Travels & Traditions: Greater Miami and the Beaches - #102

Miami, Florida.  It has been described as the American city of the future... the land of opportunity... the new Ellis Island... the capital of Latin America... America’s sun porch.  It is hot.  It is colorful.  It is uninhibited.  It’s a trip... a trip worth taking.  So join me, Burt Wolf, for TRAVELS & TRADITIONS in Miami.

Greater Miami and the beaches are situated along the east coast of the Florida peninsula – a sophisticated, subtropical city on the same latitude as the Sahara Desert.  It is usually bathed in bright sunlight and has an average temperature of  75 degrees Fahrenheit.  Miami has been shaped by ocean waves, waves that formed barrier islands – waves that came in with hurricanes and rearranged the geography.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  But the most significant waves to arrive on these shores were waves of settlers.  Like the waves from the ocean they sank into the soil and changed the shape and the texture of this place.  The first settlers were probably groups of native tribes that came over from Siberia about 10,000 years ago and headed south.  Even then people were looking for a warm place and a better life.  In the early 1500s the Spanish popped in, followed by the English, then the Spanish had a second shot.  And finally in 1821, the U.S. government took over.

After an ocean wave arrives and sinks into the Miami sand, it will often leave marks indicating its passage.  And that is also true for the waves of settlers who came here.

The first major modern day immigration was made up of wealthy northerners searching for a place to get away from the winter cold.  The first of the big spenders came to Miami during the early years of the 20th Century and settled in an area known as Coconut Grove.  In 1916, James Deering who made his fortune selling farming equipment through International Harvester, built one of the most magnificent winter homes in the area.  These days it’s open to the public.  Deering wanted to create an estate that looked like it was the home of an Italian family... a family that had lived in the house for 400 years, with each generation adding things from their own time.  The property is called Vizcaya, which means “the high place.”

The old guard is still here but Coconut Grove also has a reputation for a slightly Bohemian lifestyle... an invitation to artists and craftsmen.  These days Coconut Grove’s attractions are outdoor cafes, good restaurants, local shops and just down the road from the Grove, the ever-popular Parrot Jungle.


PARROT TRAINER:  Are you a funny bird?  Do you remember that little dog we saw?  Remember that little Chihuahua?


PARROT TRAINER:  That little Chihuahua?  A noisy Chihuahua.

The Parrot Jungle is a well-known bird sanctuary, wildlife habitat and botanical garden.  Over a thousand birds live here, but my favorites are the birds that appear at the trained parrot show.

The Parrot Jungle is at the edge of the city of Miami, a reminder that even though this is a modern metropolis, it is surrounded by the natural wonders of the tropics.  Drive south from downtown Miami for just thirty minutes and you are in the Everglades.  The Everglades is one of the world’s most unusual environments.  When the summer rains soak the grasses, hundreds of rare plants and animals fill the park.  During the dry winter season the animals come together around the limited water supply.  Pools and ponds become ideal spots for visitors who want to take a look at the amazing environment.  Vast saw-grass prairies, subtropical jungle, mangrove swamps.

Greater Miami is a compromise.  A compromise between getting away from it all in a place like the Everglades or being part of it all... in a place like South Beach.

During the Twenties Miami Beach was a major resort.  People came to live it up... to do a little gambling, which was illegal but tolerated by the local government... to drink a little alcohol, which was also illegal and tolerated by the local government.  During Prohibition, so much whisky came into Miami from the Bahamas that the Beach was known as “the leakiest spot in America.”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The largest immigrations to the United States took place during the 1800s and 1900s.  Europeans coming to Ellis Island in New York City, who for the most part were uneducated and poor and trying to improve the quality of their lives.  On the other hand, the Cubans who came to Miami during the 1960s were for the most part talented professionals and successful businessmen and businesswomen who feared Castro’s Communism and were interested in maintaining the quality of their lives.

They hit Miami and immediately started setting up the businesses they had back home... everything from local shops to international banks.  They also reproduced Cuban Cuisine.  One of the most famous Cuban restaurants in town is La Esquina de Tejas.  It’s run by Lian and Alex Chamizo.  It is – and has always been – a labor of love.

LIAN CHAMIZO:  The first time I saw the man that would eventually become my husband I was ten years old.  We were vacationing here with my parents from New York and we stopped in for lunch, and I remember my mother making a comment as to the young boy behind the counter helping out his parents, and how noble.  And little did I know I’d end up meeting him fifteen years later, and we’d marry, have two kids, and now we run the business together.

