Wednesday, November 30, 2011

They Said We'd Have Jetpacks

So did you see this guy they call Jetman flying around in formation with real fighter jets the other day? Yeah, his name is Yves Rossy, and he's clearly nuts. He straps a contraption to his back that he calls a wingsuit, and flies around at speeds of up to 180mph. Are you kidding me?! The suit consists of a pair of carbon-fiber wings about eight feet across, and four kerosene-powered jet engines. Think Buzz Lightyear from the Toy Story movies. He debuted this thing back in 2006 and became the first, and only, person to achieve sustained flight by affixing a wing and jet engines to his back. And while it is not surprising he's the only person in the world to do this, the fact that he hasn't yet killed himself is.

So why does he get a jetpack?

I don't remember a time in my life when the prospect of flying around in a jetpack didn't seem to be just around the corner. The idea of the jetpack goes all the way back to the late 1920s - no I wasn't around then - and a fellow named Anthony Rogers. You might know him better by his nickname "Buck". Buck didn't waste time getting from here to there in a car, or running into a phone booth to change into a cape, like some superheroes. No this guy was tricked out in a jetpack way back in 1928. Which is really saying something, since jets had not yet been invented.
By the 1960s, jet technology had been around for some time, and there seemed to be serious prospects of human flight on the horizon. At least that's how they made it seem in movies and on TV. Remember James Bond flying around in the 1965 film Thunderball? Well the Bell Rocket Belt, which debuted publicly in 1961, was the inspiration for that scene. It was this device that captured my imagination - along with most people my age - and how I imagined myself moving about the latter half of the 20th century. Yet here I am, still waiting in airport terminal lines with all of the other flightless schmoes.

So what's the hold up anyway? Well, it would seem that we humans just aren't all that aerodynamic. More accurately, we are not in the least bit aerodynamic. We belong flying up in the sky as much as a fish belongs behind the wheel of an automobile. But that's never stopped us before, has it? We put a man on the moon for Pete's sake. Seems the biggest problem is that the weight of the apparatus and fuel required to generate enough lift for a human being is not conducive to very long fights. The Bell Rocket Belt's maiden voyage, for example, lasted just 13 seconds - only one second longer than the Wright brothers' first flight way back in 1903. In fact, prior to the Jetman approach, with the addition of wings, the longest sustained flight with a jetpack was just over a minute.

Clearly if an easy solution was possible, it would have come along by now. Just imagine how much money people would fork over for their very own jetpack. Glenn Martin, a New Zealand inventor, seems to think it is about $100,000 dollars. He's sticking with the jetpack approach (no wings) and has flown his for almost ten minutes, and reached a height of 5,000 feet. On that last flight he wisely strapped a dummy to it, rather than go that high himself. But rather than the sleek Buck Rogers style, his looks more like you've strapped a pair of trash cans on your back. To this criticism, he told the NY Times "if someone says, 'I'm not going to buy a jetpack until it's the size of my high school backpack and has a turbine engine in it,' that's fine, but they're not going to be flying a jetpack in their lifetime." Sigh.

Looks like it's just not in the cards for me. I can cough up $100k for ten minutes in a flying trash can, or spend a few million to end up a smoking hole in the ground with a Jetman-type device. And let's not act all surprised when it happens, you know that's where he's heading with that thing.

But I can still dream, I suppose. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., houses the original Bell Rocket Belt along with the Wright Flyer and just about every other flying machine man has ever come up with. Admission is free and a timeshare rental in nearby Alexandria, VA, is just a short Metro ride away. Of course, with a jetpack...

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Let's Talk Turkey

Well, it is that time of year again. I've got my copy of Planes, Trains and Automobiles all fired up and ready to go, and am getting away from it all in a timeshare rental. It's good to be the Ambassador. But you're probably looking down the barrel at holiday gridlock on the highways or the airports, relatives you could probably take or leave, some dry turkey, and the Christmas shopping onslaught. Let's hope those football games are really, really good. Seriously though, the holidays can be stressful, but it is important to keep an eye on what is truly important: turkey.

