Archive for the ‘local traditions’ Category




Kev and Rod braai in the Cape


If you’re ever in southern Africa this is one of the traditions you don’t want to miss. A “braaivleis”, affectionately called “braai” for short, (in Afrikaans language, braai= cook over fire, vleis= meat) is very special, a talkative, communal event, evoking feelings of camaraderie and stirring memories of togetherness at “braais” past.Whenever we visit South Africa, one of the first things we ask our families is, “When are we going to have a braai?” It doesn’t really matter what the season or the weather is.


Our family gather for a braai in East London


and it was great!


We braii in Hibberdene

“Having a braai” is more than just cooking food outside, it’s an event. Sipping drinks under a wide African sky, filled with stars that seem somehow clearer and nearer…the delectable smell of meat or fish on the coals drifting over the scene…cicadas “chirping” in the trees around. All this gets South Africans nostalgic.

The fusion of flame and meat, the sitting round an open fire or a grill, these are a way of life and popular around the country, regardless of race, language, creed or province. In fact, some say that while most countries have a national dish, South Africa has a national cooking method. But “braaivleis” is also not just a technique for cooking meat over an open fire: it’s a way of life, a national pastime that unifies an otherwise sometimes divided country. There’s a National Braai Day, on September 24th, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as the patron. This is South Africa’s Heritage Day too; See here http://braai4heritage.co.za/. As Archbishop Tutu says, “We have 11 official languages in South Africa, but only one word for this wonderful institution. It’s braai in isiXhosa, braai in Afrikaans, braaii n English…it has fantastic potential to bind us together because all it calls for is that you come with your friends, your family, have a little fire and braai”.


Kev prepares the marinade for the meat


Mike mans the braai in East London


Kev and Rod braai in the rain at Umfolozi National Park

For many South Africans a braaivleis is a much anticipated weekend event. If folks can also have one during the week, that’s even better. In the summer, the braai will probably be in the evening, after sundown, the heat of the day a pleasant warm glow. But, in the winter it’ll likely be at midday, under the bright winter sun and a big blue sky. And South Africans are so crazy about having a braai that they will even do it if it’s raining—but then, of course, the eating will be inside!

The ritual begins… The hosts light up the charcoal, or wood, grill, perhaps next to the pool if they have one, with table and chairs on the grass or patio. They spread a bright cloth on the table, and bring out plenty of good South African beer (try Castle) and great South African wine, a dry fruity white to sip first, then a hearty red with the meal. And plenty of fresh fruit juices for the non-drinkers.



We set the table


Braai-ing in Kokstad

And what a meal it’ll be. If you’re really lucky you’ll have “the works”—lamb chops, beef ribs, and the absolute “must”:boerewors (in Afrikaans, boere= farmer, wors=sausage). ‘Wors’comes from the butcher in a long strip, which is coiled carefully on the fire without cutting. This unique sausage has more beef in it, a coarser texture and less fat than most, and a distinct flavor dominated by coriander. It’s wonderful, and South Africans out of the country say they dream about having worsagain. As part of the ritual the guests all make comments on the cooking process, as they discuss their lives and country politics.

Traditionally, the meat is served with “putu” (thick maize meal porridge cooked with salt and a little butter) with hot, homemade tomato and onion sauce spooned over it; a green salad; and garlic bread—very garlicky. Many families also put fresh whole vegetables on the fire, in addition to serving a green salad. Fruit salad, based on paw-paw (papaya), with cream is a good dessert, or perhaps chunks of sweet watermelon.




Cooking the vegs first

In some parts of the country people make “roosterkoek” (fire-baked bread), or grill snoek fish basted with apricot jam. Sosatiesare also very popular. These are pieces of marinated meat on a skewer. In Pretoria (my old home town) lamb and dried apricot sosatiesare common, but in the Cape the Malay people make great sosatieswith lamb in curry marinade. In Soweto “chisanyama” with a spicy “chakalaka” sauce are popular. Chisanyamais isiXhoasa slang for grilled meats, and usually includes chops, ribs, wors,and steak.