ALEX CHAMIZO:  Yeah.  See, Dad opened up the business thirty-five years ago, and he used to also be in the restaurant business in Cuba.  And basically what we serve is authentic Cuban cuisine.

It’s common knowledge that the Cuban sandwich served at La Esquina is one of the best in Miami... but some of the other authentic specialties include a traditional paella... a dish of shredded beef (actually, they call it “shredded cow”)... chicken and vegetables in a wine sauce... marinated roast pork... and for dessert, a creamy flan... and a poundcake soaked in three different milks.

Miami has had its ups and downs but it has always found a way to come out on top.  After years of being a gastronomic desert, Miami and the beaches had a restaurant renaissance during the 90s.  Today it has dozens of interesting restaurants, and almost all of the food reflects the history of Miami’s ethnic migrations and unique character.

For example, there’s a restaurant called Tap Tap.  It’s one of the few restaurants in town that specializes in Haitian cuisine.  It’s a dramatic and colorful place, but the question remains – why is it called “Tap Tap?”

GARY SANON-JULES:  Tap Tap is a colorful bus with all sorts of things painted on it that transports livestock, people, and produce from one end of Haiti to the next.  And what Tap Tap Haitian Restaurant is about is bringing Haitian cuisine, bringing great food to people who’ve never had the chance to try it.

Haitian cuisine is traditionally a blend of African, French, and mid-eastern influences.  The emphasis is on spiciness, but not heat.  Some of the specialties here at Tap Tap are a pan-seared Kingfish with Herb Sauce... Goat Chayotee, which is a stew made with a Caribbean root vegetable... a Shrimp Creole with the signature Haitian flavorings of  cloves and Scotch bonnet peppers... and Grilled Chicken with Watercress Sauce.

Because so many different immigrant groups arrived in Miami, it was only natural that there’d be a blending of cuisines... which leads us to a restaurant called La Fusta.

DOMENICO FIGLIA:  La Fusta Restaurant which means “the whip,” “horsewhip,” is a combination of restaurants – Argentinean and Italian.  We have a mixed grill which is very unusual, you don’t find no place.  This is a combination of experience of my own cooking Italian chef and Argentinean.  Plus we have homemade pasta with fresh tomato sauce which is the Italian side.  It’s a great combination.  People love it.

Now, let’s face it – Miami is a sexy town.  Five minutes on the beach will convince you of that.  So it stands to reason that there’d be a restaurant like Tantra -- which specializes in foods considered to be aphrodisiacs.

MICHELLE BERNSTEIN:  Aphrodisiacs are foods that cause erotic stimulation.  They’re said to come from the Greek goddess Aphrodite who is the goddess of love and beauty.  My foods are aphrodisiacs because I use all aphrodisiac ingredients and I believe that my feminine touches in the food cause eroticism and sensuality.

Salmon is thought to be an aphrodisiac because the fish has a reputation for great sexual activity.  This dish is served with caviar and truffles because they are rare... like true love.  The Romans thought that arugula would do the trick, so Tantra serves prawns on arugula.  By the 1500s the Spanish added chocolate to the list because... originally it was very expensive.

Much of the food on Miami Beach is designed to look good and make the dinners feel good... and so is much of the architecture.  Miami Beach is home to the largest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the world.  Art Deco got started in Paris at the beginning of the 1900s.  The objective was to take design elements used in industry and translate them into the decorative arts.  The streamlined forms in a railroad train or an ocean liner find their way into the architecture of the buildings... strong vertical lines, rounded corners, portholes, etched glass and the first widespread use of neon lighting.  During the 1920s and 30s over five hundred Art Deco structures were put up on Miami Beach.  They were Art Deco but with a Miami Beach spin.  The Art Deco here came to be known as Tropical Deco.  The colors became bright pastels.  Concrete awnings called “eyebrows” were placed above the windows to shade the rooms from the hot afternoon sun.  The objective of Tropical Deco was to make people feel that they were having fun in the sun, even though the Great Depression was going on back home.  By 1960, however, these wonderful buildings were running down.  In response, the Miami Design Preservation League, and forward-looking investors took on the task of redeveloping the area.  Tony Goldman was one of the first people to understand the value of preserving what was left in this area, and restoring the rest.

