The Gourmet Highway – Ernest Hemingway: American Gourmet

This story is a collaboration with the late Jim O’Kon. A renowned architect and designer whose masterpieces included The Carter Presidential Library and Disney World. Jim, as a teenager, actually met Ernest Hemingway in Havana. His wonderful book, Sitting in Hemingways Chair, which I edited, is my favorite resource for all things about the legendary writer.

Jim O’Kon
Jim O’Kon, architect and author who met Hemingway in Havana. Credits: Down South Today.

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

Ernest Hemingway has become such a legendary character, it’s hard to think of a recipe that could match his macho reputation.

In his writing, Hemingway transported us on 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, Illinois 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 fascinated the reader.

The descriptions of eating and drinking in his writing came from real life as he traveled the world and dined and drank his way across continents.

His initial experiences as an omnivore came when he became a reporter for the Kansas City Star. He would try anything once and liked the local cuisine, particularly Kansas City barbecue, slow-cooked ribs served on pages of newsprint for 25 cents a slab.

Papa’s Favorite Wine. Credits: Down South Today

By his own admission, he was just a rookie as a wine drinker.

In 1917, during World War I, he joined the Italian Red Cross as an ambulance driver and was assigned to Schio, Italy. His unit was billeted on the second floor of a former woolen mill. The first floor served bountiful plates of spaghetti, sausage, bread, and limitless red wine, Valpolicella, locally grown and delicious. Hemingway devoured the food and wine and absorbed this on-the-job experience like a sponge.

He was severely wounded in Italy and the war soon ended and he returned home to Oak Park, Illinois.

In 1921, he met and married Hadley Richardson and they moved to Paris and he became a reporter for the Toronto Star. They arrived just before Christmas and checked into the tel Jacob et d’Angleterre in Saint Germane. Around the corner from the hotel, they found a good cheap cafe for their evening meals, Le Pre Aux Clercs.

On Christmas morning, they decided to explore the right bank, the Paris of the rich and fashionable. On the rue de la Paix they looked for a place to have Christmas dinner. They selected the Café de la Paix where they reviewed the menu and ordered carefully. Both 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. 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. He arrived, paid the addition and they walked back to the hotel, likely in a subdued mood.

They settled into a Paris apartment, but spent the winter skiing in Austria in the town of Chambey, and booked rooms in a brown timber chalet with large comfortable rooms and three meals provided for less than $5 per week. The meals were mouthwatering Austrian specialties: Weiner schnitzel, Knodel, Grüner Veltliner and Sachertorte.

Hemingway at Work
Papa at Work. Credits: Down South Today

In Paris, they were introduced to important people like 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, raising to the ceiling, lined the walls in tiers.

The paintings were the works of Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne and other prominent artists. In 1906, Picasso completed the Portrait of Gertrude Stein, which was prominently displayed along with works of other masters. Alice prepared the dinner which was a sumptuous feast. Alice was a critic and connoisseur, 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’s Saint Jacque and a dessert of Tart Tatin (French apple pie). A fine white Chablis was served with the meal.

Hemingway would do his writing in quiet cafes and reward 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 bestselling novel, The Sun also Rises was published, Hemingway made new friends including Archibald MacLeish, Scott Fitzgerald and the ultra-rich Gerald and Sara Murphy. When the Hemingway’s were invited to visit the Murphy’s at Cap Antibes, disaster struck when their son Bumby was diagnosed with whooping cough and they were quarantined to their villa. Their friends brought them afternoon cheer. Every day the Murphy’s, the MacLeish’s and the Fitzgerald’s, dressed in their tuxedos, would drive their Rolls Royce to the Hemingway villa, and provided delicious food and drink to the quarantined couple including delectable cheeses, unforgettable charcuterie, escargot, and beluga caviar accompanied by ice cold dry martinis. The gaggle of hedonists greatly enjoyed every cocktail hour.

