Atlas Obscura - Latest Articles and Places New wonders and curiosities added to the Atlas. en-us How to Recreate Your Lost Family Recipes, According to Historians and Chefs Reina Gattuso Tue, 17 Nov 2020 18:30:00 -0500 Michael Twitty was leading a conversation on African diasporic food when the woman he was speaking to broke into tears. Twitty, a food writer, historian, and historical interpreter, had just explained that the word for “eat” in Wolof, a West African language, is nyam. The woman, a Massachusetts resident from an African-American and Puerto Rican family, had a lingering memory of her mother and grandmother repeating the word “nyam” during meals. But she never knew that the word was a direct connection to Africa.

For Twitty, who has devoted his life to tracing the roots of African-American cuisine, these moments of revelation are common—and electrifying. “You almost faint because you know who you are,” Twitty says. “No one can take that away from you ever again.”


Twitty has traveled from the American South to West Africa, using a mix of historical documents, participant-observation, and oral history to unbraid the complex culinary strands of the African diaspora. Through his writing and his workshops, he helps other African Americans understand the roots of their families’ culinary traditions, which centuries of slavery and white supremacy threatened to sever. Each bowl of okra soup or snippet of kitchen-table conversation is an ark from the past, a missive from the difficult, joyful story of how the community has come to be where it is today. “Between the pain and the celebration, the culture is created,” he says.

While Twitty’s work is especially meaningful to Black Americans, he says this kind of inquiry can connect participants of all backgrounds to their pasts, and to each other. “I see people really begin to connect the dots” between their family cuisines and those of other cultures, says Twitty of his workshops.

Like Twitty, Seattle-based chef Melissa Miranda has drawn on memory and kitchen observation to connect to her family’s culinary history. She worked with community elders to create a series of pop-up dinners celebrating local immigrant moms, then established her restaurant, Musang, based on her family’s cuisine. “The restaurant that we opened, it’s just Filipino food based off our childhood memories,” she says.


You, too, can use sensory memory, oral history, and historical detective work to better understand, or to recreate, family or cultural dishes that you connect with. Whether you have a trove of recipes in your naani’s handwriting, or just a lingering memory of a tia’s tres leches cake, you can apply insights from chefs and culinary historians to cook family recipes that hold special meaning to you, even if the elders who originally made them are gone. I spoke to Twitty, Miranda, and Veronica and Dayana Salazar, the mother-daughter team behind the Bay Area’s El Huarache Loco, about how they bring their own family flavors to life—and how you can, too.

Draw From Memory

When Veronica Salazar immigrated to San Francisco, she brought memories of her family’s Mexico City restaurant. The recipes weren’t written down; family members learned through observation. In San Francisco, Salazar drew on these memories to cook and sell Mexican street food, eventually working with food incubator La Cocina to launch El Huarache Loco.

In 2019, she worked with her own daughter, Dayana Salazar, to publish the family’s recipes for a popular salad and for caldo de gallina, or hen soup, in the La Cocina cookbook. Translating her intuitive cooking style to precise measurements was a challenge. “It was hard for me when they told me, ‘You have to make a recipe,’” she says. “We don’t do that. We just know the flavors.”


Even if you didn’t grow up in a restaurant, you can also use sensory memory as a starting point. Focus on the dish you’re interested in recreating. When do you remember eating it? What did it taste like? Smell like? Look like? Do you remember the sights, smells, or sounds in the kitchen as someone created it? What places, people, and traditions do you associate with the dish? What did you feel emotionally when you ate it? Have you ever tasted anything similar to it in a restaurant or at a friend’s house?

Take notes about everything you can recall. It’s okay if this is stream-of-consciousness; the point is to get your memories down on paper. These notes are the beginning of your recipe.

Watch and Learn

Musang was born from a pop-up dinner series Melissa Miranda called “No Cookbooks Allowed,” in which she and her sous chefs recreated recipes they learned by watching local Thai-, Vietnamese-, and Filipino-American moms cook. “I think observation and listening were really the best tools,” Miranda says. Watching and learning paid off: The moms liked her recreations.

If you know community elders who cook food similar to the dish you want to recreate, ask if you can watch them in the kitchen. (If it’s not possible or safe due to physical distance or social-distancing requirements, ask them to keep on video chat or speaker phone while they cook.) Observation can provide nuance that a written recipe can’t, especially for dishes that have been passed down.

Miranda advises asking for tips and tricks and asking open-ended questions, such as, “Would you mind showing me how you would do this?” You can take a video (with their permission) or take notes as they cook. Above all, absorb the sights, sounds, and, if possible, smells of the kitchen.


Twitty also interviews and observes community elders in his research. He suggests asking for details like how long they’ve been eating a particular dish, who first made it for them, and what memories they associate with it. In the kitchen itself, he advocates a fly-on-the-wall approach. “I don’t get into somebody’s face the first time,” he says. Instead, he asks if he can help with kitchen chores while watching their process. “I want to respect the fact that they are, in that moment, a master.”

Research the Context

A culture’s cuisine is like a woven tapestry: Each ingredient or technique is a thread that connects to the intricate whole. Take, for example, Twitty’s childhood memory of his Southern grandmother, who poured hot sauce onto her greens from an old 7-Up bottle with a pricked, rusted metal lid.

When Twitty researched the culinary history of what is now Ghana, he found records from a French Huguenot slave trader—a “disgusting person”—who had written about the region’s food. The trader remarked that local people loved “cabbage,” a stand-in for all leafy greens. Twitty’s memories of his grandmother’s greens and hot sauce clicked into place. “I just went, ‘Wait a minute, here are the pieces,’” he says. When Twitty tested his DNA, he also found a genetic connection to contemporary Ghanains. That bowl of greens wasn’t just his grandma’s idiosyncratic habit; it was a breadcrumb trail from the American South to West Africa.


You can use similar context clues to trace your own food memories to their historical origins. You can research: Where would your ancestors have gotten the dish’s ingredients? What meaning would those ingredients have held for them culturally? How did migration, conflict, or changes in technology affect how those ingredients were used? What other descriptions or recipes of the dish exist in food blogs, or in contemporary or vintage cookbooks?

If you already have a recipe or a specific dish in mind, this kind of inquiry can help you better understand the meaning behind each ingredient or step. If you’re trying to recreate a recipe from scratch, researching the broader historical context in which your ancestors cooked and ate can help you identify ingredients and techniques that would have been important for them.

If you only have a vague memory of your aunt’s polpette di asparagi, but you know her parents immigrated from Sicily to the Bronx in 1920, you can fill in the gaps in your knowledge by researching how Sicilian immigrants cooking in the style of la cucina povera brought a taste for asparagus to Arthur Avenue.

Develop (and Trust) Your Intuition

Dayana Salazar was seven years old when she began helping her mother, Veronica, in the kitchen. “It was so natural to me,” Dayana says. When La Cocina’s cookbook launched in 2019, containing Veronica’s recipes, Dayana, then in her mid 20s, was tapped to travel to Detroit to cook for a book event. That was when the doubts set in. “A couple days before I went to Detroit, my mom was like, ‘It’s on you,’” Dayana says. Nervous, she took a notepad into the family’s restaurant kitchen to watch and record her mother’s bean recipe in case she forgot.


But when it came time for Dayana to cook in Detroit, she didn’t have time to follow the recipe step by step. So she winged it. The end result was so good that guests wanted to know how she did it. “I don’t know,” Dayana told them. “I was just going by taste.”

That elusive quality—taste and intuition—is often the key ingredient that can turn your meatballs, barbecue, or noodle soup from good to the spitting image of your great-grandfather’s.

For Twitty, intuition in the kitchen comes from interacting with a cuisine over time. “People don’t want to hear that there’s a part of the cooking that takes a while to get,” says Twitty. Yet intuition requires developing a relationship, and not just with the food itself, but with how food fits into a group’s values and way of life. “Our tradition values far more than techniques,” says Twitty of African-American food. “It values the meaning behind the food, the use of the food to create social cohesion and foster cultural memory.”

If you didn’t grow up in the kitchen, you can still develop that intuition with practice. The more you cook and watch others cook, the more you’ll develop your own ability to “go by taste.” Similarly, recreating a recipe may mean not just cooking the dish, but cooking it in the context your ancestors enjoyed it, whether on Christmas Eve or for funerals. “You have to spend a lifetime doing this,” Twitty says.

Don’t Get Hung Up On Authenticity

The dishes Melissa Miranda and her collaborators serve at Musang are inspired by the Filipino food they grew up eating. But each dish contains a special twist: chicken adobo that’s roasted rather than braised, or a Filipino-style take on the Italian-American Feast of the Seven Fishes. “We’re authentic in terms of flavors, and not traditional in terms of how dishes are presented and cooked,” says Miranda.

That’s created confusion among some diners. “There have definitely been some elder Filipinos who have come in and said, ‘I don’t get it,’” says Miranda. But for Miranda, authenticity is more about flavor and feeling than about doing a literal rendition of every dish. This approach has impressed the most important critics: Her parents love the restaurant.


When you’re searching for that elusive taste from your memories, you may worry that you’ll never achieve precise authenticity. Twitty says that’s okay. For his historical interpretations, Twitty dresses in period clothing and cooks with the antebellum implements of his enslaved forebears. It’s “an act of devotion to my Ancestors,” he writes. Yet, Twitty says, authenticity is less about the correctness of the ingredients or tools than about the feeling behind it. “The spirit of the food and who you cook it for is the most important part of authenticity.”

Cooking has always been about time, place, and season. You live in a different era, and likely in a different place, than your ancestors. You have access to a different set of ingredients, even to a different sense of taste. There may be gaps in the historical record, or parts of your family history that you can never know. Rather than being frustrated with the information you don’t have, you can reflect on what historical factors created these gaps in knowledge—an approach that Jessica B. Harris, a food historian of the African diaspora, has called “studying the silences.”

After all, sometimes the dishes we canonize as authentic are simply things our ancestors picked up along the way. Twitty, who is Jewish, tells a joke about a mother who cuts brisket a particular way. Her daughter cuts it the same way; then her daughter. When the granddaughter asks the grandmother why, assuming the technique is a time-honored tradition, Bubbi says, “Because it didn’t fit the pan.”

Pass It On

Recently, Twitty was at his cousin’s house, spinning stories for the children. He told them about their grandmother, who made the best fried chicken in the world, and about their great-grandparents, who skipped meals so their kids could eat during the Depression. “I’m the memory of the family,” Twitty says.

Family culinary history is chronicled in our tales and written records, but it also lives in our senses and our bodily rhythms. Your food history is in the way you bring roti to your mouth, with a flick of the wrist just like your grandfather’s; the way you put hot sauce on your greens; the way you cut your brisket, in the shape of a pan that has long since ceased to exist.

However your recreated pasta con le sarde, okra soup, or pozole comes out, the simple act of cooking and sharing connects you to those who came before you, and those who will come after. For Twitty, cooking boils down to this relationship of stewardship. “I know it,” he says, “And I pass it on.”

Dublin Writers Museum in Dublin, Ireland Tue, 17 Nov 2020 13:00:00 -0500 'Gulliver's Travels' (1804)

This museum resides inside an 18th-century?mansion in Dublin City Centre next to the Garden of Remembrance. The Dublin Writers Museum first opened in 1991, and is dedicated to the lives and works of some of the most renowned Irish authors. The various exhibits include books, letters, and portraits from well-known writers such as James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, and Samuel Beckett.

