American Football Kicks Soccer to the Curb

Posted October 17th, 2014 at 4:48 pm (UTC-4)
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The defending team, the Washington Redskins, tries to stop the offense of the Seattle Seahawks from moving the ball down the field. (VOA / Frank Mitchell)

The defending team, the Washington Redskins, tries to stop the offense of the Seattle Seahawks from moving the ball down the field. (VOA / Frank Mitchell)

Enormous, well-padded warriors in helmets and vibrant, numbered jerseys, collide at high speeds on the gridiron.  The sharp cracking sound of impact prompts a huge roar of approval from the large, boisterous crowd.

Millions of television viewers around the globe tune in for the games. The NFL broadcasts to more than 230 countries across six continents. Several games every season are played in or near London, England — this year at Wembley Stadium.

The noise from the impact and grunts from the players resonates across the field as rock music blasts and enormous flat screen monitors replay the action at both ends of a noisy stadium. The plays on the field are explosive, fierce and incredibly athletic – to the point where you sometimes can’t believe your eyes.

Coaches wearing headsets bark instructions, cameras wheel around, referees in black-and-white striped shirts hustle about, and rabid fans holler at the top of their lungs.

The venue is filled to capacity with about 90,000 screaming spectators clad in team garb, ball caps and jackets. Tastes run to extremes and everybody has an opinion, usually spoken loudly and with great authority – especially the shirtless guys painted in team colors from their waists to the top of their heads.

A pure American creation, professional football in the United States – as presented by the National Football League (NFL) – is a game of epic proportions. Compelling and exciting, the game is larger than life, in your face, over the top and wildly colorful. It is the king of the hill when it comes to sports in the U.S., and its appeal crosses many cultures.

The centerpiece is a ball made of pigskin with a pointed nose and circular white lines at either end, a wide middle, and five-inch laces running lengthwise down one side.

Heroes and zeroes. Winners and losers. The good, the bad, the ugly. Dudes with necks bigger than your thighs rule the landscape, commanding fame, fortune and often fleeting adulation. Professional football stars rival their Hollywood counterparts for attention and publicity. Highly lucrative product sponsorships and advertising campaigns go with the territory for the sport’s top performers.

High school football contests, like this championship game played on Dec. 21, 2013, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo)

High school football contests, like this championship game played on Dec. 21, 2013, in Arlington, Texas, draw huge, enthusiastic crowds from the surrounding community. (AP Photo)

But players are only as good as their last game. Another contender is always lurking. Kids start playing in organized leagues at about six-years-old, running up through high school football, which is big time, and on to college where it’s huge. The NFL draft of college players is a whole cottage industry unto itself.

For a decade, season ticket holder Scott Sizer has had a coveted pair of seats in the end zone at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, overlooking the Washington Redskins sideline.

“It’s awesome to be outside with friends, eat some good food and then have fun watching the game,” said Sizer. “I like our section [in the stadium] with a lot of other fans who have become friends. It’s just great to be with everyone and cheer for our team, even when they lose.”

Broadcasting bonanza

All of the games are broadcast on network television. There are pre-game shows, post-game analysis programs and a 24-7 NFL network dedicated solely to the sport. Fans and advertisers can’t seem to get enough.

It’s a year-round enterprise, even though the season itself begins in August with pre-season games, rolls into the regular season, and concludes in early February with the Super Bowl (no explanation necessary).

The winner of this ultimate championship game is crowned world champion and awarded the coveted Lombardi trophy, named after legendary coach Vince Lombardi, who led his team to 13 championships.

Green Bay Packers fans cheer during an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Oct. 12, 2014, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo)

Green Bay Packers fans cheer during an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Oct. 12, 2014, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo)

In this day of giant, flat-screen, high-definition TVs, many aficionados find the viewing experience at home to be even better than watching the action live on the field. True fans might not agree, but it’s tough to beat the view you get on a TV set, with replays, announcers, analysis and the comfort of your own home.

Rules of the game 

Rules of the game are elaborate and intricate. On a basic level, though, it boils down in a straightforward way.

It’s offense versus defense. There are eleven players from each team on the field at any given time. The team with the ball is on the offensive, and tries to move the ball down the field by running with it or throwing it. Points are scored when the offense crosses the goal line at the end of the field, an area called the end zone. When on defense, the opposing team attempts to prevent the offense from scoring.

Injuries are an unavoidable part of this exceptionally physical game. Every team has them, but too many, or a few key ones, can torpedo a team’s chances – unless it has depth, in the form of able backup players who can step up and fill the void.

Multiple players suffer injuries every week, and dozens of others get the “bumps and bruises” that are part of the game. The Injured Reserve list is watched closely by fans, gamblers and participants in so-called fantasy leagues.

Large revenues

Sure, it’s over the top, it’s also worth billions of dollars in television broadcasting rights, advertising revenue, merchandising partnerships, ticket sales, player endorsements, and stadium deals.

The NFL made $10.5 billion last year, according to various estimates, and that could be on the low side. Some reports say the league hopes revenue will hit $25 billion by 2027. Given the level of national interest, that doesn’t seem like a stretch.

Pre-game fun

Intrinsic rituals associated with the sport include tailgating, when fans arrive many hours before the game and begin the party early in the stadium parking lobby, eating and drinking copious amounts of food and drink.

