From the archives…

Oysters Rockefeller

The secret of name recognition

I studied philosophy in college, but as much as I enjoyed it, I had to choose a different profession. If I hadn’t, I risked a fate that seems to befall most philosophers sooner or later: having one’s name turned into an adjective. Think about it: Platonic, Socratic, Aristotelian, Augustinian, Cartesian…I’ve even heard Husserlian and Wittgensteinian. Of course, it’s not just philosophers who suffer this fate. So do psychiatrists (Freudian), novelists (Orwellian), filmmakers (Kubrickian), physicians (Hippocratic), and explorers (Columbian). With all due respect to those who will no doubt wish for a concise way of referring to my system of thought or writing style, I would be very unhappy to think of anything or anyone being referred to as “Kissellian.” I’m not sure why, but the whole notion of adjectivizing names has always bothered me (whereas verbing nouns does not). If my name is to be immortalized, I would prefer that it be kept intact, preferably in close proximity to the name of a food. Peaches Melba…Crêpes Suzette…how about Cherries Kissell? Instead of Quiche Lorraine, try Shrimp Kissell. You can even wash it down with a Joe Kissell on the rocks. (See my forthcoming book The Joe of Cooking for recipes…)

The Color of Money
Of course, the ultimate tribute food is Oysters Rockefeller. This dish was invented in 1899 by Jules Alciatore, son of Antoine Alciatore, the eponymous founder of Antoine’s in New Orleans. The dish consists of oysters that have been topped with a purée of mixed greens and then baked. The dish was deemed so rich that it could only take the name of the richest family in the country at that time, the Rockefellers. (It is no coincidence, I’m sure, that the color approximates that of U.S. currency.) The recipe has been kept a closely guarded secret at Antoine’s for over 100 years, though there have been countless imitations. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

826 National

Pirates, spies, superheroes, and young authors

San Francisco has no shortage of trendy restaurants and interesting shops. If you want to get a good taste of what the city has to offer, and especially if you don’t want to spend lots of money doing it, head to the historic Mission District and stroll up and down Valencia Street. Amidst the art galleries, taquerias, and retro furniture stores you’ll find all sorts of quirky little gems with that quintessential San Francisco character. Perhaps the best example is a store named after its location: 826 Valencia. Its unassuming exterior gives you little clue as to what’s inside, and even after you start looking around, it may take you a few minutes to figure out that you are standing in a pirate supply store. It’s true: if you need to get an eye patch, a Jolly Roger flag, a spyglass, or even a bucket of lard for—well, whatever pirates use lard for—you’re in the right place.

At first, everything in the store seems to be completely serious, as though they expect real pirates to sail in on a daily basis for provisions. A closer inspection reveals that they’re having a good time at their own expense. Take, for example, the signs scattered around the store, such as “Have You Got Scurvy?” (with a list of symptoms), “Goals for the Voyage” (Plunder. Meet new people. Learn valuable new skills.), and even a helpful list of suggested uses for that lard (including “mast greasing” and “fingernail softening”). There’s also a little curtained-off area with a handful of old movie-theater seats facing a large aquarium; you can sit there for as long as you like and watch the residents, including a puffer fish named Otka. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Voodoo

The spirit(s) of a misunderstood religion

On my first walking tour of New Orleans, our guide promised us chilling stories of ghosts, vampires, pirates, horrific murders, and all the other dark elements of the city’s past—some real, some fictional. And as if to show that these dark forces were still alive and well, he said that our very last stop would be a genuine, functioning Voodoo temple. At that point, everything I knew about Voodoo had come from bad films and TV shows. I gathered that it had something to do with black magic, curses, and sticking pins in dolls. So a chance to meet real Voodoo practitioners seemed a bit exciting and a bit scary.

To Grandmother’s House We Go
When we finally got to the temple, it was a bit anticlimactic. The building was just a converted house, the rooms were bright and cheery, and there wasn’t the remotest suggestion of any evil undercurrents. Yes, there was the smell of incense in the air; yes, there were a bunch of altars piled high with offerings and candles; and yes, there were a lot of unusual images on the walls. But then, the same could be true of a Buddhist temple. Wasn’t Voodoo supposed to be, like, wackier? Then we met the resident clergy, Priestess Miriam. In retrospect, the Voodoo priestess reminds me of the Oracle in the Matrix films—friendly, down-to-earth, maybe even grandmotherly, and not what I was expecting. She gave a short talk and answered all our questions. Her mild manner and warm smile seemed to say, “Sorry if you were expecting animal sacrifices and gibberish. I get that a lot.” [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Café du Monde

The simple pleasures of beignets & café au lait

It’s 3:00 a.m. and the streets of New Orleans are filled with fog. In some of the livelier areas of town, bars are still open, the last wave of sleepy patrons thinking they might stick around to hear the band play just one more tune before calling it a night. Here, however, on the fringes of the French Quarter, the streets are quiet. Steps away from the Mississippi river, outside a building near the French Market, a man hesitates, then approaches an open window. He exchanges a few words with the person inside, and hands over some money. A small bag is offered in return. The man, clutching his illicit purchase, hurries across the street to Jackson Square. He sits down on a secluded bench, looks around furtively, and opens the bag. Inside, all he can see is a white powder. As he reaches into the bag, he thinks to himself, “I know this is a bad idea. This stuff is gonna kill me some day, but I just…can’t…help myself.” A few minutes later, the bag is empty and the man is happy, having blissfully forgotten his reservations and guilt—and entirely oblivious of the growing effects of the toxins accumulating in his body. A telltale white residue on his upper lip, he stumbles home. Tomorrow he will repeat this ritual. Next time, he decides, he’ll order some coffee too. A nice hot drink might help to take the edge off of all that powdered sugar and grease.

The man has just been to Café du Monde, a New Orleans landmark that’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. His purchase was an order of beignets, a deceptively decadent type of doughnut that made this café famous. Make no mistake about it: enough of these will kill you, all right. But you will die very happy. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

New Orleans Cemeteries

Cities of the dead

There are few cities with as great a reputation for decadence as New Orleans. If you want rich, fatty, and extravagant foods, you can hardly do better than the Crescent City. Alcohol flows freely, too, and almost any desire of the flesh can be indulged for a modest fee (sometimes payable in cheap plastic beads). But decadence in the original, non-metaphorical sense is also a regular fixture in this city whose past is littered with pirates, devastating fires, and horrific murders. There has been a lot of death and destruction in New Orleans, and the associated signs of physical decay—whether of buildings or of bodies—are everywhere. Particularly striking to many visitors are the city’s numerous old cemeteries filled with creepy-looking aboveground tombs. Whereas death is usually kept hidden, buried out of sight, New Orleans gives residents and visitors constant reminders of the impermanence of life.

The Dead Shall Rise Again
Why aren’t the dead in New Orleans buried underground as they are in most of the rest of the country? Tour guides are fond of explaining (and sometimes embellishing) the practice to shocked tourists. The main issue, they explain, is that New Orleans is actually located slightly below sea level. Because of this, the water table is quite high. When early European settlers put coffins under six feet of earth, they found that the water level would often rise above them, especially during the city’s frequent floods. Since the coffins were filled with air, the water sometimes pushed them up through the earth, causing both a gruesome sight and a health hazard. To keep the coffins underground, holes were drilled in the lid to let air escape, and the coffins were weighted down with rocks and sand. But this was only partially successful, and in any case the saturated corpses did not decompose properly, leading to unsanitary conditions. The only solution was to bury the dead above ground. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Gumbo

The one good thing about okra

I have watched a number of reality TV shows on which contestants were asked to consume extremely unappetizing foods. You know the sort of thing I’m talking about, I’m sure, so I’ll refrain from elaborating. Under circumstances of sufficient duress or social pressure, I’ll uncomplainingly choke down just about anything, however unpleasant it may be. But there are a few foods that I would find it difficult to get past my uvula no matter how many viewers at home were cheering me on or how many dollars were at stake. I am thinking, for example, of okra.

Slime Me
In the United States, okra is known as a staple of southern cuisine, and rarely seen elsewhere. A member of the hibiscus family, okra is a tall plant with yellow flowers and edible seed pods. If you look up okra in a dictionary, the one word that will invariably be used to describe the texture of these seed pods is mucilaginous. This word means “glue-like”—that is, viscous, sticky, and slimy. These are acceptable characteristics for adhesives, but not the sort of thing that feels good on my tongue. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Non-Human Farmers

Animal agriculture

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

On a recent trip to the Galapagos Islands, I was astonished when our guide showed us how damselfish (family Pomacentridae) farm algae on their own. It was also amazing to see how aggressively protective they were of their farms. To demonstrate, our guide took a sea urchin and dropped it into the damselfish’s algae farm, and within seconds the damselfish pushed the sea urchin out of the farm. Some damselfish farm algae on coral heads and nip the coral to create cuts that encourage the algae to grow. Apparently, they are known even to attack human beings that swim near their farms. Fortunately, they are very small fish with small teeth, so death by damselfish is unlikely!

The damselfish inspired me to learn about other animals that farm their own food. It turns out that besides humans, four kinds of animal are known to farm fungi (fungiculture)—leaf cutter ants, termites, ambrosia beetles, and marsh snails.

We humans capitalized on the invention of agriculture to place ourselves on the path to achieve a dominating position in our ecosystem. It is our gregarious nature, societal structure, communication skills, and a measure of engineering skills that were key. Let’s examine how non-human farmers stack up in these areas. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Hidden Lives of Sloths

Symbiosis in slow motion

There are times—quite a few of them, for better or worse—when I’m confronted with evidence that something I’ve believed (or assumed) to be the case for years is simply wrong. These occasions can be a source of embarrassment, such as the time a few years ago when a friend pointed out to me that I always misspelled the word “embarrassed.” Being someone who takes the use of language seriously, this came as quite a blow to me. Most of the time, however, I greet epiphanies of mistaken assumptions with equanimity, if not pleasure. I love to learn, and most learning requires a certain amount of unlearning.

I had several such experiences in rapid succession while visiting a wildlife sanctuary in Costa Rica. Aviarios del Caribe, located near Cahuita on the Caribbean coast, is a sloth rehabilitation center. Sloths that are injured or orphaned are brought here and cared for, and then—if they’re able to fend for themselves—released back into the rain forest. A volunteer had patiently explained many of the differences between two-toed and three-toed sloths, about which more later. But as I was watching a baby two-toed sloth, I noticed with some puzzlement that it actually had three toes on each foot. Clearly there was an interesting story here, but that was just the beginning of the strange and wonderful things I was to discover about sloths. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Hidden Lives of Sloths

Symbiosis in slow motion

There are times—quite a few of them, for better or worse—when I’m confronted with evidence that something I’ve believed (or assumed) to be the case for years is simply wrong. These occasions can be a source of embarrassment, such as the time a few years ago when a friend pointed out to me that I always misspelled the word “embarrassed.” Being someone who takes the use of language seriously, this came as quite a blow to me. Most of the time, however, I greet epiphanies of mistaken assumptions with equanimity, if not pleasure. I love to learn, and most learning requires a certain amount of unlearning.

