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.

Touring Charleston, South Carolina… with a dog

We just returned from a long weekend in Charleston, South Carolina. We have one day’s respite and then we are heading to Lake Hartwell (on the Georgia – South Carolina line, but not along the coast) for Thanksgiving. Lots of fun travels this month!

This was our first long trip with our Jack Russell terrier, Sherlock, where we were not ultimately staying with family. It was also something of a homecoming for Sherlock, as we got him from a breeder in South Carolina. You could tell he knew he was returning to a place he was familiar with, too. When we pulled off of Interstate 95 onto Highway 17 in the Carolina Low Country, he started going wild with excitement. It was a familiar-smelling place to him. I wondered if he thought he was going to see his brothers and sisters.

Highway 17 passes through endless marshes that are stunningly beautiful. You will experience what James Joyce called “aesthetic stasis” driving through the Low Country on a bright day. I think rural Beaufort County was my favorite part of the entire drive, in fact. The golden sweetgrass and winding cerulean creeks, set against a giant expanse of sky. You see that and you understand why Charleston has produced so many writers and artists.

Although Internet travel sites rave about what a dog-friendly place Charleston is, I would say it was a mixed experience overall. Charleston is nowhere near as friendly as Florida when it comes to taking pets out and about.

It is very easy to find a pet-friendly hotel in the area. On our recent trip to Ft. Lauderdale for the International Boat Show, I booked a room in a small hotel operated by a rather eccentric fellow because I liked his gardens. Rodney begged me to find a “normal” hotel this time, so I went with the Hotel Indigo at Patriots Point. It was a decent place, I thought, and they had live jazz music every night in the lobby/bar restaurant. The chap on the saxophone was wicked talented.

The only potential downside to staying there is that you have to pass over a 573-foot tall suspension bridge (yeah, I Googled its height after hyperventilating en route) over the deep-water Cooper River every time you go back and forth to historic downtown Charleston, which occupies a peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper rivers. If bridges freak you out that’s something to consider, though I did make peace with the bridge after our third or fourth trip over it. You have spectacular views of container ships being loaded and the battleships from the top of the bridge. There is a pedestrian walkway to the side of traffic for really brave people (hard pass).

Sherlock’s first night several stories up in the Hotel Indigo was something to remember. We are all accustomed to falling asleep to the sound of the ocean here in Florida, along with the hum of critters from the jungle behind our house (mostly bullfrogs). The only things Sherlock has to bark at are the occasional barred owl – which makes a sound exactly like a monkey – or a whippoorwill. The whir of city traffic all night kept him on high alert.

But the thing that really drove him insane was a flashing light on a nearby building. Once he noticed it, he would not stop barking at it. The hotel room only had a translucent Roman shade to cover the window, so he could still see the flashing light when it was closed. We were afraid we were going to get kicked out of the hotel as a nuisance. We had to pile up pillows on top of the air conditioning unit to block his view of the skyline. But he knew it was still out there.

The two biggest problems you have with a dog in Charleston are (1) finding a place to eat that allows dogs and (2) finding grassy areas for your dog to do his business. With the exception of a few parks at the extreme boundaries of the city, most public spaces are cement or rocks.

(While I am at it, Charleston is not handicap-accessible by a long shot. As you will see from my pictures below, the sidewalks are a mix of materials from three centuries, and even the mostly even path along the Battery has slate stones that collapse slightly when you pass over them. Even agile walkers will find themselves worriedly looking down at their feet instead of their surroundings.)

If you were simply perusing the app Bring Fido, you would have the impression that there are a lot of restaurants in Charleston that accept dogs. And if you are spending most of your time downtown, this is definitely not the case.

People who live in downtown Charleston agree with this observation as well. We started off Saturday morning walking through neighborhoods in the French Quarter looking for a place for breakfast. We chatted for a while with a woman who moved to Charleston from England and was out walking her labradoodle. She told us we were going to have a very miserable time finding any place in town to eat with our dog. At first I thought that was sort of mean, but later we realized she was simply being honest.

Downtown Charleston is a beautiful but highly congested area. It is nearly impossible to find street parking, and there are so many people (and horse carriages) crisscrossing the streets that you can’t drive around looking for a place easily (especially in the dark). You need to park in one of the parking garages and walk. We walk everywhere anyway, so this was not a big deal to us going into this project. We had come to Charleston intent on walking up and down each of the streets and just taking it all in. But it’s not fun when you are hungry.

