gifts, Lotion, Free Samples, Nursery.”

The sign only hinted at the hodgepodge inside, with shelf after shelf of fish carvings from Bali, metal frogs from Jamaica, and approximately 150 different food products containing Key lime flavoring: chutney, hot sauce, cookies, mustard, fudge, bundt cake, Caesar salad dressing, marmalade, and pepper jelly. To hear John McCarthy tell it, “A day without Key limes is like a day without sunshine.”

McCarthy himself seems to effortlessly balance the old and new Keys. On the one hand, with his straight silver hair, mustache, and slight limp, he would look at home in that part of the Keys known as a place where hooligans and criminals go to disappear. “I used to play cards every week with a guy until all of a sudden we read in the paper that he’s wanted up north for bank robbery.”

But in temperament, this Philadelphia native represents the modern Keys: He’s an entrepreneur. “I’ve always considered the Keys the last frontier,” he says. “You can come down here with an idea and work hard and you can make some money.”

McCarthy’s scheme was to put oil from the limes that grow in the Keys into skin products. From there he went on to food. Eight years later, he runs a thriving mail-order business that has made him the King of the Key Limes.

Citrus aurantifolia, sometimes called a true lime, is a species that’s indigenous to Malaysia and grows in a belt around the tropics, especially in Mexico and the West Indies. The term Key lime is said to have originated in the 1910s, when growers in the Keys briefly replaced the decimated pineapple groves with limes before they, too, were wiped out by a hurricane. Today, there are few commercial groves in the Keys, but a preponderance of homes have trees in the yard. McCarthy estimates that two thirds of the limes he uses come from the islands. “Limes grown here have better flavor,” he says, “because of the coral in the ground. It has a high limestone content.”

Key limes are smaller than supermarket limes (which are Persian limes, grown mostly in Florida and Mexico), and are more seedy and acidic. “There are old-timers down here who drink it to flush out their systems,” McCarthy said. “It’s a great detox—cleans out your kidneys and liver.”

Every spring McCarthy hosts a Key lime pie bake-off, with contestants from across the islands and judges from nearby hotels and businesses. He’s seen the filling mixed with blackberries, cream cheese, even tequila, and topped with pecans, meringue, or whipped cream. He prefers the classic recipe, with egg yolks and sweetened condensed milk (or whole milk) in a graham cracker crust, but his only hard-and-fast rule is, “It cannot be green. Never green. Never.”

Why not?

“Because when Key limes are ripe they’re yellow. If you see a piece of Key lime pie somewhere and it’s green, don’t eat it. It’s made with either green gelatin or impostor limes.”

It was midafternoon by the time the stone-crab boat made it back to shore. Hewlett carried the bucket into the kitchen of Keys Fisheries, the dockside restaurant where his wife works. The claws must be boiled (for eight minutes) and iced immediately, or, again, the meat will stick to the shell. The cooked specimens are then shipped off to Joe’s Stone Crab, in Miami, where they are served cold.

Minutes later, a tray of warm stone-crab claws arrives at the table, along with dishes of butter and mustard sauce. The meat has the grain of an Atlantic blue crab and a light sweetness. Warm, it doesn’t benefit from the traditional creamy mustard. Instead, just a dunk in the butter, and the lump of claw that once fought so valiantly disappears on the tongue in a mist of appreciation for this land of, well, train makers, treasure trovers, and time-honored tranquillity.

EDITORS’ NOTE: Stone-crab claws are available seasonally (October 15–May 15) from Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant (800-780-2722; joesstonecrab.com). They’re the real deal; many of the stone-crab claws sold today are imported from Chile and Ecuador, and are a different genus entirely.

Keys to the Kingdom

Beyond the shell shacks and pink flamingo motels, the Keys offer a number of places to escape and even enjoy a drink that doesn’t come bedecked with a paper umbrella.