That's right, the symbol of Thanksgiving in America. I can't think of another celebration that is so closely identified with eating one specific food like the Thanksgiving turkey. In fact, it is estimated that more than 46 million turkeys will be consumed this Thursday alone. Are you kidding me?! That's more turkeys than there are people in the states of California and Ohio combined. Our relationship with the turkey goes all the way back to the founding of this country, so I guess it is not surprising that we would choose it for a major American celebration. And having a turkey dinner on the 4th of July would be just weird, not to mention hot.

Turkeys are native to the Americas, and helped to keep the European colonists alive when they otherwise might not have. So it is not surprising that they are revered. But our relationship with them seems contradictory and convoluted, too. Even the name "turkey" is a mistake. There is a bird called a guineafowl, which is like a small chicken or quail (and equally yummy). They were known to Europeans as an export from Turkey (the country) and adopted the name turkey. So when Europeans landed in America and encountered the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) they just assumed that they must be really, really, big guineafowl. After all, the New World was just Asia approached from the East instead of from the West. Wasn't it?

Anyway, the name stuck and the wild turkey became a staple of early American life. You may have heard that Benjamin Franklin even wanted it for the national emblem, which is not entirely true. While the deliberations of selecting the bald eagle as our symbol were drawing to a close (after six years), he penned a letter to his daughter, complaining of the choice. He said something like "if you are going to choose a bird that looks like a turkey, why not just use a turkey?" Which is not really a ringing endorsement.

Regardless, it was not long before the domesticated version supplanted the wild one, and access to a turkey dinner was as simple as wringing one's neck and cooking it up. But as time went on, the domesticated turkey went from something that was more or less like a wild turkey, except larger and more docile. Compare that to the enormous Broad Breasted White most people will consume on Thursday, and it seems like two different animals. These birds spend their entire existence indoors, which most breeds won't tolerate, and can easily reach a weight of 50 lbs. Their breasts are so large and their legs so short, they can neither fly nor run. They spend their time mostly banging into one of the other 10,000 birds they are housed with. In fact, their bodies are so out of whack with anything resembling a turkey that they cannot - how should I put this - make baby turkeys. That's right, there's too much "junk" in the way for them to have sex. So the entire lot, all 46 million of them, were impregnated via in vitro fertilization. Think Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs.

But of course everything you hear about domesticated turkeys is not true. For example, it is often said that they are so stupid that they will stare up at the clouds with their mouths agape when it rains, and drown as a result. Now domesticated turkeys are not terribly bright, as compared with wild turkeys. But they are no more or less stupid than say a domesticated chicken. Yet, no one ever accuses chickens of drowning in the rain. Now I've already mentioned that Broad Breasted Whites never go outside, let alone get left in the rain. So you know right there that this is a myth. But the transfixed, upward gaze people have witnessed in these turkeys does occur. But it actually appears to be the result of a nervous disorder. Now imagine being so fat that you couldn't have sex, and being crammed inside with 10,000 other fat idiots in the same boat. If that's not cause for a nervous disorder, I don't know what is!

Seriously though, there are heritage breeds of turkey available that are probably a lot like what early American colonists ate. And if you are a really good hunter (or know one), you might even get a wild turkey. Or just have a ham instead. The point of the day is to be thankful for all the good things you have in this life. Mine are too numerous to mention. But at the top of that list are getting to travel and write about it for a living, and the fact I am not so fat that I cannot make baby turkeys.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Molecular Gastronomy

No I am not in the hospital having a scope of my innards. Molecular gastronomy is actually a modern style of cooking that is gaining followers and critics at a rapid pace. I just recently discovered it myself while staying at a timeshare rental in Las Vegas, and I am still not sure what to make of it all.

As a bit of background, molecular gastronomy is really the science of cooking, rather than an actual cuisine. It attempts to observe and explain the chemical transformations in food when cooked, and then use this knowledge to make dishes with more intense, even unfamiliar flavors and textures. So rather than seeing the typical grill, range-top and ovens you associate with a restaurant kitchen, you might encounter a thermal immersion circulator, centrifuge, and syringes. And on your plate, don't be surprised to find foams, gels, and powders where you would normally see cuts of meat, sauces, and sides. And then there is the liquid nitrogen, lecithin, hydrocolloids, and transglutaminase - a.k.a. "meat glue". Sounds yummy, huh?

