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Monday, February 18, 2008


Dear Reader: Let's celebrate Presidents Day with some weird, wacky Americana.

Amusing Museums

The Louvre has Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. The Rijksmuseum has Rembrandt's The Nightwatch. The Museum of Bad Art (MOBA) has Lucy in the Field with Flowers, painted by Unknown (or someone who prefers to remain so). MOBA is the world's only museum dedicated to the collection (often out of trash bins), preservation, exhibition and celebration of bad art in all its forms. The museum is located in the basement of the Dedham, Massachusetts community theater building. The collection is lit by one large, humming fluorescent light fixture, so visitors can use flash. Admission is free, and, as they say, it's worth every penny.

If that doesn’t leave you flush with excitement, how about a visit to a gallery devoted to sinks, tubs and other plumbing items? The Kohler Design Center in Kohler, Wisconsin is truly the couture house of plumbing. Why, Kohler even contributed toilets to New York's Fashion Week this year. The Kohler Design Center is a three-level showcase of innovative product design and technology. A large gallery traces the 130-year history of Kohler Company products. It’s good stuff. The proof is in the plumbing.

Don't leave Wisconsin without visiting the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum. This museum features more than 4300 containers of the tangy condiment. Every so often, the museum hosts a Mustard Family Reunion, when those so named can "ketchup" with each other. This year, however, Colonel Mustard and kin will have to settle for getting together during National Mustard Day, celebrated this year the first Saturday of August.

Ketchup and mayonnaise seem to have been squeezed out of the museum business, but vinegar stakes its claim to fame in Roslyn, South Dakota. At the International Vinegar Museum, you can see vinegar from around the world and learn how the stuff is made. There's also an International Vinegar Festival held here in June.

Ice Cream, You Scream

Le Mars, Iowa may claim to be the world capital of ice cream, but those in St. Louis might have a cone to pick with that idea. After all, the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair gave birth to the ice cream cone. Now, 101 years later, visitors to the Gateway City can still grab a cone in Forest Park, the location of the World's Fair. Currently, the park is home to the St. Louis Zoo, the concession stands of which all feature giant-sized drumstick cones reminiscent of days gone by.

But the place for a frosty treat in St. Louis these days is Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. This Route 66 icon is noted for its "concrete" ice cream shakes—so thick you can turn them upside down and the liquid stays in the cup. Also on the St. Louis ice cream must-eat list is Crown Candy Kitchen, an old-fashioned soda fountain serving handmade ice cream and massive "World's Fair Sundaes."

For ice cream with a bit of 1960s flavor, head off to Waterbury, Vermont, home of the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream plant. After taking in the New England scenery, visitors can take a guided 30-minute tour where they can learn all about how ice cream (and frozen yogurt) is made. The last stop on the tour is the "FlavoRoom," where there are free samples from the day’s batches.

And More Sweet Treats

Travelers to Eli's Cheesecake World in Chicago can visit a 62,000 square foot cheesecake factory and then enjoy a slice in the cafĂ© overlooking the Research & Development section of the bakery. More than 30 types of cheesecake (made with 3 million pounds of cream cheese annually) are cooked up here. Eli’s Cheesecake World offers tours during the week for those who call ahead and say cheese.

Another popular All-American dessert item is Jell-O. The Jell-O Gallery in LeRoy, New York tells the tale of America’s love affair with the gelatinous concoction. The museum allows visitors to take an interactive walk through more than 100 years of Jell-O, starting in 1897. Visitors learn how the history of Jell-O parallels the history of America. There are wartime recipe booklets (during World War I, Jell-O was touted as a low-cost dessert alternative) and photos from Ellis Island, where the wobbly stuff literally became the first taste of America for many immigrants.

The Capital of Giant Things

...has to be Minnesota. The Land of 10,000 Lakes is also the land of dozens of giant statues. There's the Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Smokey the Bear in International Falls, the Happy Chef in Mankato, Paul Bunyan, who shows up in both Akeley and Bedmidji, and the State Fair Gopher in St. Paul. And that's just for starters.

If you are looking for a colossal Bob’s Big Boy, he still shows up in several places around the country. Next time you’re in Hollywood, stop by the Toluca Lake/Burbank Bob’s Big Boy, where the larger than life icon reigns supreme. And speaking of classic restaurant icons, if you are in the Chicago area, stop by Des Plaines. That’s where you can find an original Golden Arch, featuring Speedee, outside of a re-creation of America’s first McDonald’s. The sign, built in 1955, in its neon elegance, promotes the 15 cent hamburger.

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