Monday, December 20, 2010

Croqueta Crawl Miami

Croqueta Crawl Versailles Miami Bacalao
Croquetas de bacalao (codfish croquettes) at Versailles on 8th street in Miami.

It all started with a simple question: who makes the best croqueta in Miami?

And so the Croqueta Crawl was born. Organized by @lizawalton, the Croqueta Crawl wrangled a hungry crew of friends and social media acquaintances at iconic Cuban restaurant Versailles yesterday morning to embark upon a culinary adventure: five restaurants in five hours sampling all the fried goodness our tummies could take. GM sponsored the croqueta caravan: about 30 of us schlepped around in a fleet of nine cars.

Croquetas, aka croquettes, originated in France but can be found in many cuisines around the world, usually eaten as a fast food snack or appetizer. A basic croquette is simply this: a cylinder-shaped fritter filled with a paste made of mashed potato combined with some kind of meat or vegetables, deep fried, and sometimes encased in breadcrumbs or cracker meal. The French verb croquer means "to crunch" so some kind of crispy exterior normally surrounds the filling.

Being in Miami, naturally, what obsessed us yesterday were the Cuban variations of the croquette, handed down from Spain to the former island colony. In Spain, the classic version of the fritter consists of serrano ham combined with b├ęchamel sauce and fried without breading. In Miami, the traditional Cuban croqueta is made with ham, heavily breaded and served often with saltine crackers, ketchup or lime. The croqueta is ubiquitous and served anywhere Cubans go a noshin' -- including bakeries and ventanitas (the window at a Cuban restaurant were coffee and finger food is served).

We must've scarfed down over a dozen croquetas each yesterday as nearly fifty of us convoyed the streets of Miami, checking out recipes at tried and true Miami establishments: Versailles, Islas Canarias, El Brazo Fuerte Bakery, Ricky Bakery and Gilbert's Bakery.

By show of hands, Ricky Bakery won the best croqueta award based on the following criteria:
  • taste and texture of the traditional croqueta (ham only)
  • taste and texture of a non-traditional croqueta (everything that wasn't ham -- chicken, cod, cheese, spinach, etc;)
  • overall hospitality
Texture was key. The perfect croqueta expresses a delicate balance: it can't be too mushy on the inside, but it shouldn't be overly crunchy on the outside, either. Imagine a firm mattress that's still soft to lie upon without caving in -- that's what your mouth should experience when you bite into a croqueta.

Croqueta Crawl Versailles Miami Palo Steve Roitstein
We listened to PALO!'s music while riding around in our GM cars. Steve Roitstein, band founder, seen here assessing size and firmness. "Size does matter," he said, while biting into the codfish croqueta to make it the same size as the chicken. "I'll take whatever I can get," I replied.

For me, it was tough to choose. Versailles had a really tasty codfish croqueta (but please, spare us the tartar sauce). I also enjoyed the croqueta at Islas Canarias, made with flavorful sweet ham and delicious with a squeeze of lime. Unfortunately, El Brazo Fuerte didn't really do anything for me. A cheese croqueta is too much like a mozzarella stick and the sweet pastry cheese didn't go well with salty breading.

Croqueta Crawl Islas Canarias Miami
Islas Canarias has been family-owned for over 30 years. Many croqueta recipes are hand-me-downs from previous generations. The owner's daughter told us sweet ham was one of the ingredients, but she wouldn't reveal more.

Ricky Bakery's ham croqueta was just right, but the flamboyant and friendly host, who also boasts the most gorgeous pair of biceps and pecs this side of the Palmetto, fried up a delicious spinach variation that made me fantasize about a spicy curry dipping sauce. Such a thing may sound anathema in Miami, but hey, a croqueta can be anything you want it to be, provided it follows the basic recipe. Crazier things have been concocted in Miami kitchens. The cross-cultural, multi-ethnic, religion-defying Jewban Sandwich comes to mind.

Croqueta Crawl Ricky Bakery biceps hot guy
The womenfolk and gay men in our crew really weren't influenced by Ricky's biceps and pecs at all. Really! We let our taste buds be the impartial judges.

Finally, full and about to pop a few seams, Gilbert's Bakery won my belly with a delicious variations on the traditional Cuban croqueta, including piquillo pimento (Spanish red pepper) and a vegetarian Romesco style served with almond aioli. After an overdose of ham croquetas, the flavors of Spain woke my palate up from its stupor. Gilbert's also gets props because Gilbert Jr., the original owner's son, spent time with us explaining the history of Spanish and Cuban influenced food.

Croqueta Crawl Gilbert's Bakery Miami
Gilbert's Bakery offered delicious variations on the croqueta, influenced by traditional Spanish seasonings.

But back to the winner. At the end of the event, I won a prize for best croqueta tweet: "take a bite out of this meat, baby."

Croqueta Crawl Rickery Bakery Miami
The croqueta king in all his sinewy glory. The ham wasn't bad, either.

Croqueta Crawl Ricky Bakery Miami
Ricky should really be on the Food Network. What a personality!

croqueta crawl miami ricky bakeryThe crawl crew. Photo by @miamishines.