You can only take dogs in some of the restaurants that have outdoor seating. Because there is so little free space in the city, “outdoor seating” usually means a few small tables on the sidewalk pushed against the building. For those spaces, you are competing with other pet owners and droves of millennials who hang out downtown and will park themselves at a restaurant only to nurse a Michelob Ultra for an hour. (And heaven help you if you are seated next to a table of these ubiquitous hipsters. I had quite the moment of clarity listening to our seven-year-old daughter rattle on about DNA and cloning over dinner while the millennials behind us talked loudly and obnoxiously about threesomes and pot. I don’t think I ever appreciated living among the “adulting” crowd in Florida so much. Gentrification has taken some of the genteel out of Charleston, sorry to say.)

For a port town, Charleston has surprisingly few options for restaurants. Your choices are mostly touristy crab shacks (no thanks, we have those in Florida), Southern comfort food (which is only special if you are not Southern), and weird food millennials like because it has pseudo-scientific health benefits. We tried going to a “French” restaurant for brunch, but discovered it was one of the latter. It had “French” avocado toast and crêpes made from buckwheat flour. Have you ever had crêpes that looked like Pumpernickel bread? I don’t recommend it; they are gross. But you could have your dog on the patio there, so it’s one way not to starve in Charleston.

On our last night in Charleston, we found what was probably one of the best restaurants I have ever eaten at in my life, Circa 1886 (located at 149 Wentworth Street, in the original carriage house of the Wentworth Mansion; it looks out on a beautiful courtyard). I’m not going to lie, this place is pricey – like $2,000 Bordeaux on the wine list pricey – so it’s not going to be an option if you are trying to visit Charleston on a budget. But if you are a foodie, this place is special.

Circa 1886 has a menu concept like no other restaurant I have seen. The menu is divided into four quadrants, with starters, entrees, and desserts in each quadrant. Each quadrant represents a culinary tradition from South Carolina. You can pick a meal based on ingredients used by Native American tribes in the region, African elements (for the descendants of slaves), French elements (for the Huguenots who settled in Charleston), or modern South Carolina. The dishes are creative, but the ingredients are historically significant.

Elise ordered the preserved rabbit as a starter, which was a sort of rabbit stew with corn cob bouillon, seewee bean succotash, and bear tallow. Yes, bear tallow. She loved it. Rodney and I both had foie gras, which was served with a lemon rosemary olive oil cake, tart cherries, pistachio, Neufchatel, and peppercorns. We paired the foie gras with a glass of Riesling.

The chef also sent us out a pre-starter starter of salmon mousse with caviar and a shot of some sort soup that I could not figure out (sorry).

For our entree, we all settled on venison steaks served with indigo grits, parsnip, turnip collard green “mixit”, and preserved peach sauce. We had a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape with the venison, which was an excellent pair.

For dessert, Elise and I had chocolate soufflés with molten ganache and chocolate barley malt ice cream. Rodney had a West African entremet.

As an aside, I have been somewhat amused lately by how the ceremony of presenting wine to couples has evolved. I am accustomed to 20 years of having servers present Rodney with a sample of the wine before we drink it with our meal. (And I have absolutely no problem with that, as the order of being served wine doesn’t strike me as some critical feminist quest for legitimacy.) At two restaurants lately, I have seen that shift. At the first, here in Florida, the server poured a smidgen of wine for both of us to try and confirm. At Circa 1886, the server noted that I was the one who had selected the wine (Rodney told him that I was the one with all the opinions about what to drink – I was born in California wine country, after all), so he presented it to me.

Every bite of that meal was sublime. And this remarkable restaurant allowed us to eat at a table outside with our dog. When we arrived, they had set up a table in the courtyard with a flowing white tablecloth and candles. Next to the table was a dog bowl with water in it. Sherlock went to Charleston and was served by an army of men (and women) in tuxedos.

So I am not entirely down on the culinary scene in Charleston. But if you want quality food there, you are going to have to go all-out for it.

These are scenes from the Battery, which is the southernmost tip of the Charleston peninsula, overlooking Charleston Harbor, and filled with 18th and 19th-century mansions. I learned that the mansions were built (long before anyone talked about climate change) with a sort of nut-and-bolt system of cranking up their floors as the ground sank beneath them. Even in the 18th century, settlers were worried about how to keep their properties above sea level.

