Water Dragons and Garden Weasels
    According to the Chinese astrological system, I was born in the year of the fire horse. This sign, which appears only once in sixty years, is said to create women of such fiery dispositions that parents have been known to kill their female offspring rather than bring such a creature into the world. Lucky me! Actually, I don't mind being a fire horse. It gives me something live up to. But does any of this celestial hoo-hah really hold water? Water Dragons and Garden Weasels gives you a way to find out for yourself. It's a directory of links to online diaries -- yes, real diaries -- sorted by the Chinese astrological designation of the authors. You can go read about their daily trials and traumas, then judge for yourself whether or not they match the profile. More apt to create your own identity? Try the Insane Zodiac Sign Generator -- it turns out I'm also an anxiety-ridden tree dragonfly, born in the Year of the green idiosyncratic airstream trailer. Now that's a sign to live up to! --SMP
Candlegrove's Ancient Origins of the Holiday
    This year, just like last year and every year before that for as long as I can remember, Charlie Brown picked the tree, the Grinch stole Christmas, and Burl Ives for some reason was a dancing snowman (Sadly, the Norelco Santa no longer sleds down a snowy hill on an electric razor). But who gets to be the Bean King and and who will help the Sun battle Darkness? Huh? This exquisitely designed site takes our wintry celebrations back 4,000 years and then some, detailing everything from the scientific reasons seasons change to early meanings behind our most beloved holiday symbols. And yes, even you can be the Bean King -- there's a recipe to show you how. --SMP

The Official Rock, Paper, Scissors Strategy Guide
    When I was growing up, I knew this game as "Jan Ken Po." It was handy for settling disputes for anything from whose Barbie got to wear the denim skirt and halter top to who was going to be "it" in our favorite tag game, Capture and Torture. Though I can't recall a time when I did not know about Rock, Paper, Scissors, never did I realize its potential for intellectual sparring on the level of plotting world conquest. Luckily, for me and anyone else interested in the art and philosophy of the game, the Official Rock, Paper, Scissors Strategy Guide offers illumination on topics ranging from strategy for beginners to "the Zen of Paper." There are, of course, other paths to wisdom than shaking fists at one another, but hey, this'll do. --SMP

Debbie's White Trash Vegetarian Cooking
    Are all vegetarians macrobiotic stair-steppers who ooh and ahh over an artful placement of cilantro and fennel on their plates? Nah. I for one would sooner take a trip through the drive-through aisle of Jack-in-the-Box than poison my palate with steamed vegetables. If you, like me, grew up in an era when the closest to homemade your mother could muster was inviting Betty Crocker and Chef Boy-R-Dee into the kitchen, then Debbie's White Trash Vegetarian Cooking is your home away from home. Learn the secrets behind the vegetarian versions of such classics as pigs-in-a-blanket, Veg-All casserole, and Hamburger Helper. Heck, you can even make biscuits and gravy. Our own Cowboy Jack would cringe I'm sure, but we grease-seeking vegetarians have got to do what we've got to do. --SMP

The Official Ramen Homepage
and Friends, Ramens, Countrymen
    I'm not sure who the officiating body is, but among the many ramen-dedicated sites on the web, only one claims the title of "Official Ramen Home Page." Primarily it's a compilation of 160 visitor submitted recipes that manipulate, coerce, and transform ordinary five-for-a-dollar packets of noodles into an amazing array of variations – although some of them are hardly appetizing. "Heart Attack," for example, contains mozzarella cheese, spam, and an egg. There's also ramen on a hamburger bun with a cup of Tabasco, Chocolate Bar Ramen and Ramen Flambé. If you haven't had enough after eating and possibly regurgitating your fill, head on over to Friends, Ramens, Countrymen for explorations that are more cultural than culinary. While there aren't as many recipes at FRC, here you can find out the results to the ramen pronunciation poll, read the ramen manifesto (where you'll hear theories about the origin of the word "ramen"), and empathize with the Confessions of a Ramen Addict. Finally, if that still hasn't quenched your salt and msg induced thirst, don't forget our own ramen saga, My Own Private Tampopo. --SMP

Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia
    Afraid you already missed the 1998 Los Angeles Pez-A-Thon? Not to worry, head on over to the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia web site and find out when a Pez convention is coming to your town (the L.A. event is in April -- whew!). You'll also have the chance to learn a few things: Did you know, for example, that while Pez dispensers have been around since 1927, they didn't have cartoon heads and fruity flavors until 1952? Amazing to think that they got along for a quarter of a century with headless Pez, but heck, that was smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression after all -- no wonder they were depressed! At the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorablilia, either online or in person, you can view the history of the twentieth century as manifested in candy. You can also buy memorabilia, dispensers and actual edibles -- watch out for the one that looks like a dog whistle though, it'll set you back thirty-five bucks. --SMP