Kudos to @lizawalton and GM in the Southeast for putting together a great event. It wasn't just about the food, of course, but about the joys of camaraderie. We shared heaps of it yesterday!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Low Brow Encounter at High Brow Miami Resort


On Tuesday, I went to jury duty and sat on a panel about battery and even though I was too much of a smart-ass to get picked as a juror, it got me thinking ...

You see, earlier this month I went to fancy-schmancy Fairmont Resort at Turnberry Isle in Aventura to meet some out-of-town friends for drinks and dinner. Everything was fine -- the property, food and service were top-notch -- just what you'd expect from a world-class resort.

The reason I'm telling you this story is because that night I met a random jackass who threw a cloth napkin at my face.

Yes, you read that right. Jackass balled up a cloth napkin and pelted me close to the temple. It actually hurt my eye. Yes, this happened at the beautiful, elegant dining salon and bar at the Fairmont Resort.

Said jackass was probably in his late forties -- a handsome, well-traveled, well-educated man who owns a resort property somewhere around a famous vineyard region in the state of California. Yeah, you know what I'm talking about. It starts with the letter N.

He was at Turnberry for a conference that was held on site earlier that day. A friend of mine who attended the same conference insisted I meet him as he could be a great travel writing connection.

That's all fine and well. After dinner, my friend, the jackass, three of his colleagues and I sat down around a coffee table chit chatting when all of a sudden, out of the blue, jackass, who was sitting across from me, launched the missile.

Folks, I cannot tell you how surreal this was. There was no provocation. In fact, he was mostly engaged in conversation with my friend. Who in their right mind throws a napkin at anyone? Let alone a woman he just met? Who does this? Come on, this aint no honky tonk biker bar where someone might break a bottle of Bud over your head. This was hoity-toity, white-glove service Fairmont Resort!

So here are my theories:

1. He's forty-something going on seven. He threw the napkin because he liked me and that's his way of expressing his feelings, kind of like the boy in 3rd grade who pulled your pigtails when you weren't looking.

2. He's taking flirtation tips from British literature. In Thomas Hardy's novel Jude the Obscure, country bumpkin Arabella throws a pig scrotum at Jude as a sign of her affection.

3. Or au contraire, he threw the napkin because he wasn't sexually attracted to me and therefore felt he could get away with it. A man like that would never dare to offend a woman he wants to take to bed. I don't care if a dude isn't attracted to me, but what's insulting here is that he may have thought he could treat me this way just because he didn't want to screw me.

4. He suffers from a rare form of Tourette's in which soft objects are hurled instead of verbal obscenities.

5. He takes "I'm in Miami, bitch" seriously and thinks that's an excuse to act like a complete asshole.

6. His mother didn't breast feed him so he harbors a deep-rooted misogyny and irrational love of Chardonnay.

7. He's simply a jackass with no manners.

By the way, my first reaction was to say "What the hell?" And after a few minutes of sitting there, completely stunned, I threw a napkin back at him. At least he paid for my drink.

The whole episode was so bizarre; it definitely goes down in my top ten list of "only in Miami" moments.

So if "battery" is non-consensual touch, that which you can't consent to because you don't know it's coming (and man, I really didn't see this coming), do you think I could have taken this guy to court?

The graphic above designed by the inimitable and infinitely talented Nikon Miami. Thanks, Jim!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Trail of the Pirates: Treasure Coast

Trail of the Pirates is a travel series exploring maritime history, culture and lore between Key West and St. Augustine on the east coast of Florida.

McLarty Treasure Museum
Sunken treasure from the 1715 fleet still lies just offshore here.

MCLARTY TREASURE MUSEUM

After Martin County, I headed north to Indian River County via A1A to the McLarty Treasure Museum, a small historical outpost near Sebastian Inlet State Park. But don't let the museum's size deceive you -- it's in the waters just behind the museum where one of the east coast's most colossal shipwrecks took place in 1715, when a fleet of eleven Spanish galleons, loaded with treasure, succumbed to a hurricane.

elizabeth farneseThe story behind the 1715 fleet takes us back to Europe. Elisabeth Farnese, the wife of King Philip V of Spain, had a taste for finery and refused to consummate the marriage until he could produce her long wish list of gold, silver, diamonds, emeralds and pearls, some of which may have come from as far as Manila in the Philippines.

This wasn't the first time the king worked hard to please her; it would be the third fleet to go down with her jewels, the last estimated at $900 million. It seems the queen eventually put out even without her bling, birthing two sons for the king. Don't think the queen was simply a greedy bitch, though. She was a powerful politician in her own right and knew exactly what she was doing.

But I digress. As we all know, where ever there was treasure, you'd also be likely to find marauding pirates. After the 1715 fleet sank, 700 poor souls went missing and those who survived set up camp at the McLarty site. They managed, but under horrible conditions, despite receiving some help from the local Ais Indians.

McLarty Treasure Museum
Some very dramatic history took place here in the eighteenth century. Today, this area of the treasure coast is a quiet stretch of beach.

The Spanish abandoned salvaging attempts in 1719 but not before experiencing several raids from pirates, including two from Henry Jennings, an English privateer with operations out of Port Royal, Jamaica. His first attempt at raiding the sunken ships and terrorizing the salvage camp was so successful, he came back for seconds, "relieving" the Spanish of additional booty. It's said Jennings was ruthless and even the Governor of Jamaica revoked his commission as privateer. Eventually, Jennings became a leader in the pirate haven of New Providence, Bahamas.

