Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Top 5 Things To Do and See in Chicago

As a born and raised Chicagoan, I’m pretty persnickety about what passes for essential Chicago tourism. Yes, the Magnificent Mile is pretty but  this glitzy stretch crammed with designer shops really doesn’t define the Windy City or its sensibilities.  So I’ve compiled a list of the top 5 things that in my opinion, truly reflect Chicago history and attitude. 

1.  Pizzeria Due:  Deep dish Chicago style pizza is an absolute must. You may think you’ve tasted it before but if you’ve never been to Chicago, you’ve never experienced true deep dish pizza. It is dripping with cheese, it weighs about 5 pounds and it neatly reflects brash Chicago style and heavy Midwestern palates. The iconic Pizzeria Uno chain is credited as one of the first to serve the delicacy. Pizzeria Due is just as iconic and is my personal favorite because it’s slightly less crowded than the original.

2. Untouchable Tours:  No matter that Al and the most notorious hoodlums are gone, this is a gangster town, always will be. Review the recent mayoral election if you don’t believe me.  With guides dubbed ‘Southside” or “Ice Pick”, this is the most entertaining and authentic tour of Chicago gangster landmarks. With shiny spats and Tommy guns in hand, “da guides” will escort you to the site of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre and everywhere in between.

3. Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation: This is the home of the blues but you’ll never learn any real blues history at cheesy North side blues joints.  At the Blues Heaven Foundation, you’ll view the actual recording studio for Chess Records, hear live blues demonstrations and buy CDs for Chicago blues icons like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Koko Taylor, Chuck Berry and the legendary “father of modern Chicago blues,” Willie Dixon.  You’ll learn how blues became rock n’ roll and how the genre informs most contemporary music today.

4. Chicago Cultural Center:  In the shadow of sparkling new Millennium Park and the legendary Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Cultural Center sometimes gets overlooked but it’s a very regrettable mistake. Boasting the world’s largest stained glass Tiffany dome and gleaming Carrara marble, the cultural center is an architectural marvel in its own right but there’s so much more. Art exhibits, concerts, films, lectures and festivals are presented almost every day of the week and all for free.

5. Chicago Lake Street Bridge:  This is another overlooked treasure.  It stretches over the Chicago River and offers the most magnificent views of the skyline.  This is the only downtown bride that survived the Chicago Fire. It’s rarely as crowded as the Michigan Avenue Bridge so stroll slowly across it and grab a big eyeful of Chicago.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Kaua'i Purple Pie

Purple has always been my favorite color. To me, everything looks and tastes better when it's purple. So I was thrilled to discover that two Hawaiian staples glow with  a lovely violet hue. Poi, or mashed taro root, plays a major part in any truly Hawaiian meal but the Hawaiian sweet potato, called uala, comes in a close second. Also referred to as the Okinawa sweet potato, I saw them grace tables mashed, in soups and my favorite, in a pie.

Growing up, sweet potato pie was the finale for all holiday meals, which was of course, my favorite part. So imagine my excitement when I gazed at my beloved dessert drenched in a vibrant version of my favorite color. I almost forgot to eat it, I was so busy staring at it. The pie was covered in another Hawaiian favorite, haupia or coconut pudding. The flavor was smooth, delicate and only slightly sweet.

Filled with antioxidants, Hawaiian  sweet potatoes pack a  powerful nutritional  punch with a low glycemic index and more antioxidant activity than Vitamin C or E.  Basically, this means that downing lots of purple pie is good for you.  I think I ate a piece every day I was on Kaua'i and I believe I'm much stronger from it. Either that or the purple has gone to my head...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Prince Kuhio Celebration

The essential element that really attracted me to Kaua'i was its history and culture. Not the legendary beauty. Not the cliffs and canyon.  As the oldest of Hawaii's islands, Kaua'i cradles the ancient legacy of Hawaiian culture and traditions and I felt compelled to discover it.  The annual Prince Kuhio Celebration, held every March in observance of Prince Kuhio day on March 26, provides one of the best ways to experience Hawaiian heritage personally. Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana'ole Pi'ikoi  pictured above, was born in 1871 and was known as the people's prince. He worked to uphold Hawaiian rights and culture after the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown in 1883 . Prince Kuhio  was the first Hawaiian elected  to the the U.S. Congress and served  for 10 years. He also established the Hawaiian Home Commission, which preserved land for native Hawaiians. Although he died in 1922, Prince Kuhio's legacy of  preserving traditional Hawaiian practices remains vibrant. The 9-day celebration highlights aspects of Hawaiian food, music, dance, history and rituals.

I attended a royal dinner and Hawaiian fashion contest that featured classic Hawaiian music played on ukele's and traditional dishes including lau lau, which is savory bundles of fish or pork wrapped in taro leaves, poi and haupia or coconut pudding.  Besides the special Prince Kuhio drink which was a delightful concoction of coconut and macadamia nut liquor whipped up with cream, coconut and pineapple juice, I most enjoyed the music and the stories that went along with them. Haunani Kaui , a popular singer and musician above, serenaded us the whole night.I learned the words to my favorite Hawaiian song, "Kuu home O Kahaluu" by Jerry Santos, as well as that a true Hawaiian meal will  Brok Da Mout  or taste really good.

I witnessed many Hawaiian rituals, including royal dances and chants. The dancers above performed a dance that showcased the elegance of a royal performance. The feathered standards are called kahili and represent royal lineage. Red and yellow are the Hawaiian royal colors and they are featured in any royal protocol, which is why the dancers wear long ruby-colored dresses. Their rigid arms are hallmarks of hula kahiko, the ancient hula that differs from the contemporary hula auana, which focuses on undulating hips and expressive arms. Hula kahiko is only performed with chants and percussion.

In Hawaiian culture, elders are respectfully called auntie and uncle. All of the people seated above, are also beloved kahunas or teachers and experts. It can also mean a priest or spiritual leader They all wear fragrant maile leis, or open leis that come from vines that grow at an elevation of 3,000 feet in the Hawaiian islands. A maile lei denotes honor and is the lei of royalty. Uncle Nathan, on the left, passes down  the traditions of chanting and traditional dance. He astounded me by chanting all the names of eight generations of his family on his father's side.  Auntie Janet, beside him, is noted for teaching ancient salt making techniques as well as a host of other traditions. Auntie Stella is probably the best known kahuna on Kaua'i.  Every time I asked about Kaua'i history or culture, her name was the first to be recommended.  She helps spearhead the Prince Kuhio Celebration and taught me many things that I'm still absorbing.