Hemingway married Pauline Pfeiffer after divorcing Hadley. Pauline was an heiress and his life changed with a new wife and financial comfort. In 1929, he began writing A Farewell to Arms; they moved to Key West and started a new life in the grandest house on the island. They had a wonderful cook named Miriam who 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 standard dining room dress was casual, and the wines were French.

Key West Home
The Hemingway House in Key West is a major tourism destination. Credits: Down South Today

In 1934, Hemingway bought his beloved boat, Pilar. When he sailed on a fishing expedition, he would stow a bountiful supply of food, wine, rum and gin on board.

In 1937, he covered the Spanish Civil War as a correspondent accompanied by Martha Gelhorn. They lived at the Hotel Florida in Madrid. Ernest, along with fellow correspondents ate at a long table. The menu was limited to beans, potatoes, and the occasional odiferous fish. But there was always plenty of wine and whiskey.

Ernest’s favorite watering hole in Madrid was not a smoke-filled tapas bar, but his room at Hotel Florida. Hemingway managed to procure the best food and booze in the city. Every morning, the other guests woke up to the smell 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 in turn had stolen them from the Royal Palace. His rooms were amply stocked with food basics including 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, Finca Viga, and started a new life. After completing the novel For Whom the Bells Tolls, they flew to China where he became a spy and Martha was a correspondent. The travel was difficult, but the food was fabulous.

When serving as a correspondent during World War II, Hemingway had some unique experiences with dining adventures. One night, Ernest and other journalists relaxed in the wine cellar of a noted chateau and enjoyed K-Ration chili con carne washed down with rare vintages including Chateau Lafitte 1915 and Chateauneuf de Pape 1929.

Colonel Buck Latham had set up his HQ in a large farmhouse near the German village of Buchet. At the farmhouseErnest was honored with a steak dinner and added to his legend in a foolhardy adventure. Twelve men, including officers and correspondents, sat down at the dining table to enjoy their steak dinner. The meal was suddenly interrupted by a German artillery shell that entered through one wall of the house and passed out the other side without exploding. Eleven of the twelve men at the table disappeared into the cellar. Entering the cellar, Buck Latham turned back to see Hemingway “quietly cutting his meat.” Latham ordered Ernest into the cellar, but he refused,

After the war, Hemingway returned home to Cuba. He and Martha divorced, and he married Mary Welsh. She became the mistress of Finca Viga. 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 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 that 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,” he said picking up another big shrimp. 

After winning the 1954 Nobel Prize for literature for The Old Man and the Sea, a local brewery threw him a party. The food by all accounts was amazing: traditional Cubano dishes including a pig roast, Lechon Asado, Ropa Viejo; Pescado, Gambas, Camarones, Yuca con Mojo, fried plantains, papas rellenas and other traditional Cuban dishes plus a lot of beer.

At Sun Valley in 1958, Hemingway and Gary Cooper hunted daily. Hemingway was faster at sighting a bird and Cooper was almost as accurate. Cooper arrived with a whole smoked goose when a fierce blizzard interfered with their hunting plans. Ernest complimented this with a gallon jug of Chablis, which had been chilling in a snowbank. All afternoon, they sat around the table in front of the fire cutting off slices of goose and drinking Chablis. It was a grand old time.

In the summer of 1959, Hemingway was assigned by Life Magazine to cover the competition of two toreadors in a series of bullfights across Spain. He traveled by car from city to city eating and drinking all the way. At Pamplona, his entourage 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 wine were chilled in the river.

In 1961, after release from the Mayo Clinic, Hemingway returned to his Idaho home in Ketchum. Mary joined him at Christiana’s restaurant for what would be his last dinner. He ordered a New York strip steak and a bottle of his favorite wine, Chateauneuf-du-Pape. They returned home afterward.

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. America’s greatest writer had made a resolution about remembering his future by anticipating his past. It would be an ending that all his readers and his future readers would remember, a grand ending with a true final act.

The gunshots awakened Mary from her sleep, and she would maintain for the next five years that his death had been an accident.

America’s greatest writer had become 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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