Oakland Raiders fans grill while tailgating in the stadium parking lot before an NFL football game between the Raiders and the San Diego Chargers in Oakland, Calif., Oct. 12, 2014. (AP Photo)

Oakland Raiders fans grill while tailgating in the stadium parking lot before an NFL football game between the Raiders and the San Diego Chargers in Oakland, Calif., Oct. 12, 2014. (AP Photo)

The team’s flags are flying, grills are smoking, sandwiches are being scarfed down, and alcoholic liquid libations – especially beer – are consumed.

Fleets of enormous recreation vehicles, often embellished with the team colors and logo crowd the parking lot. They have large TV screens, radio broadcasts blaring and music.

Longtime Washington Redskins fans Amy Stevens and her husband, Greg, of Germantown, Maryland, sat behind their car with the back trunk open in the parking lot at Fedex Field on a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon. They consumed sandwiches, chips, other munchies and cold beer.

With their young children at home with family, the games are a great escape.

“There’s a lot of energy, excitement and camaraderie,” said Greg. “There’s a real sense of community, and there’s always hope that they can win today. Football is such a tremendous sport and there often are surprises.”

Once the game begins, cheerleaders vamp, beer vendors hustle up and down the steep aisles hawking cold beers, peanuts and other refreshments at premium prices. Concession stands that ring the stadium’s promenade levels sell hot dogs, soda, pretzels, pizza, popcorn and more.

Games are an expensive proposition; tickets range from $80 each for the cheap seats to several hundred dollars for the good ones. Then there’s the additional cost of parking, food, drink and memorabilia.

By the numbers

Gambling is huge in football. Billions of dollars are wagered weekly on the games.

People wait in line to place bets on Super Bowl XLVIII at the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino Superbook in Las Vegas, Nevada Jan. 23, 2014.

People wait in line to place bets on Super Bowl XLVIII at the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino Superbook in Las Vegas, Nevada Jan. 23, 2014.

Betting is legal in Las Vegas, where the sharpies – computer-assisted number crunchers — pore through minutia to determine razor-sharp margins. Points are given to the underdogs to encourage maximum wagering.

In the informal football fantasy leagues across the county, participants create their own teams by drafting players from various real teams, who then take on other dream teams. The fantasy leagues are run by colleagues, friends and family members.

And while football is a uniquely American obsession at the moment, that might not be the case for much longer. The league has featured exhibition games in European cites for several years now, and there’s talk of expanding the league beyond U.S. shores.

A play like that could be a big score for the NFL, while lending even more substance to the title of “Super Bowl World Champions”.

 

Tom Turco
​Tom Turco, a long-time Washington-area journalist who has led digital teams at Gannett/USA Today, Time Warner and the Newseum, is a writer and editor at VOA.

‘Is Africa a jungle full of elephants and lions?’

Posted October 15th, 2014 at 1:25 pm (UTC-4)
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Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012, elephants run towards water to drink and bathe at the Addo Elephant National Park near Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The Addo Elephant park houses over 450 elephants and contributes to the conservation of the endangered black rhino. Around 140,000 people visit the park annually with around 54 per cent being international visitors from Germany, Holland and Britain according to park records.(AP Photo)

AP Photo

“Is Africa a jungle full of elephants and lions?”

“Mommy, do you have AIDS?”

Cameroon native Paulette Mpouma cringed whenever her U.S.-born children posed these and other questions that illustrated how their understanding of her native continent had been shaped by Western stereotypes.

“Their impression of Africa was sickness and poverty and jungle also,” Mpouma said.

This lack of connection on the part of American-born children to their ancestral homeland is a concern shared by other immigrant communities across the United States. For her part, Mpouma, a mother of four, decided to do something about it.

Determined to teach her kids about the breadth and diversity of the 54-nation continent, she created a game board that allowed the children to travel across Africa. At each stop, in order to keep advancing, they had to answer a trivia question about the region where they’d landed. If they couldn’t answer the question, they had to pay fine.

Paulette Mpouma show The Africa Memory game to potential buyers at the Farmers Market in Silver Spring, Maryland. (Photo by Rosanne Skirble/VOA)

Paulette Mpouma (left) shows The Africa Memory game to potential buyers at the Farmers Market in Silver Spring, Maryland. (Photo by Rosanne Skirble/VOA)

“I want my children to know the diversity and the richness of a continent that is still developing,” she said.

What began as a fun learning experience to teach her children about their roots has now become a cottage industry. Mpouma began manufacturing “The Africa Memory Game”, marketing it to schools and at educational events and shows.

The Smithsonian African Art museum, one of the nation’s premier cultural showcases, carries The Africa Memory Game in its gift shop.

The Africa Memory Game (Photo by Rosanne Skirble/VOA)

The Africa Memory Game (Photo by Rosanne Skirble/VOA)

“I went there with the game and I found the curator who said she was looking for something like that for years,” said Mpouma, who brushed up on her business and marketing skills thanks to Empowered Women International, a program geared toward helping immigrant, refugee and low-income women learn entrepreneurial skills. “It started at home, just a little game, but it became a passion.”

