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Dispatches

Illustration Peter Oumanski

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The Dead Rodents Society

Creating dioramas out of mouse cadavers isn’t as cute as it sounds / Chris Wright

LONDON – Oscar the mouse is in poor shape. To be fair, he didn’t look great when we started out, but now he’s a mess. I’ve spent a couple of hours snipping, scooping, peeling and tweezing the deceased animal (and inadvertently mangling and de-furring him), trying to create a piece of taxidermy art. What I’ve got is an extra from a Tim Burton film.

There are a dozen of us working on white mice on a table at Boxpark, a pop-up mall in London’s hip Shoreditch area, the venue for a series of workshops run by local taxidermist Margot Magpie. She currently hosts two classes a week, but demand has been so high she’s about to introduce more, some of them involving larger animals like squirrels and rabbits.

“I think people enjoy the hands-on aspect of it—we don’t have that today, with all the digital stuff,” says the former medical history student, explaining why her sessions have been consistently oversubscribed since she started them almost two years ago. “Also, I just think people are really interested in dealing with something that’s dead.”  

Then there’s the fact that this is billed as an anthropomorphic taxidermy class, meaning we get to make our mice engage in human activities like playing tennis or reading the paper. Cute, right? Well, not exactly. Taxidermy turns out to be messy, fiddly and fraught with the potential for minor disasters. “I’ve lost his face!” yells one student. “It’s a monster!” cries another. But, in the end, most people seem happy with their creations. “Look!” says a guy who has put a little broom in the hands of his mouse. “He’s sweeping up his own entrails!”

This is probably the best bit of mouse art made tonight, but it’s not the best ever. One student, Magpie says, went on to create a mouse circus. “Another one I liked,” she adds, “was a mouse painting a picture of a cat.” On our table, meanwhile, there’s an animal that’s even more grossly misshapen than my Oscar.

“What are you going to do with him?” someone asks the would-be taxidermist, who responds: “Mother’s Day?”

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Cold War Comfort Food

Bridging the East-West divide, one mouthful at a time / Boyd Farrow

BERLIN – Among the fusion-food emporia along the scrubbed-up Weinbergsweg, Sauerkraut looks a little out of place. Opened last year by a pair of successful Russian restaurateurs, the eatery is a throwback, with wood-paneled walls and a lugubrious waiter serving coarsely ground meat, dense rye bread and sauerkraut braised in bacon fat.

Sauerkraut is located in what used to be East Berlin, close to the Cold War faultline that has recently threatened to rupture once more, just in time for the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s collapse. Georgij Solanik, who co-owns the faux-traditional German restaurant with Ilja Kaplan, reckons he is doing his bit to heal the current rift, albeit in a small and unconventional way.

“There are more similarities between East and West than differences,” Solanik says. An old guy sitting nearby nods over a plate of curly sausage—though it’s unclear whether he’s agreeing with this sentiment or simply enjoying his meal.

For Solanik, the old man’s platter is as rich in symbolism as it is in saturated fat. “Wurst, potatoes and sauerkraut,” he says, “are the same as hot dogs, fries and slaw.” He’s not sure that his customers will consciously absorb this pacifist message, but it doesn’t really matter. The point is that they will be united through their shared love of a good wurst.

As he speaks, the old sausage-eating guy unfolds a newspaper, its front page trumpeting regional tensions, the potential for a new Cold War. Solanik heartily urges him to try the apple strudel, which, if you close your eyes, might taste just like an American apple pie. “Go on!” he says. “This is a global comfort food!”

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Geek Drama

A Windy City theater troupe puts a new spin on old classics / Christina Couch

CHICAGO – On a small stage, an actress adjusts her bonnet, wipes her hands on her apron and makes her way to a covered wagon at stage right. At first glance, this could be any Old West drama, but the pixelated trees and 8-bit bison on the backdrop suggest that the production may be more Sega than saga.

