Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Durian, Tapioca And Melting Clocks

Cheyenne was ready for a walk at some ungodly hour, which was not surprising as she had filled the motel room with loud deep rumbling snores from an early hour the evening before. By 5:30 Sunday morning she was ready for her walk, and when a Labrador is ready she is very ready indeed. I tried to pretend I wasn't but she wasn't having any and she nuzzled me into total consciousness. We set out to explore the suburbs of St Petersburg, but lacking as we did any semblance of warm clothing I wore short sleeves and short pants which in the ordinary course of things do me quite well but a temperature somewhere shy of seventy degrees on a brisk winter morning this far north was not entirely to my liking. My dog wrapped in thick yellow fur was fine and we walked briskly through miles of empty streets, a reminder of how many people there are in the world and how few of them live in the Keys.

There are, let's face it certain drawbacks to living in the Keys and if you start to get hung up on them the list could become interminable so let me just say sometimes I like to try different foods than those on offer in Key west. It is a happy fact that since World War Two foreign travel has broadened a lot of people's minds in this country, and rash promises made to foreigners by governments of this country have led to an influx of people displaced by US military efforts in some of those countries. The fiasco that was the Vietnam War has led to the settlement of a large number of Vietnamese in this country, non more so than in San Jose California near where I used to live. And when you are an immigrant equipped with an education from some foreign land in some foreign idiom the easiest path to earning a living here is opening a restaurant or driving a cab. Happily for us it turns out the Vietnamese as a whole are better cooks than drivers so we are now permitted to enjoy Americanized versions of Vietnamese food and I did a great deal of that when I lived in Santa Cruz. That was why I ended up eating an indifferent pho this road trip in pursuit of my culinary past. That was also why my wife hunted down a dim sum restaurant in St Petersburg on the last day of our trip.

Ha Long Bay got mixed reviews on Urban Spoon, but my wife, an inveterate shopper checked all the reviewers and came to the conclusion it was worth a try. It was five minutes from our La Quinta motel and we found shady parking for Herself to lounge in the car and recover from her early morning forced march. We found the restaurant in a long strip mall filled with Asian businesses as though we were in some sort of small China Town in this quintessential retirement community in Florida. We figured it was a good sign when we got inside and found a preponderance of customers were Asians, as one likes to think they are connoisseurs of their cuisine, though whether or not that is an idiotic thought I cannot be sure.

All I do know for sure is there ain't no dim sum in Key West and I miss it. My wife and I used to keep our sailboat in San Francisco Bay for the more interesting sailing than in Monterey Bay and we got used to exploring the many and diverse Asian cuisines in Oakland and the East Bay. We have vivid memories of being the only Europeans in rooms filled with Chinese families on Sunday mornings pointing at trays of food and hoping for the best. We have never forgotten the plates of chicken feet loudly slurped by elderly Chinese grandmothers looking for all the world as thought why were smoking multiple pipes at once, animated feet bouncing around in their mouths like puppets as they sucked the goodness out of them. Tripe and feet are two body parts I have never come to terms with, as sources of nourishment.

They did things proper style here, bringing carts around and ticking off our choices on a menu chart, three bucks for the small plates up to five bucks for highly prized crab balls (fried balls of crab, not testicles of crustacean). We spent twenty six dollars with tea and soda and managed to stop before we burst. The only thing I would have liked to see and didn't was a green vegetable dish as mostly the offeringsw ere fairly starchy. However my wife had spotted a Vietnamese coffee shop further up the strip mall and I was advised in no uncertain terms we weren't having pudding. I love the sweet custard tarts and sesame balls offered for dessert at dim sum... It was a great lunch, much enjoyed.

THUY CAFE offers Boba Tea, which because I live in the isolated Keys I have read about and not tasted. Until last Sunday that is. After the dim sum orgy we waddled down the shopping center and and got intimate with Boba Tea which of course I love now. Big rubbery balls of tapioca at the bottom of the cup get sucked up a huge pea shooter of a straw which you stick down into this thick fruit slush that covers the tapioca balls. It is a custard loving child's dream, and as I am that child I was in heaven.

That is until I saw the little chilled plastic bags filled with something labeled...could it be? I asked the young Vietnamese woman behind the counter if indeed it was...? And she nodded smiling. I grabbed a bag and fondled my holy grail, my ark of the fruit convenant, a flavor I had sought and not found in years of persistent hunting. I had tried to mail order it, and I had traced rumors of its presence in Miami, the tropical fruit center of North America. And here it was, I found it in St Petersburg of all places: durian. It is a fruit known and hated in Southeast Asia by some people and adored by others. The reason is it smells like shit. Literally.

Let me modify that, for me it smelled like long dead socks well persperated and crusty; the mother of the woman who sold it to me said she thought it smelled like rotten vinegary onion, other people say it smells of shit and some poor unfortunates think durian smells of corpses long dead. Take your pick. The flavor, now that is a different story. Some countries ban durian from public transport and confined spaces because it smells so bad but my little bag only gave a hint of the foulness and the taste was like the sweetest, softest vanilla custard you ever put on your tongue. My wife had to wrestle it out of my hands to get a taste herself.

