An Interview of Botanical Interests in Cooking and Cuba By Way of Miami

Now that the days are getting longer and the temperatures warmer, it seems like everyone’s fingers are itchy for a little bit of gardening these days. This week, I’m happy to present a special botanical post to satisfy all the green thumbs out there.  In the kitchen, our around-the-world culinary escapades take us to Cuba, where we are making Santiago Pork Roast, a slow food recipe that takes two days to prepare from start to finish.

And in this post, you’ll also meet one of our blog readers, Jorge J. Zaldivar, a Cuban-American farmer who is dedicated to preserving Florida’s horticultural history in Miami via food and fruit. Welcome to Week 11 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020!

That’s Jorge on the left and Chef Daniel Boulud on the right!

There are quite a few readers of the blog who live in Florida and enjoy gardening and adventuring around their state. I’m hoping this post in particular will offer some new insight into their favorite hobbies. Jorge is a font of knowledge when it comes to botanicals and is anxious to share all that he has learned in regards to horticulture, cooking and connecting with others in this tropical landscape.

In addition to being involved in the farming of heirloom guava varieties, Jorge is deeply connected to promoting the tropical fruit community of South Florida in so many interesting facets. He operates PG Tropicals (creators of locally sourced artisanal products including tropical fruit jams and jellies), writes a food blog called Sub-Tropic Cookery which features the recipes and botanical adventures of vintage cookbook author Alex D. Hawkes (1927-1977), and previously sat on the board of the Rare Fruit Council International (RFCI) headquartered in Miami and the South Florida Palm Society (SFPS). I caught up with him to discuss his Cuban heritage, his passion for plants and his inherent interest in food history. He also recommends some of his most favorite places to visit in Miami and shares a few Cuban themed eateries in his town that all newcomers to South Florida must check out. Let’s see where he takes us…

In The Vintage Kitchen: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

My name is Jorge J. Zaldivar, I was born in Miami, Florida to two parents from Cuba’s Oriente province. Cuba had six provinces prior to the communist regime reapportioning and dividing everything. My mother’s side is from Manzanillo, the birthplace of el Son, one of the island’s most important musical genres.

A vintage map of Cuba circa 1947
No other country has originated a greater number of musical styles and genres than Cuba, this is due to the melange of interesting cultures, particularly African and their rhythms. My father’s side is from Banes, Cuba where the U.S. Airforce U-2 airplane was shot down in 1962. I currently live in Miami-Dade County and travel between home and the farm which is just North of the Florida Keys in Homestead’s Redland.
Redland, located at the entrance to the Everglades is South Florida’s farm country. It’s known for its red clay soil and unique agricultural products that do not grow anywhere else in the United States. Photo by Jorge J. Zaldivar
Tell us a little bit about your Recipes Lost blog. What inspired it and what attracted you to the culinary explorations of Alex Hawkes?

While collecting cookbooks and hunting for Caribbean recipes, not only did I discover Time Life’s Foods of the WorldThe New York Times Int’l. Cookbook and various other titles, I found Alex D. Hawkes’, A World of Vegetable Cookery (1968). I noticed in the flap that Hawkes was from Coconut Grove, my very same zip code in fact. I made it my mission to learn about his story which has resulted in researching and writing his biography which is laden with stories and recipes from my hometown, many botanically inclined and filled with wonderful anecdotes.

American botanist and cookbook author Alex Hawkes (1927-1977) worked extensively throughout his life in the study of tropical horticulture including that of orchids, palm trees and bromeliads. He also traveled frequently around the Caribbean islands collecting authentic recipes. Photo courtesy of Sub-tropic Cookery.

His other titles are highly recommended such as his books on Rum (1972), Shrimp (1966), Caribbean and Latin America flavors (1977) and his coveted South Florida Cookery (1964). The Sub-Tropic Cookery blog was my dedication to Alex D. Hawkes and some of his recipes, this was done via my Recipes Lost project.

As a fellow Craig Claiborne fan, what do you like about his recipes and/or his approach to cooking?