A few objects on display are also world-renowned literary treasures. These include an 1804 edition of Gulliver’s Travels, written by Irish author Johnathan Swift and a first edition copy of Dracula?by Bram Stoker.?

A few more interesting items visitors will find inside include Mary Lavin’s Teddy Bear, poet Austin Clarke’s desk, and Beckett’s phone. Lavin is known for her short stories, many of which earned various awards. She was heralded as a pioneer in women's writing. Many of her works centered around women's issues and featured themes of Catholocism.?

There is also a café and bookshop on the ground floor of the museum.?

authors history & culture writing museums
Boelson Cottage in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Tue, 17 Nov 2020 12:00:00 -0500 Boelson Cottage

Constructed on land granted to John Boelson (or Jan Boelsen in some documents) in 1677 by the colonial Swedish authorities, the cottage is one of the oldest surviving residences and buildings in Philadelphia. It's believed to have been constructed between 1678-1684

Composed of wood and fieldstone in?Dutch?and?Swedish-style, the house has changed ownership and its name many times over its existence. A few of those names include Aunt Cornelia's, Pig's Eye, Belmont Cottage, and most prominently during the 19th-century, Tom Moore's House. After functioning as a private residence, the house changed hands several times and now functions as offices for the Friends of the Philadelphia Parks.?

Located in what was once a secluded tract above the Schuylkill River, the area became a suburb for the wealthy Philadelphian elite before being carved up by railroads and highways during the 20th-century. The house is in still somewhat good condition and is one of only two remaining Swedish style buildings in Philadelphia.

While the area around the building is easily accessible, the building itself maintains some of its original privacy. It's only signage is a placard that notes its owner and the date of construction.?

design architecture history & culture houses
When Ships Are Abandoned, Stuck Sailors Struggle to Get By—and Get Paid Federico Formica Tue, 17 Nov 2020 11:45:00 -0500 When Captain Alexander Ovchinnikov took over command of the ship Gobustan in Istanbul, the term “COVID-19” hadn’t been coined yet, "quarantine" was the stuff of apocalyptic science fiction, and few people outside of China knew where Wuhan was. It was December 25, 2019. Ovchinnikov, 39, was still on that ship through the summer, along with 11 other crew members: The second engineer was Russian too, the cook was Ukranian, and the rest were from Azerbaijan. At least one had been on board since October 2019, and none of them had received a salary since January. The crew of Gobustan had been stuck since June 16 in the Italian port of Ravenna, on the Adriatic Sea. "We live like in prison. We get up, have breakfast, do some routine activities, then we have dinner and go to bed," said Ovchinnikov. Their days were all the same and the stillness was shaken only by cleaning and maintenance activities. Sure enough, the ship was clean as a whistle.

A few hundred yards away, another vessel, Sultan Bey, captained by Eldur Abdurakhmanov, 42, of Azerbaijan, had been in the same situation. The ship is smaller than Gobustan, but both fly the Maltese flag and, more importantly, are owned by the same company, Palmali Holding. This large Turkish-Azerbaijani shipping company sank into a deep financial crisis after the arrest of its founder and owner, Mübariz Mansimov Gurbano?lu, on March 15, 2020.

In the Mediterranean Sea there are now more than 15 Palmali ships stuck in ports, as if in suspended animation, having been seized by creditors. Many of them still have sailors aboard. In Italy there are five: the two in Ravenna, plus two in Sardinia (General Shikhlinsky and Khosrov Bey) and one near Venice, Zeinabaldyn Tagiyev. In Beirut, several sailors of Captain Nagdaliyev have been stuck since May 12—just half a mile from the giant warehouse explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital on August 4, 2020. And the origin of that disaster was yet another ship abandoned by its owner, Rhosus, which had arrived in Beirut in 2013 with a cargo of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate and a ballast of debt. The Rhosus crew was trapped for a year before they were released. The cargo went into a warehouse and the ship itself sank to the bottom of the harbor. That cargo later fueled the largest non-nuclear, human-made explosion in history.

According to the International Maritime Organization database, since 2004, 438 ships have been abandoned worldwide, and with them more than 5,700 sailors. The reasons are almost always the same: shipowners, mired in financial difficulties, simply disappear. Commercial ports, often far from city centers, inaccessible to unauthorized personnel, and in some cases rife with corruption, are like parallel worlds. When crews are stranded in financially strapped countries or in war zones, the sailors are at risk of plunging into desperate poverty, outside of the view of the world.

The men on board Gobustan and Sultan Bey experienced a muted view of pandemic lockdown. Being isolated already, they faced very little chance of infection, but their lives were still disrupted. They couldn’t set sail, and they couldn’t even set foot on the ground since April, both because they are not citizens of the European Union and because ports are limiting the number of permits due to the pandemic. "Since the outbreak of the epidemic we can no longer move from here. It is very important for a sailor to go ashore every now and then, to eat something different, to take a walk,” said Ovchinnikov. “We are satisfied with little, but even that little is impossible today.”

The owner of the ships, the Azerbaijan-born Gurbano?lu, was one of the richest men in Turkey, at least until he was arrested after having been accused of participating in the failed coup against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdo?an in 2016. Gurbano?lu claims to be the victim of a conspiracy, but the sailors cared little for these "land stories." They all said the same thing: "We just want to get paid. And then go home." Ovchinnikov wanted to return to his small town on the Don River, which flows into the Sea of Azov and take his girlfriend out to dinner. Azar Babayev, 55, Sultan Bey’s chief engineer, had been working on ships for 30 years, but he had never been away from his home in Baku, Azerbaijan, for so long. He hadn't seen his two sons for more than a year. "When I come back, I will spend the two weeks of quarantine sleeping in bed," he joked. "Then I will go for a walk together with my family."


"After 10 months on board, what should I do? Go back to Baku and tell my wife and children 'I'm sorry, but I haven't brought any money home?’ No way. I will only leave when someone brings me my money," said Jalal Mammadov, chief officer of Gobustan. But that's a difficult plan. Carlo Cordone is a man whose task is to try to make the sailors understand that.

If the 26 people on board the two ships in Ravenna had food to eat, water for drinking and washing, and access to internet and television, it was thanks to people like Cordone, president of the Ravenna Seafarers Welfare Committee, a former sailor with a volcanic character. In addition to not paying salaries, Palmali was not providing water, food, or the fuel necessary to run everything on the ship, from electricity to running water. Almost $60,000 had been provided to supply Sultan Bey. Cordone raised this money by asking for donations from city hall and charities, and drawing funds from the Port Authority and other institutions. Thousands more had gone to supply Gobustan as well.


"But you can't go on like this. You can't live on charity forever. The seafarers must do only one thing: Ask for the seizure of the ship for their unpaid wages, get it from the judge, and go home,” Cordone explains, often interrupting the conversation to take one phone call or another. “They must rest assured about this, I tell them every day. As soon as the ship is sold at auction, they will be the first to be compensated. But it can take a year, to be optimistic." However, as he knows, sailors are not easy to convince. In Venice and Oristano, where charities and local authorities have been ensuring the survival of abandoned crews at their own expense, the sailors do not want to leave without the money they’re owed. All of the crews stuck in Italian ports are also assisted by Paolo Siligato, an inspector from the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), the international union for seafarers.

On Gobustan, even as Palmali offered to pay for 1,320 gallons of fuel, the men on board were willing to sign the document to begin the seizure—at least until Palmali made them an offer. They would get four months of back pay—less than half of what they were owed—and could go home, with no ability to ask for any more of their lost salary. In October, they took the deal.


The seafarers on Sultan Bey, on the other hand, were less combative or resentful toward the shipowner. "That's because they had less arrears," says Cordone. The crew, after loading sunflower seeds in Reni, Ukraine, went on strike in Istanbul at the end of June because Palmali had already failed to pay $106,000 owed to them. The owner of the cargo—not Palmali—had gone ahead and paid the seamen to see the goods delivered, and then started the process of seizure to recoup its funds. So those on Sultan Bey were owed less, but they still held their ground, and only at the end of October they signed the seizure papers and were allowed to return home to await their full missing wages. "Someone even told me that he [was] willing to stay even without electricity on board,” Cordone says. “Do they want to eat canned meat with a candle on their head? I will never allow that: Their dignity is in first place.” He had finally managed to convince the crew.

This was not the case for the 12 men originally aboard Captain Nagdaliyev, stranded in Beirut and owed $250,000 in wages. For 10 days the crew was without fuel and food. Asked via Whatsapp how they managed, one sailor replied, "It's very simple: We started fishing and then we cooked using the coal we had on board." But they couldn’t wash themselves because they were without generators, so the pumps didn’t work. The explosion on August 4 made their mood worse. "That day I thought the end of the world had come,” the sailor continued. “Since then the port has been militarized, we live in a state of strong psychological discomfort and we want to leave.”


The two Russians and the 10 Azerbaijanis aboard Captain Nagdaliyev finally got some help, and variety in their diet, from the ITF, which paid for a supply of food, water, and fuel for at least a few days. "The shipowner was responsible for these men. It is a scandal that he ran away and abandoned them,” says Mohamed Arrachedi, network coordinator for the Arab world and Iran for ITF. “The flag country, Malta, also has obligations to them, but it keeps telling us that it is dealing with it and so far we have seen nothing concrete." Currently in Bilbao, Spain, Arrachedi explains on the phone that it would not normally be the task of the ITF to supply the crews, but has done so "for humanitarian reasons," and that after the explosion in Beirut, "The sailors are more worried than before because they see that there is a state of emergency around them. Even just to bring drinking water on board, you have to refuel outside, because there is not drinking water in the port." Most recently, eight of the sailors were allowed to leave, while four had been required to stay on the ship so that it would not be completely unmanned.

The presence of the ITF in this part of the world, where some countries do not allow union activity at all, "is very recent and when a crew contacts me, often the situation is already very serious, therefore more difficult to solve." Arrachedi’s goal is the same as Cordone’s: to get the seizure of the ship from a judge, send the sailors home, and then get them their money, maybe in a year or two.

Meanwhile, in Ravenna, Cordone continues to curse the bureaucracy—he is now struggling against the jungle of rules and obligations surrounding the pandemic, which complicates even putting the sailors on a plane to take them home. He, Arrachedi, and many others like them will continue to work hard to provide hope for the seafarers abandoned by their employers, ignored by governments, and seemingly forgotten by the world.

'A Drama in Time' in Edinburgh, Scotland Tue, 17 Nov 2020 11:00:00 -0500 All five neon artworks.

Commissioned as part of the 2016 Edinburgh Art Festival, "A Drama in Time" is a set of five neon artworks by Scottish artist Graham Fagen. They depict two seascapes, two sailboats, and a skeleton in the middle. Its title comes from a quote by Patrick Geddes, a city planner noted for his improvements to the living conditions of Edinburgh's then-infamously crowded and unsanitary Old Town. According to Geddes: "A city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time."

Located near the Calton Road (downhill) terminus of the well-known Jacob's Ladder, the artwork draws meaning from the Ladder itself, which can be seen as a connection between the Old and New Towns. Additionally, it leads to the many monuments atop Calton Hill, which also offer views of the Firth of Forth, Edinburgh's gateway to the sea.

One of the most notable monuments of Calton Hill is dedicated to Robert Burns, considered Scotland's national poet. Active during the late 18th-century, Burns once intended to emigrate to Jamaica and oversee a plantation worked by slaves. His boat was set to depart from Edinburgh's port of Leith, but his precarious financial situation kept him from following through. Instead, he stayed in Scotland and eventually gained stronger abolitionist views, which lead to his poem "The Slave's Lament".