TONY GOLDMAN:  I saw a rhythm of two and three and four story buildings along an ocean street with a public park and a great beach.  A fascination of colors and shapes that had a rhythm and a connection as a family member would to another member.  When you have similar architecture in critical mass it becomes powerful, as opposed to having a piece here and a piece there from different times different places.  But the Art Deco district of South Beach is in critical mass 800 buildings all built within eight to ten years of each other.  So it’s a massive statement of architecture and a slice of time that is captured in a... for real, not in a Disneyesque approach.  But it’s captured for real.

The conflict between preservationists and real estate developers is a standard part of city life throughout the world.  And Miami Beach is no exception.  But there appears to be a major project here that has found an exceptional compromise.  This is the Hotel St. Moritz.  When it was first built it was spectacular.  By the early 1990s, however, it was closed and in sad condition.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Big developers wanted to knock it down and put up a new hotel that would cater to the convention visitor.  Preservationists wanted it returned to its original shape.  They both got what they wanted when The Loews Hotels proposal included the restoration of  the St. Moritz to its original Art Deco splendor and at the same time the construction of a brand-new grand style tower right behind it.

Today the 100-room St. Moritz is ritzier than ever.  The original front desk is back in place, and so are the terrazzo floors -- just the kind of stuff that preservationists want preserved.  The city’s need for a full-scale conference hotel near the expanded convention center was met with the adjacent 700-room Loews Tower.  It is the first major hotel to be built on Miami Beach in thirty years.  It has a free-form oceanfront swimming pool and heated Jacuzzis, which are ideal for making large quantities of Chinese dumplings.  There’s butler service to the cabanas... a 900-foot wide beach, a selection of water sports, and some interesting food.  Chef Dwayne Adams is making a Pan-Seared Snapper with a Honey Mango Sauce.

Diced mango, diced onion, Scotch bonnet peppers and orange juice are sautéed together... then blended with honey to make a sauce.  Fillets of red snapper are coated with a mixture of barbecue seasoning and vegetable oil.  Then the snapper is cooked in a hot skillet.  The fish is stacked on top of the honey mango sauce and a corn relish is placed on top.  Some cooked asparagus gets added and you’re set.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The honey in that recipe was a light honey in a liquid form which added a natural sweetness and a pleasant flavor to the dish.  It also added small amounts of a wide number of vitamins, minerals, trace elements and amino acids, all of which contribute to your overall good health.

There are over three hundred different honeys.  The differences come from the different kinds of flowers that the bees feed on.  In general, the darker the honey the more intense the flavor.  Bees must visit about two million blossoms to make one pound of honey, which is where we get the expression “busy as a bee.”  Honey comes in four different forms:  liquid honey, which is free of visible crystals – it’s ideal for cooking; spun honey, which has been finely crystallized, which makes it easier to spread on toast or muffins; comb honey is the honey in the cells of the wax comb --the actual form in which the bees produced the honey.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The fourth form is called cut comb honey and it’s honey that’s been packaged with little chunks of the honey comb inside it.  And because honey is a mixture of fructose and glucose it is rapidly absorbed by your body as a source of energy.  And this is a picture of my grandson Max who is four months old and quite a honey of a kid.  But he shouldn’t eat honey.  No child under one year old should eat honey.  Their bodies are not ready to absorb it.  Though as soon as he’s a year old he can sweeten up with the rest of us, though... I think he’s pretty sweet already.

And speaking of sweet things, pastry chef Alan Sowry is making a Sunset Key Lime Cheesecake.  Graham cracker crumbs and butter are mixed together and used to make a crust in the bottom of a baking pan.  Cream cheese, sugar, eggs, and half and half are blended together and poured into the graham cracker crust.  The topping, which has been mixed with a little key lime juice, is piped on top and some lime zest is added and swirled together with a long wooden toothpick.  The cheesecake is baked, and when it comes out of the oven it’s cooled and cut into individual round servings.  You can do the cutting with a well-washed tuna can if you like... and that’s it.

It appears that the same things that attract tourists... good food... good weather... lots of sunlight... interesting locations... also attract fashion photographers and their models.  Miami Beach has become one of the world’s most important centers for outdoor fashion photography and film.  They’ve become  multi-million dollar businesses.  As you walk along the beach you can see the art form in action.

