Thursday, May 1, 2008

Cardi Idol

The folks at Java Madness in Wakefield want all Rhode Islanders to know that Narragansett singer-songwriter James Grande, a Java regular, is one of five finalists for a special Cardi Brothers promotion to be featured in a 60-second commercial on the season finale of "American Idol." He's actually one of four South County musicians/groups in the mix. The others are Meline Vergne Skelly of North Kingstown, Melanie Donnelly of North Kingstown, The Ticonderogas of Narragansett (full disclosure: band member Dylan Sevey of South Kingstown writes a monthly music column for the Independent newspapers), and Nick Tetrault of Assonet, Mass. You can hear the musicians and vote by logging on to the Cardi Brothers Web site. Voting ends on May 7.

The competition falls on the heels of "Rhode Island Idol," a statewide crooning contest to be held Saturday at Stone Soup Coffeehouse in Pawtucket. Here at Half Shell, we've never seen "American Idol," but we have strangled our way through some bad Rhode Island and Australian karaoke, so we're supportive of anyone brave enough to get up in front of the world and sing into a microphone.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Breakfast State

Our license plates say "The Ocean State," but an old friend from New York was always convinced that Rhode Island was "The Breakfast State." His belief was founded on a seemingly limitless number of breakfast joints in South County/southern R.I. - Dad's and Crazy Burger in Narragansett; Phil's, River's Edge, Camden's ("the bowling alley") and the Bluebird Cafe in Wakefield; diners like the Beacon and Jigger's in East Greenwich, Snoopy's in North Kingstown and The Middle of Nowhere in Exeter. What really sold him was the range of summertime breakfast nooks, from the upscale Olympia Tea Room in Watch Hill to the low-key Jim's Dock in Jerusalem.

Sometimes there's a lot of truth in a throwaway line. Rhode Island gave birth to the diner and the tradition of May breakfasts. Other times the reputation exceeds the reality. There are more active lighthouses in Rhody (14), for instance, than there are traditional working diners (13).

On the plus side, Providence is home to the still-in-progress American Diner Museum and a local initiative to involve at-risk teens in a project to restore and preserve classic trolley car diners. And Oak Lawn Church in Cranston is the birthplace of the May breakfast, first held in 1867, when it was the Old Quaker Meeting House. The event is unique to Rhode Island, sponsored by churches, senior centers, fire departments, granges and other community locales throughout the state from mid-April through the end of May. On May Day, the R.I. Governor invites any Rhode Islander over the age of 100 to a May breakfast at the State House in Providence. People over the age of 60 can go to any number of senior centers in Rhody for what are called Governor's May Breakfasts - only without the governor.

The menu depends on the venue, an eclectic mix that usually includes jonnycakes or johnnycakes. (Drop the "h" if you use Rhode Island-grown stone-ground whitecap flint corn; the "h" is required for johnnycakes made with any other kind of corn. This is no joke. It's law in Rhode Island.) Other breads range from pancakes to French toast, doughnuts to muffins. Meats include ham, sausage or bacon. Eggs are usually served scrambled. Most May breakfasts also offer baked beans and a variety of pies, coffee and juice. Clam cakes were on the original menu at Oak Lawn, where they're still served today. Some Rhode Islanders make a spring ritual of weekly May breakfast-hopping. Two other points in Rhody's favor as "The Breakfast State": 1) Here, breakfast is an any-time-of-day kind of meal. 2) Coffee as a vital liquid is second only in importance to blood.

Monday, April 28, 2008

One-potato, two-potato...

Somewhere on the back streets of the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, there's a Volkswagen wearing the words, "RHODE ISLAND IS THE UNIVERSE," on its rear windshield. My friend John Murphy, who previously owned the car, spliced together two UNIVERSITY OF RHODE ISLAND decals to make the motto, and the current owner liked it enough to leave it there. During the past seven years of travel and journalism, I've been amazed at how often John's Zen-like axiom has proven true.

Take the saga of Pawtucket-born Mr. Potato Head, recently snagged in a drug bust in Australia and caught in an illicit relationship with an octopus in England. The official spokespud of Rhode Island (Hasbro's words, not mine), member of the Toy Hall of Fame and star sidekick of the Toy Story movies, Mr. Potato Head is no stranger to controversy.

In 2000, a tourism decision to make Mr. Potato Head the "official family-travel ambassador" by scattering dozens of the 6-foot Potato Heads into communities throughout Rhode Island backfired when the project suffered local and international ridicule and criticism, with many of the statues repeatedly vandalized. Communities didn't know how to get rid of the things. Hometown Pawtucket tried to re-gift its own Mr. Potato Head, valued at $8,700, to Belper, England, but only succeeded in enraging the locals. Rhode Island tried a reclamation project a couple of years later, as Hasbro and the R.I. Community Food Bank teamed up for a good cause, giving vanity plate conscious Rhode Islanders a chance to "Help End Hunger" by purchasing a Mr. Potato Head license plate for the toy's 50th anniversary. Just a week ago, the most famous Rhode Island toy this side of G.I. Joe continued to make Mr. Potato headlines during the first round NBA playoff series between the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks.