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From the archives…

Kopi Luwak

The world’s strangest and most expensive coffee

My fondness for good coffee, and the lengths to which I’m willing to go to indulge it, are well known. As someone who loves coffee and craves interesting things, it is only natural that I should be intrigued by stories of a rare, exotic, and obscenely expensive type of coffee bean. Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to sample this coffee, but most of the people I’ve told about the experience—even confirmed coffee snobs—grimace, then raise their eyebrows in that “you’ve got to be kidding me” look. The story you’re about to read is, I assure you, true, though I myself became convinced only after extensive research and personal experience.

The Fruits of Labor
First, some background. Most coffee beans sold in North America come from plantations in tropical Central or South America. Colombia and Costa Rica, in particular, are well known for their excellent coffees. Coffee grows on plants that are commonly called “trees” (because that’s what they look like), even though they’re really a type of shrub. Coffee trees produce a sweet fruit known as a “cherry,” so called because of its red color when it ripens. Inside each cherry are two seeds, which are the coffee beans, encased in a thin covering called parchment. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bubble Tea

The all-in-one beverage and snack

One of the great things about spending time in another country is learning about new and unique foods. When I was living in Vancouver, Canada a few years ago, I became acquainted with bubble tea, an odd beverage that was rapidly becoming the rage across town. This strange concoction originated in Taiwan in the early 1980s, and in the last few years, it has spread all over Canada, into the United States and England, and across many other parts of the world.

Popping Some Bubbles
The term “bubble tea” is at best an unfortunate translation and at worst a euphemism. Alternative names, such as “pearl tea” or “tapioca drink,” are slightly more descriptive. Basically, bubble tea is a sweetened beverage made with water, natural flavors, (usually) a dairy component, and…tapioca balls. These “bubbles” or “pearls” are dark brown, about one centimeter in diameter, slippery on the outside and very chewy on the inside. The bubbles by themselves have very little flavor; their main purpose is to provide texture. Because they’re so large, you need a special, oversized straw to drink bubble tea with. Or should I say eat? Consuming bubble tea is a matter of both drinking and chewing, and after finishing a glass you feel quite full. In other words, it’s not so much an accompaniment to a snack as an entire snack and beverage all in one. [Article Continues…]

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Saturday, February 26, 2005

What's Left of Patagonia

Odds and ends from the odd end of the world

I’m always on the lookout for interesting things, especially when I travel. As a result, I’m constantly collecting little tidbits of information about the places I visit. But the key word here is “little”—if a certain fact can be conveyed adequately in a couple of sentences, I’m not going to write an entire article about it. Sure, I can always do a certain amount of padding, but I have my limits. My goal when I went to Patagonia was to collect two weeks’ worth of interesting things, but now that we come to the end of the series, I find I’ve got lots of snippets of information that may be interesting, but are just not very extensive individually. So in a bit of a departure from our usual format, I’d like to present a random assortment of interesting factoids about Patagonia that didn’t quite fit anywhere else.

Seals vs. Sea Lions
I’m embarrassed to say that despite living in a city with a large population of resident sea lions, and despite umpteen visits to Sea World as a kid, I never understood the difference between seals and sea lions until I went to Patagonia, which has plenty of each. Both are pinnipeds, or “fin-feet,” but sea lions have much larger front flippers, plus back flippers that can rotate underneath them. The result is that when on land, sea lions can walk on all four flippers, whereas seals sort of slide or bounce along on their bellies. Sea lions also have external ear flaps, whereas seals have ear holes but no outer appendage. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cueva de las Manos

Ancient spray-painted art in Patagonia

Graffiti spray-painted on the side of a building is an annoying act of vandalism. Graffiti spray-painted on a natural stone formation is an appalling desecration of nature. Graffiti spray-painted on a natural stone formation and allowed to age for thousands of years is a priceless work of art. Go figure.

