The most beautiful package I have ever received

I love Turkish ceramics and textiles. A few weeks ago, I found the QubiccaHandicraft page on Etsy, which is unbelievable. I ordered a handmade copper tea kettle and sugar bowl.

My package from Istanbul finally arrived today after being hung up in Customs. Half of the box is covered in stamps! Now I know this is totally neurotic, but occasionally I get a package from somewhere interesting and I save the stamps. For a while, I was ordering used books from a guy who would always mail the package from Flagtown, New Jersey and use decades-old collector’s stamps. I kept each of those. (The stamps were worth more than the book he was mailing!) I am going to have to keep this one too.

And this is my new tea pot and sugar bowl. A picture cannot do it justice… It is GORGEOUS. (The sugar bowl is not enormous, I just had it in the foreground when I took the picture.)

FYI, should anyone reading this decide to order one, the base of the tea pot is slightly concave. You would not be able to use it as a proper tea kettle on a glass cook top (only a gas stove). But you could use it as a beautiful tea pot the way you’d use a ceramic pot.

Horseback riding and a new place for pho

I haven’t posted any pictures of the wee equestrienne lately, so here you go. Tacking up Chewy for a ride.

Walking Chewy in the ring before practice.

We have a long tradition of going out for pho on especially cold days. After a couple years in Florida, anything in the 60s now feels insufferably cold. It’s kind of difficult to believe I am the product of Finnish and Dutch immigrants.

When we moved here, there were not any Vietnamese places nearby. But this month, Tram’s Cafe opened. We are so excited to have a place walking distance away for pho. I also discovered that I really love Vietnamese coffee, which tastes a lot like Cuban coffee (and thus will probably be very popular here). The cultural fusion in Florida is always impressive. There’s nothing like sitting in a Vietnamese cafe and listening to Vietnamese, Latin, and American pop music in rotation.

I feel like I am the last person on the planet to discover bubble tea. Elise is absolutely in love with it. On the odd chance that any readers here are similarly uninitiated:

Bubble tea is a Taiwanese tea-based drink invented in Tainan and Taichung in the 1980s. Recipes contain tea of some kind, flavors of milk, and sugar (optional). Toppings, known as “pearls”, such as chewy tapioca balls (also known as pearls or boba), popping boba, fruit jelly, grass jelly, agar jelly, alovera jelly, sago and puddings are often added. Ice-blended versions are frozen and put into a blender, resulting in a slushy consistency. There are many varieties of the drink with a wide range of flavors. The two most popular varieties are black pearl milk tea and green pearl milk tea.

This will be a fun place to hang out with a book.

And the second eagle egg now has a pip. So we will have another eaglet in our neighborhood hopefully tomorrow morning. Happy days.

Some delightful Middle Eastern cookbooks and food blogs

We’ve gone out to eat at Lebanese restaurants in Jacksonville so often recently and enjoyed it so much that I ordered several cookbooks in an attempt to replicate the experience. I love the history of all of the civilizations surrounding the Mediterranean, and their food is a living history of sorts. It has also been a great excuse to order a litany of new spices.

As far as cookbooks go, however, these are especially wonderful. They have very thorough discussions of the history and culture of the region – and in many cases, they take the time to explain the origin of particular dishes, spices, and techniques. Much like the Caribbean, the Mediterranean is an on-going collision of people from wildly different backgrounds, so dishes can have very interesting origins and fusions.

This is my favorite of all of the cookbooks I found. Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi have written a sort of love letter to the city of Jerusalem. The book is filled with pictures of people from all different backgrounds going about their daily life there. It includes recipes from across the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities. I plan to work my way through most of the recipes in this book.

Another great cookbook is Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food: The Classic Cookbook, Expanded and Updated, with New Recipes and Contemporary Variations on Old Themes. This book also contains a lot of history, but has fewer pictures.

I have also enjoyed this book, Taste of Beirut, from which I learned how to make many of the mezzes we love to eat when we are up in Jacksonville.

This is not a true Middle Eastern cookbook, but Bobby Flay’s cookbook Fit also has a lot of great recipes inspired by the region. He uses a lot of Middle Eastern flavors to make western food taste a lot more interesting.