Project Denny's
    Every road leads to Denny's. Well, almost every road. Think about it: Have you ever traveled a major U.S. highway without seeing that friendly red and yellow sign every few offramps, beckoning you like some sort of low-grade mirage? For most of us, however, it's only the occasional road that truly leads to Denny's doorstep. Not so for Jason Alan Pfaff. Jason's personal mission in life is to visit every single Denny's on the planet before he dies. Why? Well, for that you'll have to visit his website, Project Denny's which chronicles at least a hundred visits and is designed with the same images and bright colors you might find on the menu of your local Denny's. Now, now, before you begin scoffing at the culinary or cultural significance of this restaurant or the website that strives to honor it, ponder well my words: Any place with a deep-fry vat can't be all bad. --SMP

The Toaster Museum Foundation
    New exhibits pop-up all the time at the Toaster Museum Foundation. Here you'll find everything from toaster inspired fine art and toasty toys to vintage toaster advertisements and, of course, more toasters than you ever dared to hope for even in your wildest imaginings. What? Your wild imaginings don't include toasters? After visiting this site, you may reconsider. Online exhibits display models from 1800 to the present. When you're done soaking up their rich history, you can also find out where to get toaster themed baseball caps or boxer shorts. The Foundation's board has big plans afoot. As they aptly put it, "Much can be learned about a culture through the examination of everyday items....For the history of the toaster is the history of 20th Century Cultural Trends and Industrial Design, and these little chrome (and nickel, and brass, and plastic...) monuments to man's ingenuity should always be remembered." Unfortunately, their former art gallery and toaster bar (your choice of bread and twenty-five toppings, toasted at the table in a gleaming bit of history) is no longer. With its current non-profit status though, you may want to consider sending them a few bucks; maybe they'll bring the toaster bar back. A girl can dream anyway. --SMP

The Museum of Talking Boards
    There was a time when Ouija boards gave me the willies. Did I have a good reason? Only your usual childhood shenanigans: Once when I was five, my older sister and some cousins lured me into a group seance of sorts with the ol' talking board. The planchette, that little triangle you all put your fingers on, did indeed move and I was entranced. So entranced, in fact, that I told sis and my cousins to tell the spirit moving the thing I wanted to marry him when I died. Really. And ever since I've had this nagging worry that maybe Mr. Ouija will take me up on my offer. I'll keep you posted. I plan on updating this webpage even from the grave (and for the record, Ouija-dude, I'm already taken). Apparently, Mr. Ouija has a similar intention. Go to the Museum of Talking Boards and play with one of two online talking boards (according to the site's creators, "Spirits love JavaScript"). But there's lots more to do at the Museum than play with the toys. You can learn about the history of the board (it's only been around since 1890), view historic and contemporary boards in the galleries, read narratives about people who've used it (Iris Maloney reportedly asked for winning lottery numbers; husband "Hank isn't laughing at me anymore," she says), and even learn how to make your own. The front page of the Museum is attractively designed to look like an old Ouija board. The people responsible for this wonderful site aren't named, but I know of a way you might be able to find out... --SMP

Graf Café
    Graffiti's creators call it an art form, but officially it's still a crime. The danger of prosecution doesn't seem to matter to those who create it, though. And no matter how you feel about it, it's hard not be be impressed by the work showcased at Graf Café. Covering the graf scenes of London, Providence, Chicago, and Boston, the site itself is as visually impressive as a lot of the works it features. Like a lush museum catalog, the site's pages describe the grafs, profile their creators ("writers"), and the explain which crews the writer belongs to. Choose Boston and you're given a chance to scurry through the city's aging subways, seeing images that are probably rarely seen by anyone but maintenance workers. After seeing it all, you can't help wondering about the writers' motivations, which is one of the subjects covered in "intelligence." At the same time you'll be introduced to graffiti's foes who charge cities to paint over it. It's fascinating, beautiful, and a little disturbing at the same time. And while some would argue that it's all just glamorized vandalism, it's rare that we get a view from the other side of the fence. --JDR

Raving Toy Maniac
    We meet in the too brightly lit aisles of Toys R Us (TRU, please), Target, Wal-Mart, K-Mart and wherever else we