The Gourmet Highway: Dining with Papa

A new and very original biography of Ernest Hemingway is scheduled for publication soon. I was privileged to be a small part of this magnificent effort by Jim O’Kon. Successful as an architectural designer, archeologist and noted authority on Mayan culture, Jim’s works continue to be enjoyed not only at the Carter Presidential Library which he designed and the Campanile at Georgia Tech, his alma mater, but also the global tourism giant, Disney World. A prolific writer, his “Sitting in Hemingway’s Chair,” provides new insights into Hemingway’s life I’ve not found anywhere.

This story chronicles “Papa” Hemingway’s love of good food, fine wines, robust cocktails and delightful companions.

Few people today can claim they actually met and conversed with Ernest Hemingway. Jim O’Kon met the fabled author at Finca Vigia in 1955.

Dining with Papa

Jim O’Kon, as a teenager, met Ernest Hemingway at Finca Vigia.

By Jim O’Kon

Ernest Hemingway was a writer, soldier, spy, foreign correspondent, big game hunter, deep sea fisherman, boxer, brawler, and a hard drinker who ate to live and lived to eat. Throughout his life he searched for new and exciting foods.

Hemingway has become such a legendary character, it’s hard to imagine him as the enthusiastic, accomplished epicurean.

Many of Hemingway’s stories were sumptuous journeys to different countries. With the eyes, ears, and palate of an artist, he wove travel and food experiences into his fiction. From his youth in Oak Park, through the tragedies of Italy, his emergence as a writer in Paris, the grand celebrations in Spain, the years of fishing in Key West and Cuba, and hunting in Africa, his descriptions of food and drink still fascinate readers.

His dining experiences became a part of his life and found their way into his writing. His initial experiences as an omnivore came while a young reporter for the Kansas City Star. Ernest was a risk taker who would try anything once.

He savored Kansas City barbecue, slow-cooked ribs served on pages of newsprint for 25 cents a slab. He favored the nocturnal dining offered by all-night lunch wagons, eating chili con carne, brown, red, and hot all the way down with real chilmaha frijoles and the thrill of eating his first sea slugs in a Chinese restaurant.

Hemingway regularly rewarded himself after writing with a memorable meal. (Photo by Earl Theisen/Getty Images)

A rookie as a wine drinker, he bragged that he could,” distinguish chianti, catawba, malvasia, dago red, claret and several other wines sans the use of the eyes”.

In 1917 he joined the Italian Red Cross as an ambulance driver, assigned to Schio, Italy. and billeted in a former woolen mill. The mess hall served bountiful plates of spaghetti, sausage, bread, and unlimited red wine as they wanted. The wine was Valpolicella locally grown and delicious.

Hemingway was severely wounded. The war ended and he returned home to Illinois. After stints in Michigan and Toronto, he was back in Chicago living with friends in a rambling palatial apartment. The apartment mates were well-matched, seldom cooked at home and dined at Italian restaurants enjoying red wine, antipasto, pasta and risotto and a German restaurant where they savored German beer, schnitzel, sauerbraten and bratwurst with sauerkraut. The booze was especially good despite prohibition.

In 1921, he married Hadley Richardson and moved to Paris, working as a reporter for the Toronto Star. They checked into the Hotel Jacob et d’Angleterre in Saint Germane and found a good cheap cafe for their evening meals, Le Pre Aux Clercs.

Bar Hemingway at the Ritz Paris.

On Christmas morning, they explored the right bank, the Paris of the rich and fashionable. On the rue de la Paix they entered the Café de la Paix, perused the menu and ordered the Gratinee a l’oignon (onion soup). Hadley selected the Coeur de filet boeuf (beef tenderloin) and Ernest had the tartar de boeuf (steak tartar). When the addition was presented, they experienced sticker shock, realizing they had misinterpreted the menu prices and did not have enough money to pay the bill. Ernest sprinted back to the hotel to collect more funds while Hadley waited patiently.