More than 250 years after the wreck, Mel Fisher and Kip Wagner worked the area, where on-going salvaging efforts, now performed by private companies, continue to yield treasure. Recently in October, a mother and daughter dive team found a solid gold bird near Fort Pierce valued at $885,000.

You don't need to dive with a license to find treasure. Aficionados with metal detectors can search for coins, jewels and other artifacts by combing the shore, especially after a windy storm coming in from the northeast.

The McLarty Museum houses artifacts and some treasure from the fleet. If you go, make sure you see the in-house video, which is very informative.

Below, hear me yapping about the history, with the sound of the surf in the background.



MEL FISHER MUSEUM

For the true motherlode, I headed a little north back on the mainland where Mel Fisher's daughter, Taffi Abt-Fisher, gave me a tour of Mel Fisher's Treasures Museum in Sebastian. Unlike the non-profit Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, which I featured in the first installment of this series, this museum is privately owned but open to the public. Today, the museum is run by Mel Fisher's grand-daughter with a little help from mom, who has retired from the historic salvaging business and works as a consultant. Though small in size, the museum is jam-packed with gleaming pieces from many of Fisher's salvaging efforts. As well, it houses a laboratory where you can see specialists at work cleaning artifacts through a large glass window. The museum also has a wall exhibit devoted to the history of this treasure hunting family.

Mel Fisher's Treasure Museum
This is what it's all about, folks. The pieces are not only stunning, but also tell tales of their own.

INTERVIEW

I had the pleasure of interviewing Abt-Fisher after she gave me a tour of the museum. She was very humble and laid back about her family's amazing accomplishments, approaching it with an "it's all an a day's work" attitude, which I found refreshing. But in truth, without the Fishers and others who worked doggedly at historic salvaging, Florida would be missing a very important part of its maritime history.

At one point in Mel Fisher's career, the State of Florida tried to claim it owned the Atocha site near the Keys. After much legal wrangling, Fisher won his case, but thereafter 20% off all his finds would go to the state. The problem here, according to Abt-Fisher and others I've spoken to, is that the treasure just sits there, with nowhere to exhibit. It's a vast cultural heritage stuck in Tallahassee, all dressed up and nowhere to go.

Salvaging treasure has never been easy. "The government could be considered the true pirates," Abt-Fisher said. "They're constantly trying to take away our right to go treasure hunting."

But let's not get into politics. This series is about the rich history we find here right off Florida's waters. Here's Abt-Fisher talking about her favorite family finds and more.



AROUND VERO BEACH AND SEBASTIAN

SEBASTIAN INLET STATE PARK

Sebastian Inlet State Park
Pure energy roars through the man-made inlet joining the Atlantic and the Indian River.

Sebastian Inlet State Park is a beautiful state park located 15 miles south of Melbourne Beach and just minutes from the McLarty Treasure Museum. Fishing is a popular activity here, but other recreational activities are available. A small wading beach welcomes bathers when the surf is too rough on the ocean. Expect native vegetation, sea oats and dunes as your backdrop on the beach, a favorite among surfers when the waves are just right. A fishing jetty extends out to the Atlantic and is good for a walk even for non-anglers. If you love the sea, come here and fill your lungs with some incredibly invigorating air and listen to the sound of the powerful currents.

CAPTAIN HIRAM'S

Captain Hiram's Resort
The Sandbar is worth a stop when you're in the Sebastian area.

The Sandbar at Captain Hiram's Resort is a waterfront restaurant and bar facing the Indian River, near Mel Fisher's Treasures. Come here for refreshment, great food and live music on the weekends.

Colorful and laid-back, any parrot head or pirate would love it where you can kick-back with sand under your feet. There's also a slightly more formal indoor restaurant if you don't want to eat outdoors.

Captain Hiram's Resort
If you stay at Captain Hiram's, ask for a waterfront room facing the Indian River. Get up early to see dolphin frolicking in the water.

WALDO'S DRIFTWOOD RESORT

Waldo's Driftwood Resort, located on the ocean in Vero Beach, is one of the weirdest and most interesting places I've ever seen. Even if you don't stay here, come and check out the exterior architecture, which is made completely of found timbers and planks, as well as a hodge-podge of nautical objects and antiques from around the world. The restaurant on site is open for lunch and dinner. Make sure you come during the day, so you can feast your eyes on all the architectural details. Every inch of the exteriors has something interesting from Waldo Sexton's collection. As a pioneer, Waldo was quite the character. Learn more about him here.

Waldo's Driftwood Inn
Waldo's Driftwood Resort, founded in 1935, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Special thanks to Annie's Costumes, Visit Florida, Indian River County Tourism and Captain Hiram's Resort for supporting this part of the journey.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Blogger Night at The Palm Beach Opera

nabucco palm beach operaThe poster for Nabucco, a gorgeous watercolor by Mark Stutzman. Although it's one of Verdi's most popular operas, it has only been performed twice in South Florida. The Palm Beach Opera presented it for the first time back in 1985.

In another life, I used to be a big fan of opera and for some reason my passion for it faded. So it was with great pleasure that I accepted to be part of Blogger Night at Palm Beach Opera's season opening performance of Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts.

