By Mehgan Heaney-Grier
Cuban coffee is a tradition in Key West. Your first café con leche on the island, or “con leche” as we call it, is a bit like a right-of-passage.
Con leche is the thick syrupy Cuban espresso infused with rich scalded milk, and a heafty helping of refined sugar stirred-in, to perfection.
When visiting Key West, it’s typical to dial-down your pace to better match that of the island’s. Upon first glance at the town living on island-time, you may not realize that the locals are actually a fairly well-caffeinated crowd.
Truth be told, coffee - of the strongest and sweetest variety - is a cultural way of life here on the rock... and we start young.
I was six years old when I had my first sweet taste. Shared with me by my grandmother, on an early summer morning, already draped in a thick blanket of humidity. The paned windows hung open over the narrow front porch with not a breath of air to meet their embrace.
This heat never interrupted the morning coffee ritual on the island. My gram sat as she did every morning in her favorite chair, rocking back and forth atop the planks of Dade County pine, smoothed and grooved by time. Her hair in a loose grey bun, her skin showing a lifetime of love from the sun and salt air. She smiled mischievously at my curious eyes following the path of the cup, from the chipped peach and grey marble side table, up to her lips. “Come here, child”, she said.
When I was ten, my mother let me order up my very own cup of con leche. Like many neighborhoods on the island, ours was equipped with a Cuban café. Hugging the corner of a rare two-story building, the café shared the ground level with a laundromat. The mingled scents of laundry detergent and strong Cuban coffee filled the mornings of my childhood.
The summer meant getting up with the roosters, completing chores before the sun bathed every nook and cranny of our world with light and heat. The pre-dawn regulars occupied every stool afront of the open-air Cuban café. Fixtures at this location, I often wondered if they got up before the chickens, or maybe just never went to sleep?
This pause from chores, and the privilege of joining my mother here on this morning was not lost on me. The vibrant red counter strewn with the news of the day, stretched out confidently over the sidewalk, welcomed all.
Ready for my initiation into this caffeinated club, I stepped straight to the counter. The sidewalk painted in rich blue and red still held the heat from yesterday, and peeled slightly beneath my suntanned bare feet.
I had heard my mother order this a million times over by now, and I did not faulter in my request – “One con leche, por favor.”
My cheeks were tight from excitement and the smile I couldn’t conceal, even if I’d wanted to. My mother looked at me out of the corner of her eye, and cracked a little smile. I hoisted myself onto the rickety stool made vacant next to me, and waited.
Since that first con leche of my own, I’ve sampled coffee beverages around the world. I enjoy coffee, all kinds of coffee. Heck, there are even nights when I go to sleep now, looking forward to next morning because I get to wake up and drink my coffee.
Still, nothing fully compares to drinking a con leche here in my home town. Maybe it’s purely nostalgia, or perhaps it’s the sheer marvel of how we can simultaneously drink uber strong coffee and still move at the island pace.
But while the rest of the world seems to have gone a little crazy , even when it comes to coffee, with drive-throughs and branded coffee shop chains popping up all over the place - I’m comforted that the simple con leche traditional remains in Key West.
Certainly, some things are different, change is inevitable. But from where I sit, on my rickety stool at the counter over-hanging the sidewalk - the sun is just coming up, the summer heat is thick, and a barefoot kid just chased a chicken around the corner.
It’s the perfect time and place to read a little morning news, watch the island come alive, and enjoy the first sip of my simple, unchanged con leche.
- Mehgan Heaney-Grier
Enjoy your next con leche in one of our souvenir cups!
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Despite its small size, Key West holds many points of significance for the United States. One in particular is, “The Southernmost Point in the Continental U.S.A.”
As seen by the sizeable marker erected on this “southernmost” point (or close to it anyway, I explain later) it’s a title that we hold with equally sizable pride here in Key West.
The story of how this giant buoy-shaped hunk of cement came to be however, is rather fitting I think, of a festive and vibrant place like Key West.