Monday, April 15, 2013

Cow Pies and Cheese Castles in Wisconsin

Wisconsin embraces its cheesiness with udder dignity. Take the state's most prevalent candy bar: the Cow Pie. The pecan-chunked chocolate mound is modeled after a bovine poo. How many other states have that sort of chutzpah?

Then there's Mars Cheese Castle. It is a real castle (well, a hulking turreted building with faux drawbridge) stocked with 300 types of cheese. Cheddar curds sell best, along with beer-mug-shaped hunks. Cow Pies get lots of shelf space. As do foam-rubber cheese wedge hats. And a giant pie-eyed mouse wearing a cheese wedge hat watches over it all.

You might as well embrace the theme when visiting. These random facts can help:

* The state considered making "Eat Cheese or Die" its official motto.
* Of the 2.6 billion pounds of cheese Wisconsin produces annually, 34% is mozzarella and 21% is cheddar.
* The state law requiring restaurants to put a slice of cheese on apple pie? It's a myth (though Wisconsin did flirt with the idea).

Thursday, March 14, 2013

3.14 Pie Thoughts on Pi Day

Every year Pi Day gets more popular, with math geeks hopped up to celebrate the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter (aka 3.14) on March 14. For the rest of us, it's just a cheap excuse to discuss crust, fillings and flaky matters such as:

1. Why do more states have an official dinosaur than an official pie? Seriously Oklahoma: you name flesh-ravaging Acrocanthosaurus Atokensis as a Sooner symbol, but you can't bother with pecan pie? (It's listed only in conjunction with the "state meal".) Eight states dub official dinos. Only Indiana, Florida and Vermont bake a certified pie.

2. Why is Boston Cream Pie called a pie, when it is actually a spongy, custard-filled cake? Historians think it's due to the cookware used in the mid-19th century during the treat's genesis: bakers had pie tins available, but not cake pans.

3. Who makes the best pie? It's impossible to crown one particular shop, but we're going to say the Midwest wins for dreamy, creamy regional excellence. Little roadside shops slice thick slabs of banana cream, sugar cream, sour cream raisin, coconut cream, chocolate cream, peanut butter cream - you don't have to be hit on the head with a fork to get the gist.

.14. Consider the photo's message (above). It's an original artwork from the now defunct Pie of the Month Club.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Midwest Round-up: 7ft Sausage & Chloroformed Dummy

Painful speculum
Passed out from chloroform
The Midwest is always weird and wonderful, but some weeks are weirder and wonderful-er than others. Like this week:

* Guido, the Milwaukee Brewers' 7ft-tall racing sausage mascot, was stolen during a gig at the city's Curling Club. Local mustard and sauerkraut companies offered condiment rewards for his safe return. The costume eventually turned up in a bar. "Like I didn't just see two guys plop a sausage on a barstool," the bartender said about the anonymous drop-off. More on this immortal Wisco story here.

* The annual Sock Monkey Festival rolls in Rockford March 2 and 3, with monkey-making workshops, the Sock Monkey Hall of Fame inductions, and healings at Sockford General Hospital. This earlier blog post has the lowdown.

* Chicago's International Museum of Surgical Science remains as creepy as ever. The ancient Roman vaginal speculum stays "fearsome looking" (according to its placard), the chloroformed female dummy is still passed out, and the murals of blood-spattered surgeries continue to be available as postcards in the gift shop. All pics per my recent visit. Yeah baby!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Pour George Another Whiskey

George Washington's birthday is tomorrow, and if he was around you can bet he'd celebrate by tossing back a whiskey or three.

Rumors of his temperance have been greatly exaggerated. Not only did he cook up his own whiskey at Mt Vernon but, according to a sign at the historic distillery there, "he imbibed a variety of alcoholic beverages: …Port and Madeira and rum made into punch, along with beer and whiskey.”

That distillery - which pumped out a whopping 11,000 gallons during its peak in 1799 - still operates today. It produces an authentic version of Washington's rye-based recipe that's sold around Christmas time.

