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Tropical Holiday Celebration

Winter in Key West is like summer in most of the country, and the holidays are celebrated in a way that suits the climate and characters.

I confess it was strange: my first holiday meal in South Florida. I'd moved to the land of the sun and the palm tree after 15 years in New England. For me the holiday season was inextricably linked to cold weather―a time for frost on the windowpanes and mountains of steaming food eaten while enjoying the warmth of a fire.

That first holiday in Florida, the sun was blazing brightly. With the temperature a balmy 85 degrees, I felt more like lounging by our pool than sitting down to a holiday feast. I must admit I liked it. What's not to like about being able to wander outdoors in your shirtsleeves in December and cook holiday dinner on your grill?

Now I've not only become accustomed to the differences, I thrive on them. Tropical flowers grace our tables. We cook with exotic fruits and vegetables and indulge ourselves with warm-water seafood such as stone crabs, spiny lobster, and Key West "pinks" (the supernaturally pink shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico). Even the accents we add to our food are different―the bold flavors of spices and citrus replacing the fats traditionally enjoyed this time of year up north.

Nowhere is the change of climate and culture from my old haunts in New England more keenly apparent than in the tiny island of Key West. In this southernmost point in the Florida Keys, a justly legendary bohemian atmosphere thrives among banyan-lined streets and Victorian homes―all just 90 miles as the sea gull flies from Havana.

Because winter in Key West could pass for summer in many parts of the country, Key West cooks plan their menus accordingly. Mojos (Cuban lime sauces) and vinaigrettes are better suited than the heavier sauces and gravies of the Northeast. Tropical fruits loom large in the local cooking, if for no other reason than that most Conchs, as the natives call themselves, grow these delicious fruits on trees in their own backyards.

The proximity to Cuba may be the most profound influence of all. Cuban fishermen and cigar-makers were among the island's first settlers, and the Cuban influence runs deep to this day. The local enthusiasm for the robust flavors of cumin, garlic, and lime juice stems from Cuba; so does the popularity of black beans and pineapple. Rum figures prominently in Key West cooking and drinking―a reminder of the colorful days of Ernest Hemingway and rum-smuggling from Havana to the Keys.

Above all, Key West is a place that marches to its own drummer. If you want to witness that legendary beat, at dusk visit Mallory Square, the popular dock and meeting place on the western edge of the city. As the sun sinks into the waves, a carnivalesque crowd of musicians, magicians, jugglers, and fire-eaters puts on a show unlike anything else on the planet.

That's a pretty fair trade, at least to me, for a snow-draped Currier-and-Ives winter.