Even the name itself - molecular gastronomy - is off-putting, really. In fact many of the chefs who are associated with these techniques, reject this term entirely. Unfortunately, none of them can agree on what to call it, and MG continues to stick around. Whatever you call it, some of the chefs normally associated with this movement are Herve This (the father of MG), Grant Achatz, Ferran Adrià, José Andrés, Thomas Keller, and more. Many of these chefs have multiple locations around the country, and there is a good chance that a popular travel destination is going to have both timeshares and MG restaurants. Las Vegas, D.C., and New York in particular.

Beyond the unappetizing name and weird ingredients, the dining experience itself is quite different as well. Take the restaurant é by José Andrés in Las Vegas. Andrés is a Spaniard who trained under MG master Ferran Adria at his restaurant El Bulli, before branching out on his own. Andrés is credited with bringing the "small plate" or tapas concept of his native Spain to MG cooking. So it is not unusual to have 25 - 30 small dishes in one evening, rather than the usual soup, salad, entree, and dessert. That's right, I said 30 dishes. Now when José says, "small plate", he means it. In fact, some dishes don't even come on a plate. One dish - a flower made from yogurt and raspberries - was served on a white ceramic hand, cast from Andrés's own right hand. Another - Bocata de Piquillo (a type of pepper) - was served atop a shoe. I'm not making this up. If this all sounds too weird, get this: é itself is a "hidden restaurant" inside another Andrés eatery called Jaleo at the Cosmopolitan Casino. Jaleo has seatings (with reservations way in advance) like a typical restaurant. é only sits six people at a time, and dinner can take up to three hours. Are you kidding me?!

I have certainly focused on the bizarre and unusual aspects of this cuisine - so as to properly prepare you for it - should you choose to explore it. Imagine if you didn't know that head cheese wasn't really cheese, or that Rocky Mountain oysters weren't oysters at all. You did know those two things, right? Anyway, what I haven't talked about at all is the taste, and that would be a mistake. While I could have lived the rest of my life without ever eating off of a ceramic hand or somebody's shoe, some of the flavors I experienced during my experience were like none I have ever had before, nor expect to again. Certain foods when jelled or foamed seem to melt in your mouth. Whereas making a tiny caviar-like ball with others - called spherification - makes for a delayed burst of flavor. And don't get me wrong, it's not all foams, gels and powders. There were plenty of meats, breads, seafood, veggies and more; just in new and unusual combinations and preparations. And any flavor you can imagine: from sweet to sour, smokey to salty, and everything in between, is on full display, and somehow more intense then you have ever experienced them. It's certainly not for everyone, and depending on the restaurant, can be tough on the pocketbook. But if you find yourself in Vegas - and want a really different dining experience - try one of the MG restaurants you can find there. New ones seem to be popping up all the time.

Speaking of Vegas, I am staying at Grandview at Las Vegas, and cannot say enough about my stay. It's a 12-story resort on the south end of The Strip. My unit is a one-bedroom with a king bed, queen sleeper sofa, living area, fully equipped kitchen, washer/dryer, large-screen TV and DVD player and a jacuzzi tub. RedWeek members rate it 4.5 stars, and I can see why.

Well, I am off to the store to pick up some cold cuts and a Cuisinart. Before I was exposed to the world of molecular gastronomy, I just assumed that cultural stigmas would prevent my dream food from becoming a reality. But now, the baloney smoothie is as good as in my mouth.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

It's the Real Thing

Have you ever kicked back with an ice cold Pemberton's French Wine Coca? Me neither, and you'd probably get hauled off to prison if you tried to today. But way back in 1886 coca wines were all the rage and were touted as treatments for morphine addiction, dyspepsia, headaches, impotence, and more. To be clear, coca wines were a combination of alcohol and cocaine, and Pemberton's French Wine Coca is known the world over today as Coca-Cola. That's right, alcohol and cocaine combined together can cure morphine addiction and impotence. Who knew? I am pretty sure it causes both as well, but that's beside the point.