Of course, the braai-ers often disagree about some elements of the braai: what types of meats and in what combination; what types of wood or coal, and whether to use Blitz (firelighters); what types of braaicontraptions, from shiny new Webers to old tin drums (but, the almost 100% consensus is: NO GAS!); what marinades, if any. BUT, beyond these differences is still a passion for sitting around a fire, drinking and chatting for hours, while kids run around and play.


Wors and other sausages


Wors in a coil

Many people believe that this passion is greater in South Africa than other countries. But why? We may never be able to explain this entirely. It may be related to the great climate in South Africa, but it’s not just climate related, because otherwise Australians and Californians would also braai as much, and they don’t. South Africans of all races prefer to have ‘real’ fires (not gas), which take longer and encourage one to stand around and drink beer, poke at the coals, and discuss politics and the rugby team or other sports events. South Africans also tend to eat outside, not just cook outside and then retire inside to eat. The actual braai-ing is usually done by men (although that is changing), who have learned from their male family members. Immigrants to South Africa learn from their (usually) male South Africa friends, or even attend a special braaiclass (although there are not many of those).

What do you think?

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The stuff that legends (and dreams) are made of.

People are always fascinated by true stories of animals, as we can see from varous books and movies on the feats of animals. On our travels we’ve come across a few of these kinds of stories. Two that stood out were about the Hoover Dam dog, in Nevada USA, and Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh, Scotland.

First, here’s the story of the Hoover Dam dog.

100_0353Hoover Dam, built 1931-1936, about 30 miles SW of Las Vegas, is still an engineering wonder. It is one of the largest dams in the world—726 feet high, 1244 feet long on the crest—and Lake Mead is the largest man-made reservoir in the USA. Building this dam was a long and daunting task.

When we visited the dam, we saw a plaque with a dog on it in the canyon wall, just across from the escalator leading to the Visitor Center at the dam site.  We wondered about the plaque, so I did a bit of checking to find out more.

Well…Take one little dog.

Add a bunch of hardened construction workers. Mix in long, tough working hours in a hot river gorge, with the dog running around every day, and the scene is set.

The story has persisted and over the years has added to the mystique of Hoover Dam. Man is fascinated by the awesome achievement of this dam, and the story of the dog adds a human element.

The story goes like this…A dog of unknown origins was born, with black fur and big paws. A construction worker found him, when hardly weaned, and put him in his transport truck, which took workers from Boulder City to the dam site and back each day. After that, he became the dam’s dog. Everyday he rode the transports with the men, and scampered around the site at will. As the construction got higher, he also rode the skips,  sort-of open-air elevators to get to higher levels. In addition, he learned to race very happily and easily on catwalks swinging 700 feet above the river. The men were amazed as most animals cannot learn to do this.

The dog ran all over the site, and belonged to all the men. If he missed the regular


Indeed an engineering marvel

transports for a ride back to Boulder City after a hard day at the dam site, he never hitched a ride on a truck that wasn’t associated with the dam construction. Nobody could quite work out how he knew which trucks to flag (bark) down!

Everyone wanted to feed him, and of course, being a dog, he accepted. But then he got sick, and the workers were very worried. They made a plan with the commissary for the dam construction at Boulder City; that the commissary would pack a lunch for the dog too, and they put up signs that no-one was to feed the dog in between meals. So, every day the commissary also packed a lunch sack for the dog, which he carried in his mouth when he boarded the transports in the morning. At the construction site, he put his sack with the workers’ lunch pails. When the lunch whistle blew, he raced to eat with the workers, waiting patiently for one of the men to open his sack.

P7300147.JPGMost of the workers gave a few dollars to the commissary, to help pay for the dog’s food. The money also helped pay for his license and collars. There’s a story that once a man, who wasn’t a construction worker, kicked the dog. The workers attacked the man so badly that the dam police had to be called. Supposedly, when the police chief arrived on the scene he stopped the attack because it was his duty, but he said that he wished he could finish the job!

