Friday, October 30, 2009

Top 5 Most Beautiful Beaches

Because it's cold, rainy and dreary in Chicago and because I live close to arctic winds and far, far, away from paradise, I've been contemplating the most beautiful beaches I've ever visited. My criterion for beauty doesn't just involve physical attractiveness. I also consider the clarity of the water, color and texture of sand and if there are distinguishing cultural indicators like music, food or dress. Using those requirements, here are my top five most beautiful beaches:

1. St. Lucia
Of course. From the warm, crystalline water to the sweep of the Pitons overlooking powdery stretches of beach, St. Lucia comes as close to Eden as I've ever seen.

2. Barbuda
You've just never experienced paradise until you've laid on a pink sand beach. Tiny Barbuda boasts a stunning combination of turquoise water and pink sands. The sand is so dazzling that I keep glass bottles of it all over my house.

3. Bahia
Rio may claim the fame and glitz but the beaches in Bahia, south of Salvador, are known to be the best in Brazil. My fave is Boipeba, where you can drink fresh coconut water and catch capoeiristas practicing.

4. Jamaica
Jamaica is covered with lovely beaches but to escape hordes of tourists, the south coast and Treasure Beach supplies the best experience. This quaint fishing village is famous for its black sands and fresh seafood grilled right on the beach.

5. St. John, USVI
St. John's natural treasures are legendary and Honeymoon Beach consistently tops lists for the world's most beautiful. Small and not accessible by car, Honeymoon Beach unfolds with pearly white sand shaded by lush sea grape trees.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Partying with the Mocko Jumbies

I love mocko jumbies. I think one of the reasons that I love them so much is that they always represent a party of some kind. In Caribbean culture, these masked, colorfully-costumed stilt walkers typically appear at carnival celebrations or other festivities. You'll find them on most English-speaking islands, where these figures can be traced back to traditional West African rituals where they represented spiritual seers and protectors of the village. I bought the fanciful mocko jumbie sketch above from artist Judith King in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. It enlivens my hallway with its playful spirit.

In May, the U.S. Virgin Islands unveiled their new logo and I thought it was particularly fitting that the symbol is a mocko jumbie. On St. Croix, St. Thomas and St.John, mocko jumbies pop up everywhere,from neighborhood jump ups to beauty pageants. Below, a crew of mocko jumbies get ready to parade in St. John.

Watching mocko jumbies dance and clown is an entertaining experience because it takes a lot of skill to balance on towering stilts and dance to pumping rhythms at the same time. The mocko jumbies below showcase the deftness required:

Thursday, October 22, 2009

My Favorite Views

I'm an island girl and a city girl but no matter where I am, I love being near the water. In St. Lucia, that's easy of course. My all time favorite view is the gorgeous sweep of the Caribbean Sea with the Pitons looming over it. That's the dreamiest view that I've ever witnessed. When I'm in my hometown, the view of the Chicago River with Marina City (the round building) filling the skyline always energizes me. What's your favorite view?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Top Chef Master's Meal

What's a meal created by a top chef master taste like? Does it transcend mere earthly dishes? Does it haunt your dreams and inspire drooling? I headed to Rick Bayless' newest restaurant creation Xoco, to discover the answer. You might have heard of Rick Bayless. He hosts some cooking shows. Wrote some cookbooks. Won a fancy top chef title. Known for his innovation with Mexican cuisine, Bayless' Xoco, (SHO-ko)which means "little sister" in Aztec slang, focuses on Mexican street food.

Now Rick likes to take his liberties with Mexican food. He whips up traditional dishes with flourishes and twists, to appeal to the American palate. His take on Mexican street food involves a small selection of tortas or sandwiches, caldos or soups and most importantly, freshy ground, hot chocolate and churros or fried dough.

Most of the ingredients are locally produced and organically grown.

My favorite part of the experience was drinking aguas frescas, fresh fruit juice in a wonderful hibiscus and lemongrass flavor.

The set up involves at least a 30 minute wait for a table number and then ordering your choices and paying up front. Hot chocolate and churros are handed over as you trot to your table, well before tortas arrive, which is a very dangerous situation for me.

I ordered the milanesa, a crispy battered chicken sandwich with artisan jack cheese, pickled jalapenos and a tomatillo-avocado dipping sauce. My dining mates, Donna, my former Travelmuse editor and fellow travel writer Cindy, ordered the cochinita pibil or suckling pig and Gunthorp chicken tortas, respectively. We also chose chips and salsa to accompany the feast. Perhaps my first hint that maybe I wouldn't be transported to top chef heaven was a glimpse of the chips. I take my chips and salsa very seriously. For me, a good, homemade, tortilla chip displays enough heft and texture to supply a filling meal coupled with spicy, flavorful salsa. Alas, that's not what I got. The chips were suspiciously flimsy and over salted and the salsa was weak and watery. The sandwich was okay. It didn't taste even vaguely like any torta I've eaten in Mexico but it wasn't bad. For $9 and a 30-minute wait, I expected something closer to mind-blowing than not bad.

