Travels & Traditions: Tampa Bay, Florida - #107

Tampa Bay sits on the west coast of Florida, facing the Gulf of Mexico.  It is a significant business center... a major port... and a resort.  It is at the center of a multi-city metropolis that includes Tampa, Clearwater and St. Petersburg. Native tribes had been living in the area for thousands of years when the first European explorer arrived in 1528. One of the expedition’s officers described Tampa Bay as “the best port in the world.”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  And right after that, nothing much happened for about three hundred years.  Then in 1821 the United States government took over... and nothing happened again.  The real beginnings were in the 1890s, when a visionary railroad industrialist by the name of Henry Plant built a railroad line connecting this area with the northeast and the midwest. The Tampa Bay began to develop and Henry helped it along by building the city’s first great hotel.

It’s a Victorian palace in Moorish revival architecture, which he called The Tampa Bay. Today it’s part of the University of Tampa, but its silver minarets and gold crescents have become a symbol of the city.  Some of the original rooms have been restored, so you can see what a deluxe hotel was like during the 1890s. 

The original Tampa Bay fishing village that had been built by the Spanish and the Cubans was eventually turned into the Hyde Park district. Today it is home to some of Tampa’s wealthiest families and finest shops. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Shopping is always a somewhat surreal experience for me but the real Surrealism is here at the Salvador Dali Museum, which has the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by the Spanish Surrealist.

Born in 1904, he was given his first one-man show when he was only twenty-one.  Soon after, he joined the Surrealists, who preferred to deal with dreams rather than conventional imagery. But Dali went one step further:  he declared that he was not just a Surrealist painter but was himself surreal.  By the time of his death in 1989 Dali, his distinctive mustache, his publicity events and his extraordinary talent gave many people the feeling that he was, indeed, something beyond real.

You might also like to stop into the Aquarium, which focuses on the ecosystems of Florida. There’s a self-guided tour that takes the visitor through four different aquatic environments -- from cypress swamps and bogs to a mangrove forest and a salt grass marsh. 

If, however, you prefer to see nature in the wild, take a twelve-mile drive north of downtown and pay a visit to Canoe Escape.   It’s a quiet adventure through a 16,000 acre wilderness park, where you can enjoy the beauty of the Hillsborough River and discover the local wildlife.  Canoeing gives you a perfect opportunity to paddle back in time and experience the river as it was seen by the original natives.

Another few minutes and you will be on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.  The Tampa Bay area has two of the top ten public beaches in the world -- over thirty-five miles of powder-white sand... gentle surf... and the Guinness Book record for the most consecutive days of sunshine -- seven hundred and sixty-eight.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Tampa’s port and its easy access to North America and the Caribbean made it an ideal site for commercial activity. One of the first men to realize this and take advantage of it was a man named Vicente Martinez Ybor, who set up a cigarmaking factory at the edge of Tampa in 1886.

By the turn of the century the area became known as Ybor City. And it was the cigar manufacturing center of the world. One hundred-fifty factories produced more than 100 million hand-rolled cigars each year. Today, the center of Ybor City is a National Historic Landmark District.  Rosann Garcia is the president of the Ybor City Museum Society. She also offers customized historic tours.

ROSANN GARCIA:   This is a community that was founded by immigrants that came here to work in the cigar industry, and their imprint is still evident today -- Spanish, Italian, Cubans, Romanian Jews and Germans.  Mr. Ybor found out about this location from a friend, Mr. Guttierrez, a colleague of his who was looking for guava trees in this area, but said to Ybor, “We don’t see any guava trees, but we do -- I see there potential for your cigar industry.  Since you have to move out of Key West and Cuba because of labor problems, come and take a look at Tampa.”

These are the casitas, or the cigar workers’ houses.  In order to lure the cigar workers to Tampa, the cigar manufacturers decided that they needed to offer something they wouldn’t have in Cuba, and that was single-family residential homes that they could rent to own.  So thousands and thousands of these casitas, or cigar workers’ houses were built throughout Tampa.  One of the things that’s unique about small cities at the beginnings is the home delivery of fruits and vegetables and fish and whatever.  So bread was delivered and placed on this nail outside the front door.

BURT WOLF:   (over)  They just slapped the bread against it?

ROSANN GARCIA:  Exactly.  Slapped a three-foot long Cuban bread --

BURT WOLF:   -- kept it off the floor... I love it!

ROSANN GARCIA:  Sure.  Well, Burt, the cigar capitol of the world is still alive.  And we have cigar shops throughout Ybor City, hand-rolling cigars, bringing in the handmade cigars from Central America, and I want to take you into a shop that’s very typical of the Ybor City cigar shop.  Another really unique feature about this is that you can get your hair cut , get a cigar and enjoy the afternoon.