The original tiny houses. I’m pretty sure I have furniture larger than this house.

Imagine using this as a garage.

I wonder if these folks worry about waking up one morning to discover themselves smothered in a blanket of ivy that crept in the window during the night. That’s some Hitchcock material right there.

This house was special because it was built sufficiently above sea level to have a basement, which I am sure is actually an indoor swimming pool or aquarium.

A view of the fort Castle Pinckney from Waterfront Park and Charleston Harbor.

A random graveyard in-between houses.

Sherlock watching Elise, who found a playground in the middle of the Battery.

This house belonged to the surgeon general of the Continental Army.

Apparently this is how you patch a pothole in a cobblestone road.

Elise found cannonballs at White Point Garden / Battery Park.

A statue honoring William Moultrie, a South Carolina politician and planter who became a general in the Revolutionary War.

One of the many massive Confederate monuments in the park.

Elise was mostly impressed by the “old-time telephone” in the park. It doesn’t swipe. This is almost as bad as when she sees a big blue USPS box and says “look, Mommy, it’s an old-time mailbox, for when people wrote letters.”

Again, shouldn’t we be intimidated by this plant?

Apparently FEMA is requiring a bunch of houses to be lifted up to something like 13 feet above sea level. We saw several houses in this condition. They lift the house up and then they build a cinder block foundation underneath it. Eventually these houses are all going to be on their own pillars like the bust of some famous person in the ocean’s foyer.

I thought it was nifty that construction on the United States Custom House was halted two years ahead of the Civil War and was finished afterward. “Yeah, we are going to see how this conflict shakes out before we build any more government buildings.”

This is the USS Yorktown at Patriots Point. It was built during World War II for the Navy.

Also at Patriots Point, these are twin 40-mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns. I assume they baked many a Nazi to a crisp.

A very sad memorial to the men on the submarines we lost during World War II, mostly situated around Japan and the Philippines. This was of interest to us, as Rodney’s grandparents were liberated by Allied Forces from a concentration camp in the Philippines. They were imprisoned as Christian missionaries to China during the war.

Part of a Cold War-era submarine, also part of the memorial to lost vessels. I had no idea how massive these submarines were, and each was equipped to start a nuclear holocaust at any given moment.

The interesting thing about Patriots Point is that it is situated right next to the massive suspension bridge. Apart from being a monument to the brave men and women in our Armed Forces, the whole landscape is an incredible physical testimony to generations of American engineering might.

Fascinating city. I am happy to have spent a weekend there.

Some gardening before heading to Charleston

As a boy, in my own backyard I could catch a basket of blue crabs, a string of flounder, a dozen redfish, or a net full of white shrimp. All this I could do in a city enchanting enough to charm cobras out of baskets, one so corniced and filigreed and elaborate that it leaves strangers awed and natives self-satisfied. In its shadows you can find metal work as delicate as lace and spiral staircases as elaborate as yachts. In the secrecy of its gardens you can discover jasmine and camellias and hundreds of other plants that look embroidered and stolen from the Garden of Eden for the sheer love of richness and the joy of stealing from the gods. In its kitchens, the stoves are lit up in happiness as the lamb is marinating in red wine sauce, vinaigrette is prepared for the salad, crabmeat is anointed with sherry, custards are baked in the oven, and buttermilk biscuits cool on the counter.

Pat Conroy, South of Broad

We are headed to Charleston for a long weekend tomorrow morning. If anyone has recommendations for special places to visit in the Holy City, please send them my way. We will have our Jack Russell terrier, Sherlock, with us while we stroll around the city, so we are kind of limited in seeing museums and whatnot.

We are finding some time later today to get some gardening in and play on the beach. Elise and I bought a mango tree that allegedly will do well in a container, so we plan to put it on the front porch where it will get some sunshine. We bought two banana trees, and are starting a banana patch on the side of the house. And I bought a sea grape, which grow rather huge here. I am going to plant it in the front garden to cancel out my outrageous blooms with interesting foliage.

Sea grapes have interesting round leaves.

I am starting to develop a garden plan, so I am hoping to place orders for plumeria and other features soon. The garden center here has a ton of ferns in now, so I might get going on the fern dell and walkway first. It’s hard to do when we are traveling so much lately though.

Fort Lauderdale, Part Two

After the first day of the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, we went to downtown Hollywood to eat dinner at Runa’s Peruvian restaurant, which I highly recommend. The area seems to be mostly folks from Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela, and has many wonderful places to eat.