Patagonia being a rather large area, I was unable to visit all the spots that interested me. One that, unfortunately, I didn’t have time for was La Cueva de las Manos, or “the cave of hands,” in south-central Patagonia. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s one of the world’s oldest outdoor art museums; its most striking characteristic is hundreds of stenciled paintings of human hands. And the paintings were made using a primitive but highly effective form of spray paint. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Extinction of the Yámana

The end of the race at the end of the world

Months before I left for my visit to Patagonia, “learn some Spanish” was high on my to do list. Even though I knew I’d be with English-speaking guides much of the time, I figured I should at least know some basics beyond “please,” “thank-you,” and “where are the restrooms?” I had tapes, dictionaries, and phrase books, but what with one thing and another I never had time to learn much. What little Spanish I did know was the variety spoken here in California, which is similar to Mexican Spanish and, it turns out, very different from Argentinean Spanish. For example, in Argentina, speakers replace the “y” sound in words containing “y” or “ll” with a “sh” or “zh” sound, depending on the context. When we tried to order a hamburger without onions (“sin cebolla” in Mexican Spanish) we got puzzled looks, followed by, “You mean, ‘sin cebozha’?” Oh. Yeah. But that difference tripped us up every time. And when our guide in Ushuaia talked at length about a race of native people he pronounced “Shamana,” it took me a long time to figure out that he was referring to the Yámana I’d read about.

Beginning at the End
The story begins some 10,000 years ago—give or take a couple of thousand years. According to the Museo Mundo Yámana in Ushuaia, Argentina, Tierra del Fuego was the last place on Earth to which humans migrated, and also the farthest point geographically to which human civilization had spread from its origin. The museum thus depicts these first human residents of the area as being the hardiest of explorers. The people called themselves Yámana, which simply means “human beings.” They lived in what to all accounts was a stable and efficient society for thousands of years. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Ushuaia

City at the end of the world

In my travels, I’ve been to a lot of remote places that I’ve referred to jokingly as “the end of the world.” That’s just a figure of speech, of course, but on my trip to Patagonia last year, I at least got to visit the most distant region of land I could reach from my home without crossing an ocean—the islands of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. I did not go to the most distant of these islands, but there would have been little to see there anyway. I did, however, spend several days in a place that bills itself as the end of the world, or “fin del mundo” in Spanish: Ushuaia, Argentina.

Because of this city’s unusual location, any discussion requires a number of qualifications and definitions. Even saying its name is potentially problematic. The guide books we’d read before going to Argentina said to pronounce it “oo-SWY-ah,” so we did. And so did everyone else we met in Argentina—until we reached the city itself. There, the local pronunciation was invariably “oo-SHWY-ah,” which is arguably closer to the original pronunciation of the name in its language of origin, Yámana (pronounced “SHA-ma-na,” but that’s a story for another day). The name means, roughly, “bay that penetrates to the west,” which is reasonable enough. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Legends of Tierra del Fuego

The incredible shrinking southern continent

As an American, I’ve always been accustomed to very clearly defined state, national, and continental boundaries. The border between Canada and the U.S., for example, may be an arbitrary line of latitude, but we all know exactly where it is—what’s in, and what’s out. We know exactly where North America stops and Central America starts; we also know when we’ve reached the easternmost or westernmost edge of the continent because we run into an ocean. Sure, there’s the odd island off the coast here or there, but conceptually, these cause no problems for my notion of what a continent is.

The map of South America, though, has always offended my sense of geographical tidiness. At the southern end of the continent, the land sort of swoops out to the east—but wait, that last big chunk is actually an island. Is that part of the continent? And what about the bazillions of smaller islands littering the coastline to the south and west? If I’m on one of those islands, am I on the continent or not? The geological answer is yes—I’m on the same continental plate. The political answer is also yes—any given spot of any given island is uncontroversially under the control of either Chile or Argentina. But to the average person on the street (or boat, as the case may be), these boundaries are neither visible nor intuitive. Today, we can get the answers to such questions from highly accurate maps. Hundreds of years ago, though, the answers were far less obvious. Speculation about continental boundaries led to some fanciful maps, tall tales, and grand adventures. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Perito Moreno Glacier

Breaking the ice rules

When I travel, I usually make a conscious effort to avoid having very specific expectations. I plan out an itinerary, but I try to maintain a sense of equanimity about the experiences ahead. I like to be surprised—and I like to be able to experience new things in my own way, on my own terms. This sort of attitude has not only saved me some disappointment, it’s helped me to approach fairly commonplace sights and events with a sense of wonder and delight. As a result—and frankly, without much effort—I found myself feeling neutral, perhaps even a bit blasé, about the prospect of visiting a glacier in Patagonia. I’ve seen ice; what could this be other than a great quantity of it? I expected to be cold, so I packed appropriate clothing. I expected scenic vistas, so I packed my camera. And that was about as far as I thought about it.