Where to Stay

Go ahead, splurge:

The pearl of the Keys is Little Palm Island, one of the most luxurious spots in the Southeast. This five-acre exclusive resort just north of Key West contains 28 thatch-roofed oceanfront bungalows. At night, tables are set up on the beach, where chef Adam Votaw displays a deft touch while mixing Caribbean, Asian, and French flavors. Visitors can reserve a table and take the boat over just for a meal. (MM 28.5, Oceanside, Little Torch Key; 800-343-8567; littlepalmisland.com; bungalows from $495 starting June 1)

Sweet retreat:

The charming Kona Kai, on Key Largo, has one- and two-bedroom suites with tile floors, kitchens, and brightly colored paintings. Children are not allowed, so guests can truly escape their daily routine. A tennis court, an art gallery, free kayaks, and ripe fruit on trees make hiding away a rich diversion. (MM 98, Bayside, Key Largo; 800-365-7829; konakairesort.com; suites from $172)

Strike a pose:

At The Moorings Village, in Islamorada, expect a bit of an attitude but also one of the few stretches of white beach in the Keys, dotted with coconut palms, hammocks, and Adirondack chairs. (MM 81.5, Oceanside, Islamorada; 305-664-4708; cottages with kitchenette from $185 or $375 for a full-house one bedroom)

Artistic license:

More of a bargain, Seascape Resort, in Marathon, is run by the delightful Sara and Bill Stiles, local artists whose five-acre oceanfront property includes nine pastel-hued guest rooms (with hand-painted headboards), a dock, a swimming pool, assorted boats, and a patio for breakfast and cocktails. (MM 50, Oceanside, Marathon; 800-332-7327; seascaperesort.us; from $150)

Where to Eat

Deuce coupe:

Depending on where you’re staying, eating well in the Upper and Middle Keys might require some driving. Two of the best restaurants are side by side on the same property and owned by the same person, French jet-setter turned not-always-welcome Keys entrepreneur Hubert Baudoin. The flashier of the two is Pierre’s, a faux-Victorian house on the bay (the beach sand is imported from the Bahamas). The ambitious menu can be overwhelming, but the mix of Asian, Indian, and South Florida flavors (lotus-root-crusted yellowtail; lobster tempura) is welcome after a surfeit of conch fritters. At the less sophisticated Beach Café at Morada Bay, dishes such as blue-crab pizza are served tapas-style in a noisy bar or outside at tables overlooking the water. (MM 81.6, Bayside, Islamorada; Pierre’s: 305-664-3225; Morada Bay: 305-664-0604)

Best Key lime pie:

Manny is a true Keys character, and even if he didn’t bake the best Key lime pies on the planet, it would be worth stopping by his little Cuban-American diner, Manny & Isa’s Kitchen. Everyone loves Manny, from the three-legged dog who comes along when he picks Key limes from a neighbor’s yard to the kids who come to watch as he squeezes them on a broken juicer. (MM 81.6, Oceanside, Islamorada; 305-664-5019)

Best seafood:

Barracuda Grill is a low-key spot run by Lance Hill and his wife, Jan, a former sous-chef at Little Palm Island. The emphasis here is not on the décor, but on the food, especially mangrove snapper, spicy calamari, and tuna fillets so pink and fresh they almost make sushi seem old. (MM 49.5, Bayside, Marathon; 305-743-3314)

Hook, line, and sinker:

Among the joys of the Keys are the many dockside restaurants where local color mixes with local catch.The ChikiTiki Bar & Grille at Burdines Waterfront serves blackened dolphin (that’s mahimahi, not Flipper) sandwiches and a deep-fried catch of the day with french fries and hush puppies in a basket. (MM 48, Oceanside, Marathon; 305-743-5317) Calypso’s Seafood Grille offers she-crab soup and crabmeat quesadillas washed down with homemade sangria. (1 Seagate Boulevard, MM 99.5, Oceanside, Key Largo; 305-451-0600) But for one of the rarest treats available in the Keys—warm stone-crab claws—visit Keys Fisheries Market & Marina, where they cook up shrimp, Florida lobster, clams, and conch and serve them to you on the dock. On celebrity theme day, instead of your own name, leave the name of someone famous: “Ernest Hemingway, your stone crabs are ready!” (MM 49, Bayside, Marathon; 305-743-4353) —B.F.