There is a lot of neat street art in downtown Hollywood – here are a couple shots.

The bar menu at Runa’s has a lot of Pisco cocktails. Pisco is a type of brandy that is produced in the wine-making regions of Peru and Chile, invented by Spanish settlers in the 16th century to replace orujo from Spain. It is fantastic.

I ordered a dish of beef tenderloin strips with risotto and a béchamel Huancaina paste, simply amazing. The mixed ceviche was out of this world too (with a wide variety of seafood, including octopus). Even before the food came out, Elise was thrilled that they brought out a dish of fried corn kernels to munch on.

A view of the Atlantic from Ft Lauderdale. The water was beautiful, but I have never seen so many jellyfish in my entire life. Needless to say, we did not spend much time swimming. (Though we live on the beach, so it’s not like it ruined our trip.)

This is pretty much the view anywhere along the ICW in Ft Lauderdale. Boats, boats, boats everywhere.

One of the yachts at the boat show. I was impressed by the balcony off of the stateroom.

So many screens.

On our way out of town, we grabbed some pastries and whatnot for breakfast. Elise was less interested in a croissant than orange mousse. Breakfast of champions.

I ordered what seems to be a Latin American version of baklava.

You know you are in South Florida when there are iguanas everywhere. Some are quite enormous and will run out in traffic.

And that’s the end of our long weekend in Ft Lauderdale.

Fort Lauderdale, Part One

So we are here, and we very much enjoyed our first day of the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.

We booked a garden suite at a hotel in Hollywood (just south of Fort Lauderdale), which is a neat place. When they said garden suite, they were not kidding. (You would totally love this place, Daryl.) There are some incredible tropical gardens right outside our door, and the ocean is right there too. The hotel itself is not fancy (compared to the resorts nearby), but it is charming in an old-school surfer sort of way. The gardens even have an aviary with tropical birds.

Being an infrastructure geek, I loved seeing all of the massive container ships in Port Everglades. Passing through the port, I was telling Elise, “Take a look, this is what makes America a superpower. We are this good at trade.” The horizon was full of ships bringing goods into the country.

Elise is in love with being a place where iguanas run around like squirrels.

We went to a great restaurant on the Intracoastal Waterway here with a serious selection of crab. Elise loved tossing fish into the water where enormous (5 to 6 feet long) tarpon were swimming around.

It has been really funny watching people from around the world visiting Florida here. You walk onto the yachts at the boat show, and they have salesmen that speak virtually any language. Many folks were obviously not prepared for the fact that South Florida is still in the 90s in November.

Absinthe, early auto racing, and John D. Rockefeller’s house

Our family loves serendipity, and today was quite full of it.

We had to drive down to Ormond Beach this morning to check out a posh place for boarding dogs. We are planning to drive down to Fort Lauderdale for the International Boat Show later this month (a weekend full of yachts!) and we can’t take our Jack Russell terrier, Sherlock, with us. In a fit of guilt, we found a puppy amusement park to put him up in.

It’s a little amazing to see what pet hotels have become. This place has private indoor-outdoor suites for dogs, with a swimming pool in the shape of a giant bone and several puppy playgrounds that look like agility courses. Some of the rooms are equipped with webcams so concerned parents can check in on their furbabies anytime they like. The suites also have air conditioning, televisions (so your dog can watch Animal Planet), grooming appointments, daily bowls of ice cream and other treats. Frankly, Sherlock might not want to come home.

The Rose Villa Restaurant in Ormond Beach

We rarely end up in Ormond Beach during the day, so we decided to check out a restaurant I have been wanting to eat at for weeks. The Rose Villa restaurant is in a Victorian house off of Granada Boulevard that was built in the 1800s. It became a bed and breakfast in 1901 and was an adjunct facility for famed industrialist Henry Flagler’s luxury hotel. Celebrity guests who wanted more privacy than Flagler’s hotel could provide stayed there.

The Rose Villa now.
The Rose Villa a century ago.

The walls of the restaurant are decorated with portraits of all of the famous Gilded Age personalities who frequented Ormond Beach, including Flagler, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, Willie Vanderbilt, Glenn Curtiss, Will Rogers, Alexander Winton, Barney Oldfield, Sir Malcolm Campbell, Harrison Olds, and Fred Marriott.