I had several such experiences in rapid succession while visiting a wildlife sanctuary in Costa Rica. Aviarios del Caribe, located near Cahuita on the Caribbean coast, is a sloth rehabilitation center. Sloths that are injured or orphaned are brought here and cared for, and then—if they’re able to fend for themselves—released back into the rain forest. A volunteer had patiently explained many of the differences between two-toed and three-toed sloths, about which more later. But as I was watching a baby two-toed sloth, I noticed with some puzzlement that it actually had three toes on each foot. Clearly there was an interesting story here, but that was just the beginning of the strange and wonderful things I was to discover about sloths. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Saint Bernards

Rescuing the rescuers

In October 2004, I read an article with some shocking and disheartening news: the Swiss monks responsible for breeding St. Bernards since at least the 17th century were getting out of the dog business. The last 18 dogs living in the alpine hospice where the breed originated were up for sale. At that time, I didn’t know anything about St. Bernards except that they were known as rescue dogs and usually pictured wearing a little barrel or cask on their collars. It had not occurred to me that there was some particular base from which their rescue operations had traditionally begun, or an actual Saint Bernard after whom the dogs had been named. But as I read about the imminent end of the monks’ caretaking operations, I began wondering about the real story behind these dogs. Did they ever really perform rescues? How did the monks figure in? And what was the deal with those little casks? Glass of brandy in hand, I began my research.

Anyone for a Walk?
The story begins in the year 962, when Bernard of Menthon founded a monastery and hospice in the Swiss alps. To the north is the Swiss canton of Valais; to the south, the Valle d’Aosta in Italy. It was not for seclusion that Bernard chose this particular spot, at a snowy pass some 8,000 feet (2500m) high. The pass was often used by pilgrims making their way from France into Italy to visit Rome, and was known as a treacherous and forbidding spot. Bernard’s idea was that the hospice could provide shelter for the pilgrims and aid to those who became lost or injured on their journey. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Crows that Make Tools

The brains behind the beaks

I’ve seen numerous books about the differences between men and women. My own theory is that the main difference has to do with tools. When I walk into the tool section of a hardware store—guys, you know what I’m talking about—I get wide-eyed and giddy. Every tool suggests a new project or task. I want to come up with things to make or repair simply to justify owning another obscure tool. Although, to be perfectly honest, I don’t even care that much about using the tools, I just want to own them. One day when I was helping a friend of mine install some kitchen cabinets, he pointed out a particular piece of decorative trim that had cost US$100, then mentioned that he didn’t have the right kind of saw to cut it with. “Oh well,” he said with mock resignation, “I may have to break down and buy one. Too bad it costs $200.” I said, “It seems a pity to pay more for the tool than the material you’ll use it on.” My friend replied, “Not really—I have two pieces of trim to cut!” We laughed about this because to guys, tool ownership is its own reward.

Women, on the whole, don’t seem to appreciate the stereotypical male trait of wanting equipment for its own sake. This is equally true for things like computers and stereo components. Women don’t understand why we would spend our money on seemingly useless or frivolous tools instead of, say, shoes. But there are also, of course, counterexamples. I know women who are carpenters, computer geeks, and hi-fi buffs, as well as guys who like shoes better than tools. For every theory about the important differences between men and women, there seems to be a reason to doubt it. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Leaf Cutter Ants

A different kind of deforestation

I’m a city person at heart, but every now and then I like to get far away from the chaos and soak in some nature. On the two trips I’ve taken to Costa Rica, I’ve found it ideal for such a getaway. It’s quite a contrast from my usual environment—everything from the food to the climate is different, not to mention the language, driving habits, and so on. But we adapt rapidly, as humans tend to do. After a few days, we become accustomed to the heat and, to a lesser extent, the humidity. We get used to seeing the occasional frog or lizard in the shower. The sights, sounds, and smells which were so foreign just a week earlier begin to seem commonplace. “Honey, look! Up in the tree!” one of us will say. What, another sloth, a family of monkeys, a toucan? Ho hum. Been there, done that. The novelty of such sightings wears off much too quickly.

The Ants Go Marching One by One, Hurrah, Hurrah
Such was the case with leaf cutter ants. At first you think it’s an optical illusion. You’ll glance at the ground and detect a line of movement, just a rustle. You look at a bare strip in the grass and think: The leaves can’t possibly be marching across the ground. You try to figure out what you’re seeing, whether it’s moving plants or plant-shaped bugs of some kind. On closer inspection—much closer—you see tiny ants, almost blending into the soil, carrying comparatively huge slices of leaves in a long column. Ah: leaf cutter ants. Yes, I think I read about them somewhere. They climb trees, slice up the leaves, and carry them off to their nests. Got it. Once you’ve figured out what it is, it doesn’t seem especially remarkable. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Poison Dart Frogs

Pretty to look at, but don’t put them in your mouth

Where I come from, frogs were always considered harmless, even comical, creatures. Not that you’d want to have one in your bathtub with you, but you imagined them leading a leisurely amphibian life, hopping from one lily pad to the next, keeping the pond free of insects, and croaking happily away. Kermit, of course, epitomized the friendliness and goofiness of frogs. He sang, “It’s not easy being green,” but his biggest problem seemed to be that his girlfriend was a pig.

In countless high school biology classes, students have had to set aside their anthropomorphic image of frogs to dissect them and study their anatomy. Although the students sometimes consider this quite unpleasant, you could hardly imagine a less scary specimen. And of course there’s fried frogs’ legs, a fairly bland but unobjectionable dish I’ve enjoyed in New Orleans. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Mate

The national beverage of Argentina

I’m a coffee person. I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to it, but I do certainly enjoy drinking it on a more or less daily basis. Sometimes two or three times a day. In fact, now that I think about it, I could use a cup right now. Excuse me. (Time passes.) Ah, that’s better. I do not drink coffee for my health, although I am aware of studies suggesting that coffee consumption in moderation may reduce the risk of colon cancer, kidney stones, heart disease, and even Parkinson’s Disease. I don’t even, for the most part, drink it for the caffeine. Partly it’s the aroma that I find so appealing, and partly it’s just the soothing effect of a warm beverage sliding across my tongue and down my esophagus.

Many of my friends, however, are tea people. I have nothing against a nice cup of tea now and then, and of course tea ably fills that hot beverage need. But in terms of aroma and both psychological and physiological impact, tea just doesn’t do it for me. Once again, tea’s supposed health benefits—of which there are, I admit, far more than those of coffee—don’t quite tip the scales. Maybe I’d be 5% healthier if I switched from coffee to tea, but then, maybe I’d also be 10% grouchier. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Gaiman

New Wales in Patagonia

Argentina has no shortage of bookstores. In some of the busier shopping districts of Buenos Aires, it’s not unusual to see half a dozen of them in a single block—all apparently doing brisk business. We visited many of these, and showed uncharacteristic restraint, leaving with just a few books altogether. Of course, the selection of English-language books was typically limited, though you could find Spanish translations of nearly any major English book you could name. For example, I picked up a Spanish copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. On the copyright page, it said that this book was also available in Latin and Welsh translations. The Latin bit surprised me: I can’t think of anywhere other than Vatican City where Latin is still used conversationally, and I don’t expect many folks there are keen on reading stories about wizards and witches. Welsh, on the other hand—that can certainly constitute a reasonable market, especially in Patagonia.

Looking for New Wales
In the mid-1800s, many residents of Wales felt their territory, culture, and language were being overrun by the English. Realizing they were hopelessly outnumbered, a group of them decided to look for a place far away where they could transplant a piece of Wales and control their own destiny. Patagonia offered a familiar climate and an appropriately remote location, far from English influence. So in 1865, 159 settlers, led by Rev. Michael D. Jones, sailed aboard a ship called Mimosa and landed in a sheltered bay on the coast of Argentina known as Golfo Nuevo. They initially set up residence in a port town that came to be called Puerto Madryn, but soon thereafter most of the colonists moved about 100km (60 miles) to the south, building several small towns along the Rio Chubut—one of the few fertile regions in this part of Patagonia. Among these towns are Rawson, the provincial capital near the coast; Trelew, a hub of commerce and transportation about 20km (12 miles) to the west; and a further 16km inland along the river, Gaiman. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

826 National

Pirates, spies, superheroes, and young authors

San Francisco has no shortage of trendy restaurants and interesting shops. If you want to get a good taste of what the city has to offer, and especially if you don’t want to spend lots of money doing it, head to the historic Mission District and stroll up and down Valencia Street. Amidst the art galleries, taquerias, and retro furniture stores you’ll find all sorts of quirky little gems with that quintessential San Francisco character. Perhaps the best example is a store named after its location: 826 Valencia. Its unassuming exterior gives you little clue as to what’s inside, and even after you start looking around, it may take you a few minutes to figure out that you are standing in a pirate supply store. It’s true: if you need to get an eye patch, a Jolly Roger flag, a spyglass, or even a bucket of lard for—well, whatever pirates use lard for—you’re in the right place.

At first, everything in the store seems to be completely serious, as though they expect real pirates to sail in on a daily basis for provisions. A closer inspection reveals that they’re having a good time at their own expense. Take, for example, the signs scattered around the store, such as “Have You Got Scurvy?” (with a list of symptoms), “Goals for the Voyage” (Plunder. Meet new people. Learn valuable new skills.), and even a helpful list of suggested uses for that lard (including “mast greasing” and “fingernail softening”). There’s also a little curtained-off area with a handful of old movie-theater seats facing a large aquarium; you can sit there for as long as you like and watch the residents, including a puffer fish named Otka. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Oysters Rockefeller

The secret of name recognition

I studied philosophy in college, but as much as I enjoyed it, I had to choose a different profession. If I hadn’t, I risked a fate that seems to befall most philosophers sooner or later: having one’s name turned into an adjective. Think about it: Platonic, Socratic, Aristotelian, Augustinian, Cartesian…I’ve even heard Husserlian and Wittgensteinian. Of course, it’s not just philosophers who suffer this fate. So do psychiatrists (Freudian), novelists (Orwellian), filmmakers (Kubrickian), physicians (Hippocratic), and explorers (Columbian). With all due respect to those who will no doubt wish for a concise way of referring to my system of thought or writing style, I would be very unhappy to think of anything or anyone being referred to as “Kissellian.” I’m not sure why, but the whole notion of adjectivizing names has always bothered me (whereas verbing nouns does not). If my name is to be immortalized, I would prefer that it be kept intact, preferably in close proximity to the name of a food. Peaches Melba…Crêpes Suzette…how about Cherries Kissell? Instead of Quiche Lorraine, try Shrimp Kissell. You can even wash it down with a Joe Kissell on the rocks. (See my forthcoming book The Joe of Cooking for recipes…)

The Color of Money
Of course, the ultimate tribute food is Oysters Rockefeller. This dish was invented in 1899 by Jules Alciatore, son of Antoine Alciatore, the eponymous founder of Antoine’s in New Orleans. The dish consists of oysters that have been topped with a purée of mixed greens and then baked. The dish was deemed so rich that it could only take the name of the richest family in the country at that time, the Rockefellers. (It is no coincidence, I’m sure, that the color approximates that of U.S. currency.) The recipe has been kept a closely guarded secret at Antoine’s for over 100 years, though there have been countless imitations. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Voodoo

The spirit(s) of a misunderstood religion

On my first walking tour of New Orleans, our guide promised us chilling stories of ghosts, vampires, pirates, horrific murders, and all the other dark elements of the city’s past—some real, some fictional. And as if to show that these dark forces were still alive and well, he said that our very last stop would be a genuine, functioning Voodoo temple. At that point, everything I knew about Voodoo had come from bad films and TV shows. I gathered that it had something to do with black magic, curses, and sticking pins in dolls. So a chance to meet real Voodoo practitioners seemed a bit exciting and a bit scary.

