Friday, January 29, 2010

Ma Ruby's Cheeseburger in Paradise

"Ask Jimmy what makes it so great. He sat right there at the bar and wrote the song," explains Ma Ruby, when asked about her world famous cheeseburger. Jimmy would be the "Gulf and Western" singer Jimmy Buffet  of Margaritaville and Parrot Head fame. "Cheeseburger in Paradise" is his much -quoted song about finding nirvana between two slices of bread with a sea breeze wafting in the background. A couple of  other island  restaurants claim that they originated the dish but according to the Parrot Head Handbook and Ma Ruby herself,  her little eatery in Tingam Village Hotel on Harbour Island is the place that stirred Jimmy's appreciation. The legendary burger is a huge slab of meatloaf-like beef between two thick slices of  toasted Bahamian bread and cheese. Since I don't eat burgers, I can't tell you about the greatness of her cheeseburger but I can tell you about the greatness of Ma Ruby.

Her restaurant is filled with signed hats, photos and souvenirs from the visitors that flock to her place. The eatery is also known for good Bahamian food but I suspect that it's Ma that draws the crowds. Warm, compact and authoritative, 77 years of raising eight children have bestowed her with the charm and grace that attracts people to her.

Evidence of this line the walls of her restaurant, awards and citations from local organizations, Madrid and her meeting with Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth showcase her star power.

You can't visit Harbour Island and not drop in to see Ma Ruby. That would be like going home and forgeting to visit your mother.  Forget the cheeseburger, grab a drink and listen to Ma Ruby's life story and you'll glimpse a little of what life in paradise really means.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Taste Trippin' Part Cinq

It's January and extra dreary in Chicago. What do I do to escape the cold, the snow, the bad winter fashion? Of course, I take a short trip, this time to Paris.  Down the stairs of Cyrano's Bistro, the elegance and joie de vivre of Cafe Simone Cabaret awaits. That's right, cabaret.  French food can't really elevate my spirits alone (too many sauces) I need, glamour, bawdy innuenedos and music. That's exactly what was served up at Cafe Simone Cabaret, when nine chanteuses and one rollicking piano player melted the frigid air on a blustery January night. They gave us Cole Porter and Peggy Lee, French tunes and Eartha Kitt. We enjoyed it all  in a dimly lit little room with wine, French flavors and insouciance to feed us.

Naturally, the wine was exclusively French, mostly from the Bergerac Southwest region of France that the chef, Didier Durand, (can a name be any more Frenchified?) hails from. My best friend Sheila made the mistake of ordering Pinot Grigio.  Mon Dieu! The waiter delicately explained that the cafe doesn't carry wine from other  regions.

There was even a cherub hovering over us carrying grapes but he looked suspiciously Italian to me.

I dined on saumon grille, grilled salmon over couscous with curried lemon butter and thankfully, no sauce. The dish was well seasoned and artfully prepared. Unfortunately, I didn't get to finish it  because I forgot about my food once the cadre of cabaret singers started crooning and grooving.

However, nothing, not even great performances, makes me forget Les Desserts. Lavender-scented cake dripping in chocolate and strawberries ended my Parisian excursion. The dish was rich and sparingly sweet, just like the voices of the cabaret singers.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Queen of Haitian Song

When I think of Haiti's beauty, I think of Emeline Michel.  As La Reine de la Chanson Creole, she embodies Haiti's history and spirit with a voice that swoops over your soul and touches it.  For twenty years, she has ruled as the queen of Haitian music, singing only in French and Kreyol and penning tunes that delve into the island's cultural traditions, while melding Haitian rhythms like compas  and twobadou with modern forms of jazz, slalsa and samba.  To hear Emeline sing is to hear the heart of Haiti.  Her rich, supple vocals  pour over her lyrics, which celebrate the joy, hope and struggle of her country.  Emeline's  award-winning, self-produced, 1999 CD  Cordes et Ame, (Strings and Soul) changed the face of Haitian music with a velvety blend of Haitian roots with Latin undertones. A hypnotic love letter to her island, it urges Haitians to remember their impressive history as the Western Hemisphere's first black republic and to overcome its current turmoil.  The album is considered  to be the definitive collection of Haitian music and continues to skillfully represent the joyful, melodic, music of Haiti.  The video below showcases Emeline and Haiti.  From Cordes et Ame, "Fo m Ale" (Got To Go) draws from traditional twobadou music of the Haitian countryside. It tells the story of a Haitian immigrant living far from home, longing for the warmth and acceptance of Haiti.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Power of Haitian Art

When I was touring resorts in Harbour Island, I was struck by a dazzling collection of Haitian art covering the walls of  a gorgeous, ocean front cottage.  The fact that my focus was drawn to a few wall hangings in the midst of a sprawling, sun -kissed, property speaks to the power of Haitian art. I immediately recognized them as Haitian drapo vodou or ceremonial vodou flags, by the distinctive beading and sequin work. As I follow the tragedy of the Haitian earthquake, I often think of the resilence of Haitian culture. The art, music and spirit of Haiti continues to survive in the face of centuries of hardship and opression.

Despite the stereotypes and misinformation, Vodou remains a syncretic relligion that combines ancient African spiritual beliefs with Catholicism, in much the same way as Cuban Santeria, Brazilian Candomble and Jamaican Obeah and it does not involve devil worship.  Instead, Vodou acknowledges one God, as well as other spiritual beings. Those beings, called lwa (pronounced (LO ah) are the deities represented on Vodou flags. Traditionally, these banners are carried on poles and waved during the beginning of ceremonies. They are created by hougans or mambos, Vodou priests and priestessess.  During the 70s, French tourists recognized the beauty of  the flags, spurring art collectors  to create a market for them.