You can always tell an interior from one of Flagler’s establishments. This place has some of the same Charles Lewis Tiffany flourishes that you see at Flagler College or the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine.

One of the dining rooms of the Rose Villa.
A portrait of the great Henry Flagler.
John D. Rockefeller, Flagler’s business partner.

A Digression on the Great Industrialists of the Gilded Age and Florida History

Because the Gilded Age is my favorite period of history, I love Florida history. And I have a minor obsession with Henry Flagler.

Henry Flagler was sort of the Donald Trump of his era, with a similar affection for Florida real estate. Flagler was born into poverty and started his life off as a commodities trader (before commodities trading was cool). Along with Rockefeller, Flagler ultimately founded the Standard Oil Company, America’s first true corporation and the largest monopoly the world had ever seen. Flagler and Rockefeller were not immediately successful, as there was not yet an immense market for oil and petroleum products in the mid-19th century. Then the automobile was invented, and the two men became far and away the richest men on the planet. Rockefeller had so much money later in life that he passed out money to strangers and children he met on the street (and, of course, became a legendary philanthropist). This made him very popular with the kids in Ormond Beach. If you ran into Rockefeller or were his caddy on the golf course, you inevitably got a dime.

Nowadays, corporations have platoons of pathetically overpaid lawyers producing documents the size of phone books to manage legal concerns. Standard Oil’s articles of incorporation fit on a single sheet of paper. From this simple piece of paper, a multinational financial empire was constructed.

Standard Oil Company articles of incorporation.

Flagler literally built the State of Florida after the Civil War, linking a series of luxury hotels from St. Augustine down to the Keys with his railroad and “bridge over the sea.” Then he brought down every filthy rich friend he had from the north, and their friends, and their friends’ friends, and their staff, and their interior designers, and their architects. Without his vision, Florida would still be a tangle of jungle with some burnt-out sugar plantations. Flagler was seemingly a swell boss to have, too. He paid relatively high wages to the men willing to work on exceptionally rough construction sites – with sometimes brutal tropical weather and mosquitoes – many of them the descendants of freed slaves, and provided them with housing and food.

Every major city you see on the eastern coast of Florida exists because Flagler was able to recruit both the labor and consumers necessary to have a sustainable economy. He is truly a giant in American history.

Like Trump, Flagler was a lightning rod for controversy and jealousy, and he was a near-constant topic for the hyenas in the media (who were just as bad then as they are now) during his lifetime. Flagler threw over-the-top parties designed to make his self-righteous critics clutch their pearls. He’d make the world’s greatest industrialists dress in drag, for example. Flagler was hauled before Congress a billion times and he did not give two shits about it. The hyenas were going to hyena, but they’d go home to crappy New York apartments and he’d take his personal train to paradise. That was his attitude.

It’s actually something of a useful lesson for current events: History remembers Henry Flagler. It doesn’t remember the people who wrote about him. I’m sure Trump wakes up and reminds himself of this every day.

(Rockefeller, of course, was the diametrical opposite of Flagler, which is probably why they made great business partners. He kept notebook after notebook full of every penny he spent, how much money he gave away, every tiny little thing he did each day and how he could improve. Rockefeller was consumed with self-improvement and extremely religious. It was like he planned to audit St. Peter’s books when he reached the pearly gates. Well, my notes say…)

A Digression on Primitive Auto Racing (That Was Still Freaking Terrifying)

Unsurprisingly, the oil barons’ best friends were automobile industry tycoons. It was this fraternity who brought the sport of automobile racing to the Daytona area. They built the first generations of supercars for giggles, racing them on the packed white sands of Ormond Beach and Daytona. And the people in the town loved it.

There is a replica of Flagler’s supercar garage in the middle of a park on Ormond Beach with the first race cars in them. They pretty much look like someone attached rockets to a Barcalounger. And, boy, did they go FAST:

J.F. Hathaway, a wealthy manufacturer from Massachusetts and a frequent guest at the Ormond Hotel, came up with the idea of racing cars on the beach.

According to two Volusia County history books, A History of Volusia County and Ormond-on-the-Halifax, Hathaway attended bicycle races held on Ormond Beach between 1900 and 1902 while vacationing at the Ormond Hotel.

Hathaway, who drove a Stanley Steamer, noticed that bicycle tires did not sink into the hard sand along the beach. He suggested to John Anderson and Joseph Price, managers of the hotel, that the beach would be a good place to race cars.

