2017-04-20 / Top News

Taste of Key West: A benefit for AIDS Help

Florida Weekly Correspondent

The open-air gala traditionally spotlights indulgent edibles such as tropical and Caribbean-influenced cuisine, including fresh-off-the-boat local seafood. COURTESY PHOTOThe open-air gala traditionally spotlights indulgent edibles such as tropical and Caribbean-influenced cuisine, including fresh-off-the-boat local seafood. COURTESY PHOTOMost events in Key West involve some kind of pre-game snack, ideally complex carbohydrate-based so as to best soak up all of the evening’s inevitable alcohol. But this year’s Taste of Key West is not the kind of event for which one should snack beforehand. If you can manage a bit of fasting, you’ll be that much happier.

Known as one of the best outdoor events of the year, Taste of Key West is like alfresco speed dating for foodies, a nonstop whirlwind of bite-sized treats and beverages guaranteed to turn your usual walk back home into more of a waddle.

First off, there’s the location. The newly rebranded Margaritaville Resort has graciously offered to let the usual band of street performers, artisans and cat acrobats set up their nightly performances along the hotel’s waterfront. Mallory Square will now be free and clear for participants to amble amongst Taste of Key West’s endless booths of food and booze.

AIDS Help Taste of Key West 2016. 
COURTESY PHOTO AIDS Help Taste of Key West 2016. COURTESY PHOTO Second, in addition to a selection of wine from more than 20 vineyards and over 30 different brands of beer, this year’s Taste of Key West has added the Key West First Legal Rum Distillery to the schedule, which means the distillery will be on hand to offer samples of its signature salt-cured, barrel-aged spirits, which are known to pair well with absolutely everything.

Third, there’s the actual food lineup, a veritable who’s who of everything drool-worthy in town. With over 40 participating restaurants, including buzzy newcomers like Little Pearl and Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar & Restaurant, it’s the event’s largest participating group to date. There’s even a kids’ zone with carnival-style foods for kiddos who haven’t yet graduated from cotton candy to uni-topped sushi.

With a constantly updated list of restaurants stepping up to participate, dishes are guaranteed to run the gamut of cuisines. And if the idea of fresh local seafood, meat grilled right in front of you, expertly paired vino and decadent desserts isn’t enough to tempt you, consider this: every morsel consumed is for a good cause. That’s because Taste of Key West serves as the largest fundraiser for AIDS Help Monroe County, with all food and labor donated by generous volunteers and businesses that look forward each year to supporting one of South Florida’s most beloved charities.

AIDS Help, a nonprofit community-based organization that provides care, advocacy, preventative outreach and assistance to members of Monroe County affected by HIV/AIDS, dreamed up the Taste of Key West as a one-night-only fundraiser for the wide variety charitable work it performs, which includes case management services, affordable housing, counseling, testing, educational outreach programming and more. What began as a local evening of laid-back food and wine has blossomed into what is arguably the most anticipated culinary event of the year, with chefs from all of Key West’s best restaurants gathering seaside to show off their skills, to the delight of an always-hungry crowd. This light-hearted event serves to support a gravely serious cause, one that is very near and dear to the hearts of many who call Key West home.

Those who lived through the AIDS crisis in Key West remember a dark time fraught with confusion, heartbreak and a pervasive sense of hopelessness. Lacking formal recognition from the government, with both its causes and treatments shrouded in mystery, many of those suffering from HIV/AIDS were subject to stigmatization and abandonment by their families, employers and communities. Long considered an epicenter of inclusivism, Key West became a natural hub for those suffering from the disease whose diagnosis resulted in their exclusion from the world to which they formerly belonged. Sufferers arrived in droves, and amidst a bleak and seemingly endless scene of death, AIDS Help arose to offer end-of-life care to those who desperately needed it. The group implemented a system they referred to as a “mobilized buddy corps” of neighbors and friends to navigate patients through the often-confusing medical system set up to care for those suffering from the virus. With limited funds and against all odds, AIDS Help became a beacon of hope in a community in desperate need of assistance. The organization describes its humble beginnings as such:

“A handful of very worried people on a back porch. That’s how, three decades ago, AIDS Help began. A little agency on a little island took on a very big thing: the darkness of HIV and AIDS. An entire generation of gifted, young and diverse people was slipping away. Sadness at this growing loss of life was a twin to the madness of a government unable or unwilling to take action. So, a small group of locals convened with their own money and precious few other resources. With a board made up of five individuals, AIDS Help just wanted to somehow help people in their community live to see another day.”

From its modest beginning, the organization grew to serve thousands of individuals, and to this day remains the only community-based HIV/AIDS service organization in Monroe County. Over time, the organization has evolved to expand its initial patient offerings and has become one of the most venerated non-profits dedicated to helping treat, prevent and research HIV/AIDS.

In February of 2016, AIDS Help announced a new collaboration with Florida International University in the form of an internship program for graduate public health and social work students. Through the generous scholarship program, within rotating six-month semesters, students will assess the evolving dynamics of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in order to aggregate and analyze data on HIV patients in Monroe County. It is the hope of FIH and of Aids Help that this symbiotic partnership will identify trends within the data to determine which areas of the community need additional attention, and in doing so, be able to help Monroe County specifically to identify where the disease is trending and where A.H. can best focus its resources and time.

In their support of Taste of Key West, attendees can take heart knowing that, in addition to their gaining access to a smorgasbord of delectable food and drink, they are also helping fund a vastly important charitable organization whose support can literally mean life or death to those suffering from a horrific disease.

“Taste of Key West has become part of the fabric of events for the island,” says AIDS Help Executive Director Scott Pridgen. “All of it is about awareness of what AIDS Help does in the community as far as outreach and prevention. We want to keep the community HIV-negative; we don’t want new clients.”

The evening is sure to be a who’s who of Key West chefs and personalities, with new restaurants signing on by the hour to participate. A $25 ticket, purchasable at keystix.com guarantees entry to the event, $20 in food tickets, and a wine glass, while those averse to waiting in line may purchase VIP tickets for $75. VIP attendees will have the luxury of entering the event a full hour ahead of time, at 5 p.m., and receive a T-shirt and plate along with their wine glass and $20 in food tickets.

Seasoned veterans of Key West’s dining community know all too well that sometimes it can feel as though landing a reservation at one of the island’s top restaurants is harder than finding an Atocha coin while snorkeling at Fort Zach. So, it’s a comfort to know that — for one night, at least — the hungry masses won’t have to fight over the last 8 p.m. reservation at Santiago’s or Michael’s. They can converge at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, breathe in deeply the tantalizing smells of masterful food mixed with a crisp sea breeze, and indulge their taste buds happily knowing that they are supporting a wonderful cause. True, it might not be an entirely guilt-free evening — after all, there will be many a dessert to be eaten and wine to be drunk — but for Key West, it’s pretty close. ¦

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