To Grandmother’s House We Go
When we finally got to the temple, it was a bit anticlimactic. The building was just a converted house, the rooms were bright and cheery, and there wasn’t the remotest suggestion of any evil undercurrents. Yes, there was the smell of incense in the air; yes, there were a bunch of altars piled high with offerings and candles; and yes, there were a lot of unusual images on the walls. But then, the same could be true of a Buddhist temple. Wasn’t Voodoo supposed to be, like, wackier? Then we met the resident clergy, Priestess Miriam. In retrospect, the Voodoo priestess reminds me of the Oracle in the Matrix films—friendly, down-to-earth, maybe even grandmotherly, and not what I was expecting. She gave a short talk and answered all our questions. Her mild manner and warm smile seemed to say, “Sorry if you were expecting animal sacrifices and gibberish. I get that a lot.” [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Café du Monde

The simple pleasures of beignets & café au lait

It’s 3:00 a.m. and the streets of New Orleans are filled with fog. In some of the livelier areas of town, bars are still open, the last wave of sleepy patrons thinking they might stick around to hear the band play just one more tune before calling it a night. Here, however, on the fringes of the French Quarter, the streets are quiet. Steps away from the Mississippi river, outside a building near the French Market, a man hesitates, then approaches an open window. He exchanges a few words with the person inside, and hands over some money. A small bag is offered in return. The man, clutching his illicit purchase, hurries across the street to Jackson Square. He sits down on a secluded bench, looks around furtively, and opens the bag. Inside, all he can see is a white powder. As he reaches into the bag, he thinks to himself, “I know this is a bad idea. This stuff is gonna kill me some day, but I just…can’t…help myself.” A few minutes later, the bag is empty and the man is happy, having blissfully forgotten his reservations and guilt—and entirely oblivious of the growing effects of the toxins accumulating in his body. A telltale white residue on his upper lip, he stumbles home. Tomorrow he will repeat this ritual. Next time, he decides, he’ll order some coffee too. A nice hot drink might help to take the edge off of all that powdered sugar and grease.

The man has just been to Café du Monde, a New Orleans landmark that’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. His purchase was an order of beignets, a deceptively decadent type of doughnut that made this café famous. Make no mistake about it: enough of these will kill you, all right. But you will die very happy. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

New Orleans Cemeteries

Cities of the dead

There are few cities with as great a reputation for decadence as New Orleans. If you want rich, fatty, and extravagant foods, you can hardly do better than the Crescent City. Alcohol flows freely, too, and almost any desire of the flesh can be indulged for a modest fee (sometimes payable in cheap plastic beads). But decadence in the original, non-metaphorical sense is also a regular fixture in this city whose past is littered with pirates, devastating fires, and horrific murders. There has been a lot of death and destruction in New Orleans, and the associated signs of physical decay—whether of buildings or of bodies—are everywhere. Particularly striking to many visitors are the city’s numerous old cemeteries filled with creepy-looking aboveground tombs. Whereas death is usually kept hidden, buried out of sight, New Orleans gives residents and visitors constant reminders of the impermanence of life.

The Dead Shall Rise Again
Why aren’t the dead in New Orleans buried underground as they are in most of the rest of the country? Tour guides are fond of explaining (and sometimes embellishing) the practice to shocked tourists. The main issue, they explain, is that New Orleans is actually located slightly below sea level. Because of this, the water table is quite high. When early European settlers put coffins under six feet of earth, they found that the water level would often rise above them, especially during the city’s frequent floods. Since the coffins were filled with air, the water sometimes pushed them up through the earth, causing both a gruesome sight and a health hazard. To keep the coffins underground, holes were drilled in the lid to let air escape, and the coffins were weighted down with rocks and sand. But this was only partially successful, and in any case the saturated corpses did not decompose properly, leading to unsanitary conditions. The only solution was to bury the dead above ground. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Gumbo

The one good thing about okra

I have watched a number of reality TV shows on which contestants were asked to consume extremely unappetizing foods. You know the sort of thing I’m talking about, I’m sure, so I’ll refrain from elaborating. Under circumstances of sufficient duress or social pressure, I’ll uncomplainingly choke down just about anything, however unpleasant it may be. But there are a few foods that I would find it difficult to get past my uvula no matter how many viewers at home were cheering me on or how many dollars were at stake. I am thinking, for example, of okra.

Slime Me
In the United States, okra is known as a staple of southern cuisine, and rarely seen elsewhere. A member of the hibiscus family, okra is a tall plant with yellow flowers and edible seed pods. If you look up okra in a dictionary, the one word that will invariably be used to describe the texture of these seed pods is mucilaginous. This word means “glue-like”—that is, viscous, sticky, and slimy. These are acceptable characteristics for adhesives, but not the sort of thing that feels good on my tongue. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Non-Human Farmers

Animal agriculture

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

On a recent trip to the Galapagos Islands, I was astonished when our guide showed us how damselfish (family Pomacentridae) farm algae on their own. It was also amazing to see how aggressively protective they were of their farms. To demonstrate, our guide took a sea urchin and dropped it into the damselfish’s algae farm, and within seconds the damselfish pushed the sea urchin out of the farm. Some damselfish farm algae on coral heads and nip the coral to create cuts that encourage the algae to grow. Apparently, they are known even to attack human beings that swim near their farms. Fortunately, they are very small fish with small teeth, so death by damselfish is unlikely!

The damselfish inspired me to learn about other animals that farm their own food. It turns out that besides humans, four kinds of animal are known to farm fungi (fungiculture)—leaf cutter ants, termites, ambrosia beetles, and marsh snails.

We humans capitalized on the invention of agriculture to place ourselves on the path to achieve a dominating position in our ecosystem. It is our gregarious nature, societal structure, communication skills, and a measure of engineering skills that were key. Let’s examine how non-human farmers stack up in these areas. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Hidden Lives of Sloths

Symbiosis in slow motion

There are times—quite a few of them, for better or worse—when I’m confronted with evidence that something I’ve believed (or assumed) to be the case for years is simply wrong. These occasions can be a source of embarrassment, such as the time a few years ago when a friend pointed out to me that I always misspelled the word “embarrassed.” Being someone who takes the use of language seriously, this came as quite a blow to me. Most of the time, however, I greet epiphanies of mistaken assumptions with equanimity, if not pleasure. I love to learn, and most learning requires a certain amount of unlearning.

I had several such experiences in rapid succession while visiting a wildlife sanctuary in Costa Rica. Aviarios del Caribe, located near Cahuita on the Caribbean coast, is a sloth rehabilitation center. Sloths that are injured or orphaned are brought here and cared for, and then—if they’re able to fend for themselves—released back into the rain forest. A volunteer had patiently explained many of the differences between two-toed and three-toed sloths, about which more later. But as I was watching a baby two-toed sloth, I noticed with some puzzlement that it actually had three toes on each foot. Clearly there was an interesting story here, but that was just the beginning of the strange and wonderful things I was to discover about sloths. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Saint Bernards

Rescuing the rescuers

In October 2004, I read an article with some shocking and disheartening news: the Swiss monks responsible for breeding St. Bernards since at least the 17th century were getting out of the dog business. The last 18 dogs living in the alpine hospice where the breed originated were up for sale. At that time, I didn’t know anything about St. Bernards except that they were known as rescue dogs and usually pictured wearing a little barrel or cask on their collars. It had not occurred to me that there was some particular base from which their rescue operations had traditionally begun, or an actual Saint Bernard after whom the dogs had been named. But as I read about the imminent end of the monks’ caretaking operations, I began wondering about the real story behind these dogs. Did they ever really perform rescues? How did the monks figure in? And what was the deal with those little casks? Glass of brandy in hand, I began my research.

Anyone for a Walk?
The story begins in the year 962, when Bernard of Menthon founded a monastery and hospice in the Swiss alps. To the north is the Swiss canton of Valais; to the south, the Valle d’Aosta in Italy. It was not for seclusion that Bernard chose this particular spot, at a snowy pass some 8,000 feet (2500m) high. The pass was often used by pilgrims making their way from France into Italy to visit Rome, and was known as a treacherous and forbidding spot. Bernard’s idea was that the hospice could provide shelter for the pilgrims and aid to those who became lost or injured on their journey. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Crows that Make Tools

The brains behind the beaks

I’ve seen numerous books about the differences between men and women. My own theory is that the main difference has to do with tools. When I walk into the tool section of a hardware store—guys, you know what I’m talking about—I get wide-eyed and giddy. Every tool suggests a new project or task. I want to come up with things to make or repair simply to justify owning another obscure tool. Although, to be perfectly honest, I don’t even care that much about using the tools, I just want to own them. One day when I was helping a friend of mine install some kitchen cabinets, he pointed out a particular piece of decorative trim that had cost US$100, then mentioned that he didn’t have the right kind of saw to cut it with. “Oh well,” he said with mock resignation, “I may have to break down and buy one. Too bad it costs $200.” I said, “It seems a pity to pay more for the tool than the material you’ll use it on.” My friend replied, “Not really—I have two pieces of trim to cut!” We laughed about this because to guys, tool ownership is its own reward.

Women, on the whole, don’t seem to appreciate the stereotypical male trait of wanting equipment for its own sake. This is equally true for things like computers and stereo components. Women don’t understand why we would spend our money on seemingly useless or frivolous tools instead of, say, shoes. But there are also, of course, counterexamples. I know women who are carpenters, computer geeks, and hi-fi buffs, as well as guys who like shoes better than tools. For every theory about the important differences between men and women, there seems to be a reason to doubt it. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Leaf Cutter Ants

A different kind of deforestation

I’m a city person at heart, but every now and then I like to get far away from the chaos and soak in some nature. On the two trips I’ve taken to Costa Rica, I’ve found it ideal for such a getaway. It’s quite a contrast from my usual environment—everything from the food to the climate is different, not to mention the language, driving habits, and so on. But we adapt rapidly, as humans tend to do. After a few days, we become accustomed to the heat and, to a lesser extent, the humidity. We get used to seeing the occasional frog or lizard in the shower. The sights, sounds, and smells which were so foreign just a week earlier begin to seem commonplace. “Honey, look! Up in the tree!” one of us will say. What, another sloth, a family of monkeys, a toucan? Ho hum. Been there, done that. The novelty of such sightings wears off much too quickly.

The Ants Go Marching One by One, Hurrah, Hurrah
Such was the case with leaf cutter ants. At first you think it’s an optical illusion. You’ll glance at the ground and detect a line of movement, just a rustle. You look at a bare strip in the grass and think: The leaves can’t possibly be marching across the ground. You try to figure out what you’re seeing, whether it’s moving plants or plant-shaped bugs of some kind. On closer inspection—much closer—you see tiny ants, almost blending into the soil, carrying comparatively huge slices of leaves in a long column. Ah: leaf cutter ants. Yes, I think I read about them somewhere. They climb trees, slice up the leaves, and carry them off to their nests. Got it. Once you’ve figured out what it is, it doesn’t seem especially remarkable. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Poison Dart Frogs

Pretty to look at, but don’t put them in your mouth

Where I come from, frogs were always considered harmless, even comical, creatures. Not that you’d want to have one in your bathtub with you, but you imagined them leading a leisurely amphibian life, hopping from one lily pad to the next, keeping the pond free of insects, and croaking happily away. Kermit, of course, epitomized the friendliness and goofiness of frogs. He sang, “It’s not easy being green,” but his biggest problem seemed to be that his girlfriend was a pig.

In countless high school biology classes, students have had to set aside their anthropomorphic image of frogs to dissect them and study their anatomy. Although the students sometimes consider this quite unpleasant, you could hardly imagine a less scary specimen. And of course there’s fried frogs’ legs, a fairly bland but unobjectionable dish I’ve enjoyed in New Orleans. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Mate

The national beverage of Argentina

I’m a coffee person. I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to it, but I do certainly enjoy drinking it on a more or less daily basis. Sometimes two or three times a day. In fact, now that I think about it, I could use a cup right now. Excuse me. (Time passes.) Ah, that’s better. I do not drink coffee for my health, although I am aware of studies suggesting that coffee consumption in moderation may reduce the risk of colon cancer, kidney stones, heart disease, and even Parkinson’s Disease. I don’t even, for the most part, drink it for the caffeine. Partly it’s the aroma that I find so appealing, and partly it’s just the soothing effect of a warm beverage sliding across my tongue and down my esophagus.

Many of my friends, however, are tea people. I have nothing against a nice cup of tea now and then, and of course tea ably fills that hot beverage need. But in terms of aroma and both psychological and physiological impact, tea just doesn’t do it for me. Once again, tea’s supposed health benefits—of which there are, I admit, far more than those of coffee—don’t quite tip the scales. Maybe I’d be 5% healthier if I switched from coffee to tea, but then, maybe I’d also be 10% grouchier. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Gaiman

New Wales in Patagonia

Argentina has no shortage of bookstores. In some of the busier shopping districts of Buenos Aires, it’s not unusual to see half a dozen of them in a single block—all apparently doing brisk business. We visited many of these, and showed uncharacteristic restraint, leaving with just a few books altogether. Of course, the selection of English-language books was typically limited, though you could find Spanish translations of nearly any major English book you could name. For example, I picked up a Spanish copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. On the copyright page, it said that this book was also available in Latin and Welsh translations. The Latin bit surprised me: I can’t think of anywhere other than Vatican City where Latin is still used conversationally, and I don’t expect many folks there are keen on reading stories about wizards and witches. Welsh, on the other hand—that can certainly constitute a reasonable market, especially in Patagonia.

Looking for New Wales
In the mid-1800s, many residents of Wales felt their territory, culture, and language were being overrun by the English. Realizing they were hopelessly outnumbered, a group of them decided to look for a place far away where they could transplant a piece of Wales and control their own destiny. Patagonia offered a familiar climate and an appropriately remote location, far from English influence. So in 1865, 159 settlers, led by Rev. Michael D. Jones, sailed aboard a ship called Mimosa and landed in a sheltered bay on the coast of Argentina known as Golfo Nuevo. They initially set up residence in a port town that came to be called Puerto Madryn, but soon thereafter most of the colonists moved about 100km (60 miles) to the south, building several small towns along the Rio Chubut—one of the few fertile regions in this part of Patagonia. Among these towns are Rawson, the provincial capital near the coast; Trelew, a hub of commerce and transportation about 20km (12 miles) to the west; and a further 16km inland along the river, Gaiman. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

826 National

Pirates, spies, superheroes, and young authors

San Francisco has no shortage of trendy restaurants and interesting shops. If you want to get a good taste of what the city has to offer, and especially if you don’t want to spend lots of money doing it, head to the historic Mission District and stroll up and down Valencia Street. Amidst the art galleries, taquerias, and retro furniture stores you’ll find all sorts of quirky little gems with that quintessential San Francisco character. Perhaps the best example is a store named after its location: 826 Valencia. Its unassuming exterior gives you little clue as to what’s inside, and even after you start looking around, it may take you a few minutes to figure out that you are standing in a pirate supply store. It’s true: if you need to get an eye patch, a Jolly Roger flag, a spyglass, or even a bucket of lard for—well, whatever pirates use lard for—you’re in the right place.

At first, everything in the store seems to be completely serious, as though they expect real pirates to sail in on a daily basis for provisions. A closer inspection reveals that they’re having a good time at their own expense. Take, for example, the signs scattered around the store, such as “Have You Got Scurvy?” (with a list of symptoms), “Goals for the Voyage” (Plunder. Meet new people. Learn valuable new skills.), and even a helpful list of suggested uses for that lard (including “mast greasing” and “fingernail softening”). There’s also a little curtained-off area with a handful of old movie-theater seats facing a large aquarium; you can sit there for as long as you like and watch the residents, including a puffer fish named Otka. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Oysters Rockefeller

The secret of name recognition

I studied philosophy in college, but as much as I enjoyed it, I had to choose a different profession. If I hadn’t, I risked a fate that seems to befall most philosophers sooner or later: having one’s name turned into an adjective. Think about it: Platonic, Socratic, Aristotelian, Augustinian, Cartesian…I’ve even heard Husserlian and Wittgensteinian. Of course, it’s not just philosophers who suffer this fate. So do psychiatrists (Freudian), novelists (Orwellian), filmmakers (Kubrickian), physicians (Hippocratic), and explorers (Columbian). With all due respect to those who will no doubt wish for a concise way of referring to my system of thought or writing style, I would be very unhappy to think of anything or anyone being referred to as “Kissellian.” I’m not sure why, but the whole notion of adjectivizing names has always bothered me (whereas verbing nouns does not). If my name is to be immortalized, I would prefer that it be kept intact, preferably in close proximity to the name of a food. Peaches Melba…Crêpes Suzette…how about Cherries Kissell? Instead of Quiche Lorraine, try Shrimp Kissell. You can even wash it down with a Joe Kissell on the rocks. (See my forthcoming book The Joe of Cooking for recipes…)

The Color of Money
Of course, the ultimate tribute food is Oysters Rockefeller. This dish was invented in 1899 by Jules Alciatore, son of Antoine Alciatore, the eponymous founder of Antoine’s in New Orleans. The dish consists of oysters that have been topped with a purée of mixed greens and then baked. The dish was deemed so rich that it could only take the name of the richest family in the country at that time, the Rockefellers. (It is no coincidence, I’m sure, that the color approximates that of U.S. currency.) The recipe has been kept a closely guarded secret at Antoine’s for over 100 years, though there have been countless imitations. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Voodoo

The spirit(s) of a misunderstood religion

On my first walking tour of New Orleans, our guide promised us chilling stories of ghosts, vampires, pirates, horrific murders, and all the other dark elements of the city’s past—some real, some fictional. And as if to show that these dark forces were still alive and well, he said that our very last stop would be a genuine, functioning Voodoo temple. At that point, everything I knew about Voodoo had come from bad films and TV shows. I gathered that it had something to do with black magic, curses, and sticking pins in dolls. So a chance to meet real Voodoo practitioners seemed a bit exciting and a bit scary.

To Grandmother’s House We Go
When we finally got to the temple, it was a bit anticlimactic. The building was just a converted house, the rooms were bright and cheery, and there wasn’t the remotest suggestion of any evil undercurrents. Yes, there was the smell of incense in the air; yes, there were a bunch of altars piled high with offerings and candles; and yes, there were a lot of unusual images on the walls. But then, the same could be true of a Buddhist temple. Wasn’t Voodoo supposed to be, like, wackier? Then we met the resident clergy, Priestess Miriam. In retrospect, the Voodoo priestess reminds me of the Oracle in the Matrix films—friendly, down-to-earth, maybe even grandmotherly, and not what I was expecting. She gave a short talk and answered all our questions. Her mild manner and warm smile seemed to say, “Sorry if you were expecting animal sacrifices and gibberish. I get that a lot.” [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Café du Monde

The simple pleasures of beignets & café au lait

It’s 3:00 a.m. and the streets of New Orleans are filled with fog. In some of the livelier areas of town, bars are still open, the last wave of sleepy patrons thinking they might stick around to hear the band play just one more tune before calling it a night. Here, however, on the fringes of the French Quarter, the streets are quiet. Steps away from the Mississippi river, outside a building near the French Market, a man hesitates, then approaches an open window. He exchanges a few words with the person inside, and hands over some money. A small bag is offered in return. The man, clutching his illicit purchase, hurries across the street to Jackson Square. He sits down on a secluded bench, looks around furtively, and opens the bag. Inside, all he can see is a white powder. As he reaches into the bag, he thinks to himself, “I know this is a bad idea. This stuff is gonna kill me some day, but I just…can’t…help myself.” A few minutes later, the bag is empty and the man is happy, having blissfully forgotten his reservations and guilt—and entirely oblivious of the growing effects of the toxins accumulating in his body. A telltale white residue on his upper lip, he stumbles home. Tomorrow he will repeat this ritual. Next time, he decides, he’ll order some coffee too. A nice hot drink might help to take the edge off of all that powdered sugar and grease.

The man has just been to Café du Monde, a New Orleans landmark that’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. His purchase was an order of beignets, a deceptively decadent type of doughnut that made this café famous. Make no mistake about it: enough of these will kill you, all right. But you will die very happy. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

New Orleans Cemeteries

Cities of the dead

There are few cities with as great a reputation for decadence as New Orleans. If you want rich, fatty, and extravagant foods, you can hardly do better than the Crescent City. Alcohol flows freely, too, and almost any desire of the flesh can be indulged for a modest fee (sometimes payable in cheap plastic beads). But decadence in the original, non-metaphorical sense is also a regular fixture in this city whose past is littered with pirates, devastating fires, and horrific murders. There has been a lot of death and destruction in New Orleans, and the associated signs of physical decay—whether of buildings or of bodies—are everywhere. Particularly striking to many visitors are the city’s numerous old cemeteries filled with creepy-looking aboveground tombs. Whereas death is usually kept hidden, buried out of sight, New Orleans gives residents and visitors constant reminders of the impermanence of life.

The Dead Shall Rise Again
Why aren’t the dead in New Orleans buried underground as they are in most of the rest of the country? Tour guides are fond of explaining (and sometimes embellishing) the practice to shocked tourists. The main issue, they explain, is that New Orleans is actually located slightly below sea level. Because of this, the water table is quite high. When early European settlers put coffins under six feet of earth, they found that the water level would often rise above them, especially during the city’s frequent floods. Since the coffins were filled with air, the water sometimes pushed them up through the earth, causing both a gruesome sight and a health hazard. To keep the coffins underground, holes were drilled in the lid to let air escape, and the coffins were weighted down with rocks and sand. But this was only partially successful, and in any case the saturated corpses did not decompose properly, leading to unsanitary conditions. The only solution was to bury the dead above ground. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Gumbo

The one good thing about okra

I have watched a number of reality TV shows on which contestants were asked to consume extremely unappetizing foods. You know the sort of thing I’m talking about, I’m sure, so I’ll refrain from elaborating. Under circumstances of sufficient duress or social pressure, I’ll uncomplainingly choke down just about anything, however unpleasant it may be. But there are a few foods that I would find it difficult to get past my uvula no matter how many viewers at home were cheering me on or how many dollars were at stake. I am thinking, for example, of okra.

Slime Me
In the United States, okra is known as a staple of southern cuisine, and rarely seen elsewhere. A member of the hibiscus family, okra is a tall plant with yellow flowers and edible seed pods. If you look up okra in a dictionary, the one word that will invariably be used to describe the texture of these seed pods is mucilaginous. This word means “glue-like”—that is, viscous, sticky, and slimy. These are acceptable characteristics for adhesives, but not the sort of thing that feels good on my tongue. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Non-Human Farmers

Animal agriculture

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

On a recent trip to the Galapagos Islands, I was astonished when our guide showed us how damselfish (family Pomacentridae) farm algae on their own. It was also amazing to see how aggressively protective they were of their farms. To demonstrate, our guide took a sea urchin and dropped it into the damselfish’s algae farm, and within seconds the damselfish pushed the sea urchin out of the farm. Some damselfish farm algae on coral heads and nip the coral to create cuts that encourage the algae to grow. Apparently, they are known even to attack human beings that swim near their farms. Fortunately, they are very small fish with small teeth, so death by damselfish is unlikely!

The damselfish inspired me to learn about other animals that farm their own food. It turns out that besides humans, four kinds of animal are known to farm fungi (fungiculture)—leaf cutter ants, termites, ambrosia beetles, and marsh snails.

