Archive for the ‘Interesting Thing of the Day’ Category

Pat O'Brien's Bar in New Orleans

Home of the hurricane

A New Orleans bar called Pat O’Brien’s is neither the oldest nor the fanciest in the city. Yet it’s an icon of the French Quarter, a location to which nearly every tourist makes a pilgrimage. Numerous explanations could be advanced for the bar’s persistent popularity, but I think it comes down to a simple formula: strong drinks, reasonable prices, and atmosphere. Their motto since they opened in December 1933 has been “Have Fun!”—not especially clever or inventive, but to the point. Truth be told, it’s a euphemism for “Have Rum!” At Pat O’Brien’s, the distinction between the two is vague at best.

Just Add Rum

A lot of bars opened in 1933, the year Prohibition was repealed in the United States. B. H. “Pat” O’Brien had been running a speakeasy called Mr. O’Brien’s Club Tipperary, but he turned the operation legit when the law allowed. In 1942, he moved the bar to its current location, a building erected in 1791 as the first Spanish theater in the United States. But Pat O’Brien’s is best known for its signature drink, the Hurricane. This is a serious drink by anyone’s standard: a tall, ice-filled glass containing 4 ounces of rum and 4 ounces of a sweet, red passion fruit syrup—garnished with a slice of orange and a cherry. The name comes from the shape of the glass, which looks like a hurricane lamp. According to legend, the hurricane was the brainchild of a liquor salesman in the 1940s who wanted to convince the bar they needed to buy a great deal of rum. (A variation on this story gives credit to a bartender looking for a creative way to deal with excess inventory of rum and grenadine.)

But you can buy a hurricane anywhere in the city, and every gift shop sells Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane Mix so you can make them at home. The drink is only part of the equation; atmosphere and an indulgent attitude are the rest. There is, I have been told, indoor seating at Pat O’Brien’s—including two separate bars and a dining room—but I’ve never seen it. The several times I’ve gone there, everyone who’s anyone was seated out on the Patio—a large outdoor courtyard, at the center of which is a flaming fountain. I have never figured out how they engineered this thing so that the water doesn’t extinguish the fire, but it’s extremely impressive. Likewise, rumor has it that the establishment has a respectable kitchen, but I can’t recall seeing anyone eating. Food, after all, would tend to dull the effects of the alcohol. Come to think of it…that could explain why I can’t remember seeing any food.

Steal This Glass

Your waiter will hand you a booklet featuring photos of all their specialty drinks—concoctions with names like Cyclone, Squall, Breeze, and Typhoon—each in a distinctive glass. The booklet explains why each drink appears to cost about $3 too much: the bar assumes most patrons will want to take their glass home as a souvenir. Rather than policing the customers and charging shoplifters a fine, they do the reverse: offer you a refund if you turn in your empty glass at the counter. If you take it with you, an attendant outside the restaurant will package it in a cardboard holder for safekeeping.

Pat O’Brien’s has franchises in Orlando and San Antonio (and previously had locations in Cancun and Memphis), as well as a thriving online business selling glasses, drink mixes, T-shirts, and tchotchkes of all kinds. But for the best and most authentic hurricane experience, go to the source. And don’t forget to steal your glass.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on October 16, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on March 5, 2005.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A classic daiquiri

A daiquiri is any of numerous cocktails involving rum, citrus juice, and sweetener. Daiquiris are sometimes frozen (that is, blended with crushed ice), but need not be. I favor the frozen strawberry variety myself, though if I’m in the mood for a frozen rum-based drink, I’ll almost invariably opt for a piña colada instead. I don’t know why the Powers That Be designated July 19 as National Daiquiri Day, but if you’re trying to choose a cocktail today, a daiquiri is as good a choice as any.

Image credit: By Will Shenton [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Fleur de Sel

The last word in gourmet salt

In general, I don’t have very expensive tastes. My home is furnished mostly in low-end IKEA, and I rarely wear anything fancier than jeans and a T-shirt. When it comes to food, though, there are some exceptions to this rule. Although I don’t usually eat like a gourmet, I do take my coffee and cheese pretty seriously, and I like to sample, at least, foods that are rare and unusual—if also somewhat pricey. So my pantry does include a container of one of the world’s most expensive kinds of salt: fleur de sel (French for “flower of salt”).