BURT WOLF:   Barber shop and cigar store.

ROSANN GARCIA:  All in one.  The cigar label art was very important to attract the buyer.  Some themes would have been concentrating on animals, or presidents, flowers, and of course the very beautiful, sexy women, because that was certainly of interest to the male smokers... very handsome men for the ladies’ cigars --

BURT WOLF:   I like things to be balanced, that’s good...

ROSANN GARCIA:  Mm-hmm.  There’s the very beautiful Tampa label that does feature the minarets in the Tampa Bay Hotel, and some beautiful foreground shots of the beach and water, you know, just to give you a feeling of the area.  The most important person in the cigar industry was El Lector -- The Reader.  

BURT WOLF:   He would sit in the middle of the room and read to all the people who were rolling the cigars.

ROSANN GARCIA:  Yes.  He educated them about current events and world events, and in the afternoon he read novels and poetry.  So people who might have been illiterate were very educated and cultured, and could discuss with each other what they heard for the day.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The same ethnic groups that lived in Ybor City a hundred years ago -- the Spanish, the Cubans, and the Italians -- are still here, and their traditional ways of eating and drinking are still part of their everyday life.  But in those hundred years of working and living next to each other, a lot of recipes have been exchanged. 

This is the La Segunda Bakery, which is being run by the third generation of the Moré family.  They are famous for their Cuban-style Palmetto Bread. 

RAYMOND MORÉ:  If you notice, they’re rolling it out, and they have to work it very extensively to get the gas out of it.  But it’s very pliable then; they roll it out to thirty-six inches, they bring it here and then they put the palmetto strips on it.

BURT WOLF:   Why do they put the... palmetto?  From the tree?

RAYMOND MORÉ:  It’s a bush that grows about five feet, and it’s a weed in Florida, so we have people that pick it fresh every day and bring it in.  Nobody cares, nobody wants it.

BURT WOLF:   And what does it to to the bread?

RAYMOND MORÉ:  Well, the only thing it does, if you notice it retains moisture underneath; it sticks to the bread.  And once the bread has dried and creates a crust, it goes into the oven, it’s got to try to expand.  And all this does is forms a weak spot so it can tear and actually blossom up like a flower.  Just retains moisture is the only thing.

BURT WOLF:   (over)  Nice!  No flavor.

RAYMOND MORÉ:  No flavor.

BURT WOLF:   Just so you don’t get a --

RAYMOND MORÉ: -- a big broomhandle-looking stick.  It lets it blossom out.

A Spanish family, famous for its Cuban bread, and take out pizza. Ybor City on a plate.

And while you’re in the neighborhood you might like to stop into The Tropicana for a typical Ybor City Cuban breakfast.  This is the town’s morning hangout, and an ideal spot to meet the local community.

BURT WOLF:   What is a Cuban breakfast?

MAN # 1:  It’s cafe con leche with Cuban toast.

MAN # 2:  You’ve never eaten Cuban toast?

BURT WOLF:   No, I haven’t.

MAN # 2:  Oh, you’ve gotta try it.

BURT WOLF:   It doesn’t sound like a very filling breakfast --

MAN # 3:  What they do, what they do is they stick the toast down into the coffee.

BURT WOLF:   Aha.  Well, we need some coffee.

MAN # 1:  This is Cuban toast.

BURT WOLF:   All right, so now I dip it --

MAN # 2:  You’ve gotta put sugar in it.

BURT WOLF:   Gotta put sugar in it.  How much sugar?

EVERYONE:  Whatever... whatever... it’s your taste.

BURT WOLF:   I have a kind of sweet personality to begin with so I’m just gonna use a little.  Hah!  So now I take the bread and I dip it in?

EVERYONE:   Yes... that’s right...

MAN # 1:  Tasty, right?

BURT WOLF:   That’s the whole thing?

MAN # 1:   That’s the whole thing.

BURT WOLF:   Bread...

MAN # 1:   Your little finger has to --

BURT WOLF:   One finger out?  That’s authentic?

MAN # 3:   Now:  the reason they do that, in the old days they were very poor and the bread was two or three days old, it was real hard.  And they’d get it soft , they’d stick it in that coffee to soften it up.  Is that correct?

MAN # 1:  Yes, that’s right.

BURT WOLF:   Is that why they used to dunk donuts in the Second World War, ‘cause the donuts were stale?

MAN # 1:  That’s right.

BURT WOLF:   Uh-huh.

As you would expect, the Italian immigration to Ybor City resulted in a number of good down-home Italian restaurants.  Bernini is an excellent example of the current generation.