Since 2009, she’s sold 6,000 units of The Africa Memory Game and is looking to expand her reach ‒ at the request of mothers from other immigrant communities.

“Lots of Asians have asked,” she said. “Indian mothers who say, ‘Can you do something like that for India?’”

The Africa Memory Game sells for $25 and is manufactured in Michigan.

Like much of its target audience, the game is made in America, but has an international twist.

Does Columbus Day Honor a Monster?

Posted October 13th, 2014 at 7:35 am (UTC-4)
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CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS

Italian-Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus is shown in this work by Italian painter Sebastiano Del Piombo. (AP Photo)

Every year, on the second Monday in October, the United States celebrates a federal holiday honoring a man who freely admitted committing atrocities against the native people of the Americas, including cutting off their hands, noses or ears to keep them in line, and sexually enslaving girls as young as nine, gifting them to his men.

“There are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls,” Christopher Columbus wrote in his journal in 1500. “Those from nine to ten are now in demand.”

When Columbus arrived in the Bahamas (he never actually set foot in the contiguous United States) on Oct. 12, 1492, he noted the peaceful and hospitable nature of the native Arawaks, Lucayans and Taínos.

“They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features….They do not bear arms, and do not know them,” he wrote. “They would make fine servants….With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

High school student Yomeidi Jose, 16, of Boston, wears a flag on her head while assisting other JROTC students in supporting an oversized American flag during a Columbus Day Parade in Boston, Oct. 12, 2014. (AP Photo)

High school student Yomeidi Jose, 16, of Boston, wears a flag on her head while assisting other JROTC students in supporting an oversized American flag during a Columbus Day Parade in Boston, Oct. 12, 2014. (AP Photo)

Which is exactly what he did. Columbus enslaved the natives, setting them to work in his gold mines. Those who didn’t collect enough of the valuable dust had their hands chopped off and tied around their necks to send a message to their fellow workers.

More than four centuries later, the idea of a day to honor the explorer was conceived by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic Fraternal organization that wanted a Catholic hero role model for its children. In 1937, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the law that made Columbus Day a federal holiday.

Today, most government employees have the day off. Banks, the bond market, and many schools are closed. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia give their workers a paid holiday on Columbus Day, according the Council of State Governments.

However, over the years, the explorer’s controversial legacy has led many U.S. cities and states to temper the celebrations surrounding his namesake holiday.

In Columbus, Ohio, Columbus Day used to be a big event, but it’s been 16 years since the last parade.

New York City’s Columbus Day parade still draws around a million spectators and 35,000 marchers, but the event is now billed as an annual celebration of Italian-American Heritage. Many Italian-Americans see Columbus Day as celebration of their heritage.

Thousands of ethnic Mapuches, Chile's largest indigenous group, marched in Santiago, Chile, on Oct. 12, 2014,  demanding the restitution of their ancestral lands on the day commemorating the 522nd anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival to the Americas. (AFP PHOTO)

Thousands of ethnic Mapuches, Chile’s largest indigenous group, marched in Santiago, Chile, on Oct. 12, 2014, demanding the restitution of their ancestral lands on the day commemorating the 522nd anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival to the Americas. (AFP PHOTO)

A couple of weeks ago, the school board in Seattle, in Washington State, decided to have schools observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the same day as Columbus Day. Minneapolis, Minnesota and Berkeley, California, have also designated that day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Hawaii celebrates Discoverers’ Day, which pays tribute to the Polynesian discoverers of the nation’s 50th state.

Meanwhile, in South Dakota, Columbus Day has been known as Native American Day since 1990.

Mary Bordeaux, curator and director of Cultural Affairs for the Indian Museum of North America in South Dakota, would like to see the trend away from Columbus Day continue.

“It’s taking something that has traditionally been in America the celebration of what I see as the annihilation of the native population and trying to bring more awareness to the truth of our history in America,” she said. “By switching it to Indigenous Day or Discoverer’s Day, it starts a conversation about native people. It kind of opens up a dialogue.”

Bordeaux, a Native American who grew up on a reservation (an area of land managed by a Native American tribe under the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs), would like to see real action result from that discourse. High on her list is the rewriting of U.S. school textbooks that continue to glorify Columbus and discredit Native Americans.

“We still are the only minority in the United States that has to enroll, that has to get a number from the United States government to claim to be Native American,” Bordeaux said, “and so to continue celebrating and glorifying Christopher Columbus, we’re just continuing to support [the idea] that the people who were here before weren’t people, that they weren’t anything.”

Arab Americans Go Online for Marital Matchups

Posted October 10th, 2014 at 12:22 pm (UTC-4)
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(AP Photo)

(AP Photo)

When Arab American Hania Masri (not her real name, which I’ll explain later) wanted to meet and settle down with someone from a similar cultural background, she turned to an online matchmaking service for help. One husband and two children later, she’s glad she did.

Hania — outgoing, attractive and personable, with an advanced degree from a prestigious university — was in her mid-twenties when she went looking for a mate online. Although she had no problem attracting attention from the opposite sex in her everyday life, she hadn’t been able to find what she was looking for in the men she met.

“I was interested in meeting someone who was Arab and Muslim,” Hania said. “I was having a difficult time meeting Arab Muslims out in the community and was looking for another way to meet new people.”

Hania, who does not wear a head scarf, was also looking for someone open-minded and liberal.

Across the country, Zaid Abadi (also not his real name) encountered similar obstacles when it came to meeting a suitable partner. When he took his search online, the first person he connected with was Hania, who ultimately became his wife.

“I don’t think I would have met this woman that I married any other way,” he said.

A screen shot of Arab Lounge's home page.

A screen shot of ArabLounge’s home page.

They ‘met’ through ArabLounge, a matchmaking site with more than 1.3 million registered members, most of whom are in the United States. About 600,000 of those people are active, according to Darren Romeo, the COO of World Singles, which runs Arab Lounge.

“We help people meet,” Romeo said. “We’re living more online and wherever humans live, they will date and explore. This is just another place, like the grocery store or Starbucks, to meet different people.”

The Arab American and Muslim communities aren’t alone when it comes to looking for love online. World Singles hosts more than 100 sites aimed at various ethnic and religious groups, including IranianPersonals, PakistaniLounge, EthiopianPersonals, EligibleGreeks and VietVibe.

“Our bread and butter is in these different communities,” Romeo said. “What we found is that, among certain people, usually first or second generation, it is not uncommon for the parents or the family group to want for their son or daughter to meet someone from a similar religious or ethnic group, primarily for cultural affiliation [and] language.”

ArabLounge, currently available in English, Arabic, French and German, is World Singles’ largest site. The company says 65 percent of its members identify as Muslim, while about 20 percent are Arab Christians. The most active subscribers are in their early to mid thirties. The vast majority of women on ArabLounge do not wear a head scarf in their profile photos, although many do.

“It runs the gamut from folks in hijab to others who look like they’re at a club with a drink in their hand,” Romeo said. “What we see typically is more of a focus on marriage; the greater density of people are looking for marriage or serious relationships. They’re all looking for love.”

The company has no comprehensive data on how many of its matches result in marriage, as Hania and Zaid’s did. And although both are thrilled with the results of their online matchmaking experience, they rarely share the true story of how they met.

“I think that some people judge you or your relationship when they find out you met through an online service,” said Hania, who asked us not to use the couple’s real names for this story. “I think there is a negative stigma that comes from meeting someone online. Some people assume that if you use online services that you are desperate.”

Although they keep the story of how they met private, the couple would definitely recommend online matchmaking to single people looking for love among a particular ethnic or religious group.

“It gives them the opportunity to meet like-minded people,” Zaid said. “You are given the opportunity to find someone who has qualities and values that you desire in a life partner.”

How the Statue of Liberty Almost Ended Up in Egypt

Posted October 8th, 2014 at 4:02 pm (UTC-4)
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The Statue of Liberty looks out on the lower Manhattan skyline, January 2014. (AP)

The Statue of Liberty looks out on the lower Manhattan skyline, January 2014. (AP)

Instead of imploring the world to “give me your tired, your poor”, the Statue of Liberty’s welcoming message might well have been “as-salamu alaykum”, the Arabic greeting used by Muslims around the world.

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That’s right, the world’s most recognized symbol of freedom and the American dream, was originally intended for Egypt, which ultimately rejected it for being too old fashioned.

The decision came as a disappointment to Lady Liberty’s creator, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who’d envisioned the Suez Canal as the ideal venue for his mammoth harbor structure.

Statue of Liberty creator Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi original design for the mouth of the Suez Canal in Egypt.

Statue of Liberty creator Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s original design for the mouth of the Suez Canal in Egypt.

“He was inspired by the Sphinx and the pyramids and the idea you could create something massive that could almost be eternal,” said Elizabeth Mitchell, who brings Bartholdi’s quest to life in her book Liberty’s Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty.

Mitchell was motivated to write the book after coming across Bartholdi’s diaries at the New York City Public Library. That’s when she first realized the iconic symbol wasn’t a gift from France as many Americans believe.

“In fact, the true story is more moving because what you have is this individual artist who had a vision and he really wanted to make this happen,” Mitchell said, “and he really had to go through every machination to get this thing built.”

After his failure in Egypt, the artist shifted his attention to America, which was prospering after the end of the Civil War. 

“Maybe no other country at the time would understand the excitement and importance of having this bigger-than-life, colossal symbol,” Mitchell said.

Lady Liberty creator Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi

Lady Liberty creator Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi

The Statue of Liberty has stood in New York’s harbor for 128 years, since 1886. In order to secure her spot there, Bartholdi worked hard to promote his statue concept. To help with fundraising, he put parts of the statue on display and charged admission. The arm and torch were exhibited in Philadelphia in 1876 and the head in Paris in 1878.

“He wanted something astounding. He wanted to create one of those things that amazed fellow humans,” said Mitchell. “He definitely wanted to commemorate the idea of liberty and what that meant, and keep that as a reminder in the world of what a government comprised of individuals could do in the world.”

Americans had to raise more money than the French to bring the statue to New York. Newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer championed the cause by offering to publish the name of every person who donated even a dollar to the effort.

Liberty's head on display at the Paris Exposition of 1878.

Liberty’s head on display at the Paris Exposition of 1878.

Bartholdi, who saw his statue as a way to remind Americans how much the French had sacrificed during the Revolutionary War, believed the strong bond between the two countries would endure, according to Mitchell.