While neither Fagen nor the Edinburgh Art Festival state that "A Drama in Time" is directly related to the African slave trade by European powers, Fagen has addressed Burns's "Lament" in other works. Considering the imagery of European Age of Discovery-style boats alongside sunny beach scenery and a representation of death, it's likely that the work is meant to relate to the heavy legacy of major European cities such as Edinburgh itself, and perhaps, slavery.

art history & culture outsider art
Jarjeer Mule And Donkey Refuge in Marrakesh, Morocco Tue, 17 Nov 2020 10:00:00 -0500 Jarjeer Mule And Donkey Refuge

Exiting Marrakesh (Marrakech), the view seems to empty out like sand in an hourglass and becomes all sky. The highway to the south runs along a line of futuristic-looking lights and eventually arrives at the Jarjeer Mule And Donkey Refuge.

Terracotta cubist buildings mirror the minimalist logo of Jarjeer. The refuge is comprised of a home, stables, and corrals, as well as courtyards and fountains set in landscaping crisscrossed by footpaths, bees, and butterflies.

The refuge is the creation of Susan Machin and Charles Hantom, who were both lawyers in England before retiring and purchasing the land where the refuge is housed. The idea arose when the two worked with an animal rescue organization and took home a donkey that needed more long-term care. After someone else brought them another donkey, the idea of creating a sanctuary began to take form. The couple brought in dozens of equines, as well as several dogs.

A visit to the sanctuary is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Once animals are brought to the refuge, they stay for the rest of their lives and are never tethered. It's truly a retirement home for donkeys who were working animals most of their lives. They roam free and are fed twice a day on alfalfa and sugar beets.

Some of the animals’ stories are truly horrifying and the marks still show on their bodies. Working donkeys are often abandoned if they become injured in Morocco and many arrive at the sanctuary in poor physical condition. Caleche horses often arrive starved because their owners can’t feed them without substantial business from tourists. However, the center does a great job of helping the animals rebound.

There are many tragedies in these animals’ backstories, but the overall experience of Jarjeer is uplifting. Witnessing the animals being comforted and at peace is an enlightening experience.?

nature history & culture animals
Leather Balls and 3,000-Year-Old Pants Hint at an Ancient Asian Sport Isaac Schultz Tue, 17 Nov 2020 09:00:00 -0500 A little over 3,000 years ago, a roughly 40-year-old man was laid to rest in a cemetery in what is now the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in Northwest China. He was wearing fancy pants. Possibly the oldest trousers in the world, they had an enlarged crotch area, indicating he spent a lot of time on horseback. A pair of red leather boots completed the ancient ensemble.

But perhaps the most curious component of the grave was a leather ball, around the size of a human fist. When it was excavated in the 1970s, no one knew how old the tomb was. Now, the leather balls have finally been dated to approximately the same period as the pants. The results were published in the open-access Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

“We can now confirm that these three leather balls from Yanghai are the oldest leather balls in Eurasia,” says Patrick Wertmann, an archaeologist at the University of Zurich and lead author of the recent study. “They were life tools, used for play or useful training.”


The grave in question is just one of 3,000 found at Yanghai, in the Turpan Basin. Since 2003, just over 500 of the graves have been excavated, and three of them—including the tomb of the well-to-do horseman—yielded the balls, two of which were marked with a red cross.

In the first millennium BC, Yanghai was home to a sophisticated community of horseback riders. Wertmann says they were some of the earliest horse domesticators in the area, and that the presence of the balls—and the depiction of horseback ball games elsewhere in China—suggests that the balls may have been used for sport. The Yanghai Tombs, as they are known, span nearly 1,400 years, and most have been well-preserved. The most recent date to the Han Dynasty, or roughly the 2nd century. The site offers archaeologists a glimpse of what mattered to these ancient riders, from their riding trousers to their red-leather boots.

“The whole Turpan Basin is like a treasure trove because of the climate conditions,” Wertmann says. “It's extremely hot and extremely dry. For us as archaeologists it’s really good, because all these organic materials are naturally preserved, including textiles, leather, wood, and also the human animal and plant remains that are not usually preserved in archaeological contexts.”


The balls—which are stuffed with wool and hair, wrapped in treated rawhide, and crimped closed on top—look a lot like large soup dumplings. They’re half a millennium older than other excavated balls from Eurasia, according to Wertmann. At least one of the balls had strike marks and had apparently burst open, perhaps after it was struck in a game. The red crosses—which also show up in later Chinese art depicting stick-and-ball games—may have been painted to help the tan balls stand out from the brown landscape.

The balls were no joke. “They’re actually really hard,” Wertmann says. “You could compare these leather balls from Yanghai with modern baseballs.”

More recent art from elsewhere in China shows polo-like games being played on horseback with sticks. Curved wooden sticks were also found in some graves in Yanghai, though they are younger than the leather balls, so the two were not necessarily used in tandem.


“I appreciate how cautious the authors are in their interpretations of these balls, essentially saying we cannot determine based on current evidence that these balls can be linked with polo,” says Jeffrey Blomster, an archaeologist at George Washington University who has worked on numerous ball-game sites in Mesoamerica, and who is unaffiliated with the recent paper. “While we cannot say for sure what kind of game, or even activity, was performed using these balls, the fact that all three are nearly the same size suggests a similar use for all three.”

With thousands of graves left to excavate at Yanghai, archaeologists may learn more about the exact purpose of these balls. The elements of sport are there, and for the researchers who study them, the game’s afoot.

Abandoned Badbea in Highland, Scotland Tue, 17 Nov 2020 09:00:00 -0500 Abandoned Badbea

Records show that this area was originally inhabited around 1793, but Badbea is most famous for the remains of the clearance village. Here lie the ruins of former homes perched on the steep slopes above the cliff tops of Berriedale.?

Badbea village was settled during the 18th and 19th-centuries by families evicted from their homes when?Langwell, Ousdale, and Berriedale were cleared for sheep farming. When the families arrived at Badbea, they were given small plots of land but were first required to clear the area and build their own houses from the stones they unearthed.

The conditions at Badbea were very harsh, as the cliffside location and strong winds were extremely dangerous. The families sustained themselves through farming and raising livestock. Legend has it that cattle, hens, and even children had to be tethered to various objects to keep them from being blown over the cliffs by the strong winds.

The last resident left the village in 1911 and a monument was commissioned by the son of a former inhabitant. This now acts as a great marker for finding the location of the old village.

legends history & culture villages ruins
The Radical Act of Opening a Brewery as a Native American Eric J. Wallace Mon, 16 Nov 2020 18:31:00 -0500 Morgan Crisp listened in horror as members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians lambasted her newly launched craft beer brand, 7 Clans.

Around 650 out of 14,000 active members had petitioned the tribal council to force the company to change its name and that of its flagship brew, MotherTown Blonde Ale. Both allude to origin tales about the birthplace of the Cherokee people, Kituwah, and their division into matriarchal lineages. Critics accused Crisp of dishonoring tribal ancestors by attaching sacred symbols to alcohol and seeking to open a brewpub on Cherokee lands.

“[Alcohol] caused much trauma to who our ancestors were,” Leah Wolfe, a lead-petitioner, told the council in April 2018. European colonizers had used booze to manipulate Cherokee into selling land and making bad business deals. Related problems led tribal elders to mandate abstinence and ban alcohol from what is now the federally recognized Qualla Boundary in 1830. Wolfe said she’d watched too many friends and family members struggle with alcoholism. She argued the tribe’s historical opposition to alcohol should supersede economics. Manufacturing booze on tribal lands was wrong, period.

The hostility blindsided Crisp.

“It was confusing, because this was my culture too,” says Crisp, who was born and raised within the tribe’s Qualla Boundary. Her father’s family had called the area home for generations. She’d spent eight years working for the Cherokee Preservation Foundation and owned a publishing company devoted to tribal history and culture. Crisp envisioned 7 Clans as a way to boost tourism, share stories about her heritage, and create positive tribal narratives around alcohol.

“These were people I’d grown up with and worked alongside, and they were smearing me in the most public way imaginable,” says Crisp, now 40. “First, I felt humiliated, then wronged, then very, very angry.”

Crisp’s experience wasn’t unique. Her situation exemplifies the hurdles faced by Native American craft-spirits makers.

In addition to the everyday challenges of starting a business, they face bias and limited access to capital. But the hardest part is that the people they hope will be their best customers and supporters—friends, family and neighbors—often see their dream as a betrayal of Native values.


While Crisp was angry and disappointed by the reaction at the tribal council, as well as other meetings that followed, she could understand the opposition to 7 Clans. After all, she’d spent her teens and early-20s feeling just as wary of alcohol as the rest of the tribe.

“If you’re a [Native person] of a certain age, I think you probably know that fear,” says Curtis Basina, 59, who founded the first Native American-owned distillery in the U.S. with his wife on private property within the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation in 2018. “Alcohol has such a dubious history [among Native Americans].”

While there are instances of Native Americans seeking out alcohol from colonizers, as well as tribes avoiding alcohol entirely, contemporary scholars have compared the actions of European frontiersmen—who pushed hard liquor as a trade good—to Britain's Opium Wars with China. Similar to how Britain waged two wars to overcome Chinese opposition to their aggressive sale of opium, colonizers encouraged hard drinking to ensure they could continually trade liquor for valuable Native goods such as furs. Along with the systemic poverty most tribes suffered in the wake of colonization, this led to higher rates of substance abuse, which in turn fueled “Drunken Indian” stereotypes.

And those scars are still around.


A retired state policeman, Basina was raised near the Red Cliff reservation, where his grandparents and other family members lived. Like Wolfe, the Cherokee petitioner, he witnessed the consequences of alcoholism firsthand.

“If you grew up watching people you love destroy their lives [through alcohol abuse], that can make it hard to be objective,” says Basina.

Further pressure came from racist scientific studies that claimed Native Americans were more susceptible to alcohol than other groups. Also, from outsiders’ depictions of reservations as slums overrun with irredeemable drunks.

“As a kid, you’re hearing people say you’re physiologically and genetically predisposed to alcoholism,” says Crisp. You see the disease’s effects around the community and “in the back of your mind it’s like, ‘One false move and that’s it, I’m a walking stereotype.’”

Basina was raised off-reservation by parents who more-or-less eschewed their Native identities. They enjoyed beer and wine with non-Native friends, but didn’t imbibe or mention alcohol around traditionalist family members. That discrepancy left him worried about drinking.

“I had fears I doubt ever crossed the minds of my [non-Native] friends,” says Basina. Namely, could taking a drink plunge him into an inescapable hell of substance abuse? Sure, his parents were fine. But what if it was like cancer and skipped a generation?

Crisp grew up in the Qualla Boundary in the 1980s and early ‘90s, and had similar worries.

“Back then, [the Boundary] was still super rural and there was a lot of poverty,” says Crisp. Economic opportunities were few, schools underfunded. Meanwhile, “the racism my [parents’ and grandparents’ generations] had to endure was unfathomable.”

Crisp’s grandfather told horror stories of walking to neighboring towns as a teenager. His curiosity about life beyond the Boundary was met with harassment and threats.

“Men would drive by and yell things like, ‘Dirty Indian, what happened, you go on a drunk and get lost?’” says Crisp. Others pelted him with beer bottles and trash. One aimed a pistol at his head and demanded he run along home to where he belonged.