Craig Claiborne (1920-2000) – longtime Food Editor at the New York Times and the inspiration behind the International Vintage Recipe Tour

As a cookbook collector the goal was to try and put a finger on this guy with loads of books and a New York Times column. Hawkes is more of my personal Claiborne but the two did meet and speak for an interview. He was mentioned in Craig Claiborne’s: A Feast Made for Laughter.

the-new-york-times-international-cook-book
The vintage 1971 cookbook that launched the International Vintage Recipe Tour.

In the end what I like most is how important the NYT Cookbook became. Of all his books the NYT Int’l Cook Book is my favorite aside from the work he did with Pierre Franey for Time Life’s Foods of the World. I have not pursued their books together as much as I should have. There’s always time for 60-Minute Gourmet and the many evolving themes of cookery.

It’s wonderfully fascinating that you are a part of the Rare Fruit Council International in Miami. How you are involved there? How did your interest in rare fruit come about?

I have served on the Board of the Rare Fruit Council Int’l. (RFCI) in Miami. As I began studying our history I fell in love with the story and am getting documents ready to formalize an archive for the Council. By becoming the official Historian it will allow members to notice that these documents are not just historical and sitting here. I intend to help spread awareness of the RFCI’s efforts to promote rare tropical fruits in this region and to put all this wonderful information to good use again.

I discovered the RFCI when I found their famous Tropical Fruit Cookbook, the rest is history. I am also the 2020 President of the South Florida Palm Society (SFPS) and Member of the Tropical Fruit & Vegetable Society of Redland (TFVSR) at the Fruit & Spice Park.

Tell us a little bit about PG Tropicals. Do you make all the preserves yourself? What inspires you about it? 

PG Tropicals is the partner that purveys fruit from Guavonia Guava Grove in Homestead’s Redland Agricultural Area. All of the preserves are made in small batches, generally to order which are purveyed to a portfolio of dedicated chefs and artisans committed to the same ideals I believe in. As we say “Keeping it local”, which comes with other benefits such as lowering our carbon footprints and positively affecting our community.

PG Tropicals’ platter of sliced fresh guava and Redland Guava marmalade

What is your most favorite tropical fruit and why?

This is as difficult as the infamous “What’s your favorite mango?” question. The reason I neglect answering this question is because the seasonality of fruit allows most divine fruits to shine at the proper time of the year. It’s just perfect in design right? Just imagine, it’s the peak of winter and you have had a great year sampling plenty of longan, lychee, sugar apple, guanabana, mamey, abiu, and plenty more to boot.

Tropical fruit display at Redland’s Fruit & Spice Park

When you haven’t tasted mango for some months and you find a bag in the deep freeze, victory. When your taste buds catch a glimpse of that flavor and your mouth lights up that’s when you notice how special each fruit is, and how mango although not the best, is certainly in a class of its own when you experience that taste again. I find it difficult to choose just one. I am also fascinated at how the fruit is seasonal, not all plants are ever bearing. It shows us some patience.

Did you study botany/agriculture in school or did you explore these fields of interest on your own?

I studied Elementary Education at Florida International University, I also DJed on the student radio station and had a quite successful classic 1970s disco / dance radio program. I am lucky to have grown up in a family that always had plants everywhere, whether the nursery they operated pre-Hurricane Andrew (1992), and our yards.

Under the palm trees in Miami, FL. Photo by Matthew Hamilton.
My grandfather left us a considerable number of palms and curious fruit trees. My father loves to grow plantains, sugar cane and citrus. His brother ventured more towards the ethnobotanical route filling in all the loose ends with medicinal plants and herbs in addition to various fruit crops such as mamey, avocado, Bixa (annatto), mango, guava, guanabana, canistel, mammee apple and many more worth exploring and enjoying. In Cuba, my family lost various acres of land which was originally given to my great grandfather for fighting in the war of independence against Spain. As my father has told me, “From here to the end of the block and much more.”

Would you ever consider moving to Cuba? 

I wouldn’t consider moving somewhere that is simply 90 miles, and a boat ride away from lunch or supper. More Americans lived in Cuba pre Castro, or pre revolution as we say. This is known because of the major interests and financial investments U.S. corporations had on their neighboring island. I would not choose to reside in Cuba until they hold democratic elections and acknowledge the nationalization of property that occurred. It is the largest mishandling and misappropriation of U.S. assets in history. As an American I cannot let that go unnoticed. It’s hard to be on one side of the Atlantic Ocean, is what I am trying to say.

How does your Cuban heritage influence your cooking?

I always wonder if Chinese people or other cultures around the world explore “international” food as much as we do here in the United States. What I am trying to describe is that I find it very humbling to imagine that aforementioned Chinese example, cooking traditional food and fare in China, without the need or desire to explore other cuisines. This is what I consider humbling, because these people may not know anything else, yet here in the U.S. where options are plentiful, I along with other cooks are simply trying to emulate the flavors that encapsulates these humble Chinese cooks and many other cultures around the globe.

I am enamored by finding my own Cuban flavor and trying to get it just right, in the eyes of my grandmother and those that have perfected these recipes for us to say, “that tastes Cuban.”I strive for perfecting the flavors of Cuba to ensure that our heritage is not offset by a few distasteful events in our island’s history. 

Photo by Tijana Drndarski

Who first taught you how to cook?

I learned to prepare Pan con Ajo aka Garlic Toast by mashing garlic with a pestle, then olive oil and salt is added to the mortar. This is to be slathered on Cuban bread, which is then optimally toasted. This is the teachings of my parents and grandmother. I recall my abuela’s / grandmother’s first apartment in Miami Beach prior to the cultural wave that took over and transformed it into that hyper busy city it is today. I recall sitting on the counter with her learning to peel garlic.

Tell us a little bit about life in Miami. If one of our readers was to visit the city for the first time, what five places would you recommend that they visit first?

1. Fruit & Spice Park in Homestead’s Redland, Miami’s bucolic countryside to visit the only botanical park in the United States that showcases several hundred species of rare tropical fruits that grow nowhere else in the continental United States. Please say Redland to appease the locals, as Redlands is a city in California! 

Fruit & Spice Park is situated on 37 acres and boasts over 500 varieties of fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs and nuts as well as plant specimens from around the world.

2. Los Pinareños Fruit Stand who has been open for business in Little Havana’s Calle Ocho (8th St.) for over 40 years. Situated directly adjacent to the eternal burning flame dedicated to the Cuban Bay of Pigs 2506 Brigade, on Cuban Memorial Boulevard & Memorial. The proprietors are from Pinar del Rio in Cuba hence the name “Pinareños”. A region famous for their Guayabita del Pinar rum made with guavas, among other things. 

Los Pinarenos. Photo courtesy of progresoweekly.us. Read more about this history of this fascinating market and fruteria here. 

3. Azucar Cuban Ice Cream Co. Since you are already on Calle Ocho (8th St.) drop by Domino Park across the street and get some of Miami’s freshest and most unique flavors of freshly made ice cream.

Azucar Ice Cream Shop. Photo by Sarthak Navjivan

4. The Kampong in Coconut Grove, is open by appointment only. This is the home of Dr. David Fairchild. The foremost food explorer that changed that American palate more than any other individual in modern history.

Facing Biscayne Bay at Dr. Fairchild’s Kampong. Photo by Jorge J. Zaldivar
Photo by Jorge J. Zaldivar

His thousands of plant introductions not only gave Washington D.C. their famous cherry blossoms, but our plates are indebted to his introduction of broccoli, soybeans and countless other staples the American diet simply couldn’t live without. (Drop by Ariete nearby or Chug’s Diner for some Cuban snacks.) 

American botanist, photographer and author Dr. David Fairchild (1869-1964)introduced over 200,000 exotic plants to the United States as well significant agriculture crops to our modern diets including kale, quinoa and avocados.

5. HistoryMiami Museum is certainly worth the visit in Downtown Miami. Go here before everything else, even though it’s last on the list! So it helps you understand the city you are about to explore.

HistoryMiami is Florida’s largest history museum in the state.

Also check out Edible South Florida for the most updated and relevant info to South Florida. They are the only FREE local print magazine available. I am their Goodwill Ambassador and highly recommend scouting out a copy while in town.

For new tropical home gardeners, what three trees, flowers or plants would you most recommend for their gardens?

Carica papaya
Psidium guajava

Plinia jaboticaba

From left to right: Papaya plant (Carica papaya), Guava tree (Psidium guajava), Brazilian tree grape (Plinia jaboticaba)

What is one tropical fruit everyone should know about or experiment with in the kitchen?

The most overlooked fruit by far is fruta bomba, papaya. Botanically Carica papayais one of the fastest growing plants in the tropics. It’s not a tree, just like bananas, which are botanically speaking herbaceous plants. Papaya, aside from being one of the healthiest and best things you can eat, is so versatile that a separate homage is needed.

Antique botanical illustration of Carica papaya by Berthe Hoola van Nooten circa 1863
The leaves can be used for a tea and eaten after being boiled. The seeds add a piquant taste to a salad dressing. The pulp can be made into juice and smoothies. Baked into a delicious Eve’s Pudding or pie. Papain, meat tenderizer is derived from this wonderful plant. Improved cultivars exist in various colors of gold and orange. The fruit is nutrient dense with antioxidants, among the best things one can eat. The ability to use it raw as a vegetable, pickled or in soups is also a fact that makes this much overlooked fruit truly utilitarian.
 

It’s available in most ethnic markets and should certainly be approached by more people in the United States with access to quality fruit. The imported or Florida grown varieties are excellent. A word of note in Cuba many regions call this fruit, fruta bomba (bomb fruit) because the word papaya is actually a vulgar term for female genitalia in some parts of the island. When you cut one open you’ll figure it out. Nonetheless do not fret because botanically the species of the Carica genus is papaya.

Although some people are reluctant to buy papaya because of the smell, it’s a must to try it. This recipe is the most accessible, and the lemon helps mellow it out. This “breakfast papaya” is from none other than Dr. David Fairchild’s files, which we have Alex D. Hawkes to thank. 

If you could only grow one fruit for the rest of your life, which would you select and why?

I cannot answer this question easily. I guess if it had to be my entire life I would choose coconuts, the fruits of the Cocos nucifera palm. That way I can die drinking coconut water. Didn’t think that was coming right?

Coconut Tree. Photo by Kilarov Zaneit.

If you could invite 5 famous people from history, living or dead, to dinner at your house who would you invite?

As silly as this would turn out and the criticism may turn out to be a blunder I would invite for the purpose of my personal story…

The dream dinner party! Clock-wise from top left: Dr. David Fairchild; Ann Seranne and Eileen Gaden; Alex D. Hawkes; William “Bill” Whitman; and Richard D. James.
1. Alex D. Hawkes
2. Dr. David F. Fairchild
3. William F. Whitman
4. Ann Seranne & Eileen Gaden (I know it’s two people but they are a team!) Eileen was the original Food “Blogger” Instagrammer IMO. 

5. Richard D. James (Aphex Twin) maybe he would DJ

Photo by Francesco Gallarotti

 What are two goals you hope to accomplish this year?

I want to continue expanding my rare plant collection, mainly grown from seeds. I also want to take every opportunity I can to lower my carbon footprint in everything I do. Composting, traveling, wastefulness, conserving resources, water management and many more ways to positively impact the planet. 

Photo by Gabriel Jimenez

One thing that I really admire about Jorge is his passionate commitment to understand all aspects of tropical fruit trees and plants, from studying to growing to eating.  Horticulture is such a slow, steady, scientific  pursuit that requires much patience, time and thoughtfulness in order to achieve successful long-term results. It is inspiring to see the ways in which he is bringing information learned from past botanists and recipe collectors forward into the light of our modern day landscape.

Like the growth of a fruit tree, our recipe also requires a bit of time and patience in order to be successful. With just a few basic ingredients, it’s simple to prepare but does require 15 hours from start to finish. Most of the time is spent in marinating (12 hours) in the fridge and then roasting (3-3 1/2 hours) in the oven, so it leaves plenty of opportunity to do other stuff in your life while waiting for dinner to be ready. Maybe in that time, you can start planting the seeds of your own tropical garden:)

The recipe calls for a large roast 6-7 lbs., but you can also easily cut all the ingredients in half, and make a smaller 3lb version if you aren’t feeding as many people during these days of quarantine. Like Thanksgiving turkey, this makes a wonderfully delicious dinner that has all sorts of potential and possibilities when it comes to serving. I’ll talk about that in a minute, but first here’s the recipe, so that you can get to marinating already.

Santiago Pork Roast (serves 8-10)

1 loin of pork (6-7 lbs)
1 large onion, thinly sliced in rings
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
3/4 cup soy sauce
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

2 cloves garlic finely minced

Place the pork loin in a roasting pan or  glass dish and scatter the onion rings over it. Combine the remaining ingredients and stir until the sugar dissolves. Pour this over the meat and cover with plastic wrap (Note:  you can also transfer all the ingredients into a plastic Ziploc bag and marinate it that way, which is what I did). Refrigerate 12 hours or so, turning the meat once in while.

After 12 hours, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Remove the meat from the plastic Ziploc bag (if using) and place in a glass dish or roasting pan.

Bake, basting frequently about 3 and 1/2 hours or until the meat is thoroughly cooked.

(Note: if you are using a smaller cut of meat, you won’t need to bake the roast that long. The general rule of thumb when it comes to pork at this temperature is 20 minutes of cooking time per lb. When it is ready, the internal temperature will read 145 degrees.)

Let rest for about 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

Filled with flavor notes of lime, ginger and garlic, this roast turned out to be wonderfully delicious. The caramelized sugar adds a bit of sweetness to the roasting juices, which makes its own rich sauce for drizzling. The onions, had an unexpected crunch to them and a sweet tangy taste that reminded me a little of pickled vegetables.

Traditional Cuban serving companions with Santiago Pork Roast are black beans and fried plantains. You could also serve it alongside rice, another staple in the Cuban diet. I wound up making sandwiches. Served on rolls, each one was layered with thinly sliced pork, mixed salad greens, mayonnaise, a drizzle of the juice from the pan and a pile of the roasted onions. It was delicious, I forgot to take a photo of them:) If you didn’t want to use rolls, bread works also – ideally, it would be a loaf of Cuban bread. Perhaps you could even follow in Jorge’s footsteps, and make garlic toast, just the way he made it with his grandmother.  Possibilities abound. Culinary creativity awaits! Cuban style pork roast is open to everyone’s interpretations.

A big cheers to Jorge for sharing his slice of tropical paradise with us. Cheers to all the agricultural accomplishments of the botanical gardeners that settled the Sunshine state and made it beautiful. And cheers to vintage Cuba for providing us with a new favorite roast recipe!

To keep up with Jorge, find him on Instagram, Twitter and his blog.

Next week, we’ll officially be one forth of the way through our Recipe Tour, as we hit the three month mark! Join us for Week 12, next Wednesday when we visit Czechoslovakia via the kitchen! In the meantime, keep your chin up and stay healthy please.

Dinner Time Stories: An Extraordinary Evening with Le Petit Chef

An evening of Dinner Time Stories with La Petit Chef

It’s not every day that you receive an invitation to dine with the world’s smallest chef. But that is exactly what happened on Sunday night. This one-of-a-kind dinner took place at The Standard, a private cigar bar and restaurant located in a historic townhouse in downtown Nashville.

A foreigner to the country, the world’s smallest chef lives in France, but he’s just recently embarked on a world-wide tour of sorts that will take him to Stockholm, Cairo, the United Arab Emirates and all around the United States in 2018. Lucky for us, his first stop in America was right here in Nashville at one of the prettiest restaurants in town.

