l used to be very shy when it came to going into restaurants and trying cuisines that I had not known, being a youth who came from a tiny town called Diamond Lake, Illinois. When I moved to Key West in 1973, one of the places that caught, not my eye, but my nose was El Cacique. It was on lower Duval, which was a very tin-hip place back then. I loved that.

The people who were in El Cacique were the working class shopkeepers, cops, fishermen, and other "regular joes” of the funky island town back then. The door was opening as I walked past one day and this heavenly fragrance of cooking came my way. The aroma of Cuban cooking-redolent of cumin, garlic, pork, beans and citrus-stretched out to me. My stomach tightened as I inhaled this heaven. I set aside my shyness and took a seat at the counter. One of the three Cuban girls came and asked me in Spanish what I was having. I asked her what smelled so good and she smiled, switched to English and said, “maybe you smell the Caldo Gallego. It’s our soup toda.”

They brought me a steaming bowlful and a side order of toasted Cuban bread. There were white beans dominating the bowl, but the flavors of beef, pork, chicken stock, potatoes, and garlic all came to life. I loved it and the whole world seemed to go away as I sank into its dream for a Coleridge-like time. White Bean Soup would never be the same. As I greedily finished sopping the last of it with my bread the girl came back and told me with a smile, “I guess you’ll be back.” Yes, I will, many times, even if I have to only pretend. I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s my word on food.

     I’m Norman Van Aken and that’s my word on food.

Copyright © by Norman Van Aken, 2002
Works consulted: Memory Lane.