If you don't have a bottle, but you need to commune with George now, look at your local liquor store for Michter's. It's the whiskey Washington used to fortify his troops at Valley Forge, and it's being percolated once again by a Louisville microdistillery.

So now you know to raise a dram to George: Father of our Country, and Father of the American whiskey industry, as many drinkers dub him.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Chicago's St. Valentine's Day Massacre

Al Capone did not send Bugs Moran candy on Valentine's Day 1929. Instead, he sent hit-men to kill him. They missed Bugs, but massacred seven of his buddies.

It happened at the garage that used to stand at 2122 N Clark St. Bugs' guys arrived thinking they'd buy bootleg booze, but it was a set up. Capone's gang entered dressed as cops, lined the men up against a wall, and sprayed them with more than 100 bullets. Lucky for Bugs, he'd already left.

Developers tore down the garage in 1967. Before the wrecking ball swung, Canadian George Patey bought all the bricks. He displayed them in a nightclub and eventually sold a few as souvenirs. In December 08, after Patey's death, his family put the rest of the blocks for sale on eBay.

Today a fenced lawn and trees mark the massacre site, at which passing dogs bark and howl and strain their leashes in the opposite direction.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Chicago's Coolest Quarter for Record Shops

If the High Fidelity crew were scouting for a Championship Vinyl today, they'd totally head to Logan Square. Get in the Grammy mood (awards are Feb. 10) by trawling the bins at:

* saki - Forgive the lower-case. Focus instead on the intimate, in-store concerts by indie groups like Brokeback. They're free, as is accompanying food and drink by Goose Island Brewing, Bang Bang Pie Shop and other locals. The shop sells arty posters, zines and books alongside the CDs and vinyl. Plus, by god, saki accepts gift certificates from other retailers. So you can trade your lame Staples gift card for that new Panda Riot album.

* Logan Hardware - It's hard to resist a shop where flicking through a bin of "Non-Religious Gospel" is followed by a knockdown game of Donkey Kong. Rock, oddball and Chicago band LPs fill the crates, but the bonus here is the attached vintage arcade museum. Relive your '80s on the free Pac Man, Tron and pinball.

* Bucket O’ Blood Books and Records - Punk and metal vinyl comprise the "records" half of this wee niche shop, while sci-fi and horror paperbacks make up the "books." Owner Marc Ruvolo, who also runs the punk label Johann's Face, curates the wares and distills his bizarro favorites into the aptly named Awesome section.

Hell, you might even find some Sonic Death Monkey in the 'hood.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Has Chicago Lost its Blues Mojo?

"Sweet Home Chicago" ain't such a sweet home for preserving blues history. Which is a shame for a city that cashes in big on its long-running Blues Fest and bluesy clubs around town. Here are 3 seminal sites in jeopardy:

1. Muddy Waters' house - Last week, a big red "X" appeared on the brick two-flat at 4339 S Lake Park Ave, an early step in the demolition process. I wrote about Muddy's house - where legendary jam sessions broke out in the yard - a few years ago, when it was still in decent shape. Now the windows are boarded up and ominous yellow warning signs hang in front. Urbanist Lee Bey looks at whether everything gonna be alright in this article.

2. Chess Records Studio - While Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley and the Rolling Stones all plugged in at 2120 S Michigan Ave, this building also was on the chopping block until Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven Foundation bought it. (Dixon was the bassist who wrote most of Chess's hits.) Dixon's family opens the studio for tours most days, but it's ramshackle with few original artifacts on display. Still, when Willie's grandson hauls out the bluesman's standup bass and lets you take a pluck, it's pretty damn cool...

3. Blues Museum - Chicago has been trying to open a blues museum for years. The latest incarnation was in summer 2012, when the city floated the idea for a "Blues Experience" museum/nightclub downtown on State St. Cue the hemming and hawing. Meanwhile downriver, St Louis secured $6 million to build the National Blues Museum to launch in 2014.