One of my next projects is going to be to start making preserved lemons. It seems a little funny to do this when one lives in a place where citrus is so abundant, but it really does seem to create an irreplaceable flavor. I’m also not sure how we’ve lived so long without knowing about pomegranate molasses.

Lastly, if you love Middle Eastern cooking, I would highly recommend a couple blogs for you. The first is my pal, A Jeanne in the Kitchen, who posts a wide variety of absolutely amazing recipes (including a lot of Middle Eastern food). The second is Orange Blossoms and Rose Water.

Eating sea urchins and azalea season

We have been hard at work (and hard at play) this past week.

A few days ago, I was explaining to Elise how I would wade into the tide pools when I was a child in Southern California and poke at anemones and sea urchins. You could stick your finger into the sea anemones and they would suck on it, like a baby sucking its thumb. Urchins, however, you don’t really want to mess with. She has several sea urchin shells in her collection now. These stories made her very happy.

This, of course, prompted Rodney to suggest she try sea urchins at our neighborhood Thai restaurant. We made a trip to the restaurant solely for this purpose. When we arrived, the sushi chef said he had only enough urchin for one serving remaining. (Apparently, urchins are in high demand here…) So Elise ordered it, and very much enjoyed eating it.

Only later did we learn that the only edible part of sea urchins are their gonads. So in the past month, we’ve eaten veal brains and sea urchin gonads. I feel like I need to buy a sack of chicken nuggets for Elise just so she can experience some measure of normalcy.

We have mature hedges of purple azaleas all the way around our house. I look forward to the end of January / beginning of February to see them in bloom. And they really put on a show. I have some salmon-colored azaleas in the front of the house as well, and they have been blooming for over a month now. “Winter” in the Deep South is pretty special.

The bougainvilleas by one of our back doors have also taken off. I planted these when we moved in, and to be honest, I did not think they were ever going to bloom. They need a lot of light, and they are on the edge of an ancient magnolia and an ancient oak that is loaded with Spanish moss. But they finally bloomed, and they are spectacular.

This is a lovely little flower I saw in the dunes playing on the beach this morning. We spent our Sunday morning walking a few miles down the beach at low tide, came home for lunch, then went out for another six-mile walk down the Intracoastal Waterway. It felt like all of Florida was out enjoying a beautiful, clear day. We didn’t see any dolphins today, but we did meet a lot of high-quality dogs taking their humans for walks.

Not a bad view, eh?

Americans have made avocados the new cash crop for Mexico’s drug cartels

I have been loosely following the kidnapping of the well-known Mexican conservationist Homero Gómez González, who has made it his pet cause to protect the habitat of monarch butterflies who migrate to Mexico annually.

Left-leaning American news media like NPR have made it sound as if he was likely murdered by one of Mexico’s cartels for his conservation efforts. If you read the local papers in Mexico, however, it seems like he was simply another citizen kidnapped for ransom money. It’s makes a less interesting narrative and reinforces the point that Mexico is not as safe of a country as it used to be, which many take to be merely a Trumpian talking point rather than a physical reality. But it is worth withholding judgment until the facts are out.

Anyhow, thanks to my interest in this story, I have learned a lot about the avocado industry. People in the US take it for granted that an endless stream of avocados will be imported to Mexico to feed the new fad of putting avocado on virtually everything. I’ve even seen pajamas and blankets being marketed to the Millennial and Generation Z crowd that have avocados on them.

America’s demand for avocados has turned avocados into a multi-billion dollar industry in Mexico. This means that the cartels that would usually be trafficking in heroin and marijuana are now deforesting land in monarch preserves for … illegal avocado orchards.

Organized crime in Mexico and Central America has been diversifying away from drugs for a while now:

The cartel members showed up in this verdant stretch of western Mexico armed with automatic weapons and chainsaws.

Soon they were cutting timber day and night, the crash of falling trees echoing throughout the virgin forest. When locals protested, explaining that the area was protected from logging, they were held at gunpoint and ordered to keep quiet.

Stealing wood was just a prelude to a more ambitious plan.