Principal Chief Richard Sneed says these circumstances caused higher rates of depression, substance abuse, and obesity. Substantive change didn’t come until the arrival of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in 1997. Tribal leadership invested gaming revenues in better educational opportunities, counseling programs, healthcare, local businesses, and museums. They also created a local economy around ecotourism—the 56,000-acre Boundary borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, features numerous rivers, and sits at the southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“You can’t have severe poverty and truly be sovereign,” says Sneed, 51, who moved to the Boundary from New Jersey at age 14. To him, increased alcohol abuse was symptomatic of a deeper disorder. As the Eastern Band addressed poverty, “it was like this horrible cloud of despair that’d been hanging over our heads for centuries started to vanish.”

Regardless, Crisp didn’t take a drink until well into college. Like Basina, she was frightened by the specter of alcoholism. New perspective came while visiting breweries with friends in Asheville, North Carolina.

“They introduced me to the concept of drinking for taste,” says Crisp. In the world of her upbringing, people either abstained “or were raging alcoholics. There was no middle ground.”

Watching friends responsibly enjoy flights of craft beer was cathartic. She ventured sips of various brews, fell in love with the spectrum of flavors, and suffered no Hyde-like transformation. The experience marked the beginning of Crisp’s journey to become a craft brewer. It also led her to think deeply about Native fears around alcohol.

For non-Native friends, “having a drink wasn’t perceived as inherently life-threatening,” says Crisp. “I started examining this irrational belief I’d had where, if I drank one beer, I was doomed to spiral totally out of control.”

Crisp now likens those beliefs to a demonic superstition. Though intended to be protective, they cloud judgement and do more harm than good.

Sneed agrees. In a community suffering from higher rates of substance abuse—presently about 7.1 percent compared to 5.4 percent for the total U.S. population, according to the American Addiction Centers—the dangers of alcohol should be taken seriously. But increased education, counseling, and treatment options are proper solutions, not bans or stigma.


Curtis and Linda Basina weighed the moral implications of launching Copper Crow Distillery on a reservation in advance. On one hand, they worried about offending fellow Red Cliff Chippewa. On the other, they believed they had a higher purpose.

For starters, the endeavor was only made possible by the 2018 repeal of federal statutes banning distilleries on tribal lands. Curtis learned of the prohibitions while attending workshops at the American Distilling Institute two years before.

“That was such a slap in the face,” he says. The laws were based on centuries-old racist stereotypes. “The fact they were still around told me the whole ‘Drunken Indian’ nonsense was still alive and well. That made me want to do something to change that narrative.”

Hoping to preempt backlash, the couple shared the idea at tribal council meetings. Their pitch was similar to Crisp’s and focused on economic development.

The Red Cliff reservation rests on a rural Lake Superior peninsula within sight of the Apostle Islands. Scenic landscapes, ample protected lands, and recent national trends have fueled development around eco-tourism. Copper Crow’s high-end artisan spirits and tasting room would offer a new visitor experience while combating negative stereotypes and fears around Native Americans and alcohol.

“As absurd as it sounds, we wanted to prove you could have [a Native-owned distillery] selling spirits on a reservation and not start an apocalypse,” says Curtis. “We intended to show that, done right, craft-spirits businesses would strengthen tribal communities.”


But not everybody bought the pitch. “Some people were really confrontational,” says Linda. “They were like, ‘We can’t believe you’re even thinking of doing this here, it’s so disrespectful!’”

The couple responded by explaining the meaning of their business’s name. In Chippewa mythos, the crow is often depicted as a messenger that shows the way forward. Curtis argued, “It’s time for [Native people] to write our own narratives around alcohol. And it starts with setting positive examples within our own communities.”

The Basinas ultimately won the support they needed. By the close of 2018, the Red Cliff Chippewa had become the first U.S. tribe to make and sell distilled spirits on a reservation in nearly 200 years. Soon, even naysayers came to see the business as a welcome addition.

“At this point, I think we’ve all realized what a boon [Copper Crow] is for our community,” says Red Cliff Tribal Council Chairman, Richard Peterson.

The sight of Red Cliff members and tourists enjoying premium whey vodka made from local Wisconsin cheese on an outdoor patio, while enjoying music and food trucks, offers a stark alternative to the fears of alcoholism that have monopolized the narrative around Native Americans and liquor.


While community resistance ultimately led Crisp to headquarter her brewing facilities in a neighboring county, she and Sneed agree: Copper Crow is a powerful case study. Its success offers a template for adapting Native values and stories in the context of an alcohol-related business.

Detractors in the Eastern Band say, “‘Oh, alcohol wasn’t a part of Native American culture, so we shouldn’t go near it,’” says Crisp. Furthermore, some of the biggest names and institutions in Native foods, including the James Beard-winning chef and cookbook author Sean Sherman, who is also known as the Sioux Chef, do not use ingredients not present in the Americas before 1492.

But Crisp argues that Indigenous people of the Americas made fermented beverages for centuries before Europeans arrived. And most critics, she adds, “live in homes and work in businesses with electricity, plumbing, air conditioning, refrigerators. So, should we abandon those too?”

Crisp retains hopes of eventually opening a brewpub on Cherokee land. Sneed supported her original plans and says 7 Clans would complement the Boundary’s fishing, kayaking, hiking, and mountain-biking opportunities, including a recently opened, pro-grade bike park.

Sneed calls the idea of a Cherokee-owned brewery opening on Cherokee lands encouraging. He hopes the Eastern Band and other tribes will see how operations like the Basinas’ have benefitted their communities and say, “Okay, this is safe, this is innovative, it’s time to embrace these entrepreneurs and move forward.”

Copper Crow Distillery in Bayfield, Wisconsin Mon, 16 Nov 2020 14:00:00 -0500

Wisconsin’s Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa made history when tribal members Curtis and Linda Basina launched Copper Crow Distillery in 2018. The husband-and-wife team became the first Native Americans to make distilled spirits on a reservation in nearly 200 years.?

To do it, they first had to overcome racist federal laws. The U.S. government passed statutes banning the production and sale of alcoholic beverages on Native American lands in 1834. While most were repealed, making liquor remained illegal until December 2018.?

The Basinas learned about the ban while attending workshops at the American Distilling Institute in 2016. By then, Curtis had retired from his job as a state policeman; the couple had invested their life savings in a building and equipment for the business.?

Curtis described the ban as “a huge slap in the face,” but it gave the Basinas a higher sense of purpose. They joined lobbying efforts with other tribal entrepreneurs nationwide and made their business one that shows the positive impact of a crafts-spirits business, done right, on tribal communities. Copper Crow launched within weeks of the federal ban’s repeal.?

Today, the distillery, which sits on a rural peninsula near vistas and protected lands that draw hikers and tourists, offers a full line of artisanal spirits, including vodka, gin, and rum. Specialty whiskies and bourbons are maturing in barrels for future release. A flagship whey vodka is made using cheese from local dairy farmers. Because of sourcing difficulties—the process requires large quantities of fresh cheese byproduct—Copper Crow is one of just a dozen or so distillers worldwide that make it.?

Best of all, the distillery is widely viewed as having a positive impact, and scenes of Red Cliff members and tourists enjoying music and food trucks visibly contrast with the insulting “Drunken Indian” stereotypes that once made businesses like Copper Crow illegal.

alcohol native american cuisine native americans bars distillery
The Power of a South Pole Sunrise After Six Months of Darkness Marissa Grunes Mon, 16 Nov 2020 13:52:00 -0500 On September 20, the sun began to rise at the South Pole. It took 30 hours for the sun’s disk to clear the horizon, and weeks later, it is still climbing toward noon. And for the first time in a decade, Robert Schwarz, a.k.a. The Iceman, was not there to see it. “When the sun started coming up, I always thought it was too bad,” Schwarz says. “It means winter at the South Pole is ending.”

Antarctic weather is notoriously bad, so this year’s sunrise wasn’t much to see. But staff at the South Pole say they still laugh with surprise when they step outside into the golden light gleaming off the ice.

In the heart of Antarctica, winter is one long night that lasts six months. As darkness starts to fall in mid-February of each year, a small crowd gathers outside Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to watch a gray C-130 Hercules ski down an icy airstrip and take off. Because no planes brave the sunless Antarctic winter, this flight is the last chance to leave the white continent. Everyone who stays is stuck there until the summer research season starts in November. Antarcticans call it “wintering over.”


Schwarz has spent 15 winters at the South Pole, nine of them in succession from 2011 to 2019. When he stepped down from his role this year at the age of 50, he had wintered over at “Pole,” as it is colloquially known, more times than any human in history. On a recent Friday, he was at home in Germany, wearing a yellow shirt emblazoned with the word “ANTARCTICA.” He smiled often and laughed easily. On the wall behind him, a framed poster showed Neil Armstrong standing on the Moon.

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t exactly what Schwarz had in mind for his first year back from Antarctica, but he has learned a few things from the isolation of winter at the Pole. “I finally have time for all the projects I missed out on over the last 10 years,” he says. “You have to make the best of it.”

Denis Barkats, a senior scientist who wintered with Schwarz in 2006, recalls an old Antarctic joke: “The first time you winter, it’s for the adventure. The second time, it’s for the money. The third time, it’s because you don’t fit anywhere else.” But that doesn’t seem true of Schwarz, who is cheerful and easygoing, Barkats says. “He has something I don’t have,” he goes on. To return 15 times, one must effectively treat the rigors of winter as one’s job. “You might say, ‘Oh boy, I really want a watermelon!,’” Barkats says with a smile. “Well, you can’t have it for nine months.”

Schwarz doesn’t regard himself as unusual. Still, at the start of each winter, as Pole’s summer population fell from around 150 to under 50, he usually felt relief. “Suddenly everything is quiet, you only hear the wind, and there are only a few people left,” he says. “It’s a great feeling.”


For weeks, the small crew watches the sun spiral closer to the icy plateau. (At Pole, one can literally see the Earth orbiting the Sun.) In late March, the sun finally touches the horizon. As it disappears over the course of a full day, it emits an elusive “green flash” rarely seen anywhere else in the world. For the month that follows, twilight slowly fades and the world seems to shrink in every direction but one: upward.

Most research at the South Pole is directed into outer space, and during winter, Schwarz’s job was to look after telescopes. One area, known as the “Dark Sector,” is kept free of light and electromagnetic signals, and houses some of the world’s largest telescopes. Here, in the clearest air in the world, the telescopes look back in time, to the Big Bang and the origins of the universe. “When we look into space, we always look into the past,” Schwarz says. “And the signal we are looking at was 13.8 billion years on its way to us.”

Schwarz holds an advanced degree in astronomy and theoretical physics, but describes himself as a “soldering iron and wrench physicist.” He has done everything from maintaining hardware to debugging software to cryogenics—whatever the telescope needs to continue beaming data out to researchers. “If something breaks, you can’t order new parts,” Schwarz points out. “Well, you can, but they won’t arrive until summer. You have to start improvising.” He considers it a bit like living on another planet.

The history of Antarctic winter-overs is full of grim stories: mental breakdowns, even attempted murders. The Belgian explorers who were first to overwinter on the continent developed a therapeutic routine of walking in endless circles around their ship, the Belgica, which became trapped in the ice in 1899. They called it the “madhouse promenade.”


These days, those who overwinter at Pole bid farewell to the last flight by watching all three versions of The Thing, about an Antarctic station crew torn apart by paranoia and an alien invader. (They used to watch Kubrick’s The Shining, but now they save that for midwinter.) “People who are curious have a great time,” Schwarz says. “It doesn’t matter if you have a PhD, if you’re a cook, if you’re a mechanic—everybody’s equal.”

