Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Searching For El Cubano: Dispatches from the Sunshine State IV

I have often listened to my wife tell stories of growing up in rural Florida. One of things she recalls fondly are visits to the local Publix supermarket for a Cuban sandwich. I grew up mostly in the Midwest and I had never heard of such a thing. When she described it to me I told her we called them “heros” and “submarine sandwiches,” or subs. In New England they are referred to as “grinders;” “hoagies” in Philadelphia; “po’boys” in St. Louis; and “muffulette” in New Orleans. Today some throughout the USA refer to them simply as “paninis.” So I just assumed the “Cuban sandwich” was the local Florida variant. I was wrong. It is unlike any of the aforementioned.

I had my first Cuban sandwich - sandwiché Cubano, or simple el Cubano - at Phil-Nick’s, a hole-in-the-wall joint on Main Street, in downtown Gainesville, Florida. It was nothing like any sub, or whatever you want to call it, that I had ever eaten. My wife assured me it was genuine - sliced ham, pork marinated in a citrus and garlic concoction know as mojo, Swiss cheese, mustard and sliced dill pickles served on a soft Cuban bread - pan de aqua - which resembles French or Italian bread yet it is prepared with lard and is lighter and flakier. There are other variations of el Cubano, but the best and truest stick to the traditional ingredients. Finally, the sandwich is heated and pressed in a device know as a plancha (or a bacon press or a large spatula, if there is no plancha handy). The flaky bread turns crunchy and the finished sandwich is often served with a bowl of black bean soup - frijoles negro - over yellow rice (another favorite Cuban dish). This is exactly how I enjoyed my first Cubano. Spanish, or garbanzo, bean soup is also a satisfactory substitute and I highly recommend it.

There is some debate surrounding the origins of the Cuban sandwich. It appears to date back to the turn of the previous century when it was popular lunchtime fare for workers at Havana’s cigar factories and sugar mills. Others will claim that it was cooked up by Cuban immigrants making cigars in Ybor City, the Cuban quarter just east of downtown Tampa. Today it remains popular with the large Cuban exile and immigrant community in south Florida, and the farther south you go in the Sunshine State the more apt you are to find a genuine Cubano on authentic Cuban bread. To borrow a phrase from the character Oddball, played by Donald Sutherland in the 1970 film Kelly’s Heroes, “To a New Yorker like you, hero is some type of weird sandwich.” Once you have a real Cubano, anything else - hero, sub, grinder, etc. - just does not measure up.

Phil-Nick’s is still on Main Street although the brothers who founded the place are no longer there and gone with them are the authentic Cubanos. You can still get a pretty decent Cubano at any Publix market across the state - our arrival in Gainesville is frequently an appropriate occasion for one and we have had one since our arrival. I have found a few Publix stores that cut corners and play around with the traditional ingredients and serve them on French or Italian bread. No thanks But the local Publix in Gainesville fixes them right. Authentic Cubanos are de rigueur in Ybor City and have been for over a century. There are good ones to be at the Columbia Restaurant (and also at the Columbia in St. Augustine). So, too, in Miami-Dade. Where there are Cubans, you are sure to find an authentic Cubano. I have found tasty Cubanos in the Everglades, including a particularly good one at a truckstop in Immokalee (about the only reason I would ever go back to that desolate and godforsaken place). I recall another purchased at a stonecrab emporium along the Barron River, in Everglades City. There were no stonecrabs to be had one evening and so I settled for a Cubano with a bowl of black beans over rice. A satisfactory substitute for a plate of cracked claws and that is saying something right there. More recently we had a real Jones for a Cubano for lunch and found some in Bevilles Corner, a rural cross-roads in the central Florida scrub country. There are not too many Cubans here but we were able to find freshly made Cubanos at a quick market where we had stopped to top off our gas tank. They were not too bad, and although they were missing the requisite pickle slices, they were served on Cuban bread. And there in Bevilles Corner I learned something new about Cuban bread. The process of making authentic pan de aqua begins with palmetto leaves soaked in water which are then placed over the rolled dough. This creates the unique and rather irregular topography on the upper portion of the loaf. As the dough rises it can encircle the palmetto and it is not uncommon to find remnant fibers baked into the bread as an avatar of authenticity. So, whereas the fixings were not bona fide in the strictest sense, the bread was and it tasted pretty good regardless. Our jones was satisfied.

I think there are a few Cuban sandwiches in our immediate future before it is time to head back up north. We have even carried them home on planes and in a car cooler and I am guessing we will do so again. But eating Cubanos is much like eating crabs in Maryland, or lobster along the coast of Maine. It’s best to eat the local cuisine locally. Our search across Florida continues.