Size Matters
The trip to the Perito Moreno glacier took us more than an hour by bus from the town of El Calafate, Argentina. When we rounded a corner on a mountain road and I got my first glimpse of the glacier, I thought, “Wow. That’s really big.” Later, from a much different angle, I realized what a tiny slice of one corner of one end of this glacier I’d seen earlier, and I was overwhelmed at the scale of what I was seeing. As glaciers go, I am told, this is not one of the larger ones. Yowza. Even though I took dozens of pictures, including some panoramic shots, there is simply no way to capture how big this thing looks in person. No wide-angle lens could do it justice, because it’s not only impossibly wide but tall and long as well. Short of climbing a mountain or flying high overhead, there is no way to take in the whole thing at once. So, yes: a lot of ice…but that doesn’t begin to tell the story. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pan del Indio

The little orange beech balls

Our recent trip to Patagonia included a few days on the big island of Tierra del Fuego, just across the Strait of Magellan from mainland Argentina at the tip of South America. The itinerary called for a couple of days of hiking; we spent Christmas Day 2004 exploring Tierra del Fuego National Park. I have nothing against a nice hike through the woods, and certainly these woods—bordered by shoreline with scenic views of the smaller islands nearby—were as pleasant as any I’ve seen. But the mosquitoes were also unusually persistent that day, some of the other folks in our tour group were getting on my nerves, and more than a few times the thought occurred to me that I could have had an equally enjoyable hike through the woods 10 minutes’ walk from my home in San Francisco. The view, inspiring though it was, reminded me of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, where I’ve frequently vacationed. What was so special about these rocks, these trees, or this water, besides the fact that they happened to be located here? These were the questions that went through my head as I hiked in the park.

Beech Balls
Before long, I had my answer. There growing on a tree was a clump of spherical orange globules, each about the size of a golf ball. In fact, not just one clump on one tree—they were all over the place. Some trees had dozens upon dozens of them. They looked like something created in a special-effects workshop for a sci-fi movie—truly creepy and otherworldly. Our guide told us that they were a type of fungus—Cyttaria darwinii, one of the many species described by, and named after, Charles Darwin. They grow on a type of southern beech tree native to the area; the infected trees, apparently as a defense mechanism, form huge knots on their trunks and branches—but these do not discourage the fungus’s growth. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Leeches Reconsidered

Modern medicine sucks it up

I’m not particularly squeamish at the sight of blood. Needles, on the other hand—or, let’s say, any sharp objects that could be used, intentionally or otherwise, to put a hole in my skin—give me the creeps. I can deal with injections and blood tests and so on as long as I don’t have to watch, but that sensation of having something poking under my skin…well, it gets under my skin. I’m also not crazy about slimy or wriggly things—food, plant, animal, or otherwise. (This was not always the case. When I was very young I loved to play with earthworms. Once I accidentally, uh, broke one, and I was terribly upset. I took the pieces to a neighbor who was a nurse and insisted that she put the worm back together with a band-aid. She did. Poor woman. Poor worm.) Thus it should come as no surprise that leeches—by virtue of being slimy, wriggly, and putting holes in the skin—are very high on my “icky” list.

Teaching an Old Leech New Tricks
I cringe when I read old stories about bloodletting and other medical practices that, by today’s standards, would be considered insane. Although doctors of centuries past surely felt their logic was sound, they were working from incorrect assumptions, and such tactics caused untold suffering. Stories of the medicinal use of leeches, in particular, always disturbed me. It’s one thing to use a medical device to remove blood from someone’s body, but applying a blood-sucking creature just seemed hideously wrong. I’ve never heard of mosquitoes being put to therapeutic use, never heard of a surgeon suggesting that a shark might be handy for performing an amputation. So I’ve always been grateful to live in the age of sterile instruments, antibiotics, and other modern marvels. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Designer Pets

The next frontier of genetic engineering

[Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Rebreathers

Taking scuba to new depths

If I end up completing all the tasks on my Life’s To Do List, I’ll live to be a very old man indeed. So many places to visit, books to read, foods to try, experiences to have—and the list is perpetually growing. “Learn scuba diving” is on the list, but like “visit Machu Picchu” or “have dinner at La Tour d’Argent,” it’s something that requires a greater investment of time and money than I am able to make at the moment. Still, it’s something I’d like to do if the opportunity ever presents itself. Yes, there’s a lot of fascinating stuff underwater—the marine life, the shipwrecks, and all—but equally appealing is the geek factor. Scuba diving requires lots of cool, specialized equipment, and just think of the entirely new range of dive-enhancing gadgets I could justify buying!