No one knows who Bartholdi modeled Lady Liberty after and the artist himself never said. But Mitchell believes her strong-boned face, and its troubled expression, were modeled after Bartholdi’s beloved but mentally disturbed brother, who ended up in an insane asylum.

“In all of Bartholdi’s public works, he always used the faces of people he knew and loved,” Mitchell said. “It makes sense to use a troubled face because he didn’t see liberty as something that would be won easily.”

Bartholdi did worry that American commercialism would sully his statue’s reputation.

“He worried that all Americans cared about was money,” said Mitchell, “that they didn’t have a higher value than that.”

The question of who served as the model for the Statue of Liberty's face and expression remains unanswered. (AP)

The question of who served as the model for the Statue of Liberty’s face and expression remains unanswered. (AP)

Bartholdi even copyrighted the statue’s image, so that he would be paid every time someone used an image of his creation, but he ultimately found it too difficult to enforce.

His quest to build the Statue of Liberty was not easy or fast.

Bartholdi arrived in the United States with his Statue of Liberty proposition in 1871 but it wasn’t until 1886 that the completed statue was officially unveiled in its current New York location. Despite those 15 years of challenges and setbacks, Bartholdi stayed focused and never questioned his mission.

“He never doubted his project was a good one,” Mitchell said. “He believed that the statue would be very important one day.”

In that prediction, Bartholdi proved to be a true visionary. Today, Liberty Island is one of New York’s most popular attractions, drawing more than 3 million visitors a year and his creation has become one of America’s most enduring symbols of liberty and freedom.

America’s Favorite Restaurant Serves Up Frog Sticks and Fish Eyes

Posted October 6th, 2014 at 12:38 pm (UTC-4)
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President Barack Obama greets people inside Sloopy's diner in the Ohio State Student Union, Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio.

President Barack Obama greets people inside Sloopy’s diner in the Ohio State Student Union, Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio.

When U.S. politicians want to get a feel for the pulse of the country, they’ll often drop in at the nearest diner, a uniquely American institution that has been part of the nation’s cultural landscape for more than a century.

“There’s something about the imagery of the diner, the way it grabs you from the road and the counter,” said Richard Gutman, author of American Diner: Then and Now and director of Johnson & Wales University’s Culinary Arts Museum in Rhode Island. “It just makes you interact in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen in other restaurant environments.”

Other cultures have their own kind of place. France has its bistros and there are pubs in England.  The diner is unique to America and attempts to transport the concept overseas have not met with success.

Classic diner fare: a bacon cheeseburger with onion rings served at the Tastee Diner in Bethesda, Maryland.

Classic diner fare: a bacon cheeseburger with onion rings served at the Tastee Diner in Bethesda, Maryland.

Known as “greasy spoons” for sometimes serving food that sits heavy in the stomach, these unassuming eateries are usually operated by families and the owners can often be found behind the counter, chatting with patrons.

Traditionally made of materials prefabricated in a factory and assembled on site, diners usually have a long narrow shape, tables or booths, and feature a counter where customers can sit and watch as their food is prepared on a grill.

You might expect to find stainless steel, bright colors and flashing neon signs inviting passersby to stop in for a while.

The more modern diners are now built from the ground up on site, but still retain the unique characteristics common to diners everywhere.

“Diners offer a sameness but also a certain individuality at the same time,” said Gutman, who’s widely considered America’s diner expert. “It’s a place where you want to go and have a nice meal and you can linger or you can eat quickly. It’s not going to break the bank and you feel good there and you can participate in dialogue or not.”

Often best known for serving breakfast, diners can also be counted on to serve hearty American standards like hamburgers or meatloaf.

They’re also an excellent place to get a taste of the region’s local flavor.

Maryland is known for its crabs and that means crab cakes are the blue plate special at the Tastee Diner in Bethesda, Maryland, a few miles outside of Washington.

The Tastee Diner in Bethesda, Maryland has been feeding customers since 1935.

The Tastee Diner in Bethesda, Maryland has been feeding customers since 1935.

The Tastee Diner has been around for almost eight decades, since 1935, and waitress and manager Beth Cox has been serving up meals for 36 of those years.

“It’s the only job I’ve ever had. It just gets in your blood. It’s difficult but rewarding. I’ve waited on four generations of families,” Cox said. “We have multi-millionaires, truck drivers, construction workers. You can be whoever you are, but the minute you walk in the door, you’re all the same, we don’t care who you are.”

There are no computers at the diner, which shows its age in the slightly warped floors and careworn booths. But customers keep coming back for more and Cox says it’s because of the diner’s singular appeal.

GLOSSARY OF DINER SLANG

Cacklefruit (eggs)
Eternal twins (ham and eggs)
Adam & Eve on a raft (poached eggs)
Burn the British (English muffin)
Jayne Mansfield (tall stack of pancakes)
Vermont (maple syrup)
Old Maid (prunes)
Chewed fine (hamburger)
Frog sticks (French fries)
Butcher’s revenge (meat loaf)
Eve (apple pie)
Virtue (cherry pie)
Ant paste (chocolate pudding)
Fish eyes (tapioca pudding)
Nervous pudding (gelatin)
Battery acid (grapefruit juice)
Let it float (ice cream soda)

“Nothing comes out of a box or out of a bag,” she said proudly. “It’s all homemade, everything, and you can’t get that in too many places.”