Last night, the idea was to "live blog" during intermission, but as my laptop wasn't picking up the wi-fi signal, I tweeted my heart away between curtain downs and curtain ups. My fellow bloggers in crime included one from St. Augustine who drove nearly 4 hours to see the performance. My friend and colleague Hilda Mitrani of Hidden Florida also participated and she managed to squeeze in an informative blog post in between acts.

The Palm Beach Opera and the Kravis Center seem to "get" social media. Daniel Biaggi, General Director of the latter cultural institution, gave props to bloggers as he greeted the audience under the spotlight just before the overture. I later bumped into him in the auditorium, where he seemed excited about all the blogging and tweeting we were doing.

I think it's safe to say my love for opera has been rekindled. It's not so much opera itself but the experience of what amazing things the human voice can do.

nabucco palm beach operaDress rehearsal for Nabucco by the Palm Beach Opera. The set was impressive.

I tried to tweet the plot of Nabbuco in 140 characters or less, but it was impossible!

Basically, King Nebuchaddnezer of Assyria (aka Nabucco), a hot-headed, warmongering worshiper of pagan gods, really hates the Hebrews and wants nothing more than to see them all wiped out. He takes over their temple and turns them into captive slaves, during which time the Hebrews suffer a great deal, of course, yearning for their homeland. Eventually, Nabucco frees the Jews and gives up his own religion to worship Jehova. This much is based on biblical accounts.

But if you think this is some boring, yawn-inducing take on religion, think again. Juicy drama is served up with great fanfare, including a forbidden love affair between the Babylonian king's daughter Fenena and a Hebrew soldier, Ismaele. Abigaille, Fenena's sister, is also in love with Ismaele but he will have nothing to do with her. The soprano role of Abigaille is an operatic workhorse; it's considered to be the most challenging in all of opera for its roller coaster vocals.

paoletta marrocu abigailleThe voice of Paoletta Marrocu will transport you. Seen here playing the bad ass Abigaille in a fabulous costume that reminded me of a Betsey Johnson dress. who knew Babylonians could be so fashionable?

In an opera dominated by fierce and fighting men, a God who smites Nabucco with lightning for his pride and the drama of a people in captivity (complete with costume manacles, even) -- it's the female roles that really stand out. Meek but spiritually strong and righteous, Fenena is a martyr who converts to the Hebrews. Abigaille is her polar opposite: ambitious, stubborn, driven, manipulative and powerful, she's a total bad ass, and for this reason I loved her character. But of course, since she used her power for evil instead of good, her fate is sealed. I think you can guess what happens, but I won't spoil it for you.

My friend Hilda teased me for being so obsessed with the plot. "I just focus on the music," she said. But I guess it's the former literature teacher in me -- I got sucked into all the wonderful drama, which lasted about three hours with two intermissions. Hilda is right, though. The music is wonderful. My favorite was Abigaille's aria in Act II where, completely alone on stage, she laments the loss of her previous self, when she was kinder and softer-hearted woman until she turned into a power-hungry raging bitch. As well, there's the famous chorus Va, Pensiero in Act III when the Hebrews sing about their lost homeland. So esteemed is this chorus that Italian music star Zucchero adapted its melody for modern ears in English. (See the video on Youtube.)

If you've never really experienced opera, Nabbuco has all the high drama, convoluted and incredible plot twists you could ever want in three hours while feasting your ears to angelic voices of all ranges.

Nabucco only plays until Monday, December 13th. Catch it if you can. And if you miss it, don't worry. Three more operas are scheduled for the 2010-2011 season, including two of my favorites: Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte and Puccini's Tosca. Check Palm Beach Opera for more details.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Mobile Technology: Use It For Affairs of the Heart

black veilA funny thing happens when Latina bloggers connect. Photo by LordAsh on Flickr.

I rarely do sponsored posts, but an interesting opportunity fell on my lap: Latina Bloggers Connect hooked me up with a Samsung Epic on the Sprint 4G network. As I'm a mobile technology and social media fanatic, I couldn't resist.

First, about the phone. I will never, ever betray my trusted Apple product, but I absolutely loved the swipe feature on the Epic. Instead of the usual lightning-speed one finger typing I perform on the iPhone, I could spell a word simply by swiping my fingers over the letters. Amazingly, it was 100% accurate all the time! For someone who tweets like crazy and sends epic text messages to a very special pirate in St. Augustine, I think this feature should be on EVERY smart phone. I also enjoyed being able to set my phone to auto-reply via text while I was driving.

And second, about the network. The 4G (which means 4th generation, by the way), launched this month and is available in many areas of Miami-Dade County. And even though South Miami doesn't connect to Sprint's 4G network yet, download speeds were faster on Sprint's 3G than on my AT & T network, at least by a minute or so. You don't know how important this is when you have insomnia and you absolutely need to watch Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam in the middle of the night.

samsung spring watching youtubeMy favorite activity on the Sprint 4G. Don't laugh! You know I've had pirate on the brain for a while now!

But more important than the technology was the overall theme of this project. On Monday, December 6, my partners in crime, other wonderful Latina bloggers from around the country, hosted a bilingual Twitter party with the hashtag "Latinas4G" during which time we discussed how mobile technology has changed our lives.

sprint latinas4g partyMuch fun was had during the Twitter party. Even @poolboy showed up espeki espani!

And this got me thinking: my personal and professional life has indeed changed by leaps and bounds because of that communication device that fits in the palm of my hand. It sounds scary, but the phone almost defines me. Not only can I instantly broadcast my writing, I can also carry on long distance relationships with people all over the world.

When you are single, have no kids and your home life is rather solitary, staying connected is very crucial. Which brings me to the hilarious conclusion of all this -- after ranting about not being mommy bloggers, fellow blogger La Licenciada and I decided we might as well start The Black Veil Club in honor of all never-married women over 30!

(In Hispanic culture, the black veil represents not only mourning but the forlorn and "saintly" life of Catholic spinsterhood.)

sprint latinas4g partySingle spinster bloggers are upstaged by mommy bloggers when it comes to brands. Why aren't more brands paying attention to us? We're fun and we (well some) have disposable income. Thankfully Latina Bloggers Connect is a the helm of some very cool projects.

I'll quote La Licenciada (that means female attorney, by the way):
As someone who is "beyond a marriagable age" then it seems I will only get to "dress saints," (as the song goes) because traditionally, I should still be chaste enough to do so - and I won't have a choice, because what else does an unmarried woman with no kids do? Which begs the question, what does a saint-dresser wear? Do I need to buy a black veil and long rosaries to do that? Maybe my blog should match my gloomy umarried, no-kid, non-chaste, hag life... hmmmm.
Of course, it's not all doom and gloom for us! We couldn't be happier with our lives. Being single AND happy is an act of defiance against Hispanic tradition, even though we love and honor many aspects of that tradition. For me, The Black Veil Club is redefining what happiness means for women in the civilized world these days.

What is happiness for this solterona? Using technology to benefit the affairs of the heart.

Happiness is making new friends via social media and my mobile phone. Happiness is staying deeply connected with friends via mobile phone. Happiness is having the means to publish freely without government interference via mobile phone. Happiness is being able to share my world with others via mobile phone. And happiness is simple, too: seeing a a very special pirate's face every time the phone's background image appears, reminding me about what's really important and giving me the opportunity to sigh and say "yes" to the universe.

So think about it: no matter what phone you have, how has it changed your life? Are you a smart phone user or do you still communicate by pigeon? Does your network meet your needs?

Disclosure: this post is sponsored by Latina Bloggers Connect and Sprint. All opinions are 100% my own.

Trail of the Pirates: Hoist the Jolly Roger!

Trail of the Pirates is a travel series exploring maritime history, culture and lore between Key West and St. Augustine on the east coast of Florida.

jolly roger pirate flag
I recently came up with this quote: "When the going gets tough, hoist up the Jolly Roger."

The Jolly Roger is the classic skull and crossbones image we've come to associate with piracy. Historically, pirate ships would raise the flag (sometimes even a plain black flag) to warn ships and encourage a surrender. Basically, the Jolly Roger signified the following: "We're not bound by the usual rules of warfare or engagement. Surrender the booty and we'll leave you alone."

Of course, I've turned the meaning of this around a little. To me, hoisting the Jolly Roger is a metaphor for life. When things go wrong, tell those wrong things to back off and get the hell out of the way. It's by getting rid of everything that blocks you that you find your real treasure.

Anyway, I had hoped to do my entire Trail of the Pirates series without interruption from other posts, but certain obligations prevent me from doing so. Please pardon the pirate interruptus and don't worry! I'll be back in a few days days, with Indian River County and St. Augustine stories to complete the series, including three exclusive interviews: Taffi Abt-Fisher, the famous treasure hunter's daughter; Pat Croce, founder of the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum that recently opened in St. Augustine; and Captain Tom, founding member of Maidens Pub Krewe of the Black Heart, folks who worked toward the idea of a Pirate Gathering idea years ago and are also raising funds for maritime history education in the St. Augustine community.

You can see a gallery of Jolly Roger flags over at Wikipedia. Here are a few.

jolly roger
jolly roger
jolly roger
If you want to see an original, head over to the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum. Pat Croce purchased the only two known in existence. One is on display.

jolly roger pat croce pirate museumPhoto courtesy of St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum. Taken during Grand Opening on December 3.

So in the meantime, fair winds and groovy sailing!

Monday, December 06, 2010

Trail of the Pirates: Don Pedro Gilbert, Hutchinson Island

Trail of the Pirates is a travel series exploring maritime history, culture and lore between Key West and St. Augustine on the east coast of Florida.

House of Refuge - Hutchinson Island
A whole lotta nothin' makes Hutchinson Island beaches beautiful for their pristine beauty. But looks are deceiving: rich maritime history lies underneath the surf. View from Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge.

On my third day of Trail of the Pirates, I finally hit the Treasure Coast, so called because of the numerous Spanish galleons that sank roughly from Hobe Sound to the south and Sebastian Inlet to the north.

While in Stuart, I crossed the causeway over the wide St. Lucie River to Hutchinson Island, a barrier island so tiny in some sections, it seems as if it could be swallowed by the ocean to the east and the river on the west. Here you'll find Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge, built in 1876.