Chicago needs to get its mojo workin', as in this live album when Waters and the Stones played the Checkerboard Lounge in 1981.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

National Pie Day: 4 Things to Know

Today is a big one on the pie calendar. It's National Pie Day, as decreed by the American Pie Council. That means sweet contests and free slices around the country. Random info in honor of the occasion:

*  It's also the 4th anniversary of Indiana's law making sugar cream the official state pie. Only Florida (key lime) and Vermont (apple) take their crust as seriously and have passed "state pie" legislation. Oh sure, Maine, Massachusetts and Delaware list pie for a "state dessert" (blueberry, Boston cream and peach, respectively). And Oklahoma includes pecan pie as part of its "state meal." But c'mon: be bold and declare an official PIE.

*  President Obama has been top of mind since his inauguration two days ago, and pie is his favorite dessert. He forked into maple-caramel-sauced apple pie at his post-swearing-in lunch. He's also fond of coconut chiffon pumpkin pie, according to his college roommate's mom.

*  Norse Nook in Osseo, Wisconsin, routinely stays open during blizzards. The "Pie Fixes Everything" motto tells you why. Check out this Flicker group of Norse's banana cream, raspberry white chocolate and other sky-high pies.

*  To salivate over regional variations in flaky goodness, click to American pie: slicing across the country. Peanut butter, gooseberry, sour cream raisin...

Mmmm, pie.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Presidential Pets: Hippos, Badgers & Cows (Oh My)

As Bo Obama, the presidential pooch, settles in to his second term of posing for White House Christmas cards and greeting Blue Room visitors, it's a good time to reflect on his predecessors. There's Barney the terrier, who bit reporters for George W. Bush. And Clinton's furry pals Socks the cat and Buddy the Labrador. But others in the first menagerie have been a bit more peculiar:

*  Adams-Hoover alligators - The Marquis de Lafayette gifted John Quincy Adams with a gator, which Adams housed in the White House bathtub. A century later Herbert Hoover outdid him by having two pet alligators that waddled the West Wing.

*  Josiah the badger - In 1903, a girl in wee-town Kansas asked the visiting Teddy Roosevelt if he would like a badger. "I said I would," and so Josh (Teddy's nickname for his new pet) rode the train back to Washington with the prez, joining his hog, rat, macaw and one-legged rooster.

*  Pauline Wayne the cow - A Wisconsin senator gave Pauline, a bodacious Holstein, to William Howard Taft, who let her graze the White House lawn throughout his term. The trade-off? Miss Wayne provided milk for the first family.

*  Billy the pygmy hippo - "Hmm," thought rubber maker Harvey Firestone. "What'll I do with this pygmy hippo that's wandered onto my Liberian rubber plantation? I know: I'll give it to Calvin Coolidge!" For the record, Coolidge already owned a wallaby, a duiker and a raccoon.

For more on Washington, check out recent posts on DC's top 10 free things to do; the city's scandal sites; and the lowdown on its giant hairballs and bong museums.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

DC's Most Peculiar Museums

The Smithsonian grabs all the glory, its multiple venues rising up around the Mall like an educational fortress. But where are the giant hairballs and handcrafted mayonnaise-jar bongs? Here:

DEA Museum - One minute you're watching a video called One Sniff Can Kill, the next you're admiring an array of tightly rolled doobies. The federal, taxpayer-funded Drug Enforcement Administration curates the wares (located in the agency's lobby), which range from counterculture propaganda to undercover pimp gear like rabbit-fur jackets. Read more here.

National Museum of Health and Medicine - You might want to go light on breakfast before visiting the brains, spines and other body parts in jars. The stomach-shaped hairball leaves a lasting impression, as does Lincoln's assassination bullet and bits of his skull.

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum - Antique glass medicine bottles and Martha Washington's Scouring Compound line the shelves of the 1792 shop.