One extremely hot day the dog lay down under a transport for some shade. The driver didn’t know, and later just drove off. News of the dog’s death had a very sobering effect on all the men, and many wept openly, especially as they carved out his grave in the solid rock.

Life on that dam construction site was very difficult, and the dog had probably given the men something more light-hearted to think about.

Quite a story!

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A Bucky statue at the Henry Vilas Zoo, Madison, where there are real badgers


One of the Buckys on Parade, looking rather fierce

pieces signWe’ve recently returned from a 10-day trip to Madison, and Spring Green, Wisconsin. Partly for a conference for my husband and partly a short family break with some of our family from St Louis.

Wisconsin is known as the Badger State and the university mascot is a badger called Bucky. This year, from May 7-September 12, Madison and Dane Country are hosting a large public art display called Bucky on Parade.  Many life-sized Bucky badger fiber-glass statues, all individually designed and painted, are dotted around the city, and people (including us) are having fun tracking them down (more on the Bucky on Parade soon).


Pieces of Wisconsin Bucky at the Zoo


The State Capitol in Madison—note the gold statue atop the dome

Why badgers, and why Bucky?

The state’s nickname originally referred to lead miners who settled here in the early 1800s. The miners built temporary homes by digging caves into nearby hillsides. These caves came to be called “badger dens” and the miners were called “badgers”. Because the miners lived in these dens, they could work through the winters when others could not.

The nickname spread to include the people of Wisconsin, and then to the state itself. In 1957 the badger was adopted as the official state animal, partly because they admired its ferocity. The badger is also on the state coat-of-arms, and tops the helmet of Wisconsin, the name of the golden female figure on top of the dome of the State Capitol building in Madison.


Wisconsin, the statue (try to see the badger on her helmet)

1st and 10

1st and 10 Bucky on State Street

The Story of Bucky

Bucky’s real name is Buckingham U. Badger. His story starts in the 1890s when the University of Wisconsin-Madison football team began using a live badger as their mascot. But the animal was too fierce to be used on the sidelines, so it was sent to the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison.

In 1940, artist Art Evans drew a new mascot, but at that time it was variously called Benny, Buddy, Bernie, Bobby and Bouncey. Then in 1949 the Pep Committee had a contest to name the badger, and “Bucky”, or Buckingham U. Badger, was chosen. The winner was a student, Bill Sachse. That same year the first papier-mache head of a badger was created, another student wore the outfit, and an icon was born.

It’s a fun story, and the Bucky on Parade was a lot of fun for us too.

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cookiesBerger Cookies, a Baltimore favorite

When a Baltimore friend first told me about the famous Berger cookies at Lexington Market I heard and understood “Burger cookies” and could not imagine what they might be like and why they would be popular!

But, of course, these cookies have nothing to do with meat and are quite sweet. Berger’s Bakery is one of the pastry stalls in the market, selling many types of sweet treats besides the namesake cookies. Seeing we were in the market we decided that we had better try these well-known cookies, so we bought two. They are a little like shortbread


Rod M tries a Berger cookie

with a fudge coating. Quite nice, but actually way too sweet for us.

But, we did try!

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Entrance to Pere Marquette Lodge


The Lodge’s restaurant has lovely stained-glass window panels, including this one of an eagle


Part of the park, with view down to the Illinois River

We began our eagle-watching weekend on Friday night at the Lodge in Pere Marquette State Park, an ideal place to use as a base. Open all year. Reservations: call 618-786-2331, or www.PMLodge.net .Their slogan is “Come and stay, the natural way”. Pere Marquette Lodge and Conference Center, a few miles north of Grafton on Highway 100—the Great River Road—is on the edge of the state park by the same name. The 8000-acre park is set in the rolling bluffs and woods overlooking the scenic Illinois River.



A picture of Pere Marquette in the Pere Marquette Visitor Center

Pere Marquette State Park was founded in 1932 under the name “Piasa Bluffs State Park’ (named for the legendary Piasa Bird, see later). The original purchase of 2,605 acres was made for $25,000, through a combination of local donations and state matching funds. By popular appeal, the name was changed to Pere Marquette State Park, reflecting Father Marquette’s connection with the early history of the area. Today the park encompasses 8,050 acres.