Today (March 30, 2011) Marks 10,000 Hits!!!!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Rediscovering a Forgotten Piece of Florida: Dispatches from the Sunshine State III

Very few people have heard of Aripeka and fewer still have ever been there. I recall first visiting this tiny fishing hamlet on Florida’s Gulf Coast back in the mid-1960s when my family began to frequent the beaches near St. Petersburg and Clearwater. I didn’t recall very much about that first visit, and although I have driven by the sign on US Route 19 pointing out its location down State Route 595, I had not returned there until just a couple of days ago. From the looks of it, nothing much has changed since my first visit.

Aripeka, originally known as Gulf Key when it was first settled in the early 1870s, straddles both the Pasco-Hernando county line as well as the two branches of Hammock Creek as they meander from the Gulf of Mexico through marshland and sand flats bordered by saw grass and clumps of red mangrove. Ironically, it changed its name to Aripeka around 1886 to commemorate a Mikasuki Seminole chieftain who had fought against the encroachment of white settlers during the Seminole wars and who died of old age near here twenty years earlier.

For most of its quiet history, this unincorporated town has consisted of a few simple homes scattered along the branches of Hammock Creek and what little dry ground there is between them. A post office was first established in Gulf Key in 1883 when population was 24 souls, and it has, with a couple of interruptions, continued to operate to the present day. There was once a school and a store, and the Osowow Hotel was situated on the south branch of Hammock Creek throughout the first half of the 20th century until it burned in 1960. It was home to the Aripeka Saw Mills Corporation and there were sugar cane fields nearby as well as turpentine stills in the pine hammocks to the east. The Gulf and the coastal waters are rich in marine life, including snook and striped mullet, and the locals have always been involved in subsistence fishing and guiding sportsmen. There has never been a commercial fishing operation in these waters. This area, along with the Homosassa and Crystal rivers just north of here in Citrus County, has long been a wintertime mecca for the West Indian manatee who enjoy their warm waters.

In 1910 the entire town, save the post office, school and the Baptist church which had been established two years earlier, passed to the ownership of Eugene D. Willingham (1839-1922), a prominent Atlanta lumber tycoon, who chose Aripeka as his winter home and bought up the foreclosed mortgage on the land. It was Willingham who had helped lay the groundwork for the Baptist church and who was largely responsible for the construction of a new highway from Brooksville, the seat of Hernando County, to Aripeka and then further south to Tarpon Springs and eventually to Tampa. Until then the town could only be reached by boat and was a regular stop on the coastal steamer route between the railhead at Cedar Key and Tampa Bay. Despite these improvements, Aripeka remained a backwater until the middle of the 20th century. The Rural Electrification Agency extended the power grid to the area in 1941-1947, and the first telephone appeared in 1950. Aripeka has one claim to fame although the stories vary, depending whom you talk to. The basic facts are there. During the 1920s Babe Ruth, often in the company of some of his teammates, used to travel north from St. Petersburg, where the New York Yankees were based during spring training, to fish and hunt in the area. Local lore has him staying at any number of places around town, but it would appear that he actually stayed at the Osowow Hotel on Hammock Creek. He is reputed to have thrown lavish parties at the hotel and during one of these he lost his World Series ring down the hotel’s privy. There are other stories - that Jack Dempsey use to train here and that the Wright Brothers once stayed in town - but these legends tend to be slightly more opaque.

We found Aripeka to still be a sleepy fishing hamlet although in more recent years it has turned into a budding artist colony. There are some newer homes fronting the creek and along the main channel leading out to the Gulf, but otherwise it hasn’t really changed much in years. The local Norfleet family, who started a fishing camp adjacent to the bridge over the north branch of Hammock Creek back in the 1940s, still operates a small grocery and general store on the site. The store once had a single gas pump which has since disappeared. A sign over the entrance announces we are “5.9 miles from Heaven.” I am not sure exactly in which direction one needed to go to reach that point, and neither did the fellow working behind the counter, but we took this claim to be true. It sure is a beautiful spot on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.