From 1902 to 1935, auto industry giants such as Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet, F.E. Stanley and Ransom E. Olds brought their cars to race down the beach.

In April 1902, two early auto pioneers met for the first race. Olds, founder of Oldsmobile, and Alexander Winton, creator of the Winton automobile, both bolted down the beach at 57 mph – well short of the existing 77 mph world speed record, set the year before by a Frenchman.

No matter. Word got out in Europe and America that Ormond Beach was an ideal speedway. In 1903, the races were sponsored by the American Automobile Association.

Several land speed records were set in those years. Because long distances were needed to set speed records, the course often was extended south to Daytona Beach.

Ormond and Daytona beaches remained a top draw for speed demons until the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah became popular in the late 1940s.

On Jan. 23, 1904, William K. Vanderbilt set the first world record on the beach when he drove his four-cylinder Mercedes at just over 92 mph. The next year, Arthur McDonald drove a 90-horsepower Napier to 104 mph.

In 1906 a Stanley Steamer driven by Fred Marriott was clocked at 127.6 mph. Marriott later was crowned “Fastest Man on Earth” by the Florida East Coast Automobile Association.

Cigar-chomping Barney Oldfield, perhaps the most famous race-car driver in the world at the time, set a new world speed record on the Ormond-Daytona course in 1907. Driving a German-made Benz called the Blitzen, Oldfield flew down the beach at 131 mph.

From 1908 until the end of World War I, racing faded somewhat in Ormond and Daytona. The beach wasn’t in good shape and the war drew attention and resources away from racing. In the 1920s, the racing world turned its attention to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But in 1927 beach racing came back in a big way when Major H.O.D. Segrave ran his Sunbeam Mystery S race car from the Daytona Beach Pier 13 miles south to Ponce Inlet. Segrave, for whom a street in Daytona is named, reached 203 mph as a crowd of 15,000 watched.

The last speed record set on the beach came on March 7, 1935, when Sir Malcolm Campbell drove his car, the Bluebird V, to a speed of 276.82 mph. The car is displayed at Daytona USA, a motorsports museum and entertainment complex under construction at the Daytona International Speedway.

In 1936 the American Automobile Association sponsored the first national stock-car race on Daytona Beach. One of the entrants was named Bill France; he later founded the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR. Several other races were held from 1936 until the start of America’s involvement in World War II in 1941.

The first stock-car race after the war was held in the spring of 1946. France was one of the drivers, and during the race his car overturned. Spectators flipped the car back on its wheels, and France finished the race. The next year, France was again involved in the race, not as a driver but as the sponsor. Then he began planning the construction of Daytona International Speedway 5 miles east of the beach; the track opened in 1958.

The first Daytona 500 was run in 1959 and was won by Lee Petty, father of Richard Petty.

Also in the 1950s, the racetrack in Sebring in south Florida became one of the world’s most famous auto racing venues for sports cars.

Most of the world’s most famous sports car manufacturers – Triumph, Austin-Healey, MG , Jaguar, Porsche, Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Maserati, Ferrari and others – competed at Sebring.

One of the first race cars in history. Like I said, someone attached rockets to a recliner.
(We’ll just call this guy the original Florida Man. He needs a bottle of bourbon and an alligator in his seat with him though.)
America’s richest men racing primitive supercars on the sand of Ormond Beach.
I’m not sure what this is, but it looks like fun.

This is Ralph DePalma, who restarted the competition for land speed records after the upper crust took a break to deal with World War I. He was also responsible for the founding of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1911. DePalma broke the land speed record that year in his Packard V-12 at almost 150 mph.

Rodney did not believe me that they were building cars that could go over 270 mph before WWII. I had to show him that article on my phone in the restaurant. (Don’t underestimate the history nerd!)

The downstairs bar at Rose Villa.

Okay, So Back to the Rose Villa

I cannot recommend this restaurant highly enough. The restaurant serves haute Southern food. You can get fried green tomatoes with lobster, a croque madam, and so forth. This is combined with a menu of proper cocktails.

Since it was still brunch, we started off with deviled eggs, served with pork bellies and chow chow. Elise ordered avocado toast. I ordered a “biscuit benedict” served with freshly made lump crab cakes. Rodney had jambalaya. All magnificent.

The Green Fairy

We started off with a round of Sazeracs. Then we moved on to a round of candied bacon old fashioneds. Also all magnificent.