Coca-Cola's original formula, developed by John Pemberton, was an attempt to make a non-alcoholic coca-wine. You see, Fulton County, GA - from where Pemberton hailed - had just become a dry county. Apparently drinking alcohol was looked down upon as a vice, but drinking five ounces of pure cocaine per serving was completely okay. In fact, the earliest version of Coca-Cola contained primarily cocaine and caffeine, derived from the coca leaf and the kola nut, respectively. Thus the name, with the "K" in Kola switched out for a "C". And it wasn't until 1904 that cocaine was removed entirely from the formula. To this day, however, coca leaves are used in the formula for making Coke. One company, located in New Jersey, is legally allowed to import coca leaves, extract the cocaine for medicinal purposes, and deliver the "spent" leaves to Coca-Cola for use in their product. Makes you wonder what might be in Mary Janes, doesn't it?

But if there is one product that is known the world over as an American icon, it's Coca-Cola. And the fellow who took it global was a man by the name of Asa Griggs Candler from the tiny village of Villa Rica, Georgia, from where I am writing to you today. Griggs bought Pemberton's formula in 1887 and began producing Coca Cola (no hyphen). Problem was, Pemberton also sold the formula to no less than three other groups. It became a legal mess which really did not get straightened out entirely until 1914. But by 1894 Griggs was bottling and selling Coca-Cola and he never looked back. Yet the town he called home, until very recently, remained a sleepy, post gold-rush village of no more than a few thousand people - despite its location just 35 miles west of Atlanta.

Villa Rica was home to the Creek tribe for thousands of years before the arrival of white settlers. The local Creek were hunters, and not warriors, and made what they thought was an alliance with the settlers in the form of a treaty in 1825. But gold was discovered in Villa Rica shortly thereafter, and you can probably guess how that worked out. With the Creek out of the way, and rumors of gold circulating, the usual suspects of prospectors, speculators, shopkeepers, thieves, prostitutes, and more, descended on the area. When we think of the Wild West, places like Wyoming or the Dakotas may come to mind, but in the 1830s, this was it. Andrew Jackson was president, one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence was still alive, and Abraham Lincoln was just 21 years old. In other words, America was still a very young nation. Yet in the next half a century, a young man from this town would go on to become world famous for a concoction he bought from a pharmacist trying to cure impotence with cocaine and caffeine. What a country.

Villa Rica is famous for more than just Coca-Cola and the gold rush. It is also the birthplace of Thomas A. Dorsey, who is widely credited with creating gospel music. He grew up in the church, the son of a traveling preacher and a church organist. But he struck out on his own playing secular blues music as "Georgia Tom", eventually returning to rural Georgia to make spiritual music. His songs incorporated a bluesy "bounce" not normally associated with church music. These new versions of old spirituals widely became known as "Dorseys" but their creator preferred to call them "gospels". The latter name stuck. He wrote and recorded over four hundred songs, some of which were hits by Mahalia Jackson, Red Foley, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and more. His childhood home is long gone, but the town honors him annually with the Thomas A. Dorsey Birthplace and Gospel Heritage Festival.

In fact, the town does a tremendous job of preserving its rich past all around. The downtown features a raised sidewalk upon which you can stroll by impeccably restored structures, quaint antique shops and eateries, and numerous historic sites. And if golf is your game - it is mine - you can hit The Frog, a Tom Fazio designed, 18-hole masterpiece. I am staying in a timeshare rental at Wyndham Resort at Fairfield Plantation, which features its own championship golf course, a swimming beach, three outdoor pools, four tennis courts, picnic areas, and a recreation center. Plus Atlanta and Six Flags Over Georgia are just a little over thirty miles away. Heck, there's so much to do and see in this area, you might need one of those cocaine-caffeine concoctions just to squeeze it all in.

Well, I am off to the Pine Mountain Gold Museum. Not only was this the location of the first gold strike in the U.S., and the current home of a neat museum, but it is still actively producing gold. That's right, and some folks estimate that 80 percent of the "mother lode" in Villa Rica was never discovered. For $5 per person, you can try your hand at panning for gold that is 98% pure, a.k.a. 23 carat, and that's just what I am going to do. With the price of gold these days, I should have this trip paid for by nightfall. But heck, I'll be happy with a Coke and a smile.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Rabbit Rabbit

So here we are on the first of November. Have you ever noticed that the months September through December contain the Latin names for the numbers seven, eight, nine, and ten, even though they are the ninth through twelfth months on the calendar? It has something to do with the switch from the Gregorian to the Julian calendar (or maybe the other way around), and I am sure they taught it to me in school a million years ago. But something I had never encountered, until just recently, is the tradition of saying the words "rabbit rabbit" on the first of the month. Do you know about this? Apparently, it brings good luck to the speaker for the entire month. Clearly I am way behind the times (and down on my luck), as it would seem to be a tradition that is at least 150 years old (probably more), and can be found wherever British colonization has occurred. In other words, everywhere.