The flags displayed above were crafted by the Haitian artist, George Valris. The concentrated beading and sequin work, which often takes up to 10 days to complete, indicate that they are strictly for display. The heaviness of the sequins would make it difficult to wave these banners. The first two illustrate "La Sirene" the mermaid  manifestization of Erzulie, the spirit of love and beauty. She is one of the most popular lwa on drapo vodou, as she symbolizes wealth and luck. The last one portrays "Gran Bois," the sacred spirit in the trees. These art works may simply look like pretty pictures but they represet the triumph of Haitian culture. Vodou and its practicioners have been killed and persecuted for generations and yet it lives on, through the appreciation of art lovers around the world and through the unyielding Haitian spirit.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Help For Haiti

Yesterday, a 7.0- magnitude earthquake hit Haiti, on the Caribbean island of Hispanola.  It was the worst earthquake to hit the country in 200 years, with the equivalent power of serveral nuclear bombs. When I heard the news last night, I couldn't believe it. Haiti is a country full of proud people, a vibrant culture and significant history but it suffers with violence, cruel politics and brutal poverty.  A disaster like this, piled upon  the other miseries just seems  unbearable.  When I was in the Dominican Republic, which shares Hispanola with Haiti, evidence of the agony and injustice that Haitians have to endure was unmistakable. Haitians were not allowed to cross the Dominican border, were widely discriminated against and agencies have documented Haitians being enslaved by Dominican plantation owners. I'll never forget the stoic faces of the Haitians that I spoke to. And now this.  Haiti's capitol, Port- au-Prince, has been devastated, with collapsed buildings and bodies lining the streets. Officials expect the death toll to exceed 100,000.

Haiti needs help. The easiest way is to text  "Yele" to 501501, this will automatically donate $5 to Haitian muscian Wyclef Jean's Yele Haiti Foundation and be charged to your cell phone bill.  Or you can donate $10 to the Red Cross to help by texting "Haiti" to 90999.  You can also donate with a Visa card to Oxfam to provide relief.  For a list of authorized agencies to donate relief for the Haiti earthquake, go here.  The Red Cross and Unicief are charities that I regularly support so I 'm making my donations through them. I'm also in contact with the active Haitian community here in Chicago to figure out what supplies need to be shipped to Haiti. What will you do to help Haiti?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Africa Arrives Once Again With Avatar Movie

You may have heard of this movie, Avatar.  As one of the most expensive movies ever made, this sci -fi epic has captured a global audience, broken box office records and is climbing towards the the title of highest grossing movie of all time. Frankly, I wasn't impressed. In fact, I was insulted by the tired and one-dimensional, "noble savages get saved by white man gone native" storyline.  It's been much noted in many reviews that Avatar is basically "Dances With Wolves" on another planet and I agree. So I won't go into the many racial and cultural issues that the movie has stirred up except to observe that African culture is on major display in Avatar. The Na'vi, 10 feet tall,  blue people of Pandora, exhbit African  traditions and cultural adornments on many levels. Neytiri, the warrior princess played by Zoe Saldana, rocks braids adorned with beads in the same fashion that African women have worn for centuries.

Moat, the Na'vi spiritual healer and mother of Neytiri played by CCH Pounder, wears a resplendent red, beaded corset. Although a traditional African piece like this might be unfamiliar to some, I immediately recognized it as a Dinka corset, pictured above.Traditionally, red and black beads are reserved for the 18-25 set. Yellow beads are worn by those over 30, which would probably be Moat's category.

Avatar joins a calvacade of  fashion trendsetters in  borrowing African fabric, jewelry and hairstyles to make a new millenium statement. The runways have been awash in African style bangles, necklaces and dresses, like the African wax print dress from Marc Jacobs above and the mud cloth print dress by Oscar De La Renta, below. Fashion comes and goes but African style always manages to remain present.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Narrowest Place On Earth: Eleuthera's Glass Window Bridge

On the northern tip of Eleuthera, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other, the Glass Window Bridge dramatically rises from a natural rock formation. Covered in craggy cliffs and ridges, while periodically splashed by aggressive waves, the area exudes an eerie vibe.  At Glass Window Bridge, Eleuthera narrows to an isthmus only as wide as the bridge itself, which is why it's called the narrowest place on earth. It's also the only place on the island that I fellt uneasy.  Only later did I learn that rogue waves, sometimes as high as 100 feet, sometimes wash people and vehicles into the ocean.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Saturday Sailboat Racing on Governor's Harbour

Governor's Harbor is a settlement that covers the center of Eleuthera.  The area boasts the distinction of  being the first permanent European settlement in the New World as well as exhibiting  the true essence of Eleuthera.  For the most part, the island is quiet and sparsely populated  but Governor's Harbour offers glimpses of candy-colored houses, a legendary Friday night fish fry and Saturday morning sailboat racing.

Preparation for the races start at 10 AM, when children and adults launch and rigg their boats on the beach. The first race sails at 11:00 with a course clearly viewed from the harbour.

I was charmed to see children sailing and swimming on a Saturday morning instead of holed up in front of a computer somewhere. It felt like a peek into another era when nature and simplicity were still revered. By about 2PM, the races were over and the boats dotted the beach like oversized flippers.

Some of the kids scurried across the street to the rose-colored library, where they read and created art projects. Eleuthera is noted for its old school lifestyle and witnessing these leisurely Saturday morning activities made me want to ditch my multi-tasking, contemporary habits and sink into the island's slow-paced warmth.