In the 19th century, the U.S. Government commissioned ten houses of refuge to help mariners who shipwrecked along the coast of Florida. Back in the day, Florida was sparsely populated and there were few, if any, resources for stranded sailors. Imagine not only injuries, but the bugs, the lack of fresh water, food and no roads. In short, if your ship was wrecked and you didn't drown, you were still screwed. These conditions, which spelled a slow demise at best, make today's survivor show contestants look like a bunch of pansies. So the government stepped in to help sailors -- yes, that's how busy shipping traffic was up the Treasure Coast. Houses of refuges were absolutely necessary.

Today, the Hutchinson Island landmark is a maritime museum and the only house of refuge still standing.

House of Refuge - Hutchinson Island
No, you can't buy drinks at Gilbert's Bar. In fact, there isn't a kitschy beach side touristy bar anywhere in sight. It's pure beach bliss.

A famous east coast shipwreck, the Georges Valentine, lies a mere 100 feet off shore. In 1904, the Italian brigantine set sail from Pensacola, Florida with a load of mahogany intended for Buenos Aires, Argentina. A turbulent storm took it off course as it passed near Havana -- that must've been some storm because that's way off course! Seven of the ship's twelve-man crew survived thanks to the rescue efforts of the house of refuge's keeper.

House of Refuge - Hutchinson Island
The house, as seen from the St. Lucie River side. A local gardening program has eradicated invasive plants and replaced it with native vegetation. The sea oats are lovely.

House of Refuge - Hutchinson Island
The porch facing the ocean. Gilbert's House of Refuge is available for small weddings and special events. It's quite romantic, actually.


House of Refuge - Hutchinson Island
The parlor inside the house. Furnishings are original or authentic reproductions. The inn keeper would've lived here with his wife and kids; rescued sailors stayed upstairs. You can self-tour the interior and also see the bedroom and kitchen.

WHAT ABOUT PIRATES?

It's the land on which the house was built, Gilbert's Bar, that ties the area's history to pirates. Bar is short for sandbar and it's here where Don Pedro Gilbert, a former privateer, ran operations in 1832 on his schooner. Privateers were officially licensed by governments in times of war to take ships of enemy countries. Many privateers turned pirate as they sought fortune on their own without letters of marque, which were issued by governments authorizing pirate vessels to attack and capture enemy vessels.

Think of it this way: let's say your country is at war with your neighbor and you want to go take all your neighbor's crap away from him because you can reap some spoils of war by giving the navy a helping hand. Well, it's OK as long as the government tells you so, hence the letters of marque. But if you're not at war and you don't have permission from the government, it's technically illegal. What if you still want to do it? Simple: you go pirate and do the same thing on your own. If you think this doesn't happen in some form or another in today's world and economy, think again!

But I digress ...


don pedro gilbert pirateAs a pirate, Gilbert also used ambush tactics: the Gulf Stream, which is about two miles away offshore, was a super highway for navigation. At night, Gilbert would light bonfires on shore, tricking captains into thinking there might be sailors in need of rescue. Like moths to a flame, the ships were drawn to the treacherous reefs.

Gilbert had a reputation of being ruthless and the law would eventually catch up with him. After a stint in Africa, the U.S. Government brought him to trial in 1835, where he was hung at the gallows in Boston, his rotting corpse for all to see from the harbor in a statement that clearly stated: "this is how we treat crooks." At this point, the 1820 U.S. Piracy Law had been in effect 15 years, forbidding piracy as well as slave trading. Gilbert is technically the last American pirate to be executed for his crimes, although Nathaniel Gordon would be tried as well in 1862 for smuggling slaves.


House of Refuge - Hutchinson Island
Rocks like these can be seen as far south as Jupiter, but the formations in Martin County are particularly stunning.

There's another, if not directly pirate-related, connection between Hutchinson Island and my journey's end, St. Augustine. The rocks along Martin County's beaches are outcroppings of solidified ancient shell sediment known as Anastasia Formation. The rock is also called coquina and was quarried on Anastasia Island in St. Augustine to build the Castillo de San Marco fort, completed in 1695. In Martin County, you can see impressive examples of coquina, an amazingly hardy yet flexible building material that would help St. Augustine defend itself against foreign invaders and pirates.

INTERVIEWS

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim, museum keeper of Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge, on the day of my visit. If you go, hopefully he'll be there. Tell him I sent you.




RESOURCES AND MORE

PIRATES
A pirate festival takes place every year in historic downtown Stuart, which is in between the old Flagler tracks and the St. Lucie River. It's quaint and charming, with a definite old Florida feel. The Treasure Coast Pirate Fest is free but a portion of all proceeds benefit Stuart Heritage, Inc. and the Maritime and Classic Boat Museum.

BEACHES
Hutchinson Island is breathtakingly beautiful for its simplicity, which is why I think this section of Florida should also be called the "Zen Coast." This tiny sliver of island separates the ocean from the St. Lucie River, with nothing but dunes, rock formations, sea oats, waves, the sound of surf and blue skies to please the senses. It all seems so pure -- a few hours of doing nothing here will surely help unwind. Check out Bathtub Reef Beach; hopefully it will be open for swimming and if it's not, bring a picnic basket and simply bask in the natural scenery. Other equally peaceful public beaches, with plenty of parking and access, abound on the Treasure Coast up A1A.