Fleur de sel is a type of sea salt produced in several temperate coastal areas around the world—but particularly in France. Within France, the region best known for its fleur de sel is Brittany (in the northwest corner of the country, across the English Channel from Great Britain), and more specifically the town of Guérande. The Camargue region on the south coast is also a top producer, and its fleur de sel is a little cheaper and less desirable, supposedly because of the presence of nuclear reactors nearby.

As salt goes, sea salt is fairly expensive, and as sea salt goes, fleur de sel is quite expensive. Whereas you might pay less than US$1.00 for a pound (about 0.5kg) of plain table salt, fleur de sel can easily cost $25 or more per pound. At 25 times the cost of table salt and 10 times the cost of ordinary sea salt, it’s probably not something you’d want to use for everyday cooking. Fleur de sel is not just any sea salt, though; it owes its price to a very special method of collection, about which more in a moment.

Enriched with Minerals

But let me take a brief detour to talk about sea salt in general, which is increasingly popular in recipes and on store shelves. Why all the fuss? Well, apart from having a coarser texture, which some people prefer, sea salt has a much higher content of other minerals besides sodium chloride. It is, after all, produced by evaporating seawater, which contains a bit of pretty much everything. And the little bits of other stuff, apparently, enhance the flavor. Call me crazy, but I can’t help thinking twice about all those seemingly innocent little extra minerals. Do you know where this ocean has been? A lot of things live (and die) in the ocean, and a lot of waste of every imaginable kind gets dumped there—such as all the sewage from the city of Venice, just to pick a random example. It makes me wonder—in passing—whether this is something I really want to put in my mouth.

To get fleur de sel, salt farmers living along the coast allow shallow pools to fill with fresh salt water. As the water evaporates, a thin layer of salt crystals forms on the surface, but the slightest breeze will cause them to sink, and they pick up a grayish color from the clay and minerals at the bottom of the pool. The resulting salt, called Sel Gris, is highly regarded, but there’s something even better. On a clear and sunny summer day with no wind, the salt layer remains floating on the surface, and is harvested by skimming it off with a rakelike implement at the end of the day. Voilà: fleur de sel. Because conditions must be just right for fleur de sel to form, the yield is only about one pound for every 80 pounds of Sel Gris.

Crunchy Sprinkles

Fleur de wel is composed of irregularly shaped grains of salt that are slightly moist and form flaky clumps. This gives it a much different texture from ordinary salt. It’s crunchy and perhaps slightly less salty than ordinary salt—if that makes any sense. Personally, I can’t detect any other flavors, though some people swear it has the aroma of violets. It is almost always used as a garnish just before food is served; once the salt is dissolved and mixes with other flavors, the difference is even harder to detect. My cynical side says that the real reason for sprinkling fleur de sel on a dish at the table is to show off, but then, I’m no authority on such matters.

In any case, I think of fleur de sel as the Kopi Luwak of salt—that is, slightly superior in taste to the ordinary varieties, but not to the extent suggested by its price. Then again, you can buy it in a small container for less than $10. Perhaps it’s just the thing for expensive tastes on a budget.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on July 13, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on November 30, 2004.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Black and red caviar

I know, I know, you eat caviar every day, so why do we need a special day to celebrate it? Well, there are some people in the world who aren’t made of money, who consider sturgeon roe from the Black Sea or the Caspian Sea kind of a delicacy, or who are just a wee bit put off by the look, smell, or taste of slimy fish eggs. These less-enlightened souls need a special day—July 18—to call special attention to this ordinary, everyday treat. Weird, right?

I’ve had caviar a few times and my feelings can best be described as “meh.” I’m not put off by it but I wouldn’t seek it out either. Expensive or not, it just doesn’t do anything for me. So I shan’t be partaking today, but I’ll take special care today not to judge you if you do.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

An autogyro in flight

Taking the proto-helicopter for a spin

These days, it seems like everyone’s trying to build a flying car (or taxi)—which usually means a design with four or more small, computer-controlled rotors, much like the drones you can buy for aerial photography. But there’s a much simpler, safer, and lower-tech design for a small aircraft. It sounds like a joke: What do you get if you cross an airplane and a helicopter? But the answer isn’t “aircopter” or “heliplane,” it’s “autogyro”—or, sometimes, “gyroplane.” This peculiar type of aircraft, which was the forerunner of the modern helicopter, was once extremely well known. Although it never caught on as a widespread commercial design, the autogyro is beginning to make a comeback, especially among hobbyists and amateur aviators.