The winter crew try to keep busy, filling their social calendars with parties, pickup basketball, and movie screenings. “One of the doctors I wintered with three times taught us how to assist during surgery,” Schwarz says. And when the temperature drops to 100 degrees below zero, you can join the exclusive “300 Club” by jogging naked from a 200° F sauna to the South Pole marker and back. Naturally, Schwarz has joined several times over.

Paula Crock, a telescope engineer currently wintering at Pole, agrees that it helps to stay curious and open-minded. “I’ve learned not to get fixated on thoughts of what I am missing up north,” she writes via email from Antarctica, “but instead focus on the opportunities that I have down here.” She has self-care rituals, too: sleeping in sometimes, having some ice cream at night. “It’s important to not take it personally if one of your crewmates is having a bad day, and forgive and forget easily if they take it out on you,” Crock says.

Of everything he experienced at Pole, Schwarz misses the aurora australis, or southern lights, most of all. Every day, he would walk 30 minutes from the main station building to the Dark Sector. On his “commute,” Schwarz would listen to the crunch of his boots on the frozen ground and the wind passing over the polar plateau. “Sometimes you’ll walk and see the snow flashing green,” he recalls, “and you’ll look up and see this awesome aurora display above you.”


The river-like flow of an aurora is formed by bursts of charged particles from the sun. When these “solar storms” strike the Earth’s protective magnetic field, the collision releases energy in a dazzling array of colors that stream towards the poles. “A rule of thumb is the brighter they are, the faster they move, and they can move really, really fast,” Schwarz says. “The auroras alone are worth going there for.”

Outside of Antarctica, Schwarz actually considers himself a summer person. “Back home, six months, no sun? It would be crazy, I can’t imagine it,” he says with a laugh. “But at Pole, things are in many respects so different. I actually enjoy the real darkness there.”

After spending a quarter of his life in Antarctica, living in Germany has taken some adjusting. His email signoff still reads: “Antarctica - best place on Earth.” Unable to travel far due to pandemic restrictions, he is exploring the mountains close to home, and even found a bit of astronomy at a nearby museum: the Nebra Sky Disk, an ancient bronze map of the heavens. “You have to live with what you have,” he says. “When things come back, you’ll enjoy them even more.”

The Demon of Palazzo Salina in Bologna, Italy Mon, 16 Nov 2020 13:00:00 -0500 The Demon of Palazzo Salina

One of the best ways to admire Bologna is by looking up. Visitors will find towers hidden between palaces, amazing architectural designs, and faces.?

Palazzo Salina Amorini Bolognini in Piazza Santo Stefano is an exquisite example of Bolognese Renaissance taste. The first stone was set in 1517, but for different reasons, edification was interrupted several times during the centuries. The final version was completed in 1884.

The entire facade of the palace is covered in capricci busts composed of terra cotta that jut from circular niches and gaze at curious onlookers. The artists behind the busts were Alfonso Lombardi and Nicolò da Volterra.

There are faces of ladies, warriors, gods, ancient Romans, and several of busts that feature various races and cultures. However, the most well-known is the bust of the demon, possibly a satyr. It's not clear why this figure was placed prominently in the middle of the building, but is not the only face of a demon seen on a building around town.?

architecture outsider art sculptures art
Thanks for Joining Our Tour of All 50 States of Wonder! Jessica Leigh Hester Mon, 16 Nov 2020 12:20:00 -0500 Several months ago, Atlas Obscura invited you to come along with us as we journeyed—digitally—across all 50 U.S. states (and Washington, D.C.) in pursuit of the unsung wonders scattered across the country.

That was July. The COVID-19 pandemic was raging, and we hoped that a virtual journey would sate readers’ hunger for travel while many of us were hunkered down at home. We crossed our fingers that by the time the project wrapped, we’d all be able to safely sail the asphalt seas.

Now, it’s months later and the project is complete—and infections in the United States are higher than ever. To curb the spread of the virus, many readers and Atlas Obscura staffers will spend the holiday season far from loved ones and off the roads. We hope that you all continue to stay healthy and safe—and that these virtual guides bring you some joy in an isolating time.


There’s also no better moment to revisit some of our favorites.

In the East, we learned about Maine’s terrific trains, and the many horrors, hauntings, and hoaxes of New Jersey. In the Midwest, we visited Indiana’s leafy stunners, Iowa’s pop-culture pit stops, and Minnesota’s musical marvels. Down South, we saw Alabama’s animal monuments (including a magnificent statue of a boll weevil) and stone spectacles in Georgia. Out West, we dropped in on the gargantuan animals that preside over South Dakota, saw Wyoming’s wildest wooden buildings, found solace in shady spots in Arizona, savored Utah’s sweet-and-savory snacks, and zipped back in time to ancient California.

Of course, our guides just barely scratched the surface of all the things that make each state wondrous. When we asked readers to recommend spots in their stomping grounds, we learned about the fossilized stromatolites in New York State, a curious cadre of toy ponies in Lincoln, Massachusetts, prehistoric animals preserved under volcanic ash in Nebraska, and the sleek Sundial Bridge in Redding, California. If you'd like to tell us about wonderfully surprising places in your state, you can add them to Atlas Obscura yourself!

Think of our ode to the 50 States as a reminder of how expansive and exciting this country can be—a little bit of fuel to keep your wanderlust chugging. Someday, hopefully soon, we will explore again.

Penascosa Petroglyph in Vila Nova de Foz C?a, Portugal Mon, 16 Nov 2020 12:00:00 -0500 A composite highlighting the "three horses."

The little valley of the C?a River in northern Portugal is home to an amazing collection of Paleolithic rock art. Thousands of figures of horses, bovines, and other animals, along with human and abstract figures were created beginning perhaps 22,000 years ago. The tradition continued throughout the Stone Age and into the Bronze Age.

One particularly imaginative engraving is quite fascinating. It's not the biggest or the most complicated design, nor the most complete or detailed in the valley.?At the Penascosa site, one of three open to the public, a three-headed horse puts on a show for lucky viewers.

Many of the animal carvings tend to overlap one another, this one in particular creates a unique illusion. When the flickering light of a fire illuminates the rock, the horse appears to move its head. Experiments trying to recreate this effect with a flashlight are not always successful.?

The Prehistoric Rock-Art Sites in the C?a Valley were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1998. The C?a Museum is a beautiful modernist building blended into a hilltop that overlooks the confluence of the C?a and Douro Rivers.?

ancient art petroglyphs fires
Valour Road in Winnipeg, Manitoba Mon, 16 Nov 2020 11:00:00 -0500 Valour Road

Prior to 1914, Valour Road was known as Pine Street. The street was lined with small family homes in what was then the far western suburbs of Winnipeg. When World War I erupted, many of the young men from the area went off to fight.?

On April 24, 1915, 30-year-old Frederick Hall spent the night rescuing wounded soldiers from no-man’s-land territory during the war. As he attempted to rescue another soldier under heavy fire, Hall was shot and killed.?

On September 16, 1916, 23-year-old Leo Clarke was ordered to occupy a trench to offer support during a battle. He was the only member of his section left standing, the rest were wounded or dead. Clarke was killed less than a month later when fighting alongside his brother. Robert Shankland was an officer whose platoon was charged with defending a trench line near Passchendale. He managed to survive the war.

These three men all lived on the same block of Pine St and were all awarded the Victoria Cross for their acts of bravery. To honor their service, the city of Winnipeg decided to rename Pine St to Valour Rd.

The street remains a quiet, elm-lined area, but at the corner of Valour Rd and Ellice Ave is a remembrance mural dedicated to these war heroes.

street names history & culture war memorial world war i
730 Crossing in Ishigaki, Japan Mon, 16 Nov 2020 10:00:00 -0500 The 730 Monument.

Following the end of World War II until 1952, Japan was occupied by the United States. Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, however, continued to be under U.S. military control until 1972.

Due to this situation, cars drove on the right in Okinawa in contrast to the main islands of Japan, even after its return to Japan. It was not until July 30, 1978, that Okinawa finally switched back to driving on the left.

For many citizens of Okinawa this date, commonly referred to as “730,” was a historic event that continues to be remembered to this day. There are a few monuments commemorating the day across Okinawa, the most notable of which is the 730 Crossing in the city of Ishigaki.

The transition was not wholly welcomed by the people of Okinawa, as it was the Japanese government’s decision. When the day came however, the transition went so smoothly that reportedly there was little to no confusion and fewer traffic accidents.

In Ishigaki, the transition started at six in the morning, which was inaugurated by a fire siren and boat whistles from the port. A total of 164 police officers and local volunteers guided the cars to drive on the left at what was subsequently named the 730 Crossing. Not long after, a monument was constructed here to celebrate the accident-free transition.

Thirty years later in 2008, the small area around the monument was renovated into a public park to celebrate the anniversary of 730. Now named 730 Shiishii Park, the monument is flanked by a pair of lion-dog?shiishii,?or more commonly known as?shisa,?statues.

cars monuments history & culture
Grave of Hubert H. Humphrey in Minneapolis, Minnesota Mon, 16 Nov 2020 09:00:00 -0500 The final resting place of Hubert H. and Muriel Humphrey in Minneapolis

Tucked in a nondescript corner of a beautiful cemetery in South Minneapolis, lies the final resting place of one of the most significant Democratic politicians of the mid-20th-century.

Hubert Horatio Humphrey was a politician from Minnesota who served as Mayor of Minneapolis, Senator from Minnesota, and Vice President of the United States under Lyndon B. Johnson. He ran for president on multiple occasions, garnering the nomination of the Democratic Party in 1968, although he would be defeated by Richard M. Nixon.?

Humphrey was a congressional leader at the forefront of passing civil rights legislation and several other initiatives. Of course, not everyone was a fan. Political reporter Hunter S. Thompson famously lambasted Humphrey in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972.?

Humphrey was considered a humble man who loved his life, which is exemplified by his gravesite. It's a simple slab of concrete, with a square of grass in the center that holds the graves of Humphrey and his wife of 42 years, Muriel. Inscribed on the grave marker is a quote from Humphrey himself:

"I have enjoyed my life, its disappointments outweighed by its pleasures. I have loved my country in a way that some people consider sentimental and out of style. I still do. And I remain an optimist with joy, without apology, about this country and about the American experiment in democracy."

The Lakewood Cemetery also contains the graves of many Minnesota luminaries and people of interest, such as Senator Paul Wellstone, long time Governor Rudy Perpich, singer Tiny Tim, and Franklin C. Mars, creator of the Milky Way bar.

cemeteries gravestones history & culture politics
The Fossils That Get Away (From Scientists) Jessica Leigh Hester Fri, 13 Nov 2020 18:34:00 -0500 Stan is very big, very old, and very popular. Roughly 65 million years young, Stan long ago retired from trampling, stalking, and gnawing across a steamy landscape of palms and gingkoes, and tussling with family. Like many other retirees, Stan now lives a life of quiet leisure.

Stan hasn’t been lounging on the lido deck of a cruise ship, but rather soaking it in from a prime, street-facing perch at Christie’s auction house in New York City. In September and October, the Midtown flagship space was a pied-à-terre of sorts for a creature that hasn’t been active since the Cretaceous. Stan is a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton—a very complete, very expensive one—and the exhibit, the prelude to a record-smashing sale, wound up being the last time the dinosaur’s many fans could say hello before it disappeared into anonymous hands—at least for now.