We humans capitalized on the invention of agriculture to place ourselves on the path to achieve a dominating position in our ecosystem. It is our gregarious nature, societal structure, communication skills, and a measure of engineering skills that were key. Let’s examine how non-human farmers stack up in these areas. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

The Hidden Lives of Sloths

Symbiosis in slow motion

There are times—quite a few of them, for better or worse—when I’m confronted with evidence that something I’ve believed (or assumed) to be the case for years is simply wrong. These occasions can be a source of embarrassment, such as the time a few years ago when a friend pointed out to me that I always misspelled the word “embarrassed.” Being someone who takes the use of language seriously, this came as quite a blow to me. Most of the time, however, I greet epiphanies of mistaken assumptions with equanimity, if not pleasure. I love to learn, and most learning requires a certain amount of unlearning.

I had several such experiences in rapid succession while visiting a wildlife sanctuary in Costa Rica. Aviarios del Caribe, located near Cahuita on the Caribbean coast, is a sloth rehabilitation center. Sloths that are injured or orphaned are brought here and cared for, and then—if they’re able to fend for themselves—released back into the rain forest. A volunteer had patiently explained many of the differences between two-toed and three-toed sloths, about which more later. But as I was watching a baby two-toed sloth, I noticed with some puzzlement that it actually had three toes on each foot. Clearly there was an interesting story here, but that was just the beginning of the strange and wonderful things I was to discover about sloths. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Saint Bernards

Rescuing the rescuers

In October 2004, I read an article with some shocking and disheartening news: the Swiss monks responsible for breeding St. Bernards since at least the 17th century were getting out of the dog business. The last 18 dogs living in the alpine hospice where the breed originated were up for sale. At that time, I didn’t know anything about St. Bernards except that they were known as rescue dogs and usually pictured wearing a little barrel or cask on their collars. It had not occurred to me that there was some particular base from which their rescue operations had traditionally begun, or an actual Saint Bernard after whom the dogs had been named. But as I read about the imminent end of the monks’ caretaking operations, I began wondering about the real story behind these dogs. Did they ever really perform rescues? How did the monks figure in? And what was the deal with those little casks? Glass of brandy in hand, I began my research.

Anyone for a Walk?
The story begins in the year 962, when Bernard of Menthon founded a monastery and hospice in the Swiss alps. To the north is the Swiss canton of Valais; to the south, the Valle d’Aosta in Italy. It was not for seclusion that Bernard chose this particular spot, at a snowy pass some 8,000 feet (2500m) high. The pass was often used by pilgrims making their way from France into Italy to visit Rome, and was known as a treacherous and forbidding spot. Bernard’s idea was that the hospice could provide shelter for the pilgrims and aid to those who became lost or injured on their journey. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Crows that Make Tools

The brains behind the beaks

I’ve seen numerous books about the differences between men and women. My own theory is that the main difference has to do with tools. When I walk into the tool section of a hardware store—guys, you know what I’m talking about—I get wide-eyed and giddy. Every tool suggests a new project or task. I want to come up with things to make or repair simply to justify owning another obscure tool. Although, to be perfectly honest, I don’t even care that much about using the tools, I just want to own them. One day when I was helping a friend of mine install some kitchen cabinets, he pointed out a particular piece of decorative trim that had cost US$100, then mentioned that he didn’t have the right kind of saw to cut it with. “Oh well,” he said with mock resignation, “I may have to break down and buy one. Too bad it costs $200.” I said, “It seems a pity to pay more for the tool than the material you’ll use it on.” My friend replied, “Not really—I have two pieces of trim to cut!” We laughed about this because to guys, tool ownership is its own reward.

Women, on the whole, don’t seem to appreciate the stereotypical male trait of wanting equipment for its own sake. This is equally true for things like computers and stereo components. Women don’t understand why we would spend our money on seemingly useless or frivolous tools instead of, say, shoes. But there are also, of course, counterexamples. I know women who are carpenters, computer geeks, and hi-fi buffs, as well as guys who like shoes better than tools. For every theory about the important differences between men and women, there seems to be a reason to doubt it. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Leaf Cutter Ants

A different kind of deforestation

I’m a city person at heart, but every now and then I like to get far away from the chaos and soak in some nature. On the two trips I’ve taken to Costa Rica, I’ve found it ideal for such a getaway. It’s quite a contrast from my usual environment—everything from the food to the climate is different, not to mention the language, driving habits, and so on. But we adapt rapidly, as humans tend to do. After a few days, we become accustomed to the heat and, to a lesser extent, the humidity. We get used to seeing the occasional frog or lizard in the shower. The sights, sounds, and smells which were so foreign just a week earlier begin to seem commonplace. “Honey, look! Up in the tree!” one of us will say. What, another sloth, a family of monkeys, a toucan? Ho hum. Been there, done that. The novelty of such sightings wears off much too quickly.

The Ants Go Marching One by One, Hurrah, Hurrah
Such was the case with leaf cutter ants. At first you think it’s an optical illusion. You’ll glance at the ground and detect a line of movement, just a rustle. You look at a bare strip in the grass and think: The leaves can’t possibly be marching across the ground. You try to figure out what you’re seeing, whether it’s moving plants or plant-shaped bugs of some kind. On closer inspection—much closer—you see tiny ants, almost blending into the soil, carrying comparatively huge slices of leaves in a long column. Ah: leaf cutter ants. Yes, I think I read about them somewhere. They climb trees, slice up the leaves, and carry them off to their nests. Got it. Once you’ve figured out what it is, it doesn’t seem especially remarkable. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Poison Dart Frogs

Pretty to look at, but don’t put them in your mouth

Where I come from, frogs were always considered harmless, even comical, creatures. Not that you’d want to have one in your bathtub with you, but you imagined them leading a leisurely amphibian life, hopping from one lily pad to the next, keeping the pond free of insects, and croaking happily away. Kermit, of course, epitomized the friendliness and goofiness of frogs. He sang, “It’s not easy being green,” but his biggest problem seemed to be that his girlfriend was a pig.

In countless high school biology classes, students have had to set aside their anthropomorphic image of frogs to dissect them and study their anatomy. Although the students sometimes consider this quite unpleasant, you could hardly imagine a less scary specimen. And of course there’s fried frogs’ legs, a fairly bland but unobjectionable dish I’ve enjoyed in New Orleans. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Mate

The national beverage of Argentina

I’m a coffee person. I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to it, but I do certainly enjoy drinking it on a more or less daily basis. Sometimes two or three times a day. In fact, now that I think about it, I could use a cup right now. Excuse me. (Time passes.) Ah, that’s better. I do not drink coffee for my health, although I am aware of studies suggesting that coffee consumption in moderation may reduce the risk of colon cancer, kidney stones, heart disease, and even Parkinson’s Disease. I don’t even, for the most part, drink it for the caffeine. Partly it’s the aroma that I find so appealing, and partly it’s just the soothing effect of a warm beverage sliding across my tongue and down my esophagus.

Many of my friends, however, are tea people. I have nothing against a nice cup of tea now and then, and of course tea ably fills that hot beverage need. But in terms of aroma and both psychological and physiological impact, tea just doesn’t do it for me. Once again, tea’s supposed health benefits—of which there are, I admit, far more than those of coffee—don’t quite tip the scales. Maybe I’d be 5% healthier if I switched from coffee to tea, but then, maybe I’d also be 10% grouchier. [Article Continues…]

•••••

From the archives…

Gaiman

New Wales in Patagonia

Argentina has no shortage of bookstores. In some of the busier shopping districts of Buenos Aires, it’s not unusual to see half a dozen of them in a single block—all apparently doing brisk business. We visited many of these, and showed uncharacteristic restraint, leaving with just a few books altogether. Of course, the selection of English-language books was typically limited, though you could find Spanish translations of nearly any major English book you could name. For example, I picked up a Spanish copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. On the copyright page, it said that this book was also available in Latin and Welsh translations. The Latin bit surprised me: I can’t think of anywhere other than Vatican City where Latin is still used conversationally, and I don’t expect many folks there are keen on reading stories about wizards and witches. Welsh, on the other hand—that can certainly constitute a reasonable market, especially in Patagonia.

Looking for New Wales
In the mid-1800s, many residents of Wales felt their territory, culture, and language were being overrun by the English. Realizing they were hopelessly outnumbered, a group of them decided to look for a place far away where they could transplant a piece of Wales and control their own destiny. Patagonia offered a familiar climate and an appropriately remote location, far from English influence. So in 1865, 159 settlers, led by Rev. Michael D. Jones, sailed aboard a ship called Mimosa and landed in a sheltered bay on the coast of Argentina known as Golfo Nuevo. They initially set up residence in a port town that came to be called Puerto Madryn, but soon thereafter most of the colonists moved about 100km (60 miles) to the south, building several small towns along the Rio Chubut—one of the few fertile regions in this part of Patagonia. Among these towns are Rawson, the provincial capital near the coast; Trelew, a hub of commerce and transportation about 20km (12 miles) to the west; and a further 16km inland along the river, Gaiman. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

826 National

Pirates, spies, superheroes, and young authors

San Francisco has no shortage of trendy restaurants and interesting shops. If you want to get a good taste of what the city has to offer, and especially if you don’t want to spend lots of money doing it, head to the historic Mission District and stroll up and down Valencia Street. Amidst the art galleries, taquerias, and retro furniture stores you’ll find all sorts of quirky little gems with that quintessential San Francisco character. Perhaps the best example is a store named after its location: 826 Valencia. Its unassuming exterior gives you little clue as to what’s inside, and even after you start looking around, it may take you a few minutes to figure out that you are standing in a pirate supply store. It’s true: if you need to get an eye patch, a Jolly Roger flag, a spyglass, or even a bucket of lard for—well, whatever pirates use lard for—you’re in the right place.

At first, everything in the store seems to be completely serious, as though they expect real pirates to sail in on a daily basis for provisions. A closer inspection reveals that they’re having a good time at their own expense. Take, for example, the signs scattered around the store, such as “Have You Got Scurvy?” (with a list of symptoms), “Goals for the Voyage” (Plunder. Meet new people. Learn valuable new skills.), and even a helpful list of suggested uses for that lard (including “mast greasing” and “fingernail softening”). There’s also a little curtained-off area with a handful of old movie-theater seats facing a large aquarium; you can sit there for as long as you like and watch the residents, including a puffer fish named Otka. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Oysters Rockefeller

The secret of name recognition

I studied philosophy in college, but as much as I enjoyed it, I had to choose a different profession. If I hadn’t, I risked a fate that seems to befall most philosophers sooner or later: having one’s name turned into an adjective. Think about it: Platonic, Socratic, Aristotelian, Augustinian, Cartesian…I’ve even heard Husserlian and Wittgensteinian. Of course, it’s not just philosophers who suffer this fate. So do psychiatrists (Freudian), novelists (Orwellian), filmmakers (Kubrickian), physicians (Hippocratic), and explorers (Columbian). With all due respect to those who will no doubt wish for a concise way of referring to my system of thought or writing style, I would be very unhappy to think of anything or anyone being referred to as “Kissellian.” I’m not sure why, but the whole notion of adjectivizing names has always bothered me (whereas verbing nouns does not). If my name is to be immortalized, I would prefer that it be kept intact, preferably in close proximity to the name of a food. Peaches Melba…Crêpes Suzette…how about Cherries Kissell? Instead of Quiche Lorraine, try Shrimp Kissell. You can even wash it down with a Joe Kissell on the rocks. (See my forthcoming book The Joe of Cooking for recipes…)

The Color of Money
Of course, the ultimate tribute food is Oysters Rockefeller. This dish was invented in 1899 by Jules Alciatore, son of Antoine Alciatore, the eponymous founder of Antoine’s in New Orleans. The dish consists of oysters that have been topped with a purée of mixed greens and then baked. The dish was deemed so rich that it could only take the name of the richest family in the country at that time, the Rockefellers. (It is no coincidence, I’m sure, that the color approximates that of U.S. currency.) The recipe has been kept a closely guarded secret at Antoine’s for over 100 years, though there have been countless imitations. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Voodoo

The spirit(s) of a misunderstood religion

On my first walking tour of New Orleans, our guide promised us chilling stories of ghosts, vampires, pirates, horrific murders, and all the other dark elements of the city’s past—some real, some fictional. And as if to show that these dark forces were still alive and well, he said that our very last stop would be a genuine, functioning Voodoo temple. At that point, everything I knew about Voodoo had come from bad films and TV shows. I gathered that it had something to do with black magic, curses, and sticking pins in dolls. So a chance to meet real Voodoo practitioners seemed a bit exciting and a bit scary.