There were a number of men fishing from the bridge - some fishing for striped mullet with snagging hooks (they are delicious smoked and their roe is a tasty delicacy) while others cast nets for baitfish. They told us we had just missed a manatee cruising along the mangrove roots, but there was a mature and juvenile bottlenose dolphin splashing in the creek lagoon and we watched as they passed under the bridge on their way to the Gulf, pausing to harass a school of mullet. I am not sure one needed to travel almost six miles to find heaven. I think we may have found a little piece of it right here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tekkin It Eezzee, Mon!: Dispatches from the Sunshine State II

I turned 60 years old a couple of days ago and I guess this means that I am officially in the autumn of my life. Well, put it this way - my past is now longer than my future. I guess one doesn’t want to think of it in those terms, but it is true. No sense ignoring it. The aches and pains are more prevalent than they use to be and they seem to last longer. On top of that, I am getting old man hands and feet and dry skin seems to be more of a concern. That said, I am convinced that I still have a lot of life left in me. I don’t feel 60, and I certainly don’t act 60. I hope I don’t look 60, but that might be stretching it just a bit. Yet, entering my seventh decade, I am reminded of something Proust once wrote. “We are all dead people, waiting to take up our posts.” Hmmmm. I am in no big hurry.

Now that I am retired (it has been just over a year) I am around the house a lot more than I use to be and I sometimes wonder if I am not slowly driving my wife (36 years and counting) close to the precipice. I don’t mean to do this, but she has had the house to herself for so long and now all that has changed. Virginia Ironsides, a British columnist writing about her husband as she entered her own sixties, captured the state of affairs with this appropriate bon mot. “I married him for life, not for lunch.” I wonder if Sally Ann feels this way. I am almost afraid to ask. I try to stay busy. I enjoying crafting these blog postings and I recently signed a contract for a new book on the American novelist Thomas Wolfe. I have a number of other research projects and freelance consultant jobs to keep me off the streets and it is not like I am sitting at home dreaming up ways to drive my wife crazy; although that has a certain degree of charm to it.

I spent my birthday (and the days leading up to it) here in Florida as part of our annual spring hiatus and escape from DC’s late winter doldrums. The weather here has been sunny and in the low 80s since our arrival; spring has definitely arrived here in central Florida. The azaleas have pretty much come and gone and the tree pollen forces those of us with allergies indoors even if the weather is otherwise pleasant. Nevertheless, I have tried to get out and about as much as possible, scratchy eyes and throat be damned.

We drove over to the Gulf of Mexico at Tarpon Springs so we could spend a little time on the beach. We forgot that it was spring break and the entire beach was covered by tanned bodies of every shape, size and dimension. Sally Ann did her best to look for shells but there was little room to maneuver. I chose to sit in a palm tree’s evasive shade while trying to enjoy a view of the Gulf’s aquamarine waters. Unfortunately, the undulating movement of bikinied bodies was a constant distraction. Soon, but not too soon, we retreated to the Sponge Docks along the Anclote River and enjoyed a light lunch at our favorite little Greek taverna - saganoki (more on this in an upcoming dispatch) and souvlaki and a couple of Greek beers. That evening we returned to my favorite local shrimp house for a horiatiki salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, green peppers, pepperocini, Greek olives, and feta cheese doused in extra virgin olive oil), a large platter of boiled shrimp slathered in olive oil, and a couple more Greek beers. Opa!

So it was a nice way to celebrate the beginning of my geezerdom. I have much I still want to do before that final sleep. Proust might ultimately be right, but don’t be surprised if I come up AWOL. Life is too good to let it pass me by. I’m just tekkin it eezzee, mon! Cheers!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Slinging Hash: Dispatches from the Sunshine State I

When I was a kid I wanted to grow up to be a short-order cook. I still enjoy sitting at the counter of any diner or greasy spoon and watching the cooks juggling the orders. Perhaps I can find work slinging hash during my retirement? I haven’t so far, but I am still young (kind of). It is an idea worth serious consideration.

On our way down to Florida we were eating lunch at one of the ubiquitous Waffle Houses found throughout the southern United States. We sat at the counter and I watched the cook preparing my wife’s “checkerboard” (a large waffle) and my “heart attack on a rack” (toasted Texas biscuits with sausage gravy), a large rasher of bacon “in the alley” (on the side), while our waitress, who called both of us “darlin’,” poured me a large cup of joe “flowing like the Mississippi” (black coffee) . . . . no “blonde with sand” (cream and sugar) for me. And there is something appealing about the attire of a good grill man. It can fluctuate depending on mood, or whatever happens to be clean or thrown over the bedroom chair (or on the floor) that morning. One should be comfortable in their own skin and clothes when they cook for others. I like that.

As the aroma of our meal gathered around us I read how Joe Rogers, Sr. (no relation), learned how to make a perfect omelet from one of the legendary grill men who worked for him at a Toddle House restaurant in Memphis, Tennessee. Rogers would later join forces with a local Georgia businessman named Tom Fokner to found Waffle House near Atlanta in 1955. Although the Waffle House remains a culinary institution throughout the South (including near almost any interstate interchange), it has expanded to 25 states with over 1500 franchises as far west as California and north to Illinois and Delaware. But I digress.