Then… We learned about the upstairs absinthe bar. The only thing that could improve such an awesome restaurant was a speakeasy.

The upstairs bar.

We’ve had the green fairy before at home, but without the ceremony. Rose Villa really gets into the ceremony. They pour the absinthe, dip a sugar cube in it, set it on an absinthe spoon, light the sugar on fire, and then use an absinthe fountain to drip water over the sugar until the absinthe turns a cloudy white. It is wicked fun to watch.

It cracked me up that the bartender felt the need to warn us that absinthe is a sipping drink and not a shooting drink. We explained to her that we understood that shooting 140-proof liquor is probably a bad idea. You’d be surprised, she said. She had a businessman do it once, and it made him violently ill. He barely made it to the bathroom. (This story is even more hilarious when you eventually learn that the restaurant has a traditional water closet for a bathroom, complete with a rope you have to pull to flush. It’s in a Victorian house, after all.)

For the uninitiated, absinthe is a licorice-flavored liquor that is derived from anise and various botanicals (including wormwood). The drink developed a bad reputation in the early 20th century among social conservatives and prohibitionists, who claimed that the drink was addictive and had dangerous psychoactive properties. They mostly hated the drink as it became a symbol of bohemian culture, being loved by such troublemakers as Vincent van Gogh and Ernest Hemingway. Absinthe was banned in the United States and Europe in the 1920s. Since then, the claims about its dangers have been discredited, and it became popular once more starting in the 1990s. It’s a very, very strong liquor (well, the good stuff is, anyway), but it’s pleasant when prepared properly and will leave your mouth tasting like licorice for hours.

The gardens outside Rose Villa.
I thought this was neat. This is the wall of an alley next to the restaurant. They put a series of mirrors on the wall, and let the vines take over the rest. It gives the alley a creepy fairytale vibe.

The Casements

As we were in the neighborhood, we decided to pop over to see John D. Rockefeller’s house on the Intracoastal Waterway. His house – named The Casements, a reference to its heavy, hurricane-proof storm windows – is a museum now.

The Casements
Rockefeller handing a child a dime. He loved giving his wealth away so much that he gave coins away to random people and strangers he met out in public.

After that, we decided to pop over to the beach and stick our toes in the surf. The waves have been incredible lately, but there were many locals wading in despite the red flags flying from the lifeguard stands. And many crazy surfers.

Florida child.
Nope.

All of this grew out of a trip to a dog hotel. I love living in Florida so much.

Scallops, archery, romance, koinobori, and a chameleon

My favorite opening scene in a movie is from Less Than Zero. Clay, returning home from college for Christmas break, drives through the palm tree-lined streets of Los Angeles to the Bangles’ cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade of Winter. It’s a story about luxury, and the greatest luxury in the world is not to have to endure a cold winter.

We’ve manged to pull that off in relocating to the Florida coastline. It still feels bizarre, however, to talk to friends and family elsewhere in the world or to watch football on television as the seasons change. Folks are breaking out the wool and celebrating whatever new frankenfood now comes in pumpkin spice while Floridians are watching for hurricanes. In Florida, the only real difference between summer and winter is how “cold” it gets at night. If it gets down into the 60s, people here start breaking out parkas. I’m not kidding. I once saw a guy riding on a skateboard along the A1A who was wearing a fur-lined winter coat but still barefoot.

We’ve had weeks of whitecaps here in Flagler thanks to the sequence of storms off the coast. It’s not good for swimming, but it sure is beautiful. I have enjoyed sitting on the front porch listening to the roar of the ocean. And it’s absolutely bonkers with the cooler air at night, which seems to pull everything closer.

We had dinner the other night at the Turtle Shack along the A1A (nominally in Flagler Beach, but it’s far north of most of the city establishments). I had Scallops St Jacques – several enormous, buttery sea scallops in a sherry mushroom sauce with Parmesan and green onions – which is out of this world. They also serve a pineapple poppyseed coleslaw that I am going to start making at home. I had never really considered pairing pineapple and cabbage before, but the taste and texture really works.

Thursdays have become our family sporting days. Elise has horseback riding lessons in the mornings, then we take her to the range to practice archery, which she has recently picked up.

They have archery ranges tucked into the jungle, which is a lot of fun. I am somewhat terrified of seeing a snake out there though. Fortunately for Elise, she’s coming straight from riding and is still wearing her paddock boots (and often half chaps).