Stan, more formally known as specimen BHI 3033, is named for Stan Sacrison, the amateur paleontologist who spotted its massive pelvis jutting out of a sandy cliff in South Dakota’s fossil-rich Hell Creek Formation in 1987. A few years later, the skeleton was excavated by workers at the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, the same outfit that unearthed the T. rex that would be christened SUE and now resides at the Field Museum in Chicago. Stan’s skull has been called “the finest rex head on record,” according to journalist Paige Williams in her book The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for the World’s Ultimate Trophy. Over the long stretch of time that the painstakingly reconstructed creature lived at the Black Hills Institute, the organization sold casts of the stunning specimen for a handsome sum.


When the whole skeleton went up for auction in October 2020, the sale rankled many experts, who worried that the prized specimen would disappear into a private collection. Fossil auctions often make paleontologists nervous for this reason, because private buyers are free to shut down access to both researchers and the public—unless they decide to donate it to a museum.

Items held by museums are very useful to scientists, in part because they can return to old specimens with new questions and fresh techniques for answering them. (In recent years, researchers turned to museums’ old collections of histological slides, soot-covered feathers, and preserved animal specimens to learn about mollusk “brains, historical air pollution, and the astonishing array of tiny bat penis bones, to name just a few examples.) Some private collectors even possess holotypes, the definitive specimen of a species against which all others are measured. Scientists rely on those in particular for comparisons, such as to gauge whether another find represents a new species.

Before Stan went under the hammer in October 2020, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, an organization of 2,000 paleontologists from around the world, sent a letter to Christie’s, asking the auction house to restrict the sale to “bidders from institutions committed to curating specimens for the public good and in perpetuity, or those bidding on behalf of such institutions.” The sale went ahead as planned, and Stan sold for nearly $32 million, to an unnamed buyer.

Some experts grumbled that it was a misuse of the money, wherever it came from. “If this kind of money [were] invested properly, it could easily fund 15 permanent dinosaur research positions, or about 80 full field expeditions per year, in perpetuity,” David Evans, vertebrate paleontology chair at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, told National Geographic. Such ultra-high price tags also put many museums out of the running. When the Field Museum purchased SUE in 1997, for roughly $8.4 million, it did so with help from the McDonald’s Corporation, Walt Disney World Resort, and a smattering of individual donors. “We were certainly concerned that SUE might disappear into some wealthy private hands,” writes William Simpson, collections manager of fossil vertebrates at the museum, in an email.

Moreover, Stan’s sale came with some major restrictions that made the fossil less appealing, even to museums with stuffed coffers, including a ban on making 3D models or merchandise based on the skeleton, The New York Times reported. Museums that bring in a portion of their revenue from gift-shop swag would be hard-pressed to justify spending that much money on some bones that they would not be able to slap on T-shirts or drink cozies. “We would never purchase something unless we owned the rights,” Mark Norell, the paleontologist in charge of fossil amphibians, reptiles, and birds at the American Museum of Natural History, told the Times after the sale.


This isn’t the first time that the sale of a spectacular fossil has upset the paleontological community. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology also objected to a high-profile sale in 2018, when the French auction house Aguttes sold an allosaurid skeleton from Wyoming to an unidentified buyer. In 2008, Christie’s brokered a sale of a triceratops skeleton in Paris, also into private hands. After the triceratops emerged from the ground in North Dakota, the state paleontologist, John Hoganson, said it would be a “tragedy” if the specimen disappeared from public view. (He lobbied for its return to its old ambling grounds.)

While scientists show concern about the public sale of fossils, they also lament the ones they never know about in the first place. “Most of the time fossils that are in private hands go straight there from dealers to buyers, and scientists rarely know what they are missing out on,” writes Jingmai O'Connor, a curator of fossil reptiles at the Field Museum, in an email. “It's more rare that something like Stan occurs—that specimen is well known to science, but then gets sold to a private person.”

It’s hard to say what’s next for Stan—the buyer remains unknown. But fossils that are thought to have been lost to science sometimes turn up again. That triceratops, for instance, now lives in the Museum of Science in Boston, a gift from an anonymous donor who asked that it be dubbed “Cliff,” after their grandfather. As a species, T. rex is long gone, but as far as potential visitors are concerned, it’s too soon to call Stan extinct.

How a Black-Feathered Dino Inspired a Series of Nerdy Cocktails Isaac Schultz Fri, 13 Nov 2020 15:39:00 -0500 At 3:00 a.m. on September 30th, Ryan Carney, a paleontologist and epidemiologist at the University of South Florida, was in a celebratory mood. It was the 159th anniversary of the first paper published on feathers from Archaeopteryx, a Jurassic-era dinosaur. When paleontologists first unearthed an Archaeopteryx in 1861, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was just two years old. The fossil ended up pushing forward evolutionary theory at the time, showing that a bird-like dinosaur was flitting about millions of years before the existence of T. rex.

More than a century and a half later, Carney’s new paper had just debuted in the journal Scientific Reports. It identified a fossil feather as a primary covert—an external wing feather—of Archaeopteryx, and detailed how Carney’s team had detected small organelles indicating traces of melanin in the fossil, suggesting the feather had originally been a matte black.

Carney celebrated by spending the wee hours of the morning with old friends on Zoom—such is a social life during the coronavirus pandemic—and the conversation turned to mixology. Though he doesn’t have any professional background in mixology, Carney has mixed up craft drinks since graduate school. And as the conversation turned, so too did the gears in his head. Carney got working again that very night. This time, on something to drink.


Carney’s paleontological work involves using 3-D software to better understand what ancient creatures looked like and how they may have moved. Archaeopteryx has been his main research subject for the last eight years, and the ancient bird has fascinated him for much of his life. To honor Archaeopteryx’s probable jet-black hue, he carefully combined melanin-rich squid ink with blackberry soda, J?germeister (a nod to the fossil feather’s German origins), lime juice, and stone fruit syrup, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the limestone block in which the much-researched fossil was found.

After trying his tasty take on the Archaeopteryx, Carney was thirsty to create more cocktails. The recipes came fast. “I felt like a mad cocktail scientist, nailing down the recipes and the connections with the research. All the creativity that's involved—that's the stuff that I am really into,” says Carney. “It’s like a challenge, or a problem.” Each ingredient had to relate in some way to his field of study.

In a matter of days, Carney created a dozen drinks, assembling an alcoholic record of nearly 300 million years. One of his concoctions is a bright green mimosa, garnished with a gingko leaf. Gingko trees, often described as ‘living fossils,’ have grown on Earth as far back as 270 million years ago. The leaf floats in splendid floral combination with bright green Chartreuse liqueur, whose color comes from the chlorophyll in its 130 plant-based ingredients. There’s the hot pink Yi qi martini, with dragon fruit and lychee, a nod to the dinosaur with bat wings that confounds paleontologists with its sub-par flight ability. Carney also mixed up the amber-yellow Lucy in the Skyy With Dulcificum, named for Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old Australopithecus hominid found in Ethiopia. It includes the Ethiopian honey wine tej, lemon juice, flavor-tripping miracle berries that make sour taste sweet, and Skyy vodka. And then, of course, there’s the deeply dark Archaeopteryx.


Carney has dubbed this body of work ‘paleomixology.’ “What I wanted to do with these drinks is have them represent the different sub-disciplines within paleontology,” Carney says. “So of course with Archaeopteryx, we have dinosaur paleontology, but the Lucy, for example, is paleoanthropology. And the gingko mimosa is paleobotany. So it's not just dino-centric.”

His hope is to perhaps one day produce a cookbook of paleo-drinks, to showcase the wacky ways in which paleontologists have ferreted out the history of our planet in a more-easily consumable medium than your typical textbook. “Given the fact that there are a dozen drinks already, it’d be really neat to turn it into some sort of a book,” he says. “There are no cookbooks that really deal in this science.” He envisions a pairing of knowledge and drinks, where each recipe comes along with the history of the fossil that inspired it.


In the meantime, the drinks offer tribute to the different characters, human and otherwise, that defined the planet’s evolutionary timeline. Carney isn’t done whipping up drinks yet, either, as he feels an obligation to expand the infant field of paleomixology. Not that that’s a tough task for Carney, who finds this interdisciplinary alcoholic work a great way to blow off steam. After all, he’s also an epidemiologist, currently building digital tools to track outbreaks of diseases such as COVID-19.

For Carney, diving into dino-themed drinks feels like both pleasant distraction and a creative outlet. “It touches on a lot of different facets of my passions, and so being able to mix them all together through mixology is really satisfying,” he says. “And it’s also something that’s satisfying to drink.”


3 ounces blackberry soda (e.g. Izze)
1.5 ounces J?germeister
0.75 ounces lime juice
0.75 ounces stone fruit syrup
1/4 teaspoon powdered cephalopod ink (activated charcoal is a vegan alternative.)
3 dashes bitters

Mix all ingredients together in a coupe glass, leaving the cephalopod ink for last. Stir in the ink slowly, and garnish with a clean feather clipped to the glass.

(Carney also offers a simpler version of this drink, which he calls Urvogel, or ‘first bird.’ “Simply J?ger in a blackberry Izze over ice with a lime wedge,” he says.)

Lucy in the Skyy with Dulcificum

3 ounces lemon juice
2 ounces Skyy vodka
1 ounce mead (e.g. tej)
One egg white (optional)
1 miracle berry (Synsepalum dulcificum) or tablet

Shake all ingredients, save the miracle berry, with ice. Garnish the drink with a lemon wedge. Before drinking, eat the miracle berry or tablet, and make sure to eat the lemon wedge too.

Yi qi Lychee Martini

1.5 ounces baijiu
1 ounce lychee syrup
1 ounce Red Bull
0.75 ounce lime juice
1/2 teaspoon dragonfruit powder

Shake with ice, and strain into a martini glass.

Dunston Staiths in Gateshead, England Fri, 13 Nov 2020 13:00:00 -0500 Dunston Staiths

The term "staith" is used in northeastern England to describe a ship or boat loading structure. They are usually served by rail lines and contain loading chutes for bulk minerals.

Dunston staiths is a 19th-century coal loading structure on the River Tyne near Gateshead, England. From here, millions of tons of coal per year from the highly productive coalfields of the area were once loaded onto ships for export to other parts of the country and beyond.

The structure was constructed by the North Eastern Railway. The wood used for the staith was primarily pitch pine balks, imported from the United States. In recent years, repairs were necessary after the structure was damaged in several fires. Red ironwood was used during repairs, as pitch pine was no longer considered stable.?

The staiths are more than 1,000 feet (526 meters) long with four railway tracks and six loading bays. The structure is said to be the largest timber structure in Europe.

Today, this magnificent feat of architecture stands as a tribute to the ambition of British engineers during the Victorian period. The staiths stopped working in 1977, however, it's currently a listed structure under ownership of the local authority.

design architecture history & culture woodwork
A Glimpse of Iran's 'Rainbow Island' From Above Winnie Lee Fri, 13 Nov 2020 11:00:00 -0500 Like a natural pearl resting on a teal velvet bed, Hormuz Island lies a few miles off the coast of Iran, at the mouth of the strait of the same name. From its strategic perch where the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman meet, this 16-square-mile island was once a splendid historic trading port, described by a 15th-century Russian merchant as “a vast emporium of all the world." Its significant location is also very much in the news today, too.

In these quieter days, most of the islands residents are fishermen, and visitors are drawn by the shiploads for its wealth of natural wonders. The amazing settings include coral reefs and a mangrove forest, but the real draw is the land itself. Hormuz Island is one of the biggest salt domes—where a mound of salt layers rise up through overlying layers of rock—in the Persian Gulf. It’s most famous for its eye-catching red-ochre soil and beaches, and its stunningly variegated geological formations.


