When my last and final book deadline came and went this month, I found myself heading back to Miami again for the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. Now one of the largest in the country, the festival is essentially held in my own backyard though I’d never gone down for it before. After interviewing a few of the chefs who’d be participating for The Latin Kitchen, I was excited to be there for the event itself but had not idea what to expect.
Spending time on the beach can be a disorienting experience. As a kid, it was all abandoned Deco hotels with cavernous interiors, empty barber shops with chrome fitted chairs, and baroque kitsch lobbies. If we got tired of the sand, my mother would let us sneak into one of the ocean front hotel pools. Well not so much sneak, as confidently walk up to any one we liked, order a Shirley Temple at the bar, and take a dip. As the area picked up in the late eighties and early nineties, club kids and drag queens joined the retirees and latter day little Edie Beales who made the beach their year-round home. The Versace mansion and occasional Madonna sighting brought a reflected glamour to the area while Lincoln Road became a beach-side bohemia with a handful of galleries, an art house movie theater, and the random coffee shops my high school friends and I would run from end to end.
If I could have stopped it there I might have, but it really wasn’t up to me. With few signs of slowing, the development has been both positive (safer streets, rescued hotels) and negative (retail chain take-over and soul-killing traffic) in all the usual ways. Taking an early morning run last weekend, I followed a familiar path on the ocean front promenade but had never noticed just how many fences and gates had gone up on either side. Some days it feels like only the red sun-burnt sidewalks have stayed the same. At least once on every trip home, I find myself looking around at the roving packs of even-tan tourists and wondering – who are these people?
This happened a few times during the SOBEWFF where there was more of absolutely everything – seas of people crowding tables of food laid out under ocean front tents while live-action chefs and television personalities speak from the stages or mingle in the crowds at countless dinners and tastings that spread throughout the city. Home but not home, local chefs and restaurants hold their own – from ceviche on the beach to Cabrera’s foie gras medianoches and Miguel Aguilar’s ropa vieja empanadas at Wynwood Walls. At the Goya’s Swine & Wine hosted by Michelle Bernstein at the Biltmore Hotel, José Mendin of Pubbelly made a cochinillo lechal asado, Timon Balloo of Bocce Bar knocked out pancetta spiced pork, Fernando Desa and Sean Brasel topped steamed buns with pulled pork and black sofrito for Goya, Paula da Silva of 3030 Ocean served crispy pork belly tacos with kimchee and lime aioli to compete with Alex Stupak’s carnitas and Katie Button of Cúrate’s salt cured lomo asado among many others. Overwhelming at times, it was lovely to see so many people enjoying where I was from, even though it was very different from the place I’d grown up.