HOUSES OF REFUGE
For you Miamians who don't want to make the the three and a half-hour trek up the coast, check out the visitor's center at Biscayne National Park, which was featured earlier in this series; it's modeled after the original House of Refuge in the Miami area.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Special thanks to Annie's Costumes, Visit Florida, Discover Martin and Hutchinson Island Marriott Beach Resort and Marina for supporting this part of the journey.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Trail of the Pirates: Miami Author Talks Female Buccaneers

Trail of the Pirates is a travel series exploring maritime history, culture and lore between Key West and St. Augustine on the east coast of Florida.

anne bonny and mary read female piratesAn illustration from a Dutch version of Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates, published 1724. The woman on the right is said to be Anne Bonny.

In the previous installment about Biscayne Bay, I interviewed Nathan Samuels, a Miamian who has studied the legend of Black Caesar. There's another local who's also interested in pirates: Sandra Riley. The South Miami author, scholar and playwright has studied and written about the Caribbean for most of her decades-long career.

sisters of the seaJust before my journey, I met with Sandra in her South Miami home to talk about her book, Sisters of the Sea, a fictional adaption of the historical accounts behind the world's most famous female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

A little about these daring women:

Anne Bonny and Mary Read were from two different worlds but ended up together on Captain "Calico" Jack Rackham's pirate ship in the early 1700's. Anne was from a rich Irish family that settled in Virginia. Known for her temper and rebelliousness, she eventually found her way to the Bahamas after marrying a small-time pirate, James Bonny.

Mary was from Plymouth, England and the illegitimate daughter of a woman who had been abandoned by her sea-faring husband. When Mary's legitimate half-brother died, her mother disguised Mary as a boy in order to continue receiving financial support from her mother-in-law. Mary grew up dressed as a boy, eventually becoming a footboy to a French woman and then a soldier in British-allied foot and horse regiments.

Fast forward over many adventures -- including attempts to live as regular women -- both became pirates of the Caribbean. It's said that they fought as fiercely as any man. At a time when women had few opportunities, both Anne and Mary found advantages in cross-dressing and living pirate life on the high-seas with Rackham's crew.

Both women were said to have male lovers on the ship; in fact, Anne was Rackham's lover. But in those days, men thought it was bad luck to have women on board and their gender-bender secret was closely guarded. How they lived as women pretending to be men on board a pirate ship is hard to fathom. That would be hard to pull off today even on a luxury yacht with modern conveniences!

In the 1700s, Calico Jack and his crew were caught by British forces. Anne and Mary "plead their bellies," which gave them a stay of execution -- the law would not punish the unborn child for the sins of the mother. Anne mysteriously disappeared; perhaps her wealthy father in Virginia bailed her out of the dismal fate. Mary met a harsher end, dying from fever in Port Royal, Jamaica, before her child was born.

How much of this is true? Unlike Black Caesar's story, reliable historical accounts exist of the extraordinary lives of these two women; nevertheless, it's the legend that captures the imagination. Anne Bonny and Mary Read have much to teach women about being gutsy and fearless.

INTERVIEWS

If you're interested in learning more about these female pirates and all the research that goes into studying them, here are two unedited interviews with Riley.

Interview with Sandra Riley, Author of Sisters of the Sea, Part 1



Interview with Sandra Riley, Author of Sisters of the Sea, Part 2



Later on my journey, I had the chance to interview Michelle Murillo, a Melbourne-based reporter who also does Mary Read reenactments. Stay tuned.

RANDOM FUN STUFF

HOW I KNOW SANDRA RILEY
Sandra Riley's partner, Peggy Hall, was one of my English teachers in high school. She was partly responsible for inspiring me to be the writer I am today. I bumped into Riley and Hall randomly two years ago while riding the Metrorail to the History Miami. We've been in touch ever since.

Retired from teaching, Riley and Hall are an important part of South Florida's homegrown literary scene. Among dozens of creative endeavors, Hall has penned many a poem and Riley has written and directed many a drama. I love these ladies! You can learn more about them on their website, The Parrot House.

PIRATE GRUB
If you're in the mood for pirate atmosphere, grab a beer and a sandwich at the The Pirate Republic Seafood Grill & Bar. Located on a quiet spot on the north bank of Fort Lauderdale's New River, the restaurant is generously decorated with pirate flags, life-size figures and more.

PIRATE FRENCH FRIES
My Miami-based Twitter buddy @frenchfryfairy posted a video about her special rum-based dipping sauce.

BARREL OF RUM
Rum was an important beverage in pirate world. Look no further than Miami-based Burr family to learn everything about this amazing cane spirit, which influenced the shape of Caribbean and American history. Robert Burr's latest post on Barbados rum is a great read. Oh, and no self-respecting "pirate" should miss the Rum Renaissance Festival in Miami Beach next year.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Special thanks to Annie's Costumes, Visit Florida, The Pirate Republic Seafood Grill & Bar and Hyatt Pier 66 for supporting the Key West to Fort Lauderdale leg of the trip.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Trail of the Pirates: Biscayne Bay

Trail of the Pirates is a travel series exploring maritime history, culture and lore between Key West and St. Augustine on the east coast of Florida.

pirates sailing chartBack in October, I attended a lecture at the History Miami museum about Black Caesar, one of South Florida's legendary pirates. Nathan Samuels, a graduate student in Science Education and an Educator at the museum, told us all about this pirate who was renown for his fierceness, size and strength. Here's a summary of what I've learned from Samuels and others on my journey.

