Book Review
Sunday, November 18, 2012
Fathers and Sons: The Flame Alphabet and the Key West Kitchen

"The Flame Alphabet: A Novel" by Ben Marcus(Knopf, $29.95)

The latest novel by America's foremost avant-gardist, Ben Marcus, proposes that a time might one day come when human children will spurn language, the font of all human travail, and turn their back on the word.

If that sounds like a far-out fulfillment of the 1960s prophesies -- "word virus: rub out the word!" -- of, among other avant-gardists, William S. Burroughs, beat author of "Naked Lunch" and "Nova Express," it is.

"The Flame Alphabet" is also a commentary on the Old Testament character named Elisha. Imagine this:

A prophet is wandering Samaria when he encounters a gang of children. They begin taunting him, pointing out his baldness. The prophet becomes enraged and curses them -- when suddenly two female bears lumber out of the woods and maul the children, killing them. The prophet is Elisha, who inherited Elijah's powers after the latter ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot. This incident in the second book of Kings is the West's first account of "mocking children" (the language is the Bible's) and also the beginning of what psychologists in the 1980s called the "blame cycle."

The rabbis of the Talmud struggled with this story and sought to contextualize the children's punishment: to call the prophet "Bald," they said, was to accuse him of betraying Elijah's legacy, of neglecting his priestly duties, even of spreading leprosy (baldness was thought to be an indicator of the disease).

The early Christian Fathers who interpreted the tale were more concerned with establishing that even the holiest of men could be tempted by Satan. Both sets of commentators claimed that the she-bears responded to Elisha personally, not to any divine command.

Neither religion was mature enough to understand that God hates children as much as he hates the rest of us.

"The Flame Alphabet" is a mercilessly funny book and a deeply disturbing one, as may be divined from the above commentary by Joshua Cohen that appeared in the London Review of Books in June: "Marcus' writing is brilliant, vocal-cord taut, all incantations and vatics."

If you're ready for the avant garde once again, this book will be just your cup of lysergic.

-- M. H.

"My Key West Kitchen: Recipes and Stories by Norman and Justin Van Aken" (Kyle Books, $29.95)

Norman Van Aken, familiar to locals for his Tavern N Town at the Marriott Beachside and other ventures here, is also director of restaurants at the Miami Culinary Institute, the chef-owner of Norman's at the Ritz Carlton in Orlando -- and known as the founding father of New World Cuisine alongside Alice Waters, Paul Prudhomme and Mark Miller. He's the only Floridian inducted into James Beard's Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America.

His son Justin Van Aken was born in Key West and at the age of 22 started in the pastry department of Norman's in Coral Gables. Working with his dad, he has helped to open seven restaurants and "staged" at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Charlie Trotter's in Chicago.

This new book by father and son, "My Key West Kitchen," is 190 pages packed with mouthwatering photographs by Penny de los Santos -- even the "mushroom-stuffed hamburger with Janet's fries" may make you want to lick the page-- and has five chapters: Duval and Downtown Crawlin'; Places in the Hoods; Places on the Water; Around Town These Days" and "La Bodega."

A generous introduction by Charlie Trotter himself claims that "this magnificent work is so much more than a cookbook. It expresses the poetry, love and exuberance of all the things that make life living -- family, community, the pleasures of friendship and of the table, and of reveling in the beauty of the diligence and passion that goes into achieving all this." Which leads to the inevitable, "I guess now I'm thinking about moving to Key West."

It's part cookbook, part travelogue, part memoir and part a father-and-son love letter to the island. It's certainly the plushest publication ever devoted to a stroll through chicken-cluttered back streets and chilling out at the Green Parrot. It's classy too, of course. The Pier House is a special place for Norman because while he was learning to sauté, Justin was learning to swim. Louie's Backyard is where Norman originally created New World Cuisine.

The Van Akens look at Key West history as a culinary history. "The broad American South and Bahamian of the first part of the 20th century were joined in time with Cuban tastes in particular, as well as exotic flavors from as far as China, Japan and Thailand making it one of the most extraordinary cuisines in the world." This patois, say the publishers, is what caught Norman in its web and holds Justin just as gracefully. "With this book they hope to enthrall the entire nation with its culinary magic."

The advance praise has been intriguing.

Says the famed Emeril Lagasse: "Norman is one of the most gifted chefs I know and a dear friend. It's pretty incredible to get to see Key West through his and his son's eyes. 'My Key West Kitchen' gives you a great understanding of the charm, culture and food that he fell in love with and thankfully shares with all of us."

Adds Marcus Samuelsson: "A wonderful collection that perfectly demonstrates how one place can influence and shape an authentic chef."

"A delicious conflation of cultures," drools Mario Batali. "Simply put, this cookbook makes me want to take a trip to Key West!"

You're welcome.

-- M. H.