There is something poetic and mesmerizing about watching a good grill man (for some reason they usually seem to be men) slinging hash at a greasy spoon diner. He is his own boss and there is no one standing over his shoulder telling him the best or proper way to whip up eggs for an omelet or scrambled eggs. He alone determines the ingredients and portions that go into the makings of pancake and waffle batter. He regulates the crispiness (or greasiness) of the bacon, sausage, scrapple or other breakfast meats sizzling on the grill. And that is just for breakfast!

Of course, timing is probably the most important skill, and perhaps the most difficult to master. Regardless of whether one is making eggs, cooking pancakes and waffles, or grilling burgers and other dishes, attention must be paid to cooking times so that everything is prepared and served in an orderly fashion. Sometimes there are warming stations to keep plated meals hot until they are served, but more often than not it is up to the cook to prepare the main and side dishes so that they can be served hot to the customer. This also means juggling several different orders so that they arrive at the counter or table together. Occasionally there will be a few moments when there is nothing on the grill and the cook will dispatch cooking scraps and other oddments with the edge of the omnipresent spatula or grill press.

I could sit there all day watching a good short order cook slinging hash. But the road was calling and we had many more miles to go before we reached Gainesville and the end of the day’s journey. But tomorrow is always a new day and there will be other roads and other diners beckoning us to stop and eat. And there will always be the next short-order cook to watch and marvel at his magic as he slings his hash onto my plate.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Spring Hiatus in Florida

My wife and and I have returned to Florida for a month of rest and relaxation in warmer climes. The drive down from Maryland (804 miles in 12 hours) was very relaxing . . . a beautiful day, very little traffic to speak of, a warm (and then a cool) car, and a good book to listen to as I watched the landscapes change with the gradual arrival of spring the farther south I drove. Stay tuned for "Dispatches from the Sunshine State" in the coming weeks.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Quilts For Kids: Empowerment and Education in Kathmandu

James Hopkins is one of the sincerest and most humble individuals I have ever had the pleasure to meet. We have known each other for almost twenty years, since our years studying with the late Alaskan poet laureate John Haines. James is an interesting individual. After graduating from Duke University with a degree in French literature, he worked for 23 years as an investment broker in New York and Washington, DC. He retired in his early forties and six years ago relocated to Kathmandu where he studies Buddhism. Add to this the fact that he is an exquisite poet. But enough about James. I want to tell you about the good and righteous work he is doing.

Living in Asia he was troubled by the quality of life and limited possibilities of the people living around him. He discussed this with a local lama and asked how he might help and benefit his new neighbors. The lama gave him a simple answer. Go out and whoever appears in front of you help that person with whatever skills you have.

Wandering the street of Kathmandu James discovered an Indian street beggar camp located in the city’s Boudhanath neighborhood. Its inhabitants come from Punjab and Rajasthan, on India’s western border with Pakistan, and from Bihar state, situated along Nepal’s southeastern border. Living in what we would call poverty and squalor, James found the camp’s Hindu women working together to produce amazingly beautiful quilts and he realized that, with the right guidance and support, these women had a commodity they might sell to benefit their families and their community. Created and operated by James since 2006, “Quilts for Kids” is a successful micro-finance project which empowers impoverished women while at the same time providing a safe and secure education for their children:

The quilts are hand-stitched from scrap materials either found or purchased at local shops. Each quilt is unique in design, size and shape yet, as James tells us, “every stitch is done by hand and every flaw is made with love.” It normally takes three or four women an average of ten days to complete a quilt. While they work the women talk and share stories and information that are important for the viability of the local community.

James pays the women approximately US$40 for each quilt made. This money comes from his own pocket, and from sponsors, mostly in the United States. These transactions teach the women how they can market their traditionally crafted quilts and give them a stronger sense of self worth in a city and culture where they are more often than not marginalized. James then sells the quilts for US$140. The money donated by sponsors, and the payment provided by James, funds the salaries for the women, and 100% of the profits from the sale of each quilt goes to provide a quality education for one of their children. It pays tuition for one year at the local Kumari School and provides for a school uniform and shoes, books, a book bag and other supplies. This keeps the children off Kathmandu’s mean streets and gives them a promising alternative to begging. Recently donations have made it possible to construct a “study house” in the community where the children can come in the evening and find a safe and quiet place where they can do their homework lessons.