The churros also were less than spectacular. They weren't too greasy and were covered with generous sprinklings of sugar and cinnamon but they didn't offer the warm, chewy goodness I expected. The hot chocolate, about which I'm also very particular, was the biggest let down. I ordered the Aztec, which is my favorite blend of dark chocolate with chile. I didn't think the chile was spicy enough or the chocolate rich enough. Donna and Cindy, however, loved everything they tasted. Were my expectations too high? Maybe. I was really thinking that Xoco would provide some sense of authentic Mexican street food, no matter how re-interpreted. I also thought that a top chef master's meal would outdo or at least come close to any great dining experience that I'd had. I suppose even rock star chefs are only human. I still had a great time at Xoco, it's a small and cozy place with a welcoming staff. Despite my journalistic inhibitions, it didn't stop us from harassing the poor man for a photo while he tried to cook in his open kitchen. Over-hyped or not, he's still Chicago's top chef master.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Through African Eyes

Generally, I'm not a huge fan of graphic novels. As a writer, I develop a very personal relationship with every book I read and graphic novels never seem to exhibit enough depth for me to want to sustain a relationship. Well there's always exceptions to every rule and Aya, written by Marguerite Abouet and illustrated by Clement Oubrerie, is that magical exception. Whimsically drawn with watercolor hues, the book literally called to me in a crowded bookstore. Once I picked it up, it was over. I kick-started a relationship with Aya, a smart, 19-year-old living in the Ivory Coast circa 1978. That was the time of the charismatic president, Houphouet-Boigny's 30-year leadership of a prosperous, forward moving Ivory Coast. Such was the elegance and creativity of the country's capitol, Abidjan, it was dubbed "Paris of West Africa." I have read and heard stories about this glamorous era but it's a vivid reality for me on the pages of Aya.

Aya lives in Yopougon, a bustling Abidjan neighborhood that she and her friends call Yop City. While Aya focuses on her studies so that she can become a doctor, her friends Adjoua and Bintou concentrate on more pressing teen matters, like dancing at the open air nightclub and sneaking off to the local market square make-out spot, also nicknamed the thousand star hotel. Soon Adjou and Bintou are fighting over Moussa, a shiftless boy from a wealthy family who drives a "chic" yellow Toyota. It's all funny and familiar and yet the scenes of Aya carefully wrapping her pagne or wax-printed skirt, Adjoua enlisting her cousin to take her place among the eight kids asleep in her house so that her father won't know that she snuck out, make it fresh. There's a glossary included that lists popular Ivorian terms like freshnie for pretty girl and tassaba for derriere. There's even instructions on how to properly roll your tassaba while dancing and how to cook peanut sauce. Based on Marguerite's own youth in Abidjan, it's a witty and breezy African story without famine, wars and suffering, told authentically through African eyes. Thankfully, my version of Aya is colorfully translated from French by Helge Dasscher so that I could absorb every gesture and innuendo. There are two other Aya books that continue her story and like any good relationship, I'll be there for those as well.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Adventures in Apple Picking

It's October and if you live in the Midwest, that usually means it's time to drag out fall gear --sweaters, boots and coats. If you happen to be a Chicago girl that likes to journey into the country once in a while, October also means apple picking time. Typically, I meander over into Michigan to pick apples with my family but when we don't feel like a full 3 hour trip, we head to nearby Indiana.

County Line Orchard in quaint Hobart, Indiana,(lots of corn fields and pick-up trucks) supplies the quintessential apple picking experience.

You start with a short tractor ride to the orchard area of your choice. Despite the popularity of Red Delicious and Granny Smith, there are dozens of apple varieties to choose from. The tart, slightly sweet Gala and Honey Crisp varieties are my favorites.

The orchard brims with apple trees studded with red, yellow and green fruit. But from a distance, it just looks like a vast field of green bushes.

Bright signs identify the apples and ripening dates. My favorite Honey Crisp was ripe in mid September so all of the apples were picked clean from the tree.

I avoid the apples covering the ground or hanging on low branches and prefer to pluck the ones closer to the top. My daughter refuses to pick her favorite Golden Delicious unless she has climbed high enough to snag the biggest prizes.