The Standard is an elegant splash of old-world glamour that naturally evokes daydreams of long-ago decades and previous merrymaking.  Although it’s only recently become a restaurant and cigar bar (in the early 2000’s) it is definitely not hard to imagine that this building has lived a flamboyant and glamorous lifestyle throughout its existence.

Built in 1843, it is a gorgeous example of antebellum Italianate architecture, the last of its kind on this city block that once held dozens of similar buildings all in a row.  With its exposed brick walls, moody lighting, leather furniture, big fireplaces and cozy nooks your imagination doesn’t have to run far to conjure up swanky scotch parties and charming tuxedo-types romancing dates and drinks throughout the past 175 years.

Scenes from the Standard

Originally a family home, then a bed and breakfast in the 1980’s, and now most recently a night-time restaurant and a private club, it is safe to say that this building has seen its fair share of special occasion dinners. This past Sunday evening was no exception.

Tucked into a private dining room with two long tables, white cloths and curious leather bound books placed at each setting,  dinner guests were invited to indulge in a bit of whimsy for a two hour stretch on a cold January night.

Photo courtesy of dinnertimestoriesusa.com

Our mysterious host, the little chef, was nowhere to be found at this point, but as the lights dimmed and the maitre d’ welcomed us, he magically appeared…

Bonjour! Meet the little chef with the BIG personality!

from inside the books placed before us!  As it turns out, the world’s smallest chef is no bigger than your pinkie finger. Mini in size, but mighty in personality, we quickly learned that Le Petit Chef is a BIG fan of a certain famous explorer…

Marco Polo (1254-1324), the famous Venetian explorer who traveled across Europe and Asia and published his experiences in a book called The Description of the World.

Marco Polo. By nature, the two have very much in common – they are both intrepid travelers, free spirits, and excellent storytellers. This very special dinner, hosted and prepared by the little guy himself, turned out to be a culmination of bold travel experiences inspired by his idol, Marco and his famous 14th-century explorations that changed the world.

Told through the use of 3D projection mapping, Le Petit Chef cooks and adventures right before your eyes pulling you into his engaging world of storytelling and food presentation in the most fanciful of ways. Over six courses, he takes dinner guests to a myriad of exotic lands, near and far, with stops in places like India, Asia, the Himalayas (and more!) all the while preparing signature dishes from each culture.  His adventures were so big in scale, he had to literally jump out of the book and walk around on the table in order to showcase the whole journey…

To give you a little perspective, that’s my wine glass in the top left corner and Le Petit Chef in the right-hand corner walking around on the tablecloth.

I realize this is a difficult situation to wrap your head around – a little guy walking and talking around your plate  while you are also eating – so we’ll share this video so that you get a better idea of how it all works…

Each course was presented in its own dynamic and interesting way. The first course for example, (Ratatouille  Terrine with Tomato Jam accompanied by a Roasted Green Slip Mussel with Garlic and Lemon) arrived in a mini suitcase just as the little chef was sailing across the ocean in search of the start of his trip.

As the story continued and the travel destinations became more exotic, the table landscape changed in a multitude of different ways…

Here we are in China!

In an instant, patterns and colors transformed into new shades and shapes…

while real food filled our bellies and visual artistry fueled a feast for our eyes. Magic met us at every turn.

Grilled Shrimp with Chili, Sriracha and Sesame, on the left and a dessert demonstration by Le Petite Chef on the right.

By the time the cloudy mountaintops of the Himalayas were presented, and real-life fog flooded our plates, in both food form and story form, we all, everyone at the two long tables, had completely fallen in love with the little chef.  When the last crumbs of dessert were whisked away and the little chef bid us good night, we knew we had experienced an incredible event. We had spent a glorious time with a new friend who not only fed ourselves but also fed our souls.

It’s the goal of the little chef to see as much of America as possible, which is good news for you. He might be heading your way next! Keep up with his city stops here… and if he’s in your neck of the woods, go and find him. Dine with him. Fall in love with him. And enjoy the enchantment he brings. It will be an unforgettable night full of magical storytelling.  And if there is anything more than we need in this crazy world right now, it is more moments like this in our lives.  Passion, excitement, and entertainment meet at the table of Le Petit Chef.  As Marco Polo once said, “You’ll hear it for yourselves, and it will surely fill you with wonder.”

Look for Le Petit Chef’s tour schedule here.

If you live in the Nashville area, book your Dinner Time Story night at the Standard here.

And if you haven’t already visited, all you Nashvillians, stop by the Standard for a cocktail or two. You won’t regret it!

Cheers to Le Petit Chef for a most marvelous night and to Marco Polo for continuing to inspire centuries of travelers the world around.

Evolution of a Restaurant: From Livestock to Luxury Living

There’s a neglected building downtown on 2nd Avenue that F. Scott Fitzgerald would have loved. It takes up most of one city block with a rounded corner front entrance, large paned glass windows and eyes that look out onto the street below not unlike Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s in The Great Gatsby.  

These all knowing eyes of 2nd Avenue belong to a cow, a pig and a curly horned sheep. Animals now so out of place in an urban industrial neighborhood that they appear to be up to something unusual – something marvelous and clandestine.  The building they live on, itself, is peculiar with steep steps that spill out onto the sidewalk and armies of tall trees that hug the front facade like protective bodyguards.

It is a city block full of inherent curiosities. Stories that F. Scott would have rushed to translate as they tumbled out of the curtained glass windows, broken in places, or tangled themselves in the ivy running all over the backside of the building. You never see any activity come or go from the glass front door. Cars park alongside it carrying people to other places in the neighborhood. Exercisers walk or run down its sidewalks. Occasionally a homeless person will take a rest underneath the faded, flapping awning or dogs will stop to sniff around the bushes. But lights are never on inside and the doors are never open.

F. Scott would have imagined a grand but tortured story here. He would have hunted around in the grass grown parking lot, creating characters out of chipped fencing and rusted gates. He would have penned something poetic about the runaway garbage and the shattered beer bottles and the Parisian lamp posts missing their white light domes. Its a little more Valley of the Ashes then it is East Egg or West Egg but there’s a romance about this place that is intriguing.

If I described this building to someone out-of-town the first thing I’d mention was that it used to be a famous restaurant called The Stockyard in the 1980’s and 90’s.  When restaurateur Buddy Killen bought the building in 1985 he imagined it as the place where you could get the best steak in town along with Las Vegas style entertainment.  “The place where the stars are seen,” that was what he was aiming for.

In the restaurant days – awnings, menu offerings and the front entrance foyer. Photos via pinterest.
He pulled the property out of bankruptcy, added $400,000 worth of improvements and made it possible to seat 475 people in the 27,000 sqf building. His plans were very successful and for 30 years local residents, tourists and celebrities alike climbed the front steps, passed under the concrete eyes and stepped into a lively atmosphere serving the quality of steaks Buddy had hoped for.

Some of the famous clientele of the Stockyard (clockwise from top left): Andy Griffith, Vicki Lawrence, Jerry Lee Lewis, Loni Anderson and George Steinbrenner

But before the Stockyard ever became a famous restaurant it lived another life serving an entirely different purpose. The name of the restaurant and its signature menu items weren’t fly by night marketing ploys developed to envoke a theme and inspire an atmosphere.  Buddy brought things full-circle when he served steak and called his restaurant The Stockyard.

Originally, over a century ago this section of Nashville was called Butchertown for its concentration of numerous butcher shops and fresh meat availability. Long before Buddy ever set eyes on the building it served as a touchstone for an actual working stockyard – one that would become the most prominent and important livestock trading site in the Southeast.

In the mid-1910’s  there were several small trading yards around Nashville but local businessman James E. Caldwell wanted to create one central spot where all the animals, farmers, buyers and sellers could meet under one roof and get their business done fast and efficiently in a convivial atmosphere.