The newcomers, members of a criminal group called the Viagras, were almost certainly clearing the forest to set up a grow operation. They wouldn’t be planting marijuana or other crops long favored by Mexican cartels, but something potentially even more profitable: avocados.

Mexico’s multibillion-dollar avocado industry, headquartered in Michoacan state, has become a prime target for cartels, which have been seizing farms and clearing protected woodlands to plant their own groves of what locals call “green gold.

More than a dozen criminal groups are battling for control of the avocado trade in and around the city of Uruapan, preying on wealthy orchard owners, the laborers who pick the fruit and the drivers who truck it north to the United States.

“The threat is constant and from all sides,” said Jose Maria Ayala Montero, who works for a trade association that formed its own vigilante army to protect growers.

After seizing control of the forest in March, the Viagras announced a tax on residents who owned avocado trees, charging $250 a hectare in “protection fees.”

But they had competition. Rivals from the Jalisco New Generation cartel wanted to control the same stretch of land — and residents were about to get caught in the middle of a vicious fight.

In May, a convoy of pickup trucks loaded with Jalisco fighters raced into the woods and an hourlong gun battle broke out.

Juan Madrigal Miranda, a 72-year-old professor who runs a small nature center in the area, cowered on the floor of his small cabin as bullets flew overhead.

His fear eventually gave way to anger at the growing power of the criminals, 10 of whom died in the forest that day.

“Around the country, the cartels want land, forest and water,” Madrigal said. “Now they are fighting for the keys to life.”

Homicides are at an all-time high in Mexico, which has long been home to the world’s most powerful and violent narcotics traffickers. Yet much of the killing today has little to do with drugs.

Organized crime has diversified.

In Guanajuato state, the homicide rate has nearly tripled over the last three years as criminals battle for access to gasoline pipelines, which they tap to steal and sell fuel.

In parts of Guerrero state, cartels control access to gold mines and even the price of goods in supermarkets. In one city, Altamirano, the local Coca-Cola bottler closed its distribution center last year after more than a dozen groups tried to extort money from it. The Pepsi bottler left a few months later.

In Mexico City, bar owners in upscale neighborhoods must pay taxes to a local gang, while on the nation’s highways, cargo robberies have risen more than 75% since 2016.

Compared with drug trafficking, a complex venture that requires managing contacts across the hemisphere, these new criminal enterprises are more like local businesses. The bar to entry is far lower.

This new approach to organized crime was pioneered by the notorious Zetas cartel and spread in response to the government’s 2006 declaration of war on drug traffickers.

Mexican forces, with strong U.S. support, focused on capturing or killing cartel leaders. But that strategy backfired as the big cartels fractured into smaller and nimbler organizations that sought criminal opportunity wherever they could find it.

“For many of those smaller groups, it’s far easier to just prey on local populations,” said Falko Ernst, a Mexico-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, which promotes nonviolent solutions to conflicts. “It’s a myth that it’s only about drugs.”

In Michoacan, where there have been dozens of cartel splits over the last dozen years, organized crime’s invasion of the avocado industry is a microcosm of what is happening elsewhere in the country — and a potent illustration of how the government has unintentionally fueled more violence.

Many people here now long for the early 1990s, when just one family trafficked drugs through the region and the state was largely at peace.

America’s favorite food has become a source of serious misery to families in Mexico:

Originally part of La Familia and later the Knights Templar cartel, which emerged in 2011 after the government crackdown, the Viagras later joined a government-run rural police force designed to topple the cartels.

When that force was disbanded, the Viagras lost their paychecks. But they still had their weapons and military-style training, so they returned to crime.

At the same time, another important change was transforming the state: Americans were falling in love with avocados.

Between 2001 and 2018, average annual U.S. consumption increased from 2 pounds per person to nearly 7.5 pounds.

Michoacan, whose plentiful rain, sunshine and rich volcanic soil make it an ideal place to grow the fruit, was uniquely positioned to capitalize on its rising popularity. It is the only state in the country allowed to sell to the United States, which banned avocados from Mexico until 1997 over concerns about pests.

As exports of Michoacan avocados boomed — on their way to $2.4 billion last year — luxury housing developments and car dealerships sprang up in Uruapan and elsewhere as huge swaths of forest were cleared to grow more.