Roaming down rows of apple trees isn't the only attraction at County Line Orchard. There's fresh kettle corn, carmel apples, apple and pumpkin donuts and hot apple cider to enjoy as well as live music to accompany your grazing. This singer belted out a country-tinged version of "Unchain My Heart". At the end of the day, stuffed with apple donuts and lugging 3 pound bags of apples, I felt offically ready to usher in the fall season.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Harlem Rugelach Reveries

I adore rugelach. Actually, anything drenched in sugar, cinnamon and butter enthralls me but that's not the point. The point is that I have sampled authentic, oven-warmed rugelach in Austrian cafes. I have munched on kosher rugelach from Jewish bakeries. I've even tried generic rugelach from big chain grocery stores. But none of them have managed to inspire the buttery heaven that Mr. Lee's rugelach from Lee Lee's Baked Goods, conjures within me. Ensconced on a West Harlem side street, Lee Lee's store window proclaims "rugelach by a brother." It's not exactly the phrase you'd expect for a traditional Eastern European treat but Mr. Lee was trained by a Rabbi to create perfect rugelach.

Mr. Lee's secret it seems, is that unlike most bakers, he skips cheap vegetable shortening and creates handmade butter dough for his rugelach. The flaky dough literally melts in your mouth and the generous sprinkling of raisins and nuts make them seriously addictive. Proclaimed by the New York Times as "buttery, magnificent and fleeting," Mr. Lee's rugelach incites customers to journey from all over New York to snag his apricot or chocolate pastries baked daily.

Of course, Lee Lee's Baked Goods doesn't just sell rugelach. The kindly Mr. Lee also serves up honey nut pound cake shown above, sweet potato pie, red velvet and lemon cakes,to name a few of the sweet offerings. But none of them tempt you quite as much as the rugelach.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Sweet New York Scene

There's nothing I love to explore more on a trip than music, history and food. Combine all of them together and you have my dream of a perfect destination, where there's really no reason to leave. That's how I felt when I slipped into the dimly lit, thatched roof room of Ashford & Simpson's
Sugar Bar.
Nestled on a non-descript street on New York's Upper West Side,the place literally glows with energy.

Bamboo, forged brass and walls washed in amber and deep cinnamon provide the backdrop for non-stop sensory stimulation. The narrow space is always crowded but Thursday nights are when Sugar Bar really jumps with an unbelievable open mic. The menu filled with creole and Caribbean delights is only the opening act. I ordered red snapper with plantains and greens, which I vaguely remember as well seasoned. My focus was not on my food because I was surrounded by such an engaging parade of artists. At the table next to me was the noted jazz flautist Bobbi Humphrey, whose played with Duke Ellington and George Benson, her flute perched delicately on the table beside her. Behind me was legendary Vogue columnist Andre Leon Talley and at the bar sat a character in a carnival mask and cat suit, commenting loudly on every performer taking the stage.

The stage of course, was the center of all the action. The band plays tight and funky and anyone from Stevie Wonder, to Patti LaBelle and Queen Latifah have been known to take the mic. As legendary Motown and R&B singer/songwriters who penned classics like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "You're All I Need To Get By," Ashford & Simpson draw a range of legends and professional singers to Sugar Bar. I didn't recognize anyone famous singing the night I was there but with Valerie Simpson singing background, everybody sounded like a star. Ensconced in the upstairs Cat Lounge, with Nick Ashford sprawled at the center table, I felt like I was lost in a soulful wonderland with no need to find my way home.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

South African Spirit (CD Give Away)

This marks the 100th post for Farsighted Fly Girl and I can't think of a better way to celebrate than with a dose of funky South African sounds. Dance Mama by singer/songwriter/composer Christine Vaindirlis, stirs up the most infectious party music that I've heard in a while. Born in London, raised in Johannesburg and trained in Milan at La Scala, she also reflects on irresistible cultural jambalaya. Despite such a global experience, it's clear that her heart remains in South Africa. From the vibrant geometric designs of the CD jacket and disc, created to recall Zulu bead work and Ndebele house paintings, to the references to South African music icons Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim, South Africa is all over Dance Mama.

The 10-track album bursts open with "Indaba" (home) a joyful, bouncing, display of township party music. Christine's well-honed funk chops inform "Call To Freedom" and her classical training shows up for "Fighting Or Surviving," where her soaring vocal range is highlighted. But my favorite tune and the one that compels me to play over and over, is the title track. "Dance Mama" simmers soulfully with melodic references to Miriam Makeba's classic "Pata Pata," and then charges into township jive, complete with flugelhorn solo. There are many layers to the CD, including sassy jazz riffs and intricate rock/funk arrangements, which slowly unfold after several listens. I'm offering a lucky reader the chance to do just that. Tell me how your upbringing has informed the music that you choose to listen to most often. I'll send a new Dance Mama CD to the person who gives the most in depth answer. Feel the Funk with Christine here: