A Different Kind of Olympic Medal

Designer Paul Antonson took a whimsical approach to The Wall Street Journal’s Olympic pin for the 2012 London Games.

There is a sub-culture that infiltrates all the Olympic Games.  It is always there, at every single event, capturing every moment on the field and off, spreading like spiders throughout every street of the Olympic host city. It is the media.  Within that culture you have the equivlant of military medals of honor-the Olympic pins.  Every media outlet has one, sometimes, different groups within the same media company have their own.  They are specifically designed to represent the spirit of the respective group and designed to symbolically say ‘I was there.’

Many pins are designed to reflect the personality of the group.  The London 2012 WSJ pin does this admirably.  It takes a whimsical approach featuring a Palace guard carrying a relay stick, wearing cleats.  Designed by Paul Antonson, I would say that it well represents the the motley crew of reporters covering the Games for the Journal.

Creating pins for the Olympics goes back to Athens in 1894, when they were made from cardboard discs rather than the enamel/medal ones of today.  In the Paris Games of 1924, the athletes, coaches and other officials were allowed to mix more freely.  This lead to the practice of swapping pins which continues to this day.

In Beijing, I didn’t really do very well and to be honest, only have one pin from the 2008 games and I can’t even remember who gave it to me.  It has been rolling around in my camera back for the past four years.  I am not much of a collector.  This is much to the dismay of J.R. Whalen, one of our producers for WSJLive, who is an expert collector of pins from all sports.  He sent a grubstake of pins to trade for him and that puts an enormous amount of pressure on my bargaining skills.  He told me that a good pin has three details:

The name of the media outlet, the Olympic Rings, and MOST important, the year the pin was created.

On Opening Ceremony day just after our first two live shots,  I ran into a jovial man from Long Island who proudly proclaimed that he and his wife had been to every Olympic Games since 1996.  His hat was studded with different pins so I grasped the opportunity to try a little trade.  Don’t worry, J.R. I didn’t experiment with one of your pins, I used my WSJ pin to strike the bargain.  I got a “U.S. Olympic Committee” pin.

The first attempt at pin trading.

In the heat of the moment, I forgot one of the key things that MUST be on the pin to make it truly a collector’s item.  It must have the date.  As you can see in the picture-no date.  I promise, J.R., that I will do better in the next three weeks.

The Full Monty

The Full English Extravaganza

There is an old saying about the food in Great Britain: “… to eat well in England, you should have breakfast three times a day.”  Now with the globalization of London, this is no longer really true, but it did give rise to the legendary “Full English Breakfast.”  Along with bacon, eggs and sausage, there are up to 30 other not-so-familiar foods for Americans such as black pudding, white pudding, fried bread and sautéed mushrooms. There are a couple of standard items that must be included, in my opinion, for a breakfast to qualify as a “Full English.”

Bacon: English and uncured

Sausage: English bangers, sagey and mild

Beans: always Heinz Baked Beans

Eggs: poached to over easy, although you don’t actually turn them over.  The egg is cooked in oil on one side only, with the hot oil being spread over the top of the egg, so as to leave a beautifully cooked, semi-soft yoke, surrounded by completely cooked white.

Lastly, there must be black pudding.  Black pudding is a sausage made by cooking blood with filler and spices until it is thick, then congealed as it cools.  It is then sliced into two-inch portions and quickly grilled to a crispy finish on the same grill as the rest of the meats.  It is delicious when done right…horrific when done badly.

So what’s the first thing I did when I hit London?  I went in search of this legendary feast.

The stairs descending into The Cock Tavern

I got to my hotel early in the morning and my room wouldn’t be ready for a few hours so I began my search at a restaurant close to the hotel.  Everywhere you look in London you see pubs offering the traditional Full English.  The restaurant I chose was The Yeats.  When it was served I began to understand the interpretations of term where very loose.  The Yeats, located near Piccadilly Circus,  served up a dumbed-down version consisting only of rashers of bacon, poached eggs and beans.  I should have known better than to pick a restaurant in a tourist district.

Next morning, I ventured deeply into the Covent Garden area, looking for Diana’s Diner.  I know I just said in the previous paragraph that you should avoid tourist restaurants, but Diana’s Diner came very highly recommended.  Di’s has a very homey atmosphere and serves up a better, if abbreviated breakfast that was still missing the black pudding.

Now it was time to get serious.  I had heard about a place called “The Cock Tavern,” located in the bowels of London’s famous Central Market.  The Central Market, also known as Smithfield’s Market, is home to London’s Meat suppliers and some sort of market has been there for the past 800 years and is steeped in Victorian atmosphere.  Sounds like a great place for a meat-centric meal. The Cock Tavern has been serving a butchers breakfast to the workers at Smithfield’s Market for over 50 years so don’t come expecting tourist-pub décor.  It is a workman’s pub.

I decided to visit on morning at 6:30am.  It did not disappoint.   Perfect bacon, perfect sausage and a perfect black pudding was presented along with beans, kidney’s calves liver and sautéed mushrooms and grilled tomatoes.  All this washed down with a pint of Guinness.  Yes, Guinness at 7:00am.  For most of the workers here, it was lunch, so a beer was perfectly normal.  My only disappointment was no fried bread.

You have to look hard, but this is the entrance to The Cock Tavern in Smithfield Market.

The Full English is not something I would recommend nor even want to have every morning.  It evolved during a time when people needed a lot of fat and a lot of calories because they worked at hard manual labor.  Throwing sides of beef and pig, hacking away with a meat saw and cleaver, the workers of old didn’t worry about their waistlines or cholesterol count.  But enjoying the occasional fat-laden breakfast is sort of honoring these workers of the past. At least, that is my rationalization.

American Roadtrip Honored at Roadside America Museum

Whimsy was the order of the day when it came signs.