Yes, right here in our own Miami backyard, we have pirate lore that's worth a bundle. If you've ever gone boating in Biscayne National Park and navigated through Caesar's Creek, you know its namesake. The creek is a channel that provides access to the ocean and separates Elliott Key from Old Rhodes Key. The entire upper keys system of barrier islands forms a boundary around Biscayne Bay.

Caesar's Rock, a small island between the two keys, was supposedly one of Black Caesar's local lairs. Legend has it that he'd anchor on exposed stiff limestone, partially capsize the ship with water pumps, lower the mast and use camouflage -- all to avoid detection. Black Caesar and his crew would then lie in wait to ambush ships seeking refuge in the bay's calm waters. This could explain accounts of pirate ships "appearing out of nowhere" and why it was practical for pirates to have smaller and faster ships.


biscayne national park google satellite image An aerial view of the area.

Legend also has it that he buried treasure on Elliott Key, but none has ever been found (or at least none has ever been officially reported). The idea of burying treasure is more of a pop culture notion than a practical reality. Seafaring life was dangerous, disease was rife and life expectancy was low. Saving your loot was pointless when each day could literally be your last.

Why do I keep saying "legend has it" and "supposedly"? Because Black Caesar may be more myth than fact. He could've been an African prince or tribal chieftain who escaped from Spanish slavers; other accounts speak of a mulatto slave who escaped from a Haitian plantation circa late 1700s. It's also possible that there were two -- if an earlier one inspired fear, a later one could adopt the same name. PR spin was important for pirates and just like celebrities today, they took advantage of reputation.

In a world where black skin meant a life of slavery, piracy was a real option of freedom. Pirate societies adopted principles of equality and democracy, which were even appealing to sailors under contract with a country's armed forces. A sailor's life was often difficult at best and hardly rewarding in terms of pay. Some sailors even deserted their commissions after they'd compare notes with pirates. Naval captains could be sadistic and draconian, whereas pirate captains were accountable to their crews.

So think about it: if you were black, which would you choose: a life of brutal slavery or the free life and camaraderie of piracy? I think the answer is obvious. And there were, in fact, many black pirates, according to Samuels. Ditto for sailors. Why put up with a jerk boss and crappy low-paying job when you could be a pirate?

Pirates had certain advantages over regular sailing operations. Because they would take navigational risks and lurk in uncharted waters, pirates could draw maps that were often more accurate than those drawn by official cartographers. Although sailors used celestial navigation techniques, it is a wonder anyone got around on water in a world without satellite imaging, depth finders and GPS.


Biscayne National Park
The boardwalk at Biscayne National Park in Homestead. Most of the park is actually water and some of it may have been the site of Black Caesar's pirate domain. You don't need a boat to enjoy the boardwalk or the visitor's center at the park; it's well worth a visit.


caesar's creekCaesar's Creek with modern-day channel markers. Photo courtesy of Park Vision. Visit the link for some additional great photos of the area.

What ever happened to Black Caesar? No one is really sure. Depending on which Black Caesar you're talking about, he might've joined infamous Blackbeard's crew only to be caught, tried and hung to death in Williamsburg, Virginia. He may have also joined Jose Gaspar, another legendary pirate from the west coast of Florida, whose existence is also doubtful.

But the idea that pirates may have navigated Biscayne Bay is most likely true and hardly far-fetched. Florida's east coast was like the I-95 the Spanish Main. Every cargo vessel on its way back from the New World had to pass through the Florida Straits in order to take advantage of the Gulf Stream, the strong current that flows up the east coast on its way to Europe. It was practically a traffic jam out there and there are hundreds of shipwrecks along the coast to prove it.

So the next time you're on the water, or simply looking at it from any vantage point between Miami and the Keys, think about Black Caesar and all that might've happened out on Biscayne Bay. Even if he didn't exist, he's one of Miami's best legends.

INTERVIEWS

On my way up from Key West to Fort Lauderdale, I stopped at Biscayne Bay National Park and since I wasn't able to squeeze in an interview with Nathan on the same day, I cheated a little and met up with him at History Miami a few days prior to my trip. The two-part interview is about ten minutes long in total; if you're interested in pirate history, take time to check it out. The affable Nathan has much information to share!

If you haven't already done so, visit the permanent exhibit upstairs at History Miami. You'll find not only a section devoted to pirates, but also a whole range of information about South Florida from prehistory to the present day.

Interview with Nathan Samuels at Miami History Museum, Part 1





Interview with Nathan Samuels at Miami History Museum, Part 2



RANDOM FUN STUFF

Coming soon to Miami: an underwater Maritime Heritage Trail at Biscayne National Park, where you'll be able to explore six wrecks -- spanning nearly a century -- by snorkel or scuba.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Special thanks to Annie's Costumes, Visit Florida, The Pirate Republic Seafood Grill & Bar and Hyatt Pier 66 for supporting the Key West to Fort Lauderdale leg of the trip.