Caldwell found the perfect area for such an endeavor in open farmland just two blocks from the riverfront and four blocks east of the downtown business quadrant. In 1919, he hired contractors Foster & Creighton to begin working on a 10 acre mega-complex of sheds, barns and paddocks.

Nashville – Union Stockyards under construction – July 1919
Nashville-Union Stock Yard construction photographs, 1919

Local Nashville architect, Henry Closson Hibbs was selected to design an all weather building where business could be conducted year round and where stockyard management could set up offices.  H.C. came up with this rounded corner front entrance – a new trend in building design in the 1920’s – that would welcome visitors with open arms.

Nashville-Union Stock Yard building designed by H.C. (Henry Closson) Hibbs 1919-1920

These pictures below detail the lot assignment for the building and the construction as it occurred in 1919 and 1920.

The street corner allocated for the future site of the stockyard building.

Eventually all those pits and sticks and bricks formed this beautiful building, fully completed in 1920…

And you can see from this 1921 photograph how quickly the building became a popular meeting place. It even housed neighborhood amenities in the form of small retail businesses like a post office and a barber shop.

From 1921 to 1974 the Nashville-Union Stock Yards served as one of the busiest livestock markets in the region attracting farmers from Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi. Over 6,000 animals arrived daily for trade coming in via boat, rail car and farm truck. A long time bookkeeper for the Stock Yards said that it was not unusual to see cows walking down 2nd Avenue or an escaped hog loose from a pen.

A view of the stockyards circa 1965. Photograph by Gerald Holly.

That scene is hard to imagine now as the Stockyard sits in between government buildings and modern apartment hi-rises in what is currently one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in Nashville. Remarkably, even though 95 years have passed the building still looks almost exactly the same…

The neighborhood however no longer looks like livestock. Downtown skyscrapers are just a few blocks away and the only animals in site are of the avian kind.

Parking lots and empty brick warehouses dominate the immediate areas surrounding the Stockyard now.

The Nashville Union Stock Yards closed down in 1974 due to high property taxes. Sheds and barns were torn down, shoots dismantled and paddocks turned into parking lots. But the building remained, making way for Buddy Killen’s initial restauranteering interest in 1979.  Buddy’s restaurant, The Stockyard closed in 2015 after 36 years in business. The building and surrounding property were sold to out-of-town developers who now have plans to turn it into a 300 unit apartment complex.

Learning this recent information, I worried for the fate of the building and for the eyes of Second Avenue. Would the building be torn down and a piece of history cast aside? Would the pig and cow and sheep that have watched over the neighborhood for nine decades be replaced with something new and artistically of-the-moment? Would H.C. Hibbs turn over in his grave as his beautifully designed building gets turned over in the dirt?

As a lover of historic architecture, I am happy to say that this story stays bright.  The developers plan to incorporate the century old building into their design plans, keeping the history and heritage of both agriculture and aesthetic alive. The eyes of Second Avenue will be given a whole new century’s worth of sites to watch over. I know it is cliche to say that I wish these figureheads could talk – but I really wish they could. They’ve been witness to major history since they were set among the bricks… the Great Depression, civil rights, the rise of the automobile, the demise of farming, the destruction of their neighborhood and now the revitalization of their neighborhood. Not to mention all those famous people that walked in and out.

Construction begins soon for the apartment project. Materials and work trailers are already being assembled in a neighboring lot. We are going to be following along on the progress of the construction to see how this local landmark of stock yard turned restaurant turned apartment complex evolves.  And of course to see what the eyes of 2nd avenue will now be staring down upon. I hope it turns out to be something incredible.  Stay tuned for periodic updates!

***A special thank you…this post would not have been possible without the help of the wonderful staff at the Tennessee State Archives and the Metro Archives at the Main Branch of the Nashville Public Library. If you are keen on learning more history about Nashville and the state of Tennessee, I strongly recommend a visit to both places. They are fascinating and full of so much information, you’ll want to move-in and stay for a week researching your heart out.  

The 20th century construction photos of the Nashville Union Stockyards  included in this post are courtesy of the Metro Archives.