And the increasing number of criminal groups all wanted a piece of the action.

On a recent chilly morning at a large farm a few hours outside Uruapan, dozens of avocado pickers sipped coffee around a crackling fire, preparing for a grueling day.

Scaling trees and clipping avocados pays much better than many jobs in Mexico — $60 a day compared with the $5 minimum wage — but it increasingly comes with serious risks.

Mayco Ceja, a slight 28-year-old who spent his childhood in California, said the dozen-man team of pickers that he leads was recently summoned to a farm that turned out to be run by gang members.

“They came at us with pistols,” he said. “They forced us to pick for seven hours and didn’t pay us.”

On other occasions, gangs have barred his team from working in order to create a scarcity in supply, which raises the profits for cartel-controlled groves.

Before the Valencia family trafficked drugs, it grew avocados, and it is an open secret here that for decades criminals have used avocado farms to launder money. But never have the lower rungs of the industry been so vulnerable, with multiple gangs extorting cash from small-time growers and state officials recording an average of four truckloads of avocados hijacked each day.

One driver, who was heaving 45-pound crates of avocados into a tractor-trailer, said that in the last six months he has been held up twice by armed men who forced him to drive to a safe house and unload there.

He was too afraid to give his name. “They’ll come to your house and shoot up your whole family,” he said. “Kids included.”

Last year, 1,338 people were killed in Michoacan, more than any year on record. This year has been even deadlier, with 1,309 homicides through October, putting the death toll on track to top 1,500.

Security has become so tenuous that in June a group of avocado producers bought ads in several national newspapers warning of an “irreparable impact” to the industry unless officials address the problem.

In August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture temporarily suspended its avocado inspection program in a town near Uruapan after threats to some of its employees. Local media reported that one inspector had been carjacked and another group of employees subjected to intimidation after they canceled a farm’s certification.

That whole piece is rather eye-opening. I have only included small excerpts here, but it is worth reading.

Veal brains and the used bookstore of my dreams in Jacksonville

Our family had a most interesting day today. This was completely unintentional, as I had planned to spend the day painting our kitchen and breakfast nook.

We woke up and hurried to get ready for our local library’s book sale. I had heard wonderful things about all of the books they have available each year, so I attempted to get our family there as early as possible (before all of the good stuff was gone). We did find a lot of good books, but there was hardly anything left on history (my favorite subject). So I was a little disappointed.

After that, we met Elise’s karate class at the pier for the kids to practice on the beach. Her sensei is teaching karate on the beach twice a month now – in addition to the normal twice a week at the recreation center – to get the kids ready for upcoming tournaments. Several of the more advanced kids in the class will be competing (not Elise). She has no idea that having your karate class on the beach is not a “normal” childhood.

Karate on the beach.

We very much enjoyed lounging along the boardwalk watching Elise and her friends practice their katas. We could not ask for better weather, and it felt like the entire town had decided to go to the beach. While we were there, Rodney convinced me to give up on projects around the house and spend the day playing in Jacksonville. And so we did.

We decided to spend the day on a tour of used bookstores around Jacksonville. Good grief, I had no idea that Jacksonville had so many incredible used bookstores. And when I say incredible, I mean INCREDIBLE. This is a very well-educated population, and it shows. I can’t believe we have lived in Florida for a couple years now and not been used bookstore-hopping in Jax before.

The first one we went to was Black Sheep Books, which is an excellent store with extensive history sections. I was unhappy to discover that the place is likely going to close down in June, as the owner wants to spend more time traveling and doing other things after running a bookstore for two decades. Then we went to a big-box used bookstore near Top Golf (I forget its name), which was also impressive.

But nothing could prepare me for the Chamblin Bookmine on Roosevelt Boulevard. This is hands-down the most amazing bookstore that I have ever set foot in. I know you probably think nothing could top places like the Tattered Cover in Denver or Book People in Austin. But they are not even close to the literary wonder that is the Chamblin Bookmine.