The diner tradition began 130 years ago in Providence, Rhode Island, when horse-drawn lunch wagons would roll in at night when other restaurants were closed.

They’d serve people who worked the evening shift or theatergoers looking for a hot meal after seeing a show. The wagons became so popular that a few seats were added, allowing patrons to eat their meal inside rather than out on the curb.

These lunch cars eventually came to be called dining cars and by 1924, were known as diners.

A row of mobile food trucks serve lunch near Capital Hill in Washington, D.C.

A row of mobile food trucks serve lunch near Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

At the height of their popularity after World War II, there were an estimated 6,000 diners in the United States.

Today there are about 2,000, but Gutman is convinced the diner will never go out of style.

“It’s a great story that’s been part of our culture for 130 years or so,” he said. “It’s an enduring story, that’s why I’ve been doing interviews about diners for decades. I think I’ll be talking about this until my dying breath.”

Gutman points to the recent rise in popularity of mobile food trucks as evidence of the diner’s enduring popularity.

He sees the food trucks as reminiscent of the old diners that started on wheels and eventually outgrew their mobile architecture.

“The diner was the original fast food restaurant,” he said. “That niche of feeding people at lunchtime has re-emerged as an attractive way for young food professionals to reach out to new customers.”

He expects calls for “bales of hay and a mug of murk” (frosted mini wheat cereal and coffee) or “sweep the kitchen” (corn beef hash) to continue to ring out in diners across the country for many years to come.

Get ‘Disturbingly Informed’ at Museum of Medical Monstrosities

Posted October 3rd, 2014 at 4:08 pm (UTC-4)
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Mega Colon, or Hirschprung's Disease, occurs when the muscles receive no signals to contract and move waste through the system, causing chronic constipation that leads to over-development of the colon. (Courtesy Mütter Museum)

Mega Colon, or Hirschprung’s Disease, occurs when the muscles receive no signals to contract and move waste through the system, causing chronic constipation that leads to over-development of the colon. (Courtesy Mütter Museum)

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(Photo by Flickr user Thure Johnson via Creative Commons license)

Wild West Ghost Town Emerges from Watery Grave

Bacon, French toast and eggs. (Photo by Flickr user Karl Baron via Creative Commons license)

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Mothman statue, Point Pleasant, West Virginia (Photo by Flickr user

Why Small US Towns Embrace Their Weirdness

The city of Philadelphia, in the East Coast state of Pennsylvania, has a storied history.

From 1790 to 1800, the city served as the temporary capital of the United States and was home to the two Continental Congresses, where delegates adopted the Declaration of Independence, the nation’s founding document. Tourists still flock to see the Liberty Bell, an iconic symbol of American independence.

Also tucked away in this historic city is the most visited medical museum in the world.

Officially known as the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the site is sometimes referred to as the Museum of Medical Monstrosities.

The repository isn’t afraid to have a little fun with itself.

Its website invites visitors to “become disturbingly informed.” Exhibits have slightly sensationalistic names such as “Secret Tumor of Grover Cleveland” and “This Dust Was Once a Man: The Final Days of Abraham Lincoln.”

However, despite a sometimes irreverent tone, the Mütter Museum has a serious purpose.

“This museum has always been an educational museum,” said curator Anna Dhody, “a place where physicians in training would come and see amazing specimens of the human condition.”

About 141,000 people visit the Mütter Museum each year; adults pay a general admission of $15. These days, the majority of folks who stop by are not connected to the medical profession. Museum officials say the visitorship is as diverse as the collection itself. The curious include everyone from school groups to celebrities, including singer Katy Perry, who dropped by recently.

Some of the more popular exhibits include a giant colon and the so-called Soap Lady, a body exhumed in 1875. The gift shop sells a colon plush toy and Soap Lady soap. Other curiosities include the skeleton of a giant man, Albert Einstein’s brain, a “death cast” of conjoined twins, and a sizable skull collection.

The skeleton of Harry Eastlack, a sufferer of Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva (FOP) (Evi Numen/Mütter Museum)

The skeleton of Harry Eastlack, a sufferer of Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva (FOP) which caused the formation of extra-skeleton bones. (Evi Numen/Mütter Museum)

“Mütter is really a museum of humanity and what it means to be human and how to alleviate suffering,” said J. Nathan Bazzel, the museum’s communications director. “Everything is here for a purpose; it is not here just because it’s weird. It’s also here so we can learn how to alleviate hurt.”

Consider the case Harry Eastlack, whose struggle with Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva (FOP) caused the formation of extra-skeletal bone. While he was alive, Eastlack worked with his doctor to ensure that his skeleton would be donated to science after his death.

“You are surrounded by so much grief and pain and suffering, which is really what most of these people went through,” said Bazzel. “But because of their gift of themselves, in many cases, we’ve learned how to resolve these issues so that others don’t suffer.”

Working at the museum has encouraged Dhody and Bazzel to literally give of themselves, too.

Dhody donated her kidney stone while both of Bazzel’s hips – which degenerated due to early-era AIDS medication he took years ago – are part of the museum’s ever-growing collection.