The colorful elements of the island attract artists and cooks, in addition to geology-lovers. The red soil, once extracted commercially and exported for industrial and cosmetic uses, contains a high percentage of iron-oxide minerals that give it an intensely bloody shade, and mineralization and weathering create and reveal more beautiful minerals such as oligiste, gypsum, apatite, and quartz, which help give the mountains and valleys their eerie tints of red, yellow, purple, and green. Natural salt cave walls show some of these components side by side, and can resemble works of modern art.

Up close and at a distance, "Rainbow Island" is as striking a setting as they come.

Japanese 'Love Hotels' Are Kind of Perfect for Pandemics Charlotte England Thu, 12 Nov 2020 14:00:00 -0500 On the seventh story of a Japanese tower block, an uncomfortable negotiation is underway. Behind a check-in desk, a hand extends through a heavy felt curtain and feels around for a credit card on the counter. Finding nothing, it quickly withdraws, and after a hidden, whispered kerfuffle, a receptionist emerges awkwardly into the windowless lobby.

This is a love hotel, a kind of Japanese institution that rents out rooms by the hour to couples who want to be intimate somewhere other than home. Love hotels promise absolute discretion and aim to eliminate face-to-face contact with receptionists. Traditionally guests are locked in their rooms for the duration of their stay and interact with staff only by a screen or telephone. But the international backpackers sweating at this particular check-in desk want to speak to someone in person. They look confused and irritable, no doubt having struggled to find the property's concealed entrance, and perhaps put off by the dirty, tiled corridors leading in from the parking structure.

Behind them, a young Japanese couple quietly checks in without making eye contact, choosing a theme for their room on an automated screen. In recent years, love hotels have become places where cultures collide. While locals continue to visit them as they always have, international travelers are also booking them online without knowing quite what to expect.

Shishido-san, who runs a love hotel in northern Japan, explains that anonymity is crucial to the concept. “Japanese culture is a culture based on ‘shame’ and love hotels can be used with discretion and secrecy,” he explains in an email. “Japanese people tend to not be very publicly open about sex, so love hotels are necessary as a space to free their sexual desires.”


Love hotels boomed starting around the 1980s. There were an estimated 30,000 in the 2000s, their heyday. But around the turn of the millennium, love hotels started to decline, and have fallen on increasingly hard times. Japan's population is aging, which means fewer young people who might want to visit love hotels.

Meanwhile, love hotels face political pressure to convert into tourist accommodations. The Tokyo Olympics—originally scheduled for 2020, but now postponed until next year—were the most recent justification for these efforts.

The global pandemic all but eradicated international travel in 2020. Japan closed its borders to most countries and suffered a staggering 99 percent drop in foreign visitors since April. Tourists may gradually return late this year, or in early 2021. And in an era of social distancing, the love hotel model could be unexpectedly well-suited to health-conscious travelers.

Three years ago, the Dutch hotel site partnered with 349 of Japan’s several thousand love hotels in a bid to offer a quirky Japanese experience to adventurous tourists. Love hotels offer “an experience for tourists who maybe want something a little bit different,” explains Jess Hallams, a tour development director at a Japan-based travel agency. She says her company’s partnership with love hotels has received a lot of attention online. “Japanese culture tends to be very reserved and polite, and this is a way to experience something else.”

Liam, a traveler from London who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, stayed at an inexpensive love hotel in Osaka in February. “Someone told me that it was an essential thing to do in visiting Japan,” he says. The room featured a super-king size bed, karaoke machine, jacuzzi, free condoms, complimentary cosmetics, a sex-toy vending machine, and mood lighting. “The reception seemed surprised that we wanted to speak to a member of staff,” he says.


Initially, the 31-year-old found plenty to do. “We ordered some cosplay and my friend dressed up as a maid and sang karaoke,” he says. “I purchased some panties from the in-room vending machine as a souvenir.” But after a day of sightseeing in the area, the novelty wore off. “The windowlessness of the room got to me. It started to feel kind of stuffy.”

The experiment of bringing love hotels to the foreign masses yielded mixed results before the pandemic, with reviews online ranging from glowing praise of the abundant amenities, decadent and themed rooms, and comparatively low prices, to outright disgust from reviewers scandalized by sex toys on the nightstand and condom dispensers in the alcoves. There were also complaints about shabby decor, cleanliness, and a lack of English-speaking staff.

Some Japanese guests, meanwhile, appeared to be bewildered by the changes made for tourists. One reviewer, who stayed at a love hotel in Osaka, wrote online: “It was really embarrassing to meet another customer at the front desk!”

Indeed, many love hotels have made major changes to the way they operate in order to function more like boutique hotels. Some have done away with a certain amount of discretion in order to offer a conventional check-in experience, and many have suspended the traditional practice of locking couples in their room until they call reception. (This would presumably hinder tourists who want to go sightseeing.)

As one of the best-rated love hotels on sites like, Hotel Love in Nagoya seems to have adapted particularly well. The manager, Kawashima-san, jokes in an email that the biggest issue was that Western guests would wear shoes in the rooms, damaging the floors. More seriously, he adds, there have been some difficulties with staff who are “unfamiliar” with the expectations of foreigners, and who don’t speak English. But this problem is shared by all types of Japanese hotels, he says. “Most guests leave happy and will return,” he says.

Shishido-san, whose love hotel is in Japan’s northern Sendai city, has also been adapting to the needs of international visitors. He says his staff have embraced the opportunity to learn about different cultures, and visitors gain access to a novel Japanese experience and very “Instagrammable” rooms.

With the arrival of COVID-19, Japanese travelers have returned to love hotels. Early reports suggest that some properties did particularly well amid the pandemic, as people likely used them to escape claustrophobic accommodations or cloying families.

As the country has adjusted to a new normal, domestic hotel bookings have risen to 70 percent of their pre-virus level—although a second wave could push this back down. A spokesman for the Japan National Tourism Organization says hotels across the country have implemented new safety measures, from “QR code menus, plastic screens at welcome desks, temperature checks and increased sanitation,” to holographic “no-touch” touchscreens. Love hotels are well-equipped to enact these new measures.


Liam remembers that back in February, he laughed at the “airlock room service.” Staff left the food, drinks, and costumes he ordered in an adjoining but enclosed entryway, rather than handing them to him directly. “At the time it felt silly,” he says, “but if I went back now, I think I’d feel differently.”

After several months locked down in the U.K., Liam says he’s become very aware of the need to protect himself from the virus, and also to protect restaurant servers, bar staff, and public transportation operators. “No contact can only be a good thing in the era of coronavirus,” he says. “Rather than love hotels becoming more like normal hotels, maybe the pandemic will change the direction of travel—instead, normal hotels will have to change to be like love hotels.”

In Nairobi, Young Diners Clamor for Traditional Kenyan Cuisine Dauti Kahura Wed, 11 Nov 2020 18:30:00 -0500 John Onyango has never been to culinary school, nor did he start his career as a chef in a recognized restaurant or hotel. Instead, he first cooked in a suburban food kiosk, where he served the wage earners who worked in the neighboring schools, market and local Nairobi City Council offices.

But that was 25 years ago. Today, Onyango is a sought-after chef, cooking for K’Osewe Ranalo Foods. In the business district of Kenya’s capital city, the restaurant specializes in indigenous and African dishes. However, its clientele is the city’s upper crust, with the disposable income to afford its pricey menu.

With seating for 300 people, the restaurant is busy around the clock. Once considered food for the hoi polloi, indigenous cuisine is now sought out after by the city’s elite eaters. In just a decade, Ranalo Foods has mainstreamed dishes that were once only sold at the city’s small food kiosks.

The day I visited Onyango, he was preparing athola roasted beef stew, a delicacy once mainly eaten in western Kenya, especially by the Nilotic Luo people. Today, it’s enjoyed by the middle and upper class who eat at Ranalo Foods, who hail from all across the ethnic spectrum.

A sun-dried meat, salted and oftentimes roasted and smoked, athola much resembles the South African biltong. Often, it’s cooked into a sumptuous stew with tomato and onion. The stewed beef, cut into huge chunks, is usually accompanied by ugali, a soft starch porridge of baked white maize.


“Athola is the favourite dish of many of our clients,” said Onyango, who has been a chef with Ranalo Foods for 15 years. William Osewe, owner of Ranalo Foods, actually hired Onyango specifically for his athola prowess. “When I set up the restaurant in the middle of Nairobi, my clients kept on pleading with me to introduce athola,” said Osewe. Succumbing to their entreaties, Osewe went looking for an athola expert. After he found Onyango, the restaurant drew a huge new clientele.

“Who would have dreamt of serving athola right in the center of metropolitan Nairobi?” mused Onyango. Back when he started cooking for Ranalo Foods, “the city’s restaurants were of European orientation, serving foreign dishes such as spaghetti Bolognese and lasagna.” Many well-heeled diners, he added, only wanted to be seen eating European foods. “It was a mark of modernity and sophistication.”

In the posh suburbs, where international NGO staff, United Nations employees, and foreign embassy officials live, European cuisines are very much available. High-end restaurants cook for this niche market, doing brisk business.


Some of these restaurants and hotels have existed since the days of British control. Early 20th-century Nairobi was a restricted area, where only whites could move freely. Natives visiting the town had to carry a pass, explaining their purpose in the area. Apart from discouraging Africans from patronizing the city, by-laws prohibited the cooking and sale of traditional local food, which was deemed unhygienic and unhealthy.

These by-laws, which still exist to date, have had a lasting effect in how traditional food is viewed and sold in the capital. Most of Nairobi’s posh restaurants still serve Europeanized menus. Many don’t offer any traditional foods at all. After all, restaurant dining was long considered a white person’s affair, or only for the city’s monied and exquisite.

But the people eating Onyango’s athola are corporate buffs, techies, and government officials—college-educated, and largely millennial. In the mid-2000, a healthy-eating craze resulted in a trend away from French fries and pizza and a return to local cuisine. “We were just in the nick of time when Ranalo Foods started its experimentation with traditional foods,” said Onyango.

Health concerns are only one facet of this revival. Elegant versions of familiar dishes have become a matter of both nostalgia and national pride. Particular emphasis has been given to traditional foods from the west and Swahili dishes from the coast. Western Kenyan cuisine, which is the specialty at Ranalo Foods, is popular for being indigenous and very healthy. Swahili cuisine, on the other hand, has been heavily influenced by Arab, Indian and Persian culture. For inland Kenyans, it’s considered stylish and unique.


This cultural range is on display at Bridges Organic Restaurant, also right in the middle of the Central Business District. Chef Moses Wamwea told me the menu for the day is kienyeji, free-range indigenous chicken and cashew nuts served with either brown rice, brown ugali, or brown chapati, a Kenyan interpretation of the roti-like flatbread that comes laced with carrot and pumpkin fruit.

The restaurant, founded in 2006, only serves “healthy foods,” said Wamwea, “meaning all the foods must be organic. We’ve carefully contracted select farmers who supply us with organic produce.” Customers range from health-conscious eaters to international tourists eager to try local foods.

One of the specialties of the restaurant is a fish samosa, which a number of long-term customers greeted with skepticism. But not for long. “Trust me, it’s the most popular snack in the restaurant,” Wamwea confided. But the tilapia, he says, must come “directly from Lake Victoria.” Lake Victoria, 187 miles from Nairobi, is considered to have the best and tastiest tilapia.