Thousands if not millions of words have been written about the romance of traveling across the United States by motor. The subject of the great American road trip has been celebrated in every form of art there is: in the poetry of Jack Kerouac, in song by Bobby Troup and in too many movies to mention. My point by stating this is that there is very little I can say in my 500 words that would be anything new about the allure of this subject. What I do want to talk about is a by-product of this theme: roadside attractions.

Tucked away in a small Texas town called Hillsboro is a museum dedicated to that most uniquely American phenomena, the roadside attraction. “The Roadside America Museum” was founded by Carroll Estes and consists of a spotless collection of items that were created during the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s to lure the traveler inside to eat, sleep or simply to marvel.

Mr. Estes has been collecting all things roadside, large and small for, as he puts it “as long as I can remember,” and has everything from small signs, to a full drug store soda fountain, to several cars and busses dating back to the 1920’s. Almost everything in The Roadside America Museum” is in great condition-but not restored.

“I don’t think you should restore an item if you don’t have to, because it loses something,” says Mr. Estes, as he leads me through the immaculate collection. “All I do is clean it up and repair it, if it needs it.” Cars are the exception, he tells me. There aren’t many left that don’t need restoration.

Interior of the “American Roadside Museum”

Maybe the best representation of this particular genre of Americana is the advertising road sign. Before the invention the automobile and its distribution to the masses, the road sign didn’t exist. There was no need for a flashy sign if you were hobbling along in a carriage at 5 MPH. But, after WWII, cars became affordable to every family, the great American road trip was born and with it, the great American roadside attraction.

Roadside museums have become something of a roadside attraction themselves and I have seen my share of them. Usually, they are haphazard, outdoor affairs, overgrown by weeds and rotting away in the sun. The first thing that struck me as I entered the 100-year-old brick building was how the museum was curated. The cavernous building (a former Ford dealership and antique in it’s own right) was crowded with nostalgia, but well organized into a thematic journey. Mr. Estes is obviously more than an expert; he is a curator and historian. He instinctively knows how to present each item in a way so that it can tell it’s own story.

Money is not what spurs this collector to preserve and display these irreplaceable items from America’s highways and byways. It is the appreciation of the subject that drives him to collect. He admits that the museum is in a terrible location, being more than two miles off a major interstate and too far into the town to actually be an attraction itself. He is reluctant to talk about his own dedication and work, but sources close to him say he is obsessed. He has been known to spot a rusting hulk of a trailer or bus, baking in a field and immediately stop and seek out its owner to purchase the treasure on the spot. Then spend weeks, months, even years nursing the vehicle back to its full glory.

You may never get a chance to visit “The Roadside America Museum,” and that is a shame. There are very few museums that so well capture the romance of traveling across the land via car or motorcycle and there is no finer example of one mans attempt to preserve a lost period of America. It is truly a labor of love.

The Roadside American Museum 
212 East Elm Street 
Hillboro, TX 76645


Poker players shuffle the night away in Ybor City.

Things will soon be hopping for Tampa, Florida.  As the site of the 2012 Republican National Convention, Tampa will receive the influx of cash that comes with that particular honor.

Tampa seemed to be famous for two institutions-Cuban food and cigars.  The best place to sample both, I was told, was Ybor City.

Named for 19th century cigar maker, Vincent Martinez Ybor, this section of the city is now considered the “historical district.”  I don’t like it when a city dubs a preserved section as a “historical district.”  Even though it preserves it’s building somewhat, It seems to instantly loose something, some honesty.

What is interesting is Ybor city (aka. Florida’s Latin Quarter) was founded as an independent town by a group of cigar manufactures in 1885.  I think they had a tobacco utopia in mind where they could create their fine products with cheap Spanish and Cuban labor.

This shade-grown paradise was all too brief.  By 1887 Ybor City was annexed by Tampa, presumably to cash in on the successful cigar manufacture.  During the 1920’s and ’30s, the tobacco industry continued to boom and Tampa became known as America’s premier cigar manufacturing city.

After WWII, smoking tastes changed from cigars, to what was perceived as the sexier cigarette.  It was all down hill for the cigar companies after that.

In 2009, the Hav-A-Tampa cigar company closed it’s factory, leaving it’s almost 500 employees looking for work in an already depressed southern economy.

On the balmy night that I visited Ybor City, the streets were quite, save for the occasional outburst of laughing from a poker game heard thru an open door of a neighborhood bar.

On the recommendation of a housemaid I talked to in the elevator of my hotel, I decided to try the oldest restaurant in Tampa-The Columbia Restaurant.

The Columbia has been in operation, owned by the same family for 100-plus years now, so I figured, they must be doing something right.  They advertise Cuban food and that was just what I was in the mood for. While the ambience was a little “El Fenix” like for me, the food didn’t disappoint and I would recommend it to any of the Republican Delegates.

As I strolled up the street, I decided to take in the other pleasure that made Tampa famous and buy a cigar. Now, I am not your typical cigar smoker.  For a while, back during the cigar craze of the late ’90’s, I did smoke enough to discover two things.  One, I can smoke a good cigar and appreciate the nuance of the taste and 2) I would never be a cigar smoker.

The problem is that the culture that built and occupied Ybor City was never based on tourism or even safety for that matter.  This place was what it was because it was seedy and dangerous.  You had to know how to take care of yourself if you came here.  Trying to clean up and gentrify this area was ripping the very heart and soul from it.

I might not be a true cigar smoker but I do tend to get truly philosophical when I smoke one.  That night, as I walked the almost empty streets, all I could think of was that the remnants of this city-like so many other cities-seemed a little faded, rusty and sad.  Municipal attempts to preserve the essence of a once thriving culture, had caused that culture to vanish like the blue wisps’ of tobacco smoke disappearing in the night air.