Settling into a Paris apartment, they were introduced to important literary figures: Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach.  They were invited to dinner with Gertrude stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas. In March 1922, the Hemingway’s knocked on the door of a large two-story apartment at 27 rue De Fleurus. Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude’s companion, opened the door and led them into a large room, Ernest was immediately drawn to the ambiance of the room, it was warm and comfortable and was furnished with imposing Renaissance-era furniture. Original paintings included works of Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne and other prominent artists. Alice prepared a sumptuous feast. A critic and connoisseur, Alice was more interested in preparing food, tasting it and passing comment on it, than in consuming it. Stein’s appetite, by comparison, was prodigious. For this supper they enjoyed onion soup, followed by Coquille St. Jacques and a dessert of Tart Tatin (French apple pie). A fine white Chablis accompanied the meal.

Hemingway’s love and knowledge of good food is showcased in many of his novels.

Hemingway recalled that he often did his writing in quiet cafes and rewarded himself after his writing was done:

I closed up the story in the notebook and put it in my inside pocket and I asked the waiter for a dozen Portuguese and ½ carafe of the dry white wine that they had there. After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made love, and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good until I read it over the next day.”

After his first bestselling novel, The Sun Also Rises was published Ernest made new friends including Archibald MacLeish, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and the ultra-rich Gerald and Sara Murphy. While the Hemingway’s were visit the Murphy’s at Cap Antibes, their son Bumby was diagnosed with whooping cough and they were quarantined to their villa. Every day the Murphy’s, the MacLeish’s and the Fitzgerald’s, dressed in their tuxedos and gowns, would drive their Rolls Royce to the Hemingway villa, delivering delicious food and drink to the quarantined couple passing the culinary treasures through the iron bars: Delectable cheeses, unforgettable Charcuterie, escargot, and Beluga caviar accompanied by ice cold dry martinis. The hedonists enjoyed every cocktail hour.

After his divorce from Hadley, Ernest married Pauline Pfeiffer, an heiress who provided financial comfort. In 1929, he began writing A Farewell to Arms, after moving to Key West living in the grandest house on the island. They had a wonderful cook named Miriam, a talented cook, prepared Hemingway’s favorite dishes: baked fish, black beans laced with salt pork, garlic and Bermuda onions with either broccoli with Hollandaise sauce or string beans. The wines were French.

In 1934, Hemingway brought his beloved boat, Pilar. When he sailed on a fishing expedition, he would stow a bountiful supply of food on board. As Ernest steered Pilar to Cuba, stowed in lockers below deck were thirty-two cases of canned vegetables, fruits, soups, chili, tamales, pork and beans, and coffee supplies to last for months.

Accompanied by Martha Gelhorn, Hemingway covered as a correspondent the Spanish Civil War in 1937. Living at Hotel Florida, the correspondents ate at a long table. The menu was limited to beans, potatoes, and an occasional odiferous fish. But there was always plenty of wine and whiskey.

Ernest’s favorite watering hole in Madrid wasn’t a smoke-filled tapas bar, but it was his hotel room, a centroid of activity. Though the Hotel Florida wasn’t the Café des Amateurs, Hemingway managed to procure the best food and booze in the city. Every morning, the other guests woke up to the aromas of eggs, ham, and coffee being prepared in Room 108.

Ernest’s bathroom was packed with bottles of wine he had bought from the anarchists, who had stolen them from the Royal Palace. His rooms were amply stocked with corned beef, cheese, coffee, soups, tamales, and chocolate bars they had brought with them from Paris. Ernest’s friend Sara Murphy had generously sent delicious treats including poulet roti, confit dioe, jambon, saumon, boef aux haricots, tripe a la mode de caen and welsh rarebit.

His affair with Martha precipitated his second divorce and his relocation to Cuba. They bought a fine villa named Finca Vigia and started a new life.

Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s home near Havana.