While both Ranalo Foods and Bridges Organic Restaurant have become wildly successful, the small food kiosks found mainly in lower and middle-income areas remain the main purveyors of traditional foods. There’s a good reason for that, too. At restaurants such as Ranalo, customers generally pay three times as much for the same dishes served at kiosks.


The opinion at Ranalo Foods is that their expanded customer base is ready to pay a higher price for hygienically, well-cooked food by an expert who knows traditional cuisine and ingredients, as well as for ambience and comfort.

The restaurant’s upscaling of traditional foods, Onyango maintained, didn’t spark any anger, either with kiosk owners or with the locals accustomed to paying less. “There is an African saying—there’s enough grass for all animals,” said Onyango. “The restaurant didn’t take away the food kiosks's regular customers, nor did we set up our restaurant next to theirs, so there wasn’t any direct competition.”

As a one-time food kiosk cook himself, he summed up the general reactions of his former fellows as “let those who feel their pockets are deep enough to eat at Ranalo feel free to do so,” going on to add that his own customers are “happy with our food and prices.”

Both chefs, however, had to stand by and watch this year as the spread of COVID-19 affected their restaurants. “When the lockdown was announced in mid-March, we had to shut down our business for three months,” said Onyango. “We hope to attract back our regular customers, now that the lockdown has eased.” It’s clear, though, that even if the pandemic has added another layer of difficulty to an already-competitive culinary scene, the restaurants serving Kenya’s traditional food have found a firm foothold in the capital.

California Is Named for a Griffin-Riding Black Warrior Queen Rebecca Johnson Wed, 11 Nov 2020 13:36:00 -0500 California has long been associated with fantasy, but few people know that centuries before Hollywood, it drew its very name from an imaginary kingdom—one ruled by a Black queen. Around 1530, when Hernán Cortés’s conquistadors, amid shipwrecks, mutinies, and the destruction of the Aztec Empire, arrived at the peninsula on Mexico’s western side, they christened it “California,” after a fictional island in a Spanish book published decades earlier. The name, later extended from the peninsula (now Baja California) to the mainland coast to the north, endured, surviving the region’s incorporation into the United States in 1850. Meanwhile, the novel of chivalry that spawned it, Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s Las Sergas de Esplandían, has been all but forgotten (despite being memorably cited by Cervantes as one of the books that turned poor Don Quixote’s brains to mush). Yet its portrait of California’s queen, the dark-skinned warrior Calafia, is worth revisiting—not just for its marvelous details, but for the light it sheds on medieval European attitudes about race.

At least initially, Queen Calafia seems like she could have sprung from the pages of a modern fantasy novel, ruling a kingdom that wouldn’t have been out of place in Westeros or Middle Earth. Her island, located “on the right side of the Indies, very close to … the Terrestrial Paradise,” is filled with gold and inhabited only by Black women, who tame wild griffins to ride into battle (fed with the flesh of any unfortunate men who show up). Calafia herself is described as beautiful, strong, and courageous. The book portrays her in an unfailingly positive light, though it ultimately places her under the control of medieval European patriarchy.


While it might seem startling today to find such a figure at a time when Europe was just emerging from the Middle Ages, scholars who specialize in race during the period offer intriguing insights into what a character such as Calafia would have meant. Cord J. Whitaker of Wellesley College, who studies medieval notions of race and their modern legacy, explains that medieval Europeans lacked “a hard and fast set of hierarchies related to skin color.” This was mainly because “before the Reformation, Catholic Christianity was hegemonic,” with the idea, inherited from the Crusades, that the religion was destined to spread to all corners of the Earth. “If your number one concern is converting people all over the world,” Whitaker says, “you have to be accepting that anyone who looks any way could be holy.”

In fact, the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire, St. Maurice, was Black, and consistently represented with African features from the mid-13th century on. “At the same time,” Whitaker acknowledges, “sometimes you do see dark skin associated with evil and demons, but these more negative attitudes were held in check by the church’s need to be global and enfold people who look all kinds of ways.” This changed with the fragmentation of Christianity during the Reformation and the rise of nation-states and colonialism, including plantation slavery. “Money and wealth … ultimately became the first concern, over and above conversion,” Whitaker adds, opening an era in which black skin “increasingly signaled ‘enslaveability’ and the making of capital.”

Erin Rowe of Johns Hopkins University, whose newest book traces the history of Black saints in early modern Catholicism, takes a slightly more tempered approach to medieval views on race, arguing that “overall, black skin was equated with ugliness, barbarity, and paganism,” and that in the medieval Mediterranean slave trade, which trafficked in a range of peoples, “white skin was prized over all.” Rowe says that while there were “anti-Black discourses” in 16th-century Spain, where there were a limited number of Black enslaved people and freedmen, they didn’t focus on ideas of “entrenched and inheritable bodily difference,” like the idea of African biological inferiority that white Christian slave owners would later invent to justify their inhumane treatment of the Black people they enslaved. (According to Rowe, such notions of biological inferiority existed at the time but were mainly reserved for Jews, including former Jews who had converted to Christianity.)


Rowe thinks readers of the period would have seen Calafia’s skin color as “neither inherently positive nor inherently negative,” but primarily as “exotic,” which, of course, is problematic in its own right. She sees the queen’s Blackness as “bound up in her femininity and her otherness,” noting that Calafia, as a “Black Amazon,” would have provoked both “wonder” and “disgust.” She also points out that in the early modern era, female warriors like Calafia were usually associated with “a negative vision of disrule, or monstrosity … or what happens outside of ‘civilization.’”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Calafia does not long remain outside of Christian civilization or its patriarchy in the narrative. She and her female troops, hungry for glory, join a Muslim army besieging Constantinople, which, in a bit of wishful alt-history, is still in Christian hands (in reality, the city had fallen to the Turks in 1453). The rest of her story, which sees Calafia’s defeat, followed by her marriage to a Christian warrior and conversion to Christianity, is a disappointing denouement for today’s readers—but explains the book’s approach to her.

Whitaker places Calafia’s story within the medieval genre of “Crusades romances,” which tend to involve “a dark-skinned Muslim or pagan who is defeated by Christian forces” and is then converted. In some versions, the conversion is even accompanied by a miracle at once religiously symbolic and racially charged: The new Christian’s skin turns “beautifully white.” But others Crusades romances feature new Christians, especially women, who remain Black and are recognized as beautiful, because, as Whitaker says, at the time, “you need these beautiful Black Christian women to have a global church.”


Rowe agrees, noting that Calafia’s conversion would have fed into “millenarian ideas about the domination of Christianity,” according to which the entire world would be converted prior to Christ’s return and the Last Judgment. Ultimately, she says, religion still tended to trump race in the 16th century: “Christianity was viewed as a sign of being civilized, and therefore signaled reason and sophistication.”

At least before Calafia’s defeat and conversion, it’s tempting to see her as a symbol of Black (or Indigenous) power, or of feminist leadership. A few writers have also embraced her as a lesbian figurehead. There is a certain satisfaction in freeing the character from the limitations of her original story—penned by a Christian European male—but there may be as much or more value in trying to understand her complex place in the history of Western ideas about race.

Whitaker, who also studies medievalism—the use and abuse of ideas about the medieval past—points out that what he calls “white supremacist medievalism” was on “full display” during the 2017 Charlottesville protests. White supremacists tend to look back with nostalgia on the Crusades, which are bound up with the fantasy of a purely European medieval past. Calafia’s story, which was widely read in its day, punctures that fantasy by revealing a certain degree of tolerance—and intermarriage—even as it underscores the misogyny and religious chauvinism deeply rooted in European heritage.

And a year in which Americans are engaged in painful discussions about Black lives, the history of race, and the meaning of symbols seems exactly the right time to rescue that story from obscurity and examine the complex legacy of California’s name.

Bean Pie Tue, 09 Jun 2020 18:00:00 -0400

At first glance, you might think it's a pumpkin or a sweet potato pie. Yet bean pies, a unique specialty in some Black American Muslim communities, are made with creamy navy beans, spices, and a whole-wheat crust.

The sweet pies, sold for fundraising and at bakeries across the United States, can be traced to the writings of the Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, who in two books laid out guidelines for a healthful diet, excluding pork and sweet potatoes. In?a short documentary on bean pie, historian Zaheer Ali notes that the strictures against certain foods were also meant to reject those associated with enslavement, sweet potatoes among them. So the bean pie became a tasty alternative. Some say the original bean pie was invented by Elijah Muhammad's daughter, while others maintain it was the creation of Lana Shabazz, Muhammad Ali's cook.

Though its origins are linked to the Nation of Islam—now classified as a hate group for the anti-Semitic and homophobic statements of its leaders—the bean pie is now embraced by the wider Black American Muslim community. The pies come in full family sizes, but also in single servings, tightly wrapped in plastic.

black history pie islam slavery beans fund-raising foods
Picarones Tue, 09 Jun 2020 17:41:00 -0400

During Peru's near-300-year-period under Spanish rule, Spaniards introduced deep-fried dough balls called bu?uelos to the region. As they colonized the nation, Spaniards also brought the African slave trade. It was enslaved African cooks who refitted the original bu?uelos recipe to make use of Peruvian sweet potato and squash. They kneaded flour and salt with mashed produce and fried spoonfuls of the orange dough in hot lard. To finish off the warm, chewy treat, they doused its crisp exterior in sweet syrup.

Peru regained independence from Spain in the 19th century, but the modified bu?uelos, now known as picarones, had become an integral part of Afro-Peruvian culture. Families passed down recipes through generations, and the comforting sweet made its way into harvest festivals, religious processions, and onto the streets. Today, picarones remain popular in Peru, as well as in Chile. Street vendors and traditional restaurants continue to serve the old-school fritters, especially to feed late-night crowds in Peru's capital, Lima. October's religious celebrations also inspire a resurgence of street-vending picarones chefs known for their finesse. Be sure to watch them shape dough with one hand before tossing each ring into a vat of hot oil.

fried dough donuts street food black history
Chitlins Mon, 20 Jan 2020 06:10:00 -0500 A bowl of chitlins.

Enslaved people had to sustain themselves using meat scraps—which they transformed into savory, satisfying dishes—from their enslavers' butchered livestock. One such piece of offal was chitlins, or pig intestines. But chitlins came to represent more than sustenance. During the era of Jim Crow laws, they were a code. Black performers knew that venues serving hog intestines were safe. This collection of restaurants and music venues became known as the "Chitlin Circuit."

Why were chitlins designated "slave food"? Since one's social status dictated which part of the animal they ate, enslaved people mostly dined on the trotters (feet), maw (stomach), and chitlins, all of which required intense cleaning. Wealthy people tended to eat the upper portions of leg and back, hence the affluence-denoting phrase "high on the hog."

But it wasn't just necessity that led Black Americans to identify with eating chitlins. Western Africans cooked and ate every edible part of animals, so they viewed entrails as more than scraps. These resourceful cooking techniques linger today, as Southerners continue to slow-cook or deep-fry chitlins with vinegar and hot sauce, serving it alongside collard greens and cornbread.

Chitlins remained popular well into the Jim Crow era, when Black eateries served it with other dishes of kindred origin, now known as "soul food." In addition to indicating where Black artists could perform during this period, the Chitlin Circuit established a touring route that fans could follow.

Today, chitlins are reserved for holiday meals and celebrations, largely because they require so much preparation. In Salley, South Carolina, about 50,000 people attend an annual event called the Chitlin' Strut. Since the honorary festival began in 1966, it's produced almost half a million pounds' worth of chitlin.

slavery offal south civil rights african-american pork