When the sun goes down over the Gulf of Mexico, Key West acrobats cavort, bagpipes wail, and onlookers applaud the copper and scarlet sunset. A visit to this southernmost city in the continental United States is like a trip to a festive foreign country.
First you have to travel over 100 miles on the Overseas Highway - island hopping across 42 bridges and ending up closer to Cuba than Miami.
Then you are plunged into a tropical island wonderland of brightly flowering trees and plants and the intriguing flavors of Cuban, ``conch,'' and international cuisines.
Conch, pronounced ``konk,'' is not only the name of the sea snails that are ground up to become wonderful chowders and fritters, but also of the people themselves. Native-born Key Westers are descendants of people who migrated there in the early 19th century from the Bahamas and Bermuda.
Since they were of Anglo-Saxon origin, they brought with them hearty desserts like duffs and trifles - but made them with coconuts and guavas. Because they were seafarers, their homes are built with wooden pegs instead of nails and have gingerbread trim and widow's walks.
The Cubans migrated to Key West in the latter half of the 19th century, bringing Moorish architecture and using the bounty of the sea to make garlicky paella and pilau.
The lush vegetation and balmy year-round temperature lead to a laid-back atmosphere conducive to alfresco dining.
A traditional dish is ``steam,'' the Key West word for stew. Into the conch-style steam goes stew meat, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes. Then it is served with dumplings or rice and fried plantains, the tropical plant that looks like a banana and tastes like a sweet potato when saut'eed.
The Cubans have contributed a garbanzo (chickpea) bean soup, made with cabbage and sweet potatoes. And finnican soup consists of crab meat, milk, and lime juice.
Surrounded by the best fishing waters in America, Key Westers indulge themselves in spiny lobsters, kingfish, pompano, snapper, and grouper.
Grunts are tiny fish served for breakfast with grits and ``old sour,'' a local condiment made of Key lime juice, salt, and hot red peppers called bird peppers.
The pink Key West shrimp are a special delight. They get their name because they are a delicate pink color even when raw.
Many of the meat dishes have a Spanish flavor - with tomatoes, garlic, and onions. Boliche roast is a Cuban dish of tenderloin beef stuffed with chopped chorizo sausage and hard boiled eggs, roasted with highly seasoned tomato sauce, and served with black beans and rice.
Picadillo is ground beef cooked with onions, green peppers, green olives, capers, and raisins.
No meal in Key West can be finished without a slice of Key Lime Pie. Made with graham cracker crust and topped with meringue, it cannot be made with regular lime juice and taste the same. Fortunately, visitors can buy bottled Key lime juice to take home.
Eloise Felton's Key Lime Pie 1 1/2 cup graham cracker crumbs 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar 1 stick butter, melted 3 eggs, separated 1 14-ounce can sweetened evaporated milk 1/2 cup Key lime juice 1/3 cup sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine graham cracker crumbs, confectioners' sugar, and butter. Press onto bottom and sides of 9-inch pie plate.
Bake for 10 minutes. Let cool before filling.
Beat together egg yolks and condensed milk. Add lime juice and beat until the consistency of pudding.
Pour mixture into baked pie shell. Chill for 1 hour.
Turn oven to 400 degrees F. To make meringue, beat egg whites until stiff, but not dry. Add sugar, beating constantly. Swirl meringue onto top of lime custard. Bake for 15 minutes, until lightly browned.
Note: 16-once bottles of Key West Lime Juice are available from Key West Lime Juice Factory, Miami, FL 33186. Telephone: (305) 233-5987.
Key West Arroz Con Pollo 1 2 1/2 pound chicken, cut up 1/4 cup olive oil 3 cloves garlic, crushed 1 green pepper, chopped 2 medium onions, chopped 1 medium tomato, chopped 1 bay leaf 1/2 teaspoon tarragon 3 cups water 5 strands saffron or 2 teaspoons Bijol (ground annatto seed, available in Spanish markets) 1 1/2 cups uncooked rice Salt and pepper to taste 1/2 cup capers (optional) 1/2 cup black olives
Brown chicken in olive oil in a 6-quart Dutch oven over medium heat. Remove chicken.
Saut'e garlic, green pepper, onions, and tomato in olive oil until onion is transparent.
Add water, rice, saffron or Bijol, and chicken. Cook over low heat about 30 minutes until chicken is tender and rice is done. Stir occasionally with a fork. Add capers and olives. Serves 4-6.
Cuban Green Beans 2 pounds green beans 1 tablespoon minced onion 1 tablespoon minced green pepper 1/2 teaspoon lime juice 3 tablespoons olive oil Salt and pepper to taste
Cook beans quickly until tender. Add olive oil, onion, pepper, and lime juice. Season to taste. Shrimp Amarouse, The Buttery 2 tablespoons olive oil 5 cloves fresh garlic, minced 1/3 cup fresh basil, finely chopped 1 pound medium shrimp, peeled, deveined, tails left on 1/2 cup chicken bouillon 1 1/2 cups shredded carrots 8 mushrooms, quartered 6 tablespoons unsalted butter 8 tablespoons blanched, slivered almonds Salt and pepper to taste Parsley
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, basil, and shrimp and saut'e until shrimp are pink, 3 to 5 minutes. Season to taste.
Remove from pan and keep warm. Add carrots and mushrooms to skillet and cook lightly. Add butter and swirl pan. Stir in almonds and season to taste.
Mound carrot-mushroom mixture in the middle of each plate; surround with shrimp. Pour sauce over all. Garnish with parsley.