When serving as a correspondent during World War II, Hemingway had some unique dining experiences. On July 30th, 1944, Ernest liberated a Mercedes convertible, which he had painted army issue olive drab, a German motorcycle with a side car and then he invaded a chateau’s well-stocked wine cellar. That night Ernest and other journalists relaxed in the chateau and enjoyed K-Ration chili con carne washed down with rare vintages including Chateau Lafitte-Rothschild and Chateauneuf de Pape.

After the war Hemingway returned home to Cuba, He and Martha divorced, and he married Mary Welsh who became mistress of Finca Vigia. He continued writing and fishing on Pilar.

When he went fishing on Pilar, Gregorio, his first mate and cook prepared gourmet meals of spaghetti with a sauce of chicken, beef, Galacian ham and chorizo; swordfish fried in butter then anointed with lemon; octopus in wine sauce; dorado in green sauce; crab cooked in lemon and broiled fish of all species.

He first met author Ed Hotchner at La Floridita, his favorite Havana bar. Ernest arrived a few minutes late, wearing his khaki pants held up by a wide leather belt with the huge buckle. The bartender placed two frozen daiquiris in front of them; They were in conical glasses twice the size of Ed’s previous drink. Then, the bartender placed a platter heaped with unshelled shrimp in front of them.

Couple of years ago,” Hemingway said picking up one of the shrimps, “I founded the royal order of shrimp eaters, want to join?”

“Sure, what do I do?”  

“Members of the order eat the heads and tails,”. He bit off a shrimp’s head and happily crunched it.

Hotchner tentatively bit off the head of a shrimp and crunched it.

“It grows on you,” Hemingway said, picking up another big shrimp. 

After Ernest won the Nobel Prize in1954 for the Old Man and the Sea, a local brewery hosted a party and he took the local fishermen along. He was angry that all these wealthy men in suits were at the table with him, he made them all get up, saying, ‘This table is for the humble fishermen of Cojimar!’ The food at the party was amazing, served with traditional Cubano dishes including roasted pig, Lechon Asado, Ropa Viejo; Pescado, Gambas, Camarones, Yuca con Mojo, fried plantains, papas rellenas and other traditional Cuban dishes plus a lot of beer.

In the summer of 1959, Life Magazine commissioned Hemingway to cover the competition of two toreadors in a series of bullfights across Spain. He traveled by car from city to city, reporting eating and drinking all the way. At Pamplona, he snacked on country bread covered with slabs of Manchego cheese and Jamon Serrano. When traveling between ferias, picnics included squabs, cheeses, cold smoked trout, black grapes, brown speckled pears, eggplant and pimientos in a succulent juice, unshelled shrimp, and fresh anchovies. Bottles of local wine were chilled in creeks and rivers.

In 1961, he was released from the Mayo Clinic and returned home to Ketchum, Idaho. Mary and a friend joined him at Christiana’s restaurant for what would be his last meal. He ordered his favorite Christiana meal, a rare New York strip steak and bottle of his favorite wine, Chateauneuf-du-Pape. They returned home afterwards.

Saturday morning, July 2, was a beautiful morning in Ketchum. Hemingway rose before the sun climbed over the mountain and beamed its rays through the panoramic windows.

The gunshots awakened Mary who would maintain for the next five years that his death had been an accident.

America’s magnificent writer, a genuine gourmet with an appetite for life, will forever remain one of the world’s greatest legends.

Old school journalism describes the style and stories produced by Doc Lawrence. “In everything I do,” he says, “there is a beginning, middle and an end.” One of the top travel writers in the country, Doc is steeped in the heritage of the deep south. Traveling the back roads from Texas to Virginia and on down to Key West inspires stories about local food and wine preferences, community theater, folk art and music often leading to clues for a good story. Heroes include Faulkner, Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy Parker and Willie Morris. An Atlanta native, Doc keeps a well-stocked wine cellar and bar and two outdoor grills. He enjoys entertaining and believes that the greatest challenge for a writer is to keep searching for a higher life. |
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