The expression, like a lot of folklore, takes on a lot of variations. Some folks say "rabbit rabbit white rabbit" while others go with "rabbit rabbit rabbit". But among all of the variants, the goal seems to be the same: to bring you good luck in the month ahead. You are to make this utterance as soon as you wake on the first day of a new month, before you do anything else. Seems reasonable enough, and doesn't take a whole lot of effort to remember, so why not?

Trying to make sense of this, or any folk idiom, is a bit of a wild goose chase (see what I did there?). The connection between luck and rabbits in English tradition is strong and time-honored. Think of a lucky rabbit's foot, which brings luck to the bearer, but not so much to the bunny. Yet in Hebrew tradition rabbits are a symbol of cowardice, like how we use "chicken" in English. Hey, did you know that in Chinese and other East Asian countries they see a rabbit in the moon, and not a man? Yeah, so sorting any of this out may be an exercise in futility. Especially here in the States, where traditions have been brought over with wave after wave of immigrants, and woven into the larger fabric of American folklore. Perhaps that's why I am only just now learning about this leporid luck-generating mantra.

Seems like the "rabbit rabbit" tradition in America is strongest in New England, which is not terribly surprising, considering it is the second oldest British settlement in North America. The island of Nantucket in particular seems to be a hot-bed of rabbit-induced good luck theory, along with Cape Cod and other coastal Massachusetts towns. Nantucket is of course famous for another expression - which I won't repeat - and may or may not be about luck, depending on your perspective. Although the pilgrims arrived in 1620, it was not until the 1640s that the British got serious about colonizing the island. Peter Folger, in particular, is viewed as playing a pivotal role in this expansion. He was living in Massachusetts as early as 1635, and was the original surveyor of Nantucket for the new proprietors of the land. He also happened to be Benjamin Franklin's grandfather on his mother's side. So was Franklin and his kin responsible for the "rabbit rabbit" expression making it to our shores? Could be. Franklin is of course famous for quotes (many of which he never uttered), and among them is "diligence is the mother of good luck". That doesn't sound like someone who believes in superstitions like "rabbit rabbit" but you never know. I say you rent a Nantucket timeshare and do a little field research for yourself. You won't be disappointed.

Another place to look for rabbit clues is Vermont. Specifically in the Middlebury area, which upholds many British traditions from hand furniture making to craft beer brewing. Middlebury is home to the college of the same name, and the Vermont Folklife Center. The latter states as core to its mission "preservation of the spoken word," as it pertains to Vermonters and their history. So maybe the answer to the lucky rabbit lies in their extensive archive? Problem is, there are more than 3,800 recorded interviews alone in the archive. Seems like you'd need to rent a Vermont timeshare and devote some time to the listening room. Throw in some pure maple syrup, Ben & Jerry's ice cream, and world class ski resorts, and you've got yourself a serious research project. Who knows, maybe you could get a grant under the guise of furthering the pursuit of knowledge?

Other British colonial strongholds like Williamsburg, VA, Boston, MA, and Charleston, SC, are great places to look for the source of this tradition's lineage, and for great timeshare rentals. But if you want to get right to the source, check out a London timeshare and ask the locals what the "rabbit rabbit" business is all about. Just be prepared to drink some beer at a local pub as part of your fact finding. Shouldn't be a problem.

Well, I am off to perform another sacred monthly ritual: picking up my mail. As someone who travels for a living, it tends to pile up. I handle all of the important stuff online, like bills and so forth, but the junk still keeps coming. I reduced it some by joining that Do Not Mail list, but new offers keep coming to take the place of the old ones. Here's a tip I picked up a while back for any unsolicited mail that comes with a prepaid return envelope. Take the offer and cut it up into thousands of little pieces (I use my crosscut shredder) and stick it in the return envelope and mail it back. Works every time.