To Grandmother’s House We Go
When we finally got to the temple, it was a bit anticlimactic. The building was just a converted house, the rooms were bright and cheery, and there wasn’t the remotest suggestion of any evil undercurrents. Yes, there was the smell of incense in the air; yes, there were a bunch of altars piled high with offerings and candles; and yes, there were a lot of unusual images on the walls. But then, the same could be true of a Buddhist temple. Wasn’t Voodoo supposed to be, like, wackier? Then we met the resident clergy, Priestess Miriam. In retrospect, the Voodoo priestess reminds me of the Oracle in the Matrix films—friendly, down-to-earth, maybe even grandmotherly, and not what I was expecting. She gave a short talk and answered all our questions. Her mild manner and warm smile seemed to say, “Sorry if you were expecting animal sacrifices and gibberish. I get that a lot.” [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Café du Monde

The simple pleasures of beignets & café au lait

It’s 3:00 a.m. and the streets of New Orleans are filled with fog. In some of the livelier areas of town, bars are still open, the last wave of sleepy patrons thinking they might stick around to hear the band play just one more tune before calling it a night. Here, however, on the fringes of the French Quarter, the streets are quiet. Steps away from the Mississippi river, outside a building near the French Market, a man hesitates, then approaches an open window. He exchanges a few words with the person inside, and hands over some money. A small bag is offered in return. The man, clutching his illicit purchase, hurries across the street to Jackson Square. He sits down on a secluded bench, looks around furtively, and opens the bag. Inside, all he can see is a white powder. As he reaches into the bag, he thinks to himself, “I know this is a bad idea. This stuff is gonna kill me some day, but I just…can’t…help myself.” A few minutes later, the bag is empty and the man is happy, having blissfully forgotten his reservations and guilt—and entirely oblivious of the growing effects of the toxins accumulating in his body. A telltale white residue on his upper lip, he stumbles home. Tomorrow he will repeat this ritual. Next time, he decides, he’ll order some coffee too. A nice hot drink might help to take the edge off of all that powdered sugar and grease.

The man has just been to Café du Monde, a New Orleans landmark that’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. His purchase was an order of beignets, a deceptively decadent type of doughnut that made this café famous. Make no mistake about it: enough of these will kill you, all right. But you will die very happy. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

New Orleans Cemeteries

Cities of the dead

There are few cities with as great a reputation for decadence as New Orleans. If you want rich, fatty, and extravagant foods, you can hardly do better than the Crescent City. Alcohol flows freely, too, and almost any desire of the flesh can be indulged for a modest fee (sometimes payable in cheap plastic beads). But decadence in the original, non-metaphorical sense is also a regular fixture in this city whose past is littered with pirates, devastating fires, and horrific murders. There has been a lot of death and destruction in New Orleans, and the associated signs of physical decay—whether of buildings or of bodies—are everywhere. Particularly striking to many visitors are the city’s numerous old cemeteries filled with creepy-looking aboveground tombs. Whereas death is usually kept hidden, buried out of sight, New Orleans gives residents and visitors constant reminders of the impermanence of life.

The Dead Shall Rise Again
Why aren’t the dead in New Orleans buried underground as they are in most of the rest of the country? Tour guides are fond of explaining (and sometimes embellishing) the practice to shocked tourists. The main issue, they explain, is that New Orleans is actually located slightly below sea level. Because of this, the water table is quite high. When early European settlers put coffins under six feet of earth, they found that the water level would often rise above them, especially during the city’s frequent floods. Since the coffins were filled with air, the water sometimes pushed them up through the earth, causing both a gruesome sight and a health hazard. To keep the coffins underground, holes were drilled in the lid to let air escape, and the coffins were weighted down with rocks and sand. But this was only partially successful, and in any case the saturated corpses did not decompose properly, leading to unsanitary conditions. The only solution was to bury the dead above ground. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Gumbo

The one good thing about okra

I have watched a number of reality TV shows on which contestants were asked to consume extremely unappetizing foods. You know the sort of thing I’m talking about, I’m sure, so I’ll refrain from elaborating. Under circumstances of sufficient duress or social pressure, I’ll uncomplainingly choke down just about anything, however unpleasant it may be. But there are a few foods that I would find it difficult to get past my uvula no matter how many viewers at home were cheering me on or how many dollars were at stake. I am thinking, for example, of okra.

Slime Me
In the United States, okra is known as a staple of southern cuisine, and rarely seen elsewhere. A member of the hibiscus family, okra is a tall plant with yellow flowers and edible seed pods. If you look up okra in a dictionary, the one word that will invariably be used to describe the texture of these seed pods is mucilaginous. This word means “glue-like”—that is, viscous, sticky, and slimy. These are acceptable characteristics for adhesives, but not the sort of thing that feels good on my tongue. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Non-Human Farmers

Animal agriculture

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

On a recent trip to the Galapagos Islands, I was astonished when our guide showed us how damselfish (family Pomacentridae) farm algae on their own. It was also amazing to see how aggressively protective they were of their farms. To demonstrate, our guide took a sea urchin and dropped it into the damselfish’s algae farm, and within seconds the damselfish pushed the sea urchin out of the farm. Some damselfish farm algae on coral heads and nip the coral to create cuts that encourage the algae to grow. Apparently, they are known even to attack human beings that swim near their farms. Fortunately, they are very small fish with small teeth, so death by damselfish is unlikely!

The damselfish inspired me to learn about other animals that farm their own food. It turns out that besides humans, four kinds of animal are known to farm fungi (fungiculture)—leaf cutter ants, termites, ambrosia beetles, and marsh snails.

We humans capitalized on the invention of agriculture to place ourselves on the path to achieve a dominating position in our ecosystem. It is our gregarious nature, societal structure, communication skills, and a measure of engineering skills that were key. Let’s examine how non-human farmers stack up in these areas. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Hidden Lives of Sloths

Symbiosis in slow motion

There are times—quite a few of them, for better or worse—when I’m confronted with evidence that something I’ve believed (or assumed) to be the case for years is simply wrong. These occasions can be a source of embarrassment, such as the time a few years ago when a friend pointed out to me that I always misspelled the word “embarrassed.” Being someone who takes the use of language seriously, this came as quite a blow to me. Most of the time, however, I greet epiphanies of mistaken assumptions with equanimity, if not pleasure. I love to learn, and most learning requires a certain amount of unlearning.

I had several such experiences in rapid succession while visiting a wildlife sanctuary in Costa Rica. Aviarios del Caribe, located near Cahuita on the Caribbean coast, is a sloth rehabilitation center. Sloths that are injured or orphaned are brought here and cared for, and then—if they’re able to fend for themselves—released back into the rain forest. A volunteer had patiently explained many of the differences between two-toed and three-toed sloths, about which more later. But as I was watching a baby two-toed sloth, I noticed with some puzzlement that it actually had three toes on each foot. Clearly there was an interesting story here, but that was just the beginning of the strange and wonderful things I was to discover about sloths. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Saint Bernards

Rescuing the rescuers

In October 2004, I read an article with some shocking and disheartening news: the Swiss monks responsible for breeding St. Bernards since at least the 17th century were getting out of the dog business. The last 18 dogs living in the alpine hospice where the breed originated were up for sale. At that time, I didn’t know anything about St. Bernards except that they were known as rescue dogs and usually pictured wearing a little barrel or cask on their collars. It had not occurred to me that there was some particular base from which their rescue operations had traditionally begun, or an actual Saint Bernard after whom the dogs had been named. But as I read about the imminent end of the monks’ caretaking operations, I began wondering about the real story behind these dogs. Did they ever really perform rescues? How did the monks figure in? And what was the deal with those little casks? Glass of brandy in hand, I began my research.

Anyone for a Walk?
The story begins in the year 962, when Bernard of Menthon founded a monastery and hospice in the Swiss alps. To the north is the Swiss canton of Valais; to the south, the Valle d’Aosta in Italy. It was not for seclusion that Bernard chose this particular spot, at a snowy pass some 8,000 feet (2500m) high. The pass was often used by pilgrims making their way from France into Italy to visit Rome, and was known as a treacherous and forbidding spot. Bernard’s idea was that the hospice could provide shelter for the pilgrims and aid to those who became lost or injured on their journey. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Crows that Make Tools

The brains behind the beaks

I’ve seen numerous books about the differences between men and women. My own theory is that the main difference has to do with tools. When I walk into the tool section of a hardware store—guys, you know what I’m talking about—I get wide-eyed and giddy. Every tool suggests a new project or task. I want to come up with things to make or repair simply to justify owning another obscure tool. Although, to be perfectly honest, I don’t even care that much about using the tools, I just want to own them. One day when I was helping a friend of mine install some kitchen cabinets, he pointed out a particular piece of decorative trim that had cost US$100, then mentioned that he didn’t have the right kind of saw to cut it with. “Oh well,” he said with mock resignation, “I may have to break down and buy one. Too bad it costs $200.” I said, “It seems a pity to pay more for the tool than the material you’ll use it on.” My friend replied, “Not really—I have two pieces of trim to cut!” We laughed about this because to guys, tool ownership is its own reward.

Women, on the whole, don’t seem to appreciate the stereotypical male trait of wanting equipment for its own sake. This is equally true for things like computers and stereo components. Women don’t understand why we would spend our money on seemingly useless or frivolous tools instead of, say, shoes. But there are also, of course, counterexamples. I know women who are carpenters, computer geeks, and hi-fi buffs, as well as guys who like shoes better than tools. For every theory about the important differences between men and women, there seems to be a reason to doubt it. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Leaf Cutter Ants

A different kind of deforestation

I’m a city person at heart, but every now and then I like to get far away from the chaos and soak in some nature. On the two trips I’ve taken to Costa Rica, I’ve found it ideal for such a getaway. It’s quite a contrast from my usual environment—everything from the food to the climate is different, not to mention the language, driving habits, and so on. But we adapt rapidly, as humans tend to do. After a few days, we become accustomed to the heat and, to a lesser extent, the humidity. We get used to seeing the occasional frog or lizard in the shower. The sights, sounds, and smells which were so foreign just a week earlier begin to seem commonplace. “Honey, look! Up in the tree!” one of us will say. What, another sloth, a family of monkeys, a toucan? Ho hum. Been there, done that. The novelty of such sightings wears off much too quickly.