Then perhaps one day, if I become sufficiently advanced and still have some money to spare, I’ll invest in the ultimate piece of scuba gear: a rebreather. This fabulous piece of kit could set me back as much as US$20,000, not to mention the extensive additional training and certification I’d need to use it. But a rebreather does for scuba diving something like what a hybrid engine does for a car: it provides much greater fuel efficiency while reducing noise and pollution. These things may not seem like a big deal on the road, but underwater, they can make all the difference in the world. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Titanium Art

The colorful process of anodization

When Morgen and I got married, most of our wedding guests came up to us and said things like “Congratulations!” or “Enjoy your honeymoon!” One of our friends, however, on seeing our titanium wedding bands, cautioned us gravely, “Avoid electrified salt solutions.” That’s one of the strangest things anyone has ever said to me. Not knowing how else to respond, I assured him that we would—in fact, I think I can safely say that I have made a lifelong practice of avoiding electrified liquids of any kind. But I always wondered about that odd warning. A couple of months ago I ran into this friend again and asked him what the deal was—what terrible fate would have befallen us, or our rings, had we encountered an electrified salt solution? He said it would permanently alter the appearance of the ring, and sent me some links to photos of titanium that people intentionally treated in this way in the name of art.

The examples of titanium jewelry, sculptures, and other artwork in the pictures were lovely, with intricate patterns in rich, vibrant colors. Our friend had mentioned that one could obtain a wide range of colors using this process, and sure enough, artists seem to use every color of the rainbow. But what I found most interesting about all this is that all the colors are essentially an optical illusion. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Cascading Style Sheets

Bringing sanity back to Web design

An old saying goes: “There are two types of people: those who divide people into two types and those who don’t.” I am definitely in the former group. For example, I might say there are two types of people: those who read Web pages and those who create them. Of course, some of us do both, but the vast majority of the Web-using public doesn’t know or care about the messy underpinnings of HTML, Web servers, browser compatibility issues, and all the rest. They care about just one thing: the information on the page. If a page loads too slowly, if the fonts are too small, if the graphics overlap the text, or if any of a thousand other things goes wrong, the average Web surfer will simply move along to the next page—there’s nearly always another source for any piece of information, and life is too short to waste it on poorly designed Web sites.

Strangely, this fact seems to be lost on a great many Web developers. I’m surely not alone in having made many purchasing decisions based on the clarity, accessibility, or convenience of a company’s Web site. And when I list URLs for related pages at the bottom of an article on this site, I exclude sites that play music incessantly, that don’t show up correctly in my browser, or that otherwise annoy me. I figure they’ll annoy you too. This is a shame, because the whole point of the Web was to make information available to as many people as possible—and clearly, on some level at least, that goal is still not being achieved. [Article Continues…]

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Monday, February 14, 2005

Code-Free DVD Players

Overcoming the frustrations of DVD distribution

A number of years ago, I was visiting some friends in Switzerland who had the most extensive library I’d ever seen outside a video store—nearly 400 discs. When they asked if I wanted to watch The Fifth Element, I said yes and didn’t give it a second thought. But in fact, I was about to witness something that motion picture studios want you to believe is impossible. With a few quick menu selections from their remote control, they played a North American DVD release on a player they purchased in Switzerland. This was supposed to be impossible because DVDs are designed to play only in the region in which they were distributed. But it worked because my friends had a specially modified, “code-free” DVD player.

Almost every commercially available DVD is manufactured with a region code designating a particular geographic market. These codes correspond to settings in DVD players, and vary according to where they are sold. Manufacturers of DVD players are required to use region settings in order to license the copy protection technology that nearly all DVDs use. You can play any region 1 DVD in any region 1 player, but you can’t play, say, a region 6 DVD in a region 1 player or a region 1 DVD in a region 2 player. The main reason for this scheme is that motion pictures are released at different times in different parts of the world. If a film hasn’t been released in a certain area yet, the last thing a studio wants is for everyone to go rent it on DVD, because that would severely reduce the profits from the theatrical release. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sandboarding

Dry surfing or hot snowboarding?