The museum’s seriousness of purpose is evidenced by its newly established research arm. Data from its extensive Hyrtl Skull collection is now online to help further medical and scientific research.

“We’ve had researchers using it to research how to construct a better football helmet to minimize concussions,” Dhody said. “We’re utilizing this 19th century collection for a 21st century issue.”

The most-visited page of the museum’s website is its write-up on vaccines. And cholera was recently extracted from the specimens of six people who died of the disease in 1849. Those samples are being used today to trace the lineage of that particular strain of cholera in hopes of finding a way to combat the disease.

Despite Mütter’s serious medical and scientific endeavors, museum officials recognize most visitors want to get an eyeful of the gross and the bizarre. Still, they hope the curious come away with more.

“People are interested in what it means to be human,” Bazzel said. “[The museum] challenges folks to think about humanity in a very different way.”

Trekking Along the Nuclear Waste Adventure Trail

Posted October 1st, 2014 at 7:00 pm (UTC-4)
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Tons of hazardous waste lie beneath this dome in Weldon Spring, Missouri, which draws 16,000 visitors each year. (Photo by Mark Schuver)

Tons of hazardous waste lie beneath this dome in Weldon Spring, Missouri, which draws 16,000 visitors each year. (Photo by Mark Schuver)

If the idea of standing on top of a mammoth pile of nuclear waste sounds appealing, then Weldon, Missouri, is the place for you.

The waste lies beneath a structure that resembles an enormous ancient burial tomb. There’s even a platform at the top of the 7-story-high mound where visitors can take in the view.

The American government refers to the area as the Weldon Spring site, but it’s also known as the Nuclear Waste Adventure Trail and Museum.

The largest explosives factory in the United States once stood in its place. By 1956, the property was occupied by 44 buildings that refined uranium for nuclear bombs. The plant was abandoned in the 1960s and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showed up 20 years later to conduct the clean-up.

The EPA found 1.48 million cubic yards of toxic waste, including radiologically and chemically contaminated structural materials, sludge, and soils. Environmental contaminants included uranium, radium, TNT and heavy metals. Instead of hauling it all away, the U.S. government decided to entomb the contaminated waste right there.

Inside the uranium plant. Pretty much all of the structures and equipment seen here are now entombed in the massive disposal cell that thousands of tourists climb each year.

Inside the uranium plant. Pretty much all of the structures and equipment seen here are now entombed in the massive disposal cell that thousands of tourists climb each year. (US Dept. of Energy)

“The disposal cell is kind of like a bowl that was constructed on the ground surface, nothing is below surface,” said Yvonne Deyo, one of the site managers. “The bowl was filled with contaminated materials and then a cover was placed on the bowl.”

The plant buildings were reduced to rubble to be placed inside the cell. Contaminated soil takes up approximately 80 percent of the containment bowl. The rest of the waste is made up of what’s left of the buildings, including their foundations, piping, and the sewer system.

“None of the items were shipped off-site,” said environmental engineer Terri Uhlmeyer. “Everything went into the cell.”

The 45-acre cell, made of stone, concrete and clay, covers the area that was occupied by the chemical plant buildings. Deyo says the cap of the containment bowl is more than 8 feet thick.

The cell was designed to last 1000 years and is inspected annually to make sure that its integrity is intact. There are also a series of groundwater wells surrounding the Weldon Spring site that are monitored for contaminants.

In 2002, the radiation levels were deemed low enough for the site to be opened to the public.

Today tourists can climb the man-made mountain using stairs that lead to the summit. There’s also a 6-mile-long adventure trail. And what was once the radioactive worker detection check point is now an interpretive center that’s open to visitors.

The officials who run the place say the 16,000 people who visit each year rarely express concerns about their health and safety.

“An extensive cleanup was done,” said Ken Starr, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Weldon Spring site manager. “The area was cleaned to residential standards.”

That assurance is good enough for the parents of hundreds of children who visit Weldon Spring on school field trips each year.

“There’s a big interest; the slots for field trips book up months in advance,” said Deyo, the site manager. “Think about the environmental education component. It’s hands on.  It’s definitely a unique field trip destination for the sciences and that’s what teachers have recognized and that’s why it’s popular.”

The area surrounding the containment bowl is also popular with cyclists and hikers, and it’s not unusual to see local residents walking their dogs in the area.

The Department of Energy wanted to restore the surrounding area to its natural state, so haul roads were converted to hike and bike trails. The process of building a prairie to revegetate the site began in 2002.

Today the adventurous can hike or bike the nearby Hamburg Trail through the site, taking time to climb to the top of the waste mountain to view the prairie in bloom.

 

Special thanks to Mark Schuver for granting us permission to use his photographs of the Weldon Spring site.

New Orleans: Where the Good Times Still Roll

Posted September 29th, 2014 at 2:08 pm (UTC-4)
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New Orleans' architecture is a blend of 18th and 19th Century Spanish and French influences with modern skyscrapers in the background.

New Orleans’ architecture is a blend of 18th and 19th Century Spanish and French influences with modern skyscrapers in the background. (Photo by Jack Payton/VOA)

NEW ORLEANS — Let’s dispense with the obvious right up front: Most people know that New Orleans is one of America’s most fascinating cities. It has a long and storied history, unique architecture, terrific food, great music and a free-wheeling, let-the-good-times-roll attitude that’s unmatched anywhere in the U.S. – some say anywhere, period.