“The Oregon Tail Burlesque: You Have Died of Sexy” is a “nerd/lesque” parody of the 1970s video game The Oregon Trail. The hour-long show features elements of the game (hunting bison, fording rivers), along with musical numbers and kitschy plotlines. As one of the show’s performers says, “We’re a little more dance-y than the actual pioneers may have been.”

Gorilla Tango, the group behind “Oregon Tail,” has been staging geeky mashups in its Chicago theater space since 2010. The 14 productions to date have included burlesque parodies of Super Mario Bros., Star Wars and “Doctor Who.” The idea, says producer Kelly Williams, is to have people look at the program and say, “How the heck are they going to do that?”

The stars of these shows are often not professional actors. Polly Pom-Poms (not her real name), who plays Peachy Keen in “Oregon Tail,” is an author of historical fiction for young adults. “This was something I had always been interested in academically,” she says of her decision to audition for the part. “I saw the notice and was like, ‘Oh my God, I love bonnets.’”

This is Pom-Poms’ first stint as a nerd/lesque performer, and while she enjoyed it, she won’t be taking part in the next show, a “Star Trek” parody. “I love fantasy,” she says in a stage whisper.

“But I hate space.”

Bananarama

One man’s quest to amass the world’s largest collection of yellow fruit / Janice Kleinschmidt

CALIFORNIA – If you weren’t looking for the International Banana Museum, you’d miss it. The collection shares a building with Skip’s liquor store and bait shop in the weathered town of North Shore in southeastern California. Inside, however, you will find a unique and important exhibition namely: “The world’s largest banana display!”

The museum was opened a couple of years ago by Fred Garbutt, who builds tennis courts for a living. Dressed in yellow shorts and a banana-print shirt, he reveals that he has so far amassed nearly 20,000 items, and that he always has his eyes “peeled” for more.

Among the items on display are ceramics, posters, toys, comics, clocks and a “Go Bananas” slot machine. The gift shop, meanwhile, carries banana-scented hand sanitizer, banana-flavored snow cones and actual bananas.

One of Garbutt’s most treasured items is an animation cel from a 1960s Chiquita ad that he bought on eBay for $45. “I couldn’t believe nobody was bidding on it,” he says.

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Indiana Jones and the Temple of Commerce

The economic opportunities at the nexus of Hollywood and history / James Dorsey

JORDAN – On a slow day, Hamad Amarat stands in front of his business cracking a bullwhip, which always draws a crowd. The stone city of Petra is the most important archaeological site in Jordan, and Amarat is perfectly poised to take advantage of this fact.

The ancient settlement, carved into the rugged desert mountains around 2,000 years ago, is sometimes called “The Lost City,” though you wouldn’t know it to look at the crowds that arrive daily.

Despite the desert heat, there are always a few visitors in leather jackets and fedoras, mainly due to the fact that the facade of this UNESCO World Heritage site appeared in the 1989 blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Amarat, a Bedouin who like many of his clan still lives in a cave above the ruins, describes that film as “wonderful,” adding, “Great for business!”

After watching the filming of the Harrison Ford movie each day as a young man, Amarat says, he was struck by the economic opportunities it presented. So it was that he abandoned his then-occupation of digging up pottery shards to sell to tourists and, with help from an uncle, opened both the Indiana Jones Snack Shop and the Indiana Jones Gift Shop directly outside the entrance to Petra.

Oddly, given its name, Amarat’s shop contains very little in the way of merchandise related to the film. When asked why this is the case, he raises his hands in the air and cries, “That would be tacky!”

Bean counting

Our love affair with coffee, by the numbers / Ed Frankl

Ever since the Sons of Liberty stirred up trouble at the Boston Tea Party, coffee has been the preferred drink of Americans. But the U.S. isn’t the only country that likes its beans. This month’s World Barista Championship—held in Rimini, Italy—tests the prowess of brewers from scores of countries, judging them on both technical ability (“Purges the steam wand before steaming”) and aesthetic sense (“Visually correct cappuccino”). While general knowledge isn’t a category at the event, here are a few facts that any self-respecting barista ought to know.

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