Elise and I went on a mommy-daughter date to the restaurant in our neighborhood. It’s a fun place where the dining area is lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Elise originally picked out a romance novel to read (not knowing what it was) because it had a rather adorable dog on the cover. I explained to her that it was too, um, mature for her to read (though perhaps not above her reading level, haha). She did not understand why I would not let her read a romance novel. Eventually, I figured out that she thought I was saying Romans instead of romance. She couldn’t comprehend why I, of all people, would deprive her of reading Latin literature. Children absolutely redeem the world for you. (You can see she found a genuine children’s book after all.)

Incidentally, it occurred to me that she’s not far off in assuming a romance novel would be related to Latin literature:

The story of the word romance begins as the fifth century is coming to a close, and the Roman Empire with it. The story’s key players are the inhabitants of Gaul, a region comprising modern-day France and parts of Belgium, western Germany, and northern Italy—a region one British isle short of the western reaches of the Roman Empire. The Gauls speak a Latin-derived language that we now call Gallo-Romance, but that the Gauls themselves refer to as Romanus, from the Latin word meaning “Rome” or “Roman.”

By century’s close, the Gauls have been overwhelmed by the Franks and other Germanic peoples, and the Roman Empire has fallen to usher in the Middle Ages. The influence of the Latin language, however, remains very much alive. A Latin adverb Romanice, a derivative of Romanus, emerges with the meaning “in the vernacular,” alluding to the languages that had developed out of Gallo-Romance, namely Old French and Old Occitan. What is spoken Romanice, or “in the vernacular,” is decidedly not Latin, which is what was spoken in the church and in most formal writing.

In Old French, the Latin Romanice is adapted as romans or romanz. The new word is a noun, and it refers not only to Old French itself but also to works composed in it. It’s the Middle Ages now, and the romans/romanz composed are often narratives written in verse and chronicling—what else?— the affections and adventures of gallant and honorable knights. Romans/romanz takes on a meaning referring specifically to metrical treatments of the love and times of the chivalrous, and the fate of the Modern English word romance is sealed: its close association with tales of love join it forever to love stories, both true and merely dreamt of.

(And, obviously, that’s where we get the “Romance languages.”)

Speaking of Latin, it is still very much her favorite subject. We have finished the first level of Latin already, and we are only halfway through her “school year.” (Being homeschoolers, we can have whatever academic calendar we want.) Yesterday, I caught her on the phone with my mother and Elise was trying to teach her Latin.

We have accumulated a lot of projects from our geography and history studies. This year, we are working our way through the second volume of Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World, which covers the Middle Ages. Japan looms large in the book, along with discussions of the samurai and how similar their rituals and social status were to the knights of England.

As it turns out, one of our Atlas Crates (a geography / culture subscription service from Kiwi Co.) was on Japan. We made a koinobori (flying carp windsock). Carp are a symbol of strength and success in Japan, as they have the power and determination to swim up waterfalls.

We also played Daruma Otoshi (derived from the Daruma dolls and “otoshi,” meaning “dropped”). The object of the game is knock out the bottom pieces while leaving the structure of the doll intact, sort of like Jenga. It’s harder than it looks.

The drama du jour in our household is over this little fellow (see below), a chameleon in the local pet store. Elise is obsessed with getting a chameleon and wants to visit him every time we go to the grocery store (unfortunately next door to the pet shop). She has already named him Marco Polo (which stems from my recent interest in the Silk Road). Rodney will not budge on getting another pet following our Jack Russell terrier puppy, Sherlock Holmes. It’s not hard to board a dog when you travel, he argues, but who are you going to pay to chameleon-sit? And then there’s the issue that their favorite food is crickets. How lovely it would be to try to sleep in a house where dozens of crickets are chirping away, waiting to be eaten?

Elise is not persuaded by these practical arguments, however. She has been regaling us with chameleon facts for weeks. They are basically walking mood rings. Their eyes can move independently of each other. Their eggs take 1-2 years to hatch. (You can imagine how talking about pets reproducing has gone over.) Their tongue is 1.5 times the length of their body. They can hang from a branch by their tail. And then there’s her concern that the dog and the cat are probably bored when we leave and the chameleon could keep them entertained. It’s Aristotle’s Third Man Argument, but with pets.

Unfortunately for Rodney, he’s raising a kid naturalist. At least she’s not asking for a $65,000 dinosaur bone. (Yet.) Never a dull day around here.