The Ants Go Marching One by One, Hurrah, Hurrah
Such was the case with leaf cutter ants. At first you think it’s an optical illusion. You’ll glance at the ground and detect a line of movement, just a rustle. You look at a bare strip in the grass and think: The leaves can’t possibly be marching across the ground. You try to figure out what you’re seeing, whether it’s moving plants or plant-shaped bugs of some kind. On closer inspection—much closer—you see tiny ants, almost blending into the soil, carrying comparatively huge slices of leaves in a long column. Ah: leaf cutter ants. Yes, I think I read about them somewhere. They climb trees, slice up the leaves, and carry them off to their nests. Got it. Once you’ve figured out what it is, it doesn’t seem especially remarkable. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Poison Dart Frogs

Pretty to look at, but don’t put them in your mouth

Where I come from, frogs were always considered harmless, even comical, creatures. Not that you’d want to have one in your bathtub with you, but you imagined them leading a leisurely amphibian life, hopping from one lily pad to the next, keeping the pond free of insects, and croaking happily away. Kermit, of course, epitomized the friendliness and goofiness of frogs. He sang, “It’s not easy being green,” but his biggest problem seemed to be that his girlfriend was a pig.

In countless high school biology classes, students have had to set aside their anthropomorphic image of frogs to dissect them and study their anatomy. Although the students sometimes consider this quite unpleasant, you could hardly imagine a less scary specimen. And of course there’s fried frogs’ legs, a fairly bland but unobjectionable dish I’ve enjoyed in New Orleans. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Mate

The national beverage of Argentina

I’m a coffee person. I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to it, but I do certainly enjoy drinking it on a more or less daily basis. Sometimes two or three times a day. In fact, now that I think about it, I could use a cup right now. Excuse me. (Time passes.) Ah, that’s better. I do not drink coffee for my health, although I am aware of studies suggesting that coffee consumption in moderation may reduce the risk of colon cancer, kidney stones, heart disease, and even Parkinson’s Disease. I don’t even, for the most part, drink it for the caffeine. Partly it’s the aroma that I find so appealing, and partly it’s just the soothing effect of a warm beverage sliding across my tongue and down my esophagus.

Many of my friends, however, are tea people. I have nothing against a nice cup of tea now and then, and of course tea ably fills that hot beverage need. But in terms of aroma and both psychological and physiological impact, tea just doesn’t do it for me. Once again, tea’s supposed health benefits—of which there are, I admit, far more than those of coffee—don’t quite tip the scales. Maybe I’d be 5% healthier if I switched from coffee to tea, but then, maybe I’d also be 10% grouchier. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Gaiman

New Wales in Patagonia

Argentina has no shortage of bookstores. In some of the busier shopping districts of Buenos Aires, it’s not unusual to see half a dozen of them in a single block—all apparently doing brisk business. We visited many of these, and showed uncharacteristic restraint, leaving with just a few books altogether. Of course, the selection of English-language books was typically limited, though you could find Spanish translations of nearly any major English book you could name. For example, I picked up a Spanish copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. On the copyright page, it said that this book was also available in Latin and Welsh translations. The Latin bit surprised me: I can’t think of anywhere other than Vatican City where Latin is still used conversationally, and I don’t expect many folks there are keen on reading stories about wizards and witches. Welsh, on the other hand—that can certainly constitute a reasonable market, especially in Patagonia.

Looking for New Wales
In the mid-1800s, many residents of Wales felt their territory, culture, and language were being overrun by the English. Realizing they were hopelessly outnumbered, a group of them decided to look for a place far away where they could transplant a piece of Wales and control their own destiny. Patagonia offered a familiar climate and an appropriately remote location, far from English influence. So in 1865, 159 settlers, led by Rev. Michael D. Jones, sailed aboard a ship called Mimosa and landed in a sheltered bay on the coast of Argentina known as Golfo Nuevo. They initially set up residence in a port town that came to be called Puerto Madryn, but soon thereafter most of the colonists moved about 100km (60 miles) to the south, building several small towns along the Rio Chubut—one of the few fertile regions in this part of Patagonia. Among these towns are Rawson, the provincial capital near the coast; Trelew, a hub of commerce and transportation about 20km (12 miles) to the west; and a further 16km inland along the river, Gaiman. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

826 National

Pirates, spies, superheroes, and young authors

San Francisco has no shortage of trendy restaurants and interesting shops. If you want to get a good taste of what the city has to offer, and especially if you don’t want to spend lots of money doing it, head to the historic Mission District and stroll up and down Valencia Street. Amidst the art galleries, taquerias, and retro furniture stores you’ll find all sorts of quirky little gems with that quintessential San Francisco character. Perhaps the best example is a store named after its location: 826 Valencia. Its unassuming exterior gives you little clue as to what’s inside, and even after you start looking around, it may take you a few minutes to figure out that you are standing in a pirate supply store. It’s true: if you need to get an eye patch, a Jolly Roger flag, a spyglass, or even a bucket of lard for—well, whatever pirates use lard for—you’re in the right place.

At first, everything in the store seems to be completely serious, as though they expect real pirates to sail in on a daily basis for provisions. A closer inspection reveals that they’re having a good time at their own expense. Take, for example, the signs scattered around the store, such as “Have You Got Scurvy?” (with a list of symptoms), “Goals for the Voyage” (Plunder. Meet new people. Learn valuable new skills.), and even a helpful list of suggested uses for that lard (including “mast greasing” and “fingernail softening”). There’s also a little curtained-off area with a handful of old movie-theater seats facing a large aquarium; you can sit there for as long as you like and watch the residents, including a puffer fish named Otka. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

826 National

Pirates, spies, superheroes, and young authors

San Francisco has no shortage of trendy restaurants and interesting shops. If you want to get a good taste of what the city has to offer, and especially if you don’t want to spend lots of money doing it, head to the historic Mission District and stroll up and down Valencia Street. Amidst the art galleries, taquerias, and retro furniture stores you’ll find all sorts of quirky little gems with that quintessential San Francisco character. Perhaps the best example is a store named after its location: 826 Valencia. Its unassuming exterior gives you little clue as to what’s inside, and even after you start looking around, it may take you a few minutes to figure out that you are standing in a pirate supply store. It’s true: if you need to get an eye patch, a Jolly Roger flag, a spyglass, or even a bucket of lard for—well, whatever pirates use lard for—you’re in the right place.

At first, everything in the store seems to be completely serious, as though they expect real pirates to sail in on a daily basis for provisions. A closer inspection reveals that they’re having a good time at their own expense. Take, for example, the signs scattered around the store, such as “Have You Got Scurvy?” (with a list of symptoms), “Goals for the Voyage” (Plunder. Meet new people. Learn valuable new skills.), and even a helpful list of suggested uses for that lard (including “mast greasing” and “fingernail softening”). There’s also a little curtained-off area with a handful of old movie-theater seats facing a large aquarium; you can sit there for as long as you like and watch the residents, including a puffer fish named Otka. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Oysters Rockefeller

The secret of name recognition

I studied philosophy in college, but as much as I enjoyed it, I had to choose a different profession. If I hadn’t, I risked a fate that seems to befall most philosophers sooner or later: having one’s name turned into an adjective. Think about it: Platonic, Socratic, Aristotelian, Augustinian, Cartesian…I’ve even heard Husserlian and Wittgensteinian. Of course, it’s not just philosophers who suffer this fate. So do psychiatrists (Freudian), novelists (Orwellian), filmmakers (Kubrickian), physicians (Hippocratic), and explorers (Columbian). With all due respect to those who will no doubt wish for a concise way of referring to my system of thought or writing style, I would be very unhappy to think of anything or anyone being referred to as “Kissellian.” I’m not sure why, but the whole notion of adjectivizing names has always bothered me (whereas verbing nouns does not). If my name is to be immortalized, I would prefer that it be kept intact, preferably in close proximity to the name of a food. Peaches Melba…Crêpes Suzette…how about Cherries Kissell? Instead of Quiche Lorraine, try Shrimp Kissell. You can even wash it down with a Joe Kissell on the rocks. (See my forthcoming book The Joe of Cooking for recipes…)

The Color of Money
Of course, the ultimate tribute food is Oysters Rockefeller. This dish was invented in 1899 by Jules Alciatore, son of Antoine Alciatore, the eponymous founder of Antoine’s in New Orleans. The dish consists of oysters that have been topped with a purée of mixed greens and then baked. The dish was deemed so rich that it could only take the name of the richest family in the country at that time, the Rockefellers. (It is no coincidence, I’m sure, that the color approximates that of U.S. currency.) The recipe has been kept a closely guarded secret at Antoine’s for over 100 years, though there have been countless imitations. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Voodoo

The spirit(s) of a misunderstood religion

On my first walking tour of New Orleans, our guide promised us chilling stories of ghosts, vampires, pirates, horrific murders, and all the other dark elements of the city’s past—some real, some fictional. And as if to show that these dark forces were still alive and well, he said that our very last stop would be a genuine, functioning Voodoo temple. At that point, everything I knew about Voodoo had come from bad films and TV shows. I gathered that it had something to do with black magic, curses, and sticking pins in dolls. So a chance to meet real Voodoo practitioners seemed a bit exciting and a bit scary.

To Grandmother’s House We Go
When we finally got to the temple, it was a bit anticlimactic. The building was just a converted house, the rooms were bright and cheery, and there wasn’t the remotest suggestion of any evil undercurrents. Yes, there was the smell of incense in the air; yes, there were a bunch of altars piled high with offerings and candles; and yes, there were a lot of unusual images on the walls. But then, the same could be true of a Buddhist temple. Wasn’t Voodoo supposed to be, like, wackier? Then we met the resident clergy, Priestess Miriam. In retrospect, the Voodoo priestess reminds me of the Oracle in the Matrix films—friendly, down-to-earth, maybe even grandmotherly, and not what I was expecting. She gave a short talk and answered all our questions. Her mild manner and warm smile seemed to say, “Sorry if you were expecting animal sacrifices and gibberish. I get that a lot.” [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Café du Monde

The simple pleasures of beignets & café au lait

It’s 3:00 a.m. and the streets of New Orleans are filled with fog. In some of the livelier areas of town, bars are still open, the last wave of sleepy patrons thinking they might stick around to hear the band play just one more tune before calling it a night. Here, however, on the fringes of the French Quarter, the streets are quiet. Steps away from the Mississippi river, outside a building near the French Market, a man hesitates, then approaches an open window. He exchanges a few words with the person inside, and hands over some money. A small bag is offered in return. The man, clutching his illicit purchase, hurries across the street to Jackson Square. He sits down on a secluded bench, looks around furtively, and opens the bag. Inside, all he can see is a white powder. As he reaches into the bag, he thinks to himself, “I know this is a bad idea. This stuff is gonna kill me some day, but I just…can’t…help myself.” A few minutes later, the bag is empty and the man is happy, having blissfully forgotten his reservations and guilt—and entirely oblivious of the growing effects of the toxins accumulating in his body. A telltale white residue on his upper lip, he stumbles home. Tomorrow he will repeat this ritual. Next time, he decides, he’ll order some coffee too. A nice hot drink might help to take the edge off of all that powdered sugar and grease.

The man has just been to Café du Monde, a New Orleans landmark that’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. His purchase was an order of beignets, a deceptively decadent type of doughnut that made this café famous. Make no mistake about it: enough of these will kill you, all right. But you will die very happy. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

New Orleans Cemeteries

Cities of the dead

There are few cities with as great a reputation for decadence as New Orleans. If you want rich, fatty, and extravagant foods, you can hardly do better than the Crescent City. Alcohol flows freely, too, and almost any desire of the flesh can be indulged for a modest fee (sometimes payable in cheap plastic beads). But decadence in the original, non-metaphorical sense is also a regular fixture in this city whose past is littered with pirates, devastating fires, and horrific murders. There has been a lot of death and destruction in New Orleans, and the associated signs of physical decay—whether of buildings or of bodies—are everywhere. Particularly striking to many visitors are the city’s numerous old cemeteries filled with creepy-looking aboveground tombs. Whereas death is usually kept hidden, buried out of sight, New Orleans gives residents and visitors constant reminders of the impermanence of life.