But the most famous dining establishment in Ybor City is the Columbia Restaurant, which opened in 1905. The founder was Casimiro Hernandez Sr., an immigrant from Cuba who named the restaurant in honor of his favorite song about his new homeland...”Columbia The Gem of the Ocean.” These days people come in to enjoy the decor, including an unusual collection of painted tiles... the Spanish food... and the floor show.

The food at the Columbia is some of the best in the Tampa Bay area.  There are cheese and chorizo sausage appetizers, black beans and rice, wonderful paellas, sautéed plantains, chicken and yellow rice, shredded beef, flans... and a Godiva chocolate cake.

If you would like to balance the night life with a little wild life,  I’d suggest a day at  Busch Gardens.  In 1959 the local Busch family put up a beer brewery on the edge of town.  August Busch, who was the head of Anheuser-Busch, added a bird sanctuary and some gardens so his family and his workers would have a nice place to take a break.  It soon began attracting neighborhood visitors and tourists. Today it is internationally famous.

Personally, I prefer thrill rides that are a bit more earthbound.

SUSANNAH WILSON:  Our Serengeti Plain is one of our landmarks at Busch Gardens, and this Serengeti Safari is probably one of our most popular attractions, because guests can get right in the back of this truck, see these animals right up close, probably closer than they would see in Africa, and we also bring food to feed them.  Hi, Claudia.  This is Claudia; let me give you a carrot and some apples.  Now, they do have teeth, but they don’t have upper incisor teeth like a horse, so that’s why you don’t have to feed them like this, you can use your fingers.  And sometimes we’ll even try to get them to stick their tongue all the way out, so you can see how long -- it can get eighteen inches, which is a pretty long tongue.  Isn’t it?  Show him how long your tongue -- Their tongue is also, you can see, real dark.  Usually they’re feeding on acacia trees, and with their tongues all the way out all day long, it can get sunburned.  So that keeps their tongue from getting sunburned.  Our herd is an important breeding herd --

BURT WOLF:   I haven’t even put the dressing on!  Give me a minute!  I hate when you rush the cook.  How did the long neck evolve?

SUSANNAH WILSON:  Well, when you look at animals in a particular habitat, they all fit a different level, a different niche.  The giraffes are at the best level because they don’t have to compete with too many herbivores for food.  Now, being at such a level, they’re also great at being able to spot predators.

BURT WOLF:   They’re like a big watchtower, and they warn the other animals.

SUSANNAH WILSON:  (over)  Exactly.  Once the giraffes start moving, then other animals take notice and then they know that something may be coming.  And it’s neat too, because even though they’re so protected here at Busch Gardens, they don’t have to worry about too much, you can still -- you know if something’s going on on the other side of the park ‘cause the giraffes will spot it first.


Babyface... you’ve got the cutest little babyface...
There’s not another one can take your place, babyface...
Babyface... I’m in heaven when I’m in your fond embrace...”

One more time!

Part of what makes the Tampa Bay and St. Petersburg area enjoyable is its history of being able to restore the old, while introducing the new. An excellent example of that skill is the Renaissance Vinoy Resort. It was built in 1925 during one of Florida’s land booms. The architectural style is Spanish Mediterranean Renaissance, which made it look very traditional, but it was one of the first hotels in Florida to have steam heat and the very first to utilize a construction that was fireproof.  From the day it opened it attracted a successful and famous clientele. Sunbathing was always part of the ritual, and an even tan was sought after then as much as it is now.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): To achieve the desired overall tan they used a piece of equipment called a sunbathing solarium.  They would rent a box like this, open to the sky, and for a nominal fee, take it by the hour or the day.  They would come inside, close the door --

-- then you took off all of your clothing. Nude tanning, right next to the pool, in the privacy of your own solarium. The solariums, by the way, were coed, which made the whole thing even more outlandish. 

During the early 1990s the property became part of Renaissance Hotels and Resorts, which operates more than eighty upscale properties around the world.  At the Vinoy, the objective was to highlight the property’s unique historical qualities.  They spent over ninety million dollars bringing it into shape. As you walk around, you can sense the original aspects of the building. The Renaissance Vinoy is a Florida landmark and has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  It’s also a member of the Historic Hotels of America.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): In 1990, when the hotel was being renovated, the construction crews came upon a hidden vault filled with silver serving objects, each wrapped in a newspaper from the 1930s.

There is no information about the silver in the company records, and no one has any idea of who put it away or why.  The newspapers, however, date from the 30s, right in the middle of the Great Depression.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): My theory is that one of the owners was afraid that the Depression would turn into utter chaos, and the silver wsa put away as his buried treasure.   My second theory is that these were all wedding gifts that he hated, but couldn’t throw out because the person who gave them to him might show up and say, “Where is the lovely sugar bowl that I gave you for your wedding?”  Well, the world did not turn into chaos --  as a matter of fact, things around here are more buttoned-down then ever, especially in the details. 

