NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — With the winter set in and COVID preventing some travel plans to warmer climates, many find themselves craving a tropical getaway. Now, thanks to a new cookbook by Narragansett resident Pamela Child, locals can take their taste buds to the Florida Keys without ever leaving South County.
“Keys Eats” features over 60 recipes from some of the top restaurants of the Keys featuring some of the best of “Floribbean” cuisine, including seafood staples such as conch, tuna and shrimp, as well as the classic Key Lime Pie and rum cakes to make everything from the traditional to the experimental.
“You have a lot of things that have jalepeños, mangos and tropical fruits,” Childs said. “It’s just kind of a little twist on some regular dishes.”
As the Conch Republic, the large Caribbean mollusk plays a big culinary role in the cookbook.
“They make conch chowder, conch clam cakes, they make ceviche with it, conch salad, so we have a few conch recipes in there,” Childs said. “Lots of fish recipes too, fish is obviously a big item in the Keys because Islamorada, which is the Middle Keys, is the fishing capital of the world, so there’s a lot of sport fishing going on, so you see a lot of fish on the menus down there.”
Childs grew up in East Greenwich before attending Boston University and embarking on a career, eventually finding herself in the Florida Keys, where she became the publisher of local travel guide magazine “Destination Florida,” a position which she still holds while working remotely from her home in Bonnet Shores.
When the pandemic first hit in March, the tourism industry took a big hit and her magazine, which is found in many of the major hotels in the Keys, went dormant for a few months. Her newfound free time gave her the idea to take up something she’d been thinking of for a while: putting together a cookbook.
“We have a lot of restaurants we do business with and we eat out all the time and we publish recipes a lot in the magazine, and so I compiled all of this information. And when COVID hit, I thought, ‘we’ve got all of this great information, we should do a cookbook,’” Childs said.
After putting together and printing her own book of recipes about 20 years ago, which she sold for $3 via classified ads in a local magazine, Childs had long wanted to publish a cookbook. And with the downtime due to the pandemic, she thought this was the perfect time to get started using the wealth of information she’d collected as a local travel publisher.
“I had all of this great information,” Childs said. “It’s a compilation of recipes from the top restaurants in the Florida Keys, and unlike a lot of cookbooks, it includes backstories about the restaurants and stories about the chefs and it has a restaurant guide in it and all of these great recipes that were submitted to us.”
She quickly enlisted her magazine designer in the project.
“We went online for a few months, so we had some time on our hands. And she and I began talking about it, and the first design she kind of came up with was a very spade, it looked like your typical cookbook, and I said to her, ‘Marsha (Michaels), we’re the clients, we can do anything we want with this and we don’t have any constraints from anybody, let’s just make it fun,’” Childs said. “So that’s what we did, and it’s just funky and fun and it’s got pictures and illustrations, funny quotes and, you know, it’s really kind of entertaining, much more than just a cookbook.”
The recipes come from a variety of restaurants from around the Keys, some of which have been featured on television.
“Some of these recipes have actually been on the Food Network, or the Food Network has come down and done stories on them, so they’re all really good, interesting recipes,” Childs said. “We also have a meatloaf recipe that was one of Guy Fieri’s favorites. We have a honey grilled chicken and mashed sweet potato that’s kind of different, fish with Key Lime butter sauce, which is nice, so (when) people get sick of the same old, same old preparations, it’s got a lot of great ideas and nothing is too complicated in it, which is nice.”
Along with the recipes, Childs really enjoyed telling the stories of some of the more historic restaurants of the Keys.
“One of the stories I really like is about a restaurant called Ziggie & Mad Dog’s Restaurant, which is in Islamorada,” Childs said. “It was started by this very colorful character named Ziggie and he used to work at a casino in the Keys when they had casinos and he started this little restaurant in Islamorada called Ziggie’s. And Paul Newman would go there and supposedly Al Capone used to play cards in the back, it was a banana plantation, and the owner, who’s name was Sigmund ‘Ziggie’ Stocking, he was like a drifter, gambler and the casino maître d’ and he opened his Ziggie’s Conch restaurant and it was really ahead of its time. It was no frills, but it was kind of like new world fusion cuisine, which combined local seafood with Caribbean and Asian recipes, which was way ahead of its time and it was like the hottest ticket in town and lots of celebrities would go there. And eventually it closed down.”
About 30 years after its initial closing the restaurant was brought back to life, thanks to legendary Miami Dolphins tight end and member of the undefeated 1972 team, Jim “Mad Dog” Mandich, who owned the restaurant with a partner until his death in 2011.
“They turned it into Ziggie & Mad Dog’s and they kind of resurrected it and they cleaned it up and it wasn’t quite as funky as it was, but they kept a lot of the original details (such as) the floors and the fireplace and such, and anyways it is like the hottest restaurant in the Keys right now and people are dying to get in there,” Childs said.
For her, there’s always something special about the Keys’ historic restaurants such as Ziggie & Mad Dog’s, The Green Turtle Inn and The Fish House.
“These places have just stood the test of time and especially when you see so many restaurants come and go, it’s really kind of cool to see these historic restaurants that are still chugging along and still doing their signature food,” Childs said.
“Key Eats” is available online on Amazon and exclusively in store at Eclectic Bungalow in Wickford, something that wasn’t originally part of Childs’ plans.
“I didn’t even think about selling it here, and (Eclectic Bungalow owner Kerry Oliver) said ‘my customers would love this,’ because it’s really kind of a fun thing and I ended up coming back to Rhode Island after being away for 30 years,” Childs said. “My sister was living up in Massachusetts and she bought a summer house in Bonnet Shores and I started coming up from the Keys to visit her. And I fell in love with Rhode Island all over again – and Southern Rhode Island especially – and so I ended up buying a little house in Bonnet Shores too, which is just a few streets over from her, and reconnected with my friends from third grade who I hang out with all the time, and it’s just like I’ve come home again.”
Re-establishing herself as a Rhode Islander, Childs says she is considering doing a similar project in South County.
“Luckily I can work from anywhere, so I go down to the Keys, but I don’t spend nearly as much time as I used to down there. I’m primarily in Narragansett most of the time and we’re actually talking about maybe doing a book for here,” Childs said.
Overall, the process of writing the book was something Childs said she truly enjoyed.
“It’s just been a real fun project for me, albeit a long one. I think we started working on this last February and we’re just now getting it out, so it’s been a labor of love, but as I said, it’s been a lot of fun,” Childs said. “I wish my mother – who inspired me to be interested in food and cooking – I wish she was still alive to see it, I think she would’ve enjoyed it.”