Father Jacques Marquette (the French Jesuit missionary-priest who came to North America to share his faith with the native people), with explorer-cartographer Louis Joliet, was the first European to enter what is now Illinois in 1673, where they met members of the Illini tribe. They were paddling down the Mississippi River on an expedition commissioned by the Governor of New France, trying to find a passage to the Pacific Ocean. When the local people told them that this river emptied in the Gulf of Mexico, they turned back and went along the Illinois River, stopping at a point near what is now the state park. A large dolomite stone cross commemorates this landing close to the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.


Painting of Marquette and Joliet’s trip along the river

Marquette’s journal gives the first written description of the land that is now Illinois. Excerpt found at the Pere Marquette Visitor Center: “We have seen nothing like this river [the Illinois]…for the fertility of the land, its prairies, woods, wild cattle, elk, deer, wildcats, bustards, swans, ducks, parrots, and even beaver: its many small lakes and rivers. That on which we sail is wide, deep and still.”

But, the history of the park is much older than this. Throughout the hills, ravines, woods, and prairies of the fertile area along the Illinois River, Native American people hunted game, gathered food, and later made houses. Archeologists describe 6 Native American cultures from this region and have found fragments of pottery, spear points and planting tools. About 150 burial mounds are distributed throughout the park, most still unexcavated.


piasa2A fascinating legend still survives from these early days. Early people painted 2 huge pictures on one of the bluffs of a creature called Piasa—part bird, with the face of a man, scales like a fish, horns like a deer and a long black tail. Marquette and Joliet saw these and were initially afraid. What was this creature and what was its significance? Supposedly it preyed on local Indian tribes, until it was killed by Illini Chieftain Owatoga, whose village was near Elsah. The original Bluff Picture was painted so Indians, passing on the river, could shoot poisoned arrows at the “Bird”, in memory of their deliverance. A modern painted Piasa Bird is maintained to this day on the bluffs about 20 miles south of the park close to Alton.


The Lodge is a huge, sprawling structure

PMsignThe Lodge was originally built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) from 1933-1939, supposedly over a Native American village site. It opened for business in 1940 and was dedicated in 1941. The cost of construction was $352,912.00. Timbers of Douglas fir and western cedar from Oregon were used, along with limestone from the Grafton Quarry.

Recent expansions and renovations blend in with the native stone and rustic timbers of the original. The massive lodge building has 50 guest rooms, an indoor pool, game room, a restaurant open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the Mary Michelle Winery/bar, and gift shop.


The Great Hall



Kids love this game too

The focal point is a an enormous hall with vaulted ceiling called the Great Room Lobby, decorated with 4 very attractive hanging fabric collages/tapestries of a woods pattern—leaves, branches, creatures—and a mammoth stone fireplace (50 feet high and said to weigh 700 tons) with cheerful dancing flames (very welcome in the frigid cold). Couches, tables and chairs in original 1930s style are grouped around for visitors’ use and a large wooden floor chess board and chess set is well used, especially by kids. Many tables have other games on them too. Picture windows all along one side open to the Brussels Terrace, which gives a great view onto the Illinois River,


Breakfast in the restaurant 

especially at sunrise and sunset. This is also a favored venue for weddings—and we watched one the Saturday evening we were there. The lodge also offers 22 stone guest cabin rooms, in 7 cabins, a short walk from the main building.

The Lodge overlooks the Illinois River and is just a short walk from the Pere Marquette Visitor Center, which has a lot of useful information about the park’s fauna and flora, the history of the area, and bald eagles.

A wonderful weekend.

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chickencrowingWe found Ybor City, Florida, really interesting for 4 main things: the old cigar stores and stories; the Columbia Restaurant; the World Trade Center Memorial; and a fairly large population of feral chickens (which is what Rod was looking for there as part of some research).