Directly in front of the building’s main entrance is a marina with about seventy slips.  Boats tie up and connect to the Vinoy.  Electricity and water lines are run aboard. The boat is treated as if it was one of the rooms in the resort... which includes deliveries from Room Service.

BURT WOLF:   Wow -- what a lovely tray!  Fruit... champagne... it’s my kind of afternoon!

WAITER:  Have a nice day, now.

BURT WOLF:   Thank you.

The resort has six award-winning restaurants:  Alfresco is a casual spot with indoor and outdoor tables...  Fred’s is an elegant private dining room reserved for resort guests.  It was named after Fred Guest, who played a major role in getting the property restored... The Promenade Lounge for a drink or something light to eat in the lobby area... The Clubhouse Restaurant, which offers casual Florida dining and overlooks the resort’s championship golf course... The Terrace Room, which is the main dining room... and Marchand’s Grill, the Vinoy’s signature restaurant specializing in Mediterranean dishes. 

An example is this Bucatini Pasta with Fresh Tomatoes.  Executive Chef Tom Chin sautées some olive oil, garlic, shallots, fresh spinach and prosciutto ham for about fifteen seconds... a little white wine is added and cooks down.  Chopped Florida tomatoes go in and simmer for a few minutes.  And while the tomatoes are simmering, a word about tomatoes and good health.

Tomatoes contain lycopene, a powerful antioxidant.  It’s thought to help prevent a number of common forms of cancer.  They’re also finding out that if the tomato is cooked,  your body will absorb more of the Lycopene. Tomatoes are also a good source of vitamins A and C, and fiber.  And they go perfectly with pasta!

Back into the pan:  Pre-cooked bucatini pasta is mixed into the tomatoes.  Bucatini is a hollow spaghetti.  A tube runs right down the center. The salt and pepper seasoning is adjusted. Then onto a serving plate... and finally some Reggiano Parmesiano cheese.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  And while we’re dealing with tomatoes, a couple of tips. Don’t store your tomatoes in the refrigerator. The cold air will have a negative effect on the taste and texture. Remember, these tomatoes were born in Florida. They like everything to be at room temperature.  And store your tomatoes with the stem and shoulder side up. The shoulders are the most delicate part of the tomato.

And for dessert... Pastry Chef Bill Hallion’s white chocolate cheesecake. Oreo crumbs, sugar, cake flour and butter are mixed together, then packed into a cake pan and baked for a few minutes. After the crust has been baked and cooled... cream cheese, butter, sugar, cream and white chocolate are mixed together and used to line the Oreo crust.  The cake is coated with whipped cream, and shredded white chocolate is used to coat the finished cake.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  With a dessert like that, it’s important to remember what the ancient Greeks said:  “The objective is not to conquer desire but to manage it.” And speaking of managing desire... 

Welcome to Tampa Bay’s Gasparilla Invasion!  Every February since 1904,  Tampa has celebrated the arrival of spring with the Gasparilla Invasion. In theory, Jose Gaspar was a pirate who roamed the coast near Tampa during the late 1700s. His memory is honored, if that’s the right word, by having dozens of the city’s leading citizens dress up as pirates, climb onto a facsimile of a pirate ship, fire cannons, yell orders, and sail up the mouth of the Hillsborough River into downtown Tampa.  At which point, the tribute to Gaspar continues with an extraordinary parade.

BURT WOLF:   (under competing marching band)  These days a parade has come to mean a public procession on a ceremonial day, and the --

Besides being lots of fun, the Gasparilla Invasion is an interesting cultural event and one of its goals is to help control desire. It is a form of carnival designed to allow everyone to let off steam... to break away and create an atmosphere of chaos... to be free... to give ordinary people a chance to show their creativity and imagination.

BURT WOLF:   (under another marching band)  These days...

A parade is essential for this type of event. The word “parade” comes from an old Spanish word which meant “the stopping.” It was a military term that was used to describe the period of time that a foreign army stayed in an occupied town. The soldiers marched through the street, which gave them the chance to show their strength. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  These days the word “parade” has come to mean -- fun!!!  These days the word “parade” has come to mean a public march on a ceremonial occasion, and the major thrust of the event is having a good time.  I hope you’ve had a good time during our visit to Tampa Bay, and that you will join us next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS.  I’m Burt Wolf.

WOMAN ON FLOAT:  Ohhh, Burt!  Oh, God, we watch you all the time!  Oh, wait, I gotta get a picture...