An Uplifting Story

First, a word or two of aeronautical review. A conventional, fixed-wing airplane gets thrust from propellers or jet engines and lift from the wings, but that lift can only be generated when the wing is moving fast enough (and, of course, in the right direction). When an airplane is moving too slowly for its wings to provide adequate lift to keep it airborne, it is said to stall, which is perfectly fine if you happen to be landing the plane, but not so good otherwise. Helicopters, on the other hand, get both thrust and lift from one or more narrow, propeller-like rotors turned by an engine. Rotor blades are thus essentially moving wings. The speed and direction of the craft’s movement are determined by the angle at which the rotor is positioned; in most helicopter designs, a vertically mounted tail rotor counteracts the main rotor’s rotation and prevents the helicopter’s body from spinning.

An autogyro has a rotor much like that of a helicopter, with one crucial difference: it is unpowered. A propeller provides thrust, just as on an airplane, while the lift comes from the spinning blades of the rotor. But wait a minute—didn’t I just say that the rotor is unpowered? That’s where the “auto” part comes in. The rotor must spin to provide lift, but that spin comes from the forward motion of the entire craft.

If that sounds confusing, think about maple (or elm or ash) trees. The seeds are encased in little winglike structures that twirl as they fall to the ground. Those casings are called samaras (though, in the case of maples, some botanists refer to them as schizocarps because they form in pairs that split apart). Because of the samara’s unique shape and balance, the force of the air blowing past it as it falls to the ground causes it to spin; that spinning is known as autorotation. And if you could somehow put a very tiny engine and propeller on a samara to give it some forward momentum, that would generate enough air movement to keep it spinning—and in turn, keep the whole thing aloft. That (on a somewhat larger scale) is how an autogyro works. Because the rotor is not spinning under its own power, there’s no need for a tail rotor—the craft itself can’t spin.

Autogyros tend to look rather goofy: either like airplanes with a giant rotor where wings should be, or like stunted helicopters missing their tails. They generally can’t fly as fast or as far as fixed-wing airplanes, and they can’t hover or maneuver like helicopters. (Some designs, however, do provide power to the rotor temporarily to facilitate a vertical or near-vertical takeoff and landing.) If those trade-offs sound like the worst of both worlds, though, consider that unlike airplanes, autogyros are virtually stall-proof, no matter how slow they’re going. If the engine gave out, the rotor would keep spinning, and the craft—if controlled carefully by the pilot—could simply float to the ground. All this does not necessarily mean that autogyros are safer than other aircraft; numerous other considerations come into play. But in certain circumstances, with proper design and a well-trained operator, they can sometimes be safer.

Air Apparent

A Spanish engineer named Juan de la Cierva developed a hinged rotor design in early years of the 20th century that would serve as the basis for all future rotary wing aircraft. Cierva built his first stable autogyro in 1923. After a long series of improvements, he began to license his design to aircraft manufacturers in other countries, including the United States. Legendary pilot Amelia Earhart was quite fond of autogyros. In 1931, she set a record for highest altitude in an autogyro—18,415 feet (about 5,600 m); later that year, she was also the first person to fly an autogyro from coast to coast in the United States. Autogyros were used for rooftop-to-rooftop urban mail delivery, and a few autogyros were even put to military use during World War II. But despite these scattered successes, the autogyro concept basically fizzled out by the mid-1940s, having been supplanted by fixed-wing airplanes for some applications, and helicopters for others. Cierva, ironically, died in 1936 in a plane crash.

In recent years, however, small, kit-built aircraft of all kinds have increased in popularity—everything from ultralights to gliders to biplanes to mini-helicopters. And along with this trend has come a renewed interest in autogyros: they’re less complex to build and operate than helicopters, and require a lot less runway space than fixed-wing airplanes. Autogyros are also being used increasingly in law enforcement, nature observation, sightseeing, and other recreational flying. A one-person autogyro will still cost you more than most cars, but at least it’s guaranteed not to stall.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on May 10, 2005.

Image credit: By Frank Schwichtenberg [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day