And now for an art form that’s completely different.  These are works of the Scull Sisters.  They are famous throughout Miami.  Three dimensional murals that celebrate the street life of South Florida.  And here they are now – the twins, Sahara and Haydee, and Haydee’s son Michael.  In 1969, a freedom flight from Cuba brought them to the U.S.  They were on their way to New York, but when they saw Miami, they knew this was the right place for them.  And boy, are they right for Miami.  Like Salvador Dali, they are as much an art form as the work they create.

BURT WOLF:  Now, every day you’re dressed in something new.  Every day!  How come?

HAYDEE SCULL:  Every day is a new day for us.  And we, like everybody, enjoy...

MICHAEL SCULL:  They want to make everyone happy around them and around us.

BURT WOLF:  How do you decide what’s going to go into your mural?

HAYDEE SCULL:  We think about that and talk.

SAHARA SCULL:  Like the football.

MICHAEL SCULL:  Like a football team we talk about it and then we say how we’re going to do it and all that.


BURT WOLF:  How do you decide who does what part?

MICHAEL SCULL:  Well, my mom...

HAYDEE SCULL:  Number one.  I am number one.

MICHAEL SCULL:  She is number one.  She starts in the background.  My aunt does the different accessories, you know, to make the 3-D effect.  And then I work on some of the figures, and my mom also, and we exchange that like that.

BURT WOLF:  How long does it take you to make a piece?

HAYDEE SCULL:  Minimum two weeks, a small painting.

MICHAEL SCULL:  Two weeks, small painting.

HAYDEE SCULL:  And one year, large painting.  Like the bar in Mango’s.

BURT WOLF:  Was there any one work that you did that was very exciting for you when you think back?

HAYDEE SCULL:  The Queen Elizabeth the painting.

MICHAEL SCULL:  When the Queen of England visited Miami, the City of Miami commissioned a painting to greet the Queen with this painting.  And this painting was... we did something with the Queen’s portrait at the Vizcaya Palace –  that’s in Miami.  They thought that it would be an appropriate place to place the Queen.  And she’s a Queen she should be in a palace.  In the background you see the Vizcaya Palace, and she’s standing on one of those stone boats that they have and she’s kind of feeding manatees in the water with gloves – she’s wearing gloves and feeding the manatees.  And they’re kind of smiling to the Queen.

SAHARA SCULL:  Con guantes.

HAYDEE SCULL:  And the beautiful eyes manatee, look at the beautiful Queen... More lettuce, Mama.

MICHAEL SCULL:  More lettuce, Mama.

The murals are owned by important collectors.  They have a unique vision and if you look carefully at their images, your own view of the subject matter may change... and that’s one of the criteria for a serious work of art.

And if your art form is shopping, you can head up the beach a few miles and visit the Bal Harbour Shops.  It’s one of a number of exclusive malls with a collection of equally upscale restaurants.  Just one example of the material benefits of a relatively free and very industrious society.

Greater Miami and the Beaches are famous for sunshine – after all, Florida is the “Sunshine State” – but that doesn’t mean everything stops when the sun goes down... quite the contrary -- there’s a moon over Miami!

Miami is also the world epicenter for street parties.  The tradition goes back to 1915, but like everything else in Miami it is constantly reinventing itself.  One of the biggest is Carnaval Miami, which celebrates the Latin flavor of the community with a nine-day festival of music, parades and food.  It finishes off in a day-long block party on the legendary Calle Ocho in Little Havana.

Miami and the Bahamas have teamed up to produce the Goombay Festival.  With everything from the Royal Bahamian Police Marching Band… to Junkanoo parades… it looks like Bay Street in Nassau was picked up and transported to Coconut Grove.

Miami is the home of the annual Orange Bowl football game… and the Orange Bowl parade, which has become one of the world’s largest and most colorful nighttime parades.

But festivals in Miami don’t all feature marching bands and floats… Miami has developed into one of the most sophisticated arts and cultural centers in the U.S.  There are dozens of arts festivals, including Art Deco Weekend, a celebration of the Jazz Age right in the middle of the Tropical Deco district.

Almost every week some group in Miami is having a party to celebrate something… the town has an ongoing dedication to having a great time.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  One of the earliest developers of Miami described it as a place “where the old could grow young and the young never grew old.”  Interesting idea.  And I hope you have found this brief visit to Greater Miami and the beaches equally interesting and that you will join me next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS.  I’m Burt Wolf.