Above you can see my tea in a sealed plastic cup with the black rubbery tapioca balls at the bottom and some oh so gay song and dance show in some impenetrable foreign language. The best part is television is so universally mind numbing you just know what's going on by watching no matter what they are saying. Sunday afternoon on TV is the same stupid stuff everyday apparently.

All good things come to an end, even Boba Tea and durian and in the end we had a date in downtown St Petersburg to. Check out some Art, but first I had a little nostalgia to take care of before we went there. The municipal Marina at Demens Landing was looking good under the sun and it made remembering my time there living on my boat that much more pleasant. Peter Demens was a Russian emigrant who took a bet with John Williams, the story goes and the winner got to name the new railway terminus by Tampa Bay. Demens won the bet and named it for the city in Russia, Williams got the consolation prize and named the new city's first hotel after his hometown of Detroit.

St Petersburg was always known as a retirement community, God's waiting room they called it when I lived there, all the old pensioners sitting on the city's famous green benches in the city. This was where they filmed Coccoon the fantasy about a source of eternal youth. Then the boom years got ahold of St Zpete and the city gained a dynamism sorely lacking. The Dali museum was a dowdy white cube lost in the industrial zone of South St Pete. Two years ago they opened the new digs of the Catalan painter's largest collection of works in North America.

The obvious design element is the triangular glass dome which "grows" out of the cement. The literature insists the structure is weather proof and the priceless art collection is safe from hurricanes. I noticed the glass panels are not actually covering any of the galleries, and in the event of a storm the pictures can be sealed off inside the concrete walls of the structure.

It is an impressive place and don't imagine I broke any rules by taking pictures inside the galleries, the place was crawling with guards and members of the public...but let me tell you this place is worth every penny of the twenty one dollar entrance fee.

They include an audio guide with the fee and you put on the headset and are transported into a world that you think is familiar from the famous images that represent Salvador Dali's works but in fact you will learn that there is so much more than what you think you know of this man and his painting.

I knew nothing before we went in and I know only a little bit more now but what I learned whetted my appetite. I now want to know! I will say this: the tour does not fill in a lot of the painter's biographical details. They are supplied as they impact the painting you are looking at but there is no proper history of the painter's life. The good news is you can buy one of many books in the gift shop to fill those shortcomings.

Awesome is a much over used word among modern youth but tell me this staircase isn't just that? It's practical and surreal just like Dali.

We spent a couple of hours wandering through the well behaved crowds of amazingly considerate people packed into the galleries. There was also a guided tour with a loud booming voice so it was quite chaotic in there. Yet for all that it was an amazing experience simply wandering, listening to the headset and through it hearing the incredible paintings de-coded for ordinary mortals. What I got from this experience is that Salvador Dali was an enormously talented technical artist and painter who allied rigorous technique to a crazy imagination.

I was worn out by the tour and was quite ready to be done by the time the exit was in sight. I find two hours in a museum is about as much as I can take and then I'm toast. I cannot imagine how the couple who collected all these works didn't have their heads explode in a home crammed with the works of Dali. Reynolds and Eleanor Morse met and befriended the artist, made a fortune, lived mostly and gave Mitch of it away, including leaving us this astonishing legacy. When you compare them to the one percenters who currently infest our country you have to wonder why they were so cool and our current crop are so worthless. Eleanor Morse, co-founder of Salvador Dali Museum, dies at 97 | Tampa Bay Times I read recently that Bill Gates the philanthropist is now proud owner of the worlds largest fortune at 78 billion dollars. I wonder what the Mores family would have done with that kind if money?

I couldn't take pictures inside the galleries but I got this shot of the posters to make up for it.

Outside it was a gorgeous day and a perfect contrast to the dense tapestry inside.

We sat for a while to enjoy the day before we had to start the six hour drive home.

A quick spin round Demens a Landing where I bored my wife with memories of living here in this fabulous marina set in a city park. I was in an unhappy place all those years ago but even then I enjoyed my surroundings, I sailed a lot and got to know Tampa Bay as well as I got to know San Francisco Bay under happier circumstances years later.

It still gets dark around six o'clock and we didn't get home till ten. The stray tree growing on the old Flagler Seven Mile Bridge is still illuminated festively by some wild unknown benefactor to humanity.

My wife is back at work after her Christmas Break, and I did right by her she says with my carefully unplanned road trip. Good trip or not its good decidedly to be home in the Keys.



Trobairitz said...

I think I am slightly afraid of the durian just from your description.

The tea and dim sum on the other hand sound yummy. I haven't had dim sum since we went vegan. Sigh, self deprivation at its finest.

Martha said...

This reminds me to get over to my local botanical gardens. Soon.

You enjoy life, that's for sure.

myamuhnative said...

I'll have to drive down and try that dim sum place!
About the durian, was it mixed with something?
When I lived in the Redland we made tropical fruit ice cream for a festival at the Fruit and Spice park one year.We made Durian ice cream and I tasted the fruit.
It truly did smell like rotten onions and that taste, like rotten onions and garlic, remained on my tastebuds for no less than 3 days. Major yuck!

Conchscooter said...

I loved the flavor of the thing. The smell was not enough to put me off. Perhaps it was mixed, or perhaps I am warped but years of desire!