The Dead Shall Rise Again
Why aren’t the dead in New Orleans buried underground as they are in most of the rest of the country? Tour guides are fond of explaining (and sometimes embellishing) the practice to shocked tourists. The main issue, they explain, is that New Orleans is actually located slightly below sea level. Because of this, the water table is quite high. When early European settlers put coffins under six feet of earth, they found that the water level would often rise above them, especially during the city’s frequent floods. Since the coffins were filled with air, the water sometimes pushed them up through the earth, causing both a gruesome sight and a health hazard. To keep the coffins underground, holes were drilled in the lid to let air escape, and the coffins were weighted down with rocks and sand. But this was only partially successful, and in any case the saturated corpses did not decompose properly, leading to unsanitary conditions. The only solution was to bury the dead above ground. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Gumbo

The one good thing about okra

I have watched a number of reality TV shows on which contestants were asked to consume extremely unappetizing foods. You know the sort of thing I’m talking about, I’m sure, so I’ll refrain from elaborating. Under circumstances of sufficient duress or social pressure, I’ll uncomplainingly choke down just about anything, however unpleasant it may be. But there are a few foods that I would find it difficult to get past my uvula no matter how many viewers at home were cheering me on or how many dollars were at stake. I am thinking, for example, of okra.

Slime Me
In the United States, okra is known as a staple of southern cuisine, and rarely seen elsewhere. A member of the hibiscus family, okra is a tall plant with yellow flowers and edible seed pods. If you look up okra in a dictionary, the one word that will invariably be used to describe the texture of these seed pods is mucilaginous. This word means “glue-like”—that is, viscous, sticky, and slimy. These are acceptable characteristics for adhesives, but not the sort of thing that feels good on my tongue. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Non-Human Farmers

Animal agriculture

Guest Article by Rajagopal Sukumar

On a recent trip to the Galapagos Islands, I was astonished when our guide showed us how damselfish (family Pomacentridae) farm algae on their own. It was also amazing to see how aggressively protective they were of their farms. To demonstrate, our guide took a sea urchin and dropped it into the damselfish’s algae farm, and within seconds the damselfish pushed the sea urchin out of the farm. Some damselfish farm algae on coral heads and nip the coral to create cuts that encourage the algae to grow. Apparently, they are known even to attack human beings that swim near their farms. Fortunately, they are very small fish with small teeth, so death by damselfish is unlikely!

The damselfish inspired me to learn about other animals that farm their own food. It turns out that besides humans, four kinds of animal are known to farm fungi (fungiculture)—leaf cutter ants, termites, ambrosia beetles, and marsh snails.

We humans capitalized on the invention of agriculture to place ourselves on the path to achieve a dominating position in our ecosystem. It is our gregarious nature, societal structure, communication skills, and a measure of engineering skills that were key. Let’s examine how non-human farmers stack up in these areas. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Hidden Lives of Sloths

Symbiosis in slow motion

There are times—quite a few of them, for better or worse—when I’m confronted with evidence that something I’ve believed (or assumed) to be the case for years is simply wrong. These occasions can be a source of embarrassment, such as the time a few years ago when a friend pointed out to me that I always misspelled the word “embarrassed.” Being someone who takes the use of language seriously, this came as quite a blow to me. Most of the time, however, I greet epiphanies of mistaken assumptions with equanimity, if not pleasure. I love to learn, and most learning requires a certain amount of unlearning.

I had several such experiences in rapid succession while visiting a wildlife sanctuary in Costa Rica. Aviarios del Caribe, located near Cahuita on the Caribbean coast, is a sloth rehabilitation center. Sloths that are injured or orphaned are brought here and cared for, and then—if they’re able to fend for themselves—released back into the rain forest. A volunteer had patiently explained many of the differences between two-toed and three-toed sloths, about which more later. But as I was watching a baby two-toed sloth, I noticed with some puzzlement that it actually had three toes on each foot. Clearly there was an interesting story here, but that was just the beginning of the strange and wonderful things I was to discover about sloths. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Saint Bernards

Rescuing the rescuers

In October 2004, I read an article with some shocking and disheartening news: the Swiss monks responsible for breeding St. Bernards since at least the 17th century were getting out of the dog business. The last 18 dogs living in the alpine hospice where the breed originated were up for sale. At that time, I didn’t know anything about St. Bernards except that they were known as rescue dogs and usually pictured wearing a little barrel or cask on their collars. It had not occurred to me that there was some particular base from which their rescue operations had traditionally begun, or an actual Saint Bernard after whom the dogs had been named. But as I read about the imminent end of the monks’ caretaking operations, I began wondering about the real story behind these dogs. Did they ever really perform rescues? How did the monks figure in? And what was the deal with those little casks? Glass of brandy in hand, I began my research.

Anyone for a Walk?
The story begins in the year 962, when Bernard of Menthon founded a monastery and hospice in the Swiss alps. To the north is the Swiss canton of Valais; to the south, the Valle d’Aosta in Italy. It was not for seclusion that Bernard chose this particular spot, at a snowy pass some 8,000 feet (2500m) high. The pass was often used by pilgrims making their way from France into Italy to visit Rome, and was known as a treacherous and forbidding spot. Bernard’s idea was that the hospice could provide shelter for the pilgrims and aid to those who became lost or injured on their journey. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Crows that Make Tools

The brains behind the beaks

I’ve seen numerous books about the differences between men and women. My own theory is that the main difference has to do with tools. When I walk into the tool section of a hardware store—guys, you know what I’m talking about—I get wide-eyed and giddy. Every tool suggests a new project or task. I want to come up with things to make or repair simply to justify owning another obscure tool. Although, to be perfectly honest, I don’t even care that much about using the tools, I just want to own them. One day when I was helping a friend of mine install some kitchen cabinets, he pointed out a particular piece of decorative trim that had cost US$100, then mentioned that he didn’t have the right kind of saw to cut it with. “Oh well,” he said with mock resignation, “I may have to break down and buy one. Too bad it costs $200.” I said, “It seems a pity to pay more for the tool than the material you’ll use it on.” My friend replied, “Not really—I have two pieces of trim to cut!” We laughed about this because to guys, tool ownership is its own reward.

Women, on the whole, don’t seem to appreciate the stereotypical male trait of wanting equipment for its own sake. This is equally true for things like computers and stereo components. Women don’t understand why we would spend our money on seemingly useless or frivolous tools instead of, say, shoes. But there are also, of course, counterexamples. I know women who are carpenters, computer geeks, and hi-fi buffs, as well as guys who like shoes better than tools. For every theory about the important differences between men and women, there seems to be a reason to doubt it. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Leaf Cutter Ants

A different kind of deforestation

I’m a city person at heart, but every now and then I like to get far away from the chaos and soak in some nature. On the two trips I’ve taken to Costa Rica, I’ve found it ideal for such a getaway. It’s quite a contrast from my usual environment—everything from the food to the climate is different, not to mention the language, driving habits, and so on. But we adapt rapidly, as humans tend to do. After a few days, we become accustomed to the heat and, to a lesser extent, the humidity. We get used to seeing the occasional frog or lizard in the shower. The sights, sounds, and smells which were so foreign just a week earlier begin to seem commonplace. “Honey, look! Up in the tree!” one of us will say. What, another sloth, a family of monkeys, a toucan? Ho hum. Been there, done that. The novelty of such sightings wears off much too quickly.

The Ants Go Marching One by One, Hurrah, Hurrah
Such was the case with leaf cutter ants. At first you think it’s an optical illusion. You’ll glance at the ground and detect a line of movement, just a rustle. You look at a bare strip in the grass and think: The leaves can’t possibly be marching across the ground. You try to figure out what you’re seeing, whether it’s moving plants or plant-shaped bugs of some kind. On closer inspection—much closer—you see tiny ants, almost blending into the soil, carrying comparatively huge slices of leaves in a long column. Ah: leaf cutter ants. Yes, I think I read about them somewhere. They climb trees, slice up the leaves, and carry them off to their nests. Got it. Once you’ve figured out what it is, it doesn’t seem especially remarkable. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Poison Dart Frogs

Pretty to look at, but don’t put them in your mouth

Where I come from, frogs were always considered harmless, even comical, creatures. Not that you’d want to have one in your bathtub with you, but you imagined them leading a leisurely amphibian life, hopping from one lily pad to the next, keeping the pond free of insects, and croaking happily away. Kermit, of course, epitomized the friendliness and goofiness of frogs. He sang, “It’s not easy being green,” but his biggest problem seemed to be that his girlfriend was a pig.

In countless high school biology classes, students have had to set aside their anthropomorphic image of frogs to dissect them and study their anatomy. Although the students sometimes consider this quite unpleasant, you could hardly imagine a less scary specimen. And of course there’s fried frogs’ legs, a fairly bland but unobjectionable dish I’ve enjoyed in New Orleans. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Mate

The national beverage of Argentina

I’m a coffee person. I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to it, but I do certainly enjoy drinking it on a more or less daily basis. Sometimes two or three times a day. In fact, now that I think about it, I could use a cup right now. Excuse me. (Time passes.) Ah, that’s better. I do not drink coffee for my health, although I am aware of studies suggesting that coffee consumption in moderation may reduce the risk of colon cancer, kidney stones, heart disease, and even Parkinson’s Disease. I don’t even, for the most part, drink it for the caffeine. Partly it’s the aroma that I find so appealing, and partly it’s just the soothing effect of a warm beverage sliding across my tongue and down my esophagus.

Many of my friends, however, are tea people. I have nothing against a nice cup of tea now and then, and of course tea ably fills that hot beverage need. But in terms of aroma and both psychological and physiological impact, tea just doesn’t do it for me. Once again, tea’s supposed health benefits—of which there are, I admit, far more than those of coffee—don’t quite tip the scales. Maybe I’d be 5% healthier if I switched from coffee to tea, but then, maybe I’d also be 10% grouchier. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Gaiman

New Wales in Patagonia

Argentina has no shortage of bookstores. In some of the busier shopping districts of Buenos Aires, it’s not unusual to see half a dozen of them in a single block—all apparently doing brisk business. We visited many of these, and showed uncharacteristic restraint, leaving with just a few books altogether. Of course, the selection of English-language books was typically limited, though you could find Spanish translations of nearly any major English book you could name. For example, I picked up a Spanish copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. On the copyright page, it said that this book was also available in Latin and Welsh translations. The Latin bit surprised me: I can’t think of anywhere other than Vatican City where Latin is still used conversationally, and I don’t expect many folks there are keen on reading stories about wizards and witches. Welsh, on the other hand—that can certainly constitute a reasonable market, especially in Patagonia.

Looking for New Wales
In the mid-1800s, many residents of Wales felt their territory, culture, and language were being overrun by the English. Realizing they were hopelessly outnumbered, a group of them decided to look for a place far away where they could transplant a piece of Wales and control their own destiny. Patagonia offered a familiar climate and an appropriately remote location, far from English influence. So in 1865, 159 settlers, led by Rev. Michael D. Jones, sailed aboard a ship called Mimosa and landed in a sheltered bay on the coast of Argentina known as Golfo Nuevo. They initially set up residence in a port town that came to be called Puerto Madryn, but soon thereafter most of the colonists moved about 100km (60 miles) to the south, building several small towns along the Rio Chubut—one of the few fertile regions in this part of Patagonia. Among these towns are Rawson, the provincial capital near the coast; Trelew, a hub of commerce and transportation about 20km (12 miles) to the west; and a further 16km inland along the river, Gaiman. [Article Continues…]

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