Ybor City is a historic neighborhood in Tampa, Florida, just northeast of down town. It was founded in the 1880s by cigar manufacturers, and is named after Vicente Martinez Ybor. Ybor was a Spanish-born cigar manufacturer, who moved his operation from Cuba, to Key West, to near Tampa. Thousands of immigrants, mainly from Cuba, Spain and Italy, came to live in this area, many as cigar workers. For the next 50 or so years, workers in Ybor City’s cigar factories rolled millions of cigars each year. It was an unusual immigrant community in southern US at that time because of its multi-ethnic and multi-racial population.


cigar2Another historical tidbit: A plaque tells us that the Rough Riders rode by here in 1898. “The intersection of Seventh Avenue and Twenty-second Street was a sandy cross-road connecting three army encampments in the Ybor City area during the Spanish-American War. At this cross-road was a water-trough where the Rough Riders watered their mounts. Col. “Teddy” Roosevelt frequently rode by here on his horse “Texas” followed by his little dog “Cuba”.”


Lions Club

A plaque at Columbia Restaurant explains the involvement of the Lions Club

During the Great Depression a slow exodus out of the area began and became worse after WW2, leading to a time of abandonment and decay. From the early 2000s, part of the original neighborhood has been redeveloped into a nightclub and entertainment district, with movies, restaurants and shopping opportunities.

The neighborhood has been designated a National Historic Landmark District and a number of structures in the area are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2008, 7th Avenue (the main commercial street in Ybor City) was recognized as one of the “10 Great Streets in America” by the American Planning Association.

In 2010, Columbia Restaurant was named a “Top 50 All-American icon” by Nation’s Restaurant News magazine. Besides serving food, this restaurant has played a large role in the history of Ybor City. For example, it’s the headquarters of the Krewe of the Knights of Sant’ Yago, and the Lions Club of Ybor City was organized and met here.chickensbycar

See next posts for Columbia Restaurant and the World Trade Center Memorial.

How the chickens came about, who knows? But they are very pretty birds.


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A hamsa

The Hamsa and the Evil Eye

I’ve just returned from St Louis where I was for 6 weeks to help my daughter with a new baby. While there I remembered that we had bought her a hamsa from a shop in Old Jaffa (www.adinaplastelina.com ) while we were in Israel last year. It’s very pretty—a pendant on a ribbon—and I started reading up more on what its significance is.

These days, with so much strife and discord around the world, especially in the Middle East, it seems to me that it would be a really good thing for people to find similarities between groups, rather than differences. It seems the hamsa could be one such agreement.


Hamsa pendant


Typical Turkish-style “Evil Eye”

According to the leaflet that came with my daughter’s hamsa: “Known in Islamic societies as the Hand of Fatima, and in Jewish lore as the Hand of Miriam, the hamsa serves as an ancient talismanic way of averting the evil eye or, more generally, of providing a “protecting hand” or “Hand of God”. Some sources link the significance of the five fingers to the five books of the Torah, or to the five pillars of Islam. In recent years some activists for Middle East peace have chosen to wear a hamsa as a symbol of the similarities of origins and tradition between the Islamic and Jewish faiths.”

This idea of protection from “the evil eye” is common in many countries in the Middle East, especially in Turkey and countries where the Ottoman Empire ruled, such as Bosnia in the former Yugoslavia. The concept is the same—wearing, or having, some talisman that will protect against bad things, or ward off evil—but the actual amulet is very different. The typical Turkish one is a flattish bright blue circular bead with light blue and white inner circles and a darker blue center, like an ‘eye’. They are made into jewelry, or into beads that hang in cars, over doorways etc. People have them in kitchens, on baby strollers, on motorbikes etc. We have bought quite a number over the years, in Turkey and more recently in Bosnia.


This kitchen is protected by a Mexican folk skull and a Turkish evil eye


This kitchen also has an evil eye

Here’s a short discussion about the Turkish evil eye:


For a more extensive history and meaning of the evil eye, see here:


How can we all rally, and have some kind of hamsa, or evil eye, or other protection from the evil in this world? A symbol that would bind people together? I’m just being idealistic, I know, but it doesn’t hurt to dream!




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