Woodrow Wilson House - While it's swell to see how genteel Washingtonians lived and socialized in this 1920s home, the chatty docents are the real draw. They spill the beans on today's neighborhood elite, everything from which ambassadors shack up in their embassies illegally, to spot-on directions to the Clintons' nearby home (recognizable by the muscular Secret Service dudes sitting out front in SUVs and staring you down).

This is part 3 of a DC series. Part 1 covers DC's top 10 free things to do. Part 2 covers where Mayor Barry smoked crack, Nixon wiretapped and other scandal sites.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

DC's Top 5 Sites for Political Intrigue & Scandal

Whaddya know? They're all hotels.

Watergate - Perhaps you've heard of the chi-chi apartment-hotel complex on the riverfront? Hint: a little break-in occurred here in 1972, something to do with Richard Nixon and wiretaps. Monica Lewinsky, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Condi Rice have all lived at Watergate, despite the sad 60s architecture.

Renaissance Mayflower Hotel - J Edgar Hoover ate lunch here every day for 20 years. John F Kennedy reportedly sampled the charms of the fairer sex here. And NY Governor Eliot Spitzer infamously rendezvoused with a call girl here (room 871).

Washington Hilton - This is where John Hinckley tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. Hoping to impress the actress Jodie Foster, the disturbed young man shot Reagan, his press secretary and an FBI agent near the T St NW entrance.

Westin Washington DC City Center (formerly the Vista Hotel) - In 1990 DC mayor Marion Barry was caught puffing crack cocaine in room No 727. The FBI had a surveillance camera inside that also captured Barry uttering his timeless quote - 'Bitch set me up!' - in reference to ex-model (and police informant) Hazel 'Rasheeda' Moore, who was with him.

Willard InterContinental Hotel - President Grant coined the term "lobbyist" here to describe the many political wranglers trolling the lobby. You'll still find quite a few of them in the hotel bar, swirling single-malt Scotches and determining your next tax hike.

This is part 2 of a week-long series on DC. Part 1 reveals where to see nuclear missiles, the gun that shot Abe, and 8 other awesome things for free.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Top 10 Freebies in Washington, DC

The spotlight swings to DC on January 21 for President Obama's inauguration. Just so happens I co-wrote Lonely Planet's new DC guidebook, so for the next week I'm going to post stories about the city. First up: my favorite freebies in town.

1. Smithsonian Institution - It's actually a collection of 19 museums, all gratis thanks to an eccentric Englishman named James Smithson (more on him later). Top draws are the rocket-fueled National Air and Space Museum and the dinosaur-and-diamond-stuffed National Museum of Natural History.

2. National Gallery of Art - It takes two massive buildings to hold the trove of paintings, and sculptures. Monet? da Vinci? Pollock? All here, plus a trippy tunnel connecting the two sections.

3. Lincoln Memorial - Massive Abe sits and gazes from his neoclassical temple. And you can stand spot-on where Martin Luther King Jr gave his 'I have a dream' speech.

4. National Archives - Gawp at John Hancock's, er, John Hancock scrawled across the real-deal Declaration of Independence. The Constitution and Bill of Rights unfurl alongside it.

5. Ford's Theatre - See where John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln that fateful night in April 1865. The basement museum shows artifacts such as the murder weapon.

6. Capitol - Button-down guides take you through the mighty, white-domed sanctum of Congress, cluttered with busts, statues, frescoes and people in power suits.

7. Bureau of Engraving and Printing - Though the Treasury tour is about money, it won't be taking any of yours. Watch millions of dollars as they're printed, cut and inspected.

8. Library of Congress - The world's largest library is more than a stack of books. It's a museum with 500-year-old world maps, historic photographs, concerts and film screenings.

9. Kennedy Center - No dough for a big-ticket show? Fear not. The Millennium Stage hosts a free performance each evening at 6pm. Could be anyone from the National Symphony to a gospel group or Indian dance troupe.

10. Cultural Tourism DC - It provides free maps, apps and audio for DIY tours around the city that uncover civil rights sites, espionage hot spots and other historic places.