These are kids who want to go to school and want to succeed. It is heartwarming to watch these women work on their quilts, smiles on their faces as they carry on with their traditional craft amid conditions of extremity, knowing that each stitch on a quilt makes it possible for their children to have an opportunity for a better life. James has a vision and he is making it real. It is as easy as that.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

In A Hungry Winter Season

My dear friend John Haines passed away in Fairbanks yesterday evening. John was 86 and in failing health in recent months and it has been painful to follow his slow descent from so many miles away. I wish I could have been there to talk to him and tell him all the things I still had left to tell. Thankfully he was surrounded by good friends who read his poems to him in his final hours. As perhaps it should be, one of his early popular poems, “Winter News” was read as last rites.

They say the wells
are freezing
at Northway where
the cold begins.

Oil tins bang
as evening comes on,
and clouds of
steaming breath drift
in the street.

Men go out to feed
the stiffening dogs,

the voice of the snowman
calls the white-
haired children home.

For most of his life John cherished his solitude in the quietness of the natural world, yet he also celebrated his many friendships around the world. As one of his friends said upon learning of John’s passing. “Thankfully he did not lose himself in age.” He has been called home.

Born into a naval family in Norfolk, Virginia on June 29, 1924, John and his family moved around the United States before arriving in Washington, DC in 1938. He resided at the Old Washington Navy Yard, attended school in the city, and he always enjoyed his occasional return visits. He served in the United States Navy during World War II, first on a subchaser in the Atlantic before seeing service in the Pacific theater on board the destroyer USS Knapp. After the war he attended the National Art School in Washington before pulling up stakes in 1947 and moving to Alaska where he established a homestead at Mile 68 on the Richardson Highway, southeast of Fairbanks. There he constructed a simple cabin on a wooded hillside above the Tanana River. Although he would travel and teach in the Lower 48 throughout his life, he would always return to the Alaskan interior, his spiritual home for the rest of his life. Perhaps Dana Gioia said it best in his introduction to John’s New Poems: 1980-1988. “Many young men, hoping to become writers, embark on romantic lives in the wilderness. But exhausted by responsibilities, unsupported by colleagues, and hungry for human society, few have the discipline to achieve their literary ambitions. Through patience, strength, and uncommon intelligence, Haines did. He is virtually unique among the significant poets of his generation in having emerged outside of either the university or an urban bohemia.”

Just a month ago I joined Dana and others at the annual meeting of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs here in our nation's capital where we shared our recollections and stories in a touching tribute to the man and the poet. John was with us in spirit if not in body, and the warmth and good feelings in that room were palpable. In my closing remarks at the tribute I read John’s “Last Words on the Poet.”

He owed his enemies a debt of gratitude.
Enemy or friend, those who could not see,
excused from failure by their nature;
those who saw a little way, by laziness
or habit unable to see farther;
and those who followed nearby to the end,
then in some latent disposition
turned aside before their eyes knew light.

Acquaintance or relation, loved or not,
in ignorance and fear they set up walls
before him, switched the roadway signs
and sought to mine the very ground
beneath his feet. Some beckoned
from a pleasant meadow, bidding him
stay awhile; and others merely laughed
to see him climb the barriers,
stumbling at the crossways, and hesitate
before the smile and languor of reclining
ladies. But he could not condemn them,
their fortunes and solace were not his,
and likely enough their hearts
would have rejoiced if they had understood.

They had all served; their walls and
misdirections, snickerings and enticements,
only served to set his foot the firmer
and slowly teach his eyes to fasten
on the troubled slope ahead,
as tooth and claw develop keenness
in a hungry winter season.

Though blind before it all, his enemies
were spurs, through that perhaps
his friends; and those who turned away
disclosed the road he was to travel.

I told the audience of John’s condition and why he could not be with us that day. “John is now living in his own hungry winter season. He is afraid when his time runs out, he will be forgotten.” Little did I know at the time that perhaps John had written his own epitaph. Now I am haunted by these words.

I am the writer I am today due in large part to John and the decades of friendship he offered to me unconditionally. A man as hard and uncompromising as the Alaskan tundra yet in possession of a soft and tender heart, he was a rare presence and one that will be greatly missed. It was a good life lived the way he wanted to live it. I know he is in a better place, but I will miss his words and the images and feeling they have always aroused deep within me. John was a poet, of this there can be no doubt.

I rose and left that room,
the house of my grief
and my bondage, my book
never again to be opened.

To see as I once saw,
steadied by the darkness
in which I walked
and would make my way.

I am certain John is listening now. Rest in Peace, my friend.