Ron Chamblin owns two bookstores in Jacksonville, the 33,000-square foot Bookmine on Roosevelt Boulevard and another 10,000-square foot bookstore downtown. Between the two locations, he has amassed OVER THREE MILLION BOOKS. I am not kidding with that figure. If you are a bibliophile, this store absolutely must be on your bucket list.

One aisle in the Bookmine.
Multiply this by about 200 and you have a sense of the scale of the store.

The Bookmine is aptly named, as it is a cavernous building with a maze of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that keep taking you deeper and deeper, not unlike the tunnels and seams in mines. I did not realize that they offer maps of the store at the entrance, otherwise I would have taken one. You need one. When we made it close to the rear of one section, I ended up getting separated from Rodney and Elise and started to have a legitimate panic attack. I was going to message them, but I couldn’t even figure out how to describe my location. We eventually reunited, but it was intense.

Apart from the sheer number of books in the store, what sets this store apart from others is the quality of the selection. The store has a better selection (by orders of magnitude) than any college bookstore I have ever visited. It is an emotional experience seeing every title you have ever dreamed of getting on a subject, regardless of how obscure or academic it might be. And most of the books are inexpensive, clean copies too. I will never step foot in a Barnes and Noble again – there is seriously no point.

Books, books everywhere.

In researching how this magnificent place came to exist, I found this 2016 article about the owner in the Jacksonville paper:

Forty years ago this month, during the bicentennial summer, Ron Chamblin bought 15 boxes of smoke damaged books and opened a used book store on Herschel Street…

Before he started a book store, Chamblin, who is 74, was unhappy with the course of his life. He’d had an unhappy childhood living with an alcoholic father. He hated high school. He spent four years in the military and hated that. He then went to work writing technical manuals and selling motorcycles. He didn’t like that either. He didn’t want to work for someone else.

So he negotiated to buy the Crawford Bookmine, which Cy Crawford ran out of his Lakeshore home. A fire at Crawford’s house damaged his collection. But Chamblin still paid $7,500 for the Bookmine name and the 15 boxes of books, the most important step in what he called Project Liberation…

For most of his 40-year career, Chamblin worked seven a days a week, though he recently started taking Sundays off. He says he’s taken only three weeks of vacation during that time. He’s owned homes, including his current home on Fleming Island. But for nine years he lived in a room in the back of the Roosevelt story.

After he opened Chamblin’s Uptown in 2008, he spent several years living in a room there.

Probably the most important step Chamblin made in building his used book empire was his acquisition of the old Consumers Warehouse building at 4551 Roosevelt Blvd. He renovated the building and opened with 15,000 square feet of retail space 25 years ago, in 1991.

“I thought we’d never fill the son-of-a-gun,” Chamblin told the Times-Union in 2002.

The building was filled within three years.

Chamblin subsequently bought a plant nursery next door and expanded his retail space by 9,000 square feet. Now, he said he plans another expansion at Roosevelt, an additional 12,000 square feet. Walking through the maze-like corridors of Chamblin Bookmine, with packed book shelves towering over aisles narrow enough to induce claustrophobia, the need for ever more space becomes clear.

One of the things that has made Chamblin a success is his practice of extending credit. People who sell books to him can take their profits in cash. But they get a better deal if they take the payout in store credit. Chamblin said he currently owes about $350,000 in store credit. That keeps his customers coming back.

Some aisles defied categories.

In the middle of our book-hunting, we stopped at the Beirut Restaurant on Baymeadows Road, which is a very cool place to eat. We were out on an enclosed patio. While I do not get into hookah, it was pleasant to smell it. Between that and the Lebanese music they had cranked, it felt like we had been transported to the Middle East.

We had some mezze samplers, which were delicious. But the highlight of the meal for me is that I offered Elise $20 to eat veal brains and she actually did it. She wasn’t at all grossed out by them once they came, and ate most of a platter of them. We have the most adventurous seven-year-old I know. (She also happily put away a dish of liver.)

While eating the veal brains, she joked that she was eating “cow memories.” Hahaha.

At the restaurant, I learned about Arak, a Levantine liqueur. It tastes like licorice and runs about 100 proof. It’s made from grapes and aniseed, and seems very similar to absinthe. The name comes from the Arabic word for “perspiration.” (Here’s a fun piece on how Arak is made.) I also tried some wine from the West Bank, which I can only assume is an acquired taste.

