It all started with the paella. I’ve had such a taste for the traditional Spanish dish recently – it hasn’t quite reached “crave” status yet – and it got me thinking: how did I ever fall so in love with a food, a dish, from outside my own culture? The answer lies deep within the vault of memories of my own travels as a child.
The annual family summer vacation was a big deal for my parents, and my father made no secret of wanting to get out of Chicago for the entirety of his “furlough” (the term used by the Chicago Police Department for vacation). When I was ten (my sister, 7, and my brother, almost 5), we made our first trip to Florida and stayed for a month in Fort Myers. That started the tradition of, every year, spending the entire month of August in Florida, but, the second year, we moved our summer vacation headquarters to Clearwater Beach where it remained for the next decade.
Most of our days in Florida were spent at the pool or at the beach, but my parents still made time for educational and cultural experiences. It amazes me now to think of all the places we went to and wonder how my parents ever learned about them, since there was no such thing as the Internet back then. One of our favorite stops was the historic Ybor City neighborhood in nearby Tampa. When we were there back in the mid-to-late 1980s, Ybor City was one of the rougher parts of Tampa, an area that was relying on its historical sites to keep it a destination for visitors. We got to see hand-rolled cigars being made at El Sol; we walked down the same streets where Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders assembled during the Spanish-American War; but the highlight for us in Ybor City was Columbia Restaurant, and that is where I first fell in love with paella. The Columbia, as we affectionately call it, opened in 1905 and is quite possibly the largest, most ornate restaurant I’ve ever been in. It certainly was the fanciest restaurant I’d ever seen as a 10-year-old. Detailed tile mosaics decorate the outside of the building, and there is a courtyard with a fountain inside. The Columbia’s menu features a mix of Spanish and Cuban cuisines. It was such a treat for us to go to The Columbia for lunch and share paella valenciana, or a Cuban sandwich with Cuban black bean soup. My parents even took us there in the evening for the flamenco dancing dinner show! So many wonderful memories of and from The Columbia; it’s no wonder I yearn for, almost crave, paella. Could it have more to do with the sentimentality than with the actual food itself?
I have been back to Ybor City as an adult, as recently as 2009, when I traveled there with my own daughter. She was way too young for paella but we still stopped at The Columbia for lunch. It looks the same as it did twenty-five years ago, and the food is just as delicious as I remember. This time I got to have some sangria with my paella! Ybor City still is charming, though it’s been revitalized over the years and has become a trendy shopping, dining, and nightlife hotspot. That’s fine; it doesn’t stop me from reaching back in my vault and seeing my 10-year-old self, sitting in a wrought iron chair at The Columbia, feeling like the happiest kid in the world.