I’m certainly a big fan; have been for years. But then I could be a bit biased. I was born here, went to college here and got my first job as a journalist here more than four decades ago. So with that full disclosure out of the way, what about those things that make New Orleans a special place, the kind of place that draws visitors from all over the world?

Unique architecture? Just look at the pictures – that surprising blend of 18th and 19th Century Spanish and French influences with American Skyscraper modern in the background. You don’t see anything like it anywhere else.

And like the architecture, the food here also is a mixture of many influences: French, Spanish, native American, African, new American, and lately Asian, especially Vietnamese. Those first four give us what’s known as Creole cuisine and there are several famous restaurants here that feature it – Antoine’s, Galatoire’s and Arnaud’s are probably the best known.

Streetcars along Canal Road in New Orleans. (Photo by Jack Payton/VOA)

Streetcars along Canal Road in New Orleans. (Photo by Jack Payton/VOA)

The Superdome sits near downtown New Orleans like some giant flying saucer that landed here from another galaxy. On Sunday when the city’s beloved National Football League team, the Saints, are playing at home in the dome, it seems as if every resident of the city is dressed in black and gold, the team’s colors.

Serious rebuilding is under way throughout the central neighborhoods, but not so much in the poorer ones such as Treme and especially in the lower ninth ward, which was almost completely wiped out by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Where my two great aunts once lived next door to each other in the Mid-City area of town, there was more than three meters of water after Katrina. Both their houses were wrecked and uninhabited for several years. When I drove by them this week, they were all fixed up, freshly painted and looking almost new – well, as new as a 100-year-old house can look. Next door there is a crowded and trendy outdoor cafe where there was once a seedy corner bar that always smelled of stale beer, cigars and men who hadn’t been home in days.

This brings us to what started out as a New Orleans working-class specialty – the “Poor Boy” sandwich, said to have been invented in 1929 to feed striking trolley car workers – the original “poor boys.”

Now generally known as the “po’boy,” the sandwich is available in hundreds of places around town and in many other cities in America. It can be stuffed with roast beef and gravy, fried oysters or shrimp, spicy smoked sausage or any variation you can imagine. There’s even a Vietnamese po’boy that looks suspiciously like a Banh mi. The ones filled with fried oysters are often known as an “oyster loaf” or “peacemaker.”

The common element in all of them is the crusty loaf of bread baked here by a family of German ancestry named Leidenheimer. If it’s not on Leidenheimer’s bread, it’s not a real po’boy and serious eaters here won’t touch it – simple as that.

The Parkway Bakery in New Orleans makes a winning roast beef po-boy sandwich. (Photo by Jack Payton/VOA)

The Parkway Bakery in New Orleans makes a winning po’boy sandwich, served here with the city’s popular Barq’s root beer. (Photo by Jack Payton/VOA)

There are places all over the city that make good po’boys, but three have stood out for years – the Parkway Bakery near Mid-City, Domilise’s uptown and Johnny’s in the French Quarter.

Johnny’s in the Quarter, a block away from world famous Jackson Square, is certainly the most accessible. And that’s one of its problems. It’s overrun, mainly by out-of-towners. It’s the equivalent of urban warfare just to get one of the few tables. A relaxed afternoon of enjoying the sandwich, watching the game on the TV over the bar and knocking back a few beers is out of the question.

So for me, it’s simple. If I want a roast beef po’boy, I go to Parkway, where kicking back is just about mandatory and the sandwich is incomparable. If I want something else, say a smoked sausage po’boy or an fried oyster loaf – both on Leidenheimer’s bread – I go to Domilise’s, where nobody makes those sandwiches better. (A word of caution for potential visitors to Domilise’s; Dot Domilise, who ran the place for the past 70 years, died this past summer and it’s hard to say if the quality will be maintained).

People in New Orleans are extremely picky about what they put in their stomach. Almost always, they like food and drink from New Orleans. Some people think they’re parochial that way. I’m not one of them.

This is one of the few major American cities – maybe the only one – where the hamburger isn’t the most popular sandwich. Here it’s the po’boy. It’s also probably the only city where Coca Cola or Pepsi hasn’t always been the most popular soft drink. Here, again, it’s the locally made Barq’s Root Beer.

And New Orleans is also probably the only American city where Budweiser, Miller or one of the other national beer brands hasn’t always been the most popular. The best-selling beer for years here was Dixie, brewed in an old brick building just outside the downtown area.

But Dixie’s domination came to an end, like many things here, in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina flooded the city and destroyed the old brewery. It hasn’t been made in New Orleans since.

That’s why I was surprised to see it on the menu at the Parkway Bakery the other day. When I asked the waitress where it came from, she said Dixie’s owners had licensed a company somewhere in Wisconsin to brew it. And when I asked if it was as good as it used to be, she shrugged and said she hadn’t tried it. “It’s made in Wisconsin. How good could it be?”

 

 

Jack Payton
Jack Payton was the executive editor of VOA’s principal English-language website. His reporting from New Orleans was Jack's final professional work before his unexpected death at age 69.