It was in a high school English class that I first ran across Emerson’s famous quote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…” Something about that struck a chord with me, and ever since, I have tried to nurture a healthy appreciation for paradox if not outright contradiction. For example, as I may have mentioned, sports are not among my top thousand or so favorite things in life. So I was chagrined to discover how many of the suggestions for topics to include on Interesting Thing of the Day were sports-related. Someone would very excitedly come up to me and say, “Hey! You’ve got to write about this cool piece of tennis trivia,” or “There’s this really amazing baseball story your readers would love to hear,” and I’d kind of grin and nod and pretend to make a mental note, all the while thinking there could hardly be anything less interesting to write about than sports. However, when my son, Ben, suggested an article on sandboarding, I had to admit that did sound sort of interesting—and at least I didn’t have to participate in it. So in the noble spirit of contradiction, I set out to discover what I could about this sport.

Getting Board with Sand
Sandboarding resembles snowboarding as seen through amber glasses. The general idea is the same; participants strap a short board to their feet and slide down a hill, only in this case the surface is sand rather than snow. Sandboarders sometimes say the experience is more like surfing than snowboarding, an impression undoubtedly enhanced by the lack of heavy clothing. As in snowboarding, the sport is sometimes recreational, sometimes competitive; some participants focus mainly on speed, others on acrobatics and tricks. But one of the biggest differences is that sand dunes don’t have lifts; to get to the top for a run, you must hike or take a four-wheel-drive vehicle (euphemistically known as a “chair lift”)—and a friend to drive it back down the hill. Unlike snow-covered mountains, sand dunes are constantly changing size and shape due to shifting winds, making fixed installations of lift equipment impossible. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Lagniappe

But wait, there’s more!

On our last trip to Paris, Morgen and I met some friends for dinner at a restaurant that had gotten some very good reviews. The owner of the restaurant arrived at our table to take our orders, and we told him the prix fixe set menu sounded good. He looked strangely concerned, as though we foreigners couldn’t possibly know what we were getting ourselves into. “You understand,” he asked, “that this meal includes an aperitif, an entree, a main course, a dessert, and coffee…and an unlimited quantity of wine?” We nodded and assured him that we knew the routine. He smiled slyly and said, “Ah bon. There will also be…some surprises.”

A few moments later, a small dish of sausages arrived at our table—an amuse bouche, or a sort of pre-appetizer—along with some fresh bread. Then the advertised courses appeared, one by one, until finally, after coffee, the owner returned with a bottle and four small glasses in his hands and a conspiratorial expression on his face. “A little something to conclude your meal,” he offered, and poured us each a glass of marc, a potent digestif distilled from the bits of grape skin left over when wine is made. Splendid. We would have enjoyed the meal thoroughly even without the unadvertised extras, but the unexpected attention to detail left us with an even warmer feeling about the restaurant. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Bread Pudding

Carbohydrates and marketing scams

Given a menu listing a dozen dessert items, I invariably gravitate toward one of the two or three choices on the list that include chocolate as a main ingredient. I don’t think of this as a boring or predictable preference; on the contrary, life is short, and I feel one must not miss an opportunity to experience one of Earth’s great pleasures. You can imagine my feeling of disappointment, then, when at restaurant after restaurant in New Orleans, I arrived at the end of the meal only to find such chocolate-free choices as bananas Foster, pecan pie, and bread pudding on the dessert menu. Suppressing my instinct to jump up and shout, “That’s not really dessert!” I chose to give each of these local specialties a fair chance. Or several.

(Dessert) Space: The Final Frontier
Truth be told, I have nothing against any of these desserts; in fact, I’m quite fond of bread pudding in particular. The only problem is that it’s extremely filling, and if you’ve just finished a Cajun or Creole meal, you are unlikely to have the tiniest space left in your stomach. With some careful planning (and belt-loosening), I was able to try several different bread pudding recipes. The variety of bread puddings surprised me; they differ greatly in density, sweetness, texture, and flavor. The only bread pudding I had ever known was a very generic (though still tasty) recipe such as you’d find at a buffet or a potluck dinner. But in New Orleans, every restaurant has its special twist, and toppings like a creamy whiskey sauce are quite common. [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…

Groundhog Day

The strange ritual of marmot meteorology

[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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