We will definitely be going back to this restaurant, but there are many Middle Eastern restaurants in the vicinity. (Incidentally, Jacksonville has the country’s 10th largest Arab-American community. Arabs have been relocating to Jacksonville for well over a century, with the first Arab immigrant settling in the area in 1890.)

After the restaurant, we went to the Beirut Grocery, which is a couple doors down from the restaurant. We make it a habit to visit international grocery stores wherever we go. Partly that is for the joy of filling our pantry with ingredients from all over the world, but it is a great way to discover new things in general. In our own town, we shop at the Latino, Portuguese, and Asian grocery stores on a regular basis. (They also usually have some of the best cuts of meat.)

Elise loved the Beirut Grocery seemingly more than all other grocery stores because they not only carried Turkish Delight (the real stuff) but HAD AN ENTIRE WALL OF DELIGHTS in all kinds of flavors. I could not resist a bag of fig delights myself (y’all know how much I love figs). They also had dried mandarin orange segments and dried kiwis in bags.

Turkish Delight – so good, it’s sinful.

I also bought some rooibos and cinnamon tea and some soaps. I had no idea that olive oil is used in making soaps.

Another thing I learned at the Lebanese grocery store is that truffles grow in the desert. I saw some tins of truffles (terfeziaceae) from North Africa. They are expensive, but not as expensive as the ones that grow in the forests of Europe. I was tempted to buy one just to see what they taste like.

All in all, it was an amazing day. I love Jacksonville, there is so much to do there.

Black-eyed peas for New Year’s Day

It is tradition in the South to eat black-eyed peas (or Hoppin’ John) on New Year’s Day for good luck. This ranks right up there with painting porch ceilings haint blue to ward off evil spirits in terms of superstitions down here.

I cook them every year and force them on everyone else. I have long since learned that the only good bowl of black-eyed peas is stewed with bacon or salt pork. If you eat them by themselves – well, as Elise puts it – they kind of taste like dirt. I like to eat them with chow chow relish to kick things up a bit, which you can make at home or buy at Southern grocery store chains.

Anyhow, I thought I would share the recipe I am going to try this year from the website Immaculate Bites, which has African/Caribbean recipes. Like Southern rice varieties and sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas came to the South from Africa. I love African cooking, so discovering this website has been a real treat.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound (453grams) black eyed peas
  • 4 -5 thick bacon slices , chopped
  • 1 cup smoked sausage or turkey , diced
  • 1 large onion , diced
  • 1 stalk celery , diced
  • 2-3 teaspoons minced garlic
  • 1 Jalapenos , minced (optional) replace with cayenne pepper
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme , minced
  • bay leaf
  • 1-2 teaspoons creole seasoning
  • 7-8 cups chicken broth
  • 2 cups or more Collard greens , sub with kale
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Rinse dry black-eyed pea beans and pick through and discard any foreign object. (I did not have to do this because I used the package beans,). Add beans to a large pot covering with 3-4 inches of cold water. Cover and let sit for about 2-3 hours.
  2. In a large, heavy sauté pan, saute chopped bacon until brown and crispy about 4-5 minutes, then add sausage saute for about 2-3 more minutes. Remove bacon and sausage mixture, set aside.
  3. Throw in the onions, celery, garlic, jalapenos, thyme and bay leaf  and saute for about 3-5 minutes, until onions are wilted and aromatic. 
  4. Then pour in the chicken broth or water.
  5. Drain the soaked beans, rinse, and place the beans in the pot. Season with creole seasoning and salt to taste. Mix and bring to a boil.
  6. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for about 20 minutes.
  7. Throw in the collard greens, and bacon and sausage into the pot, continue cooking for another 10 minutes or more, stirring occasionally, or until beans are tender and slightly thickened to your desire.
  8. Add more stock or water if the mixture becomes dry and thick, the texture of the beans should be thick, somewhat creamy but not watery.
  9. Remove the bay leaves.
  10. Taste and adjust for seasonings with pepper, creole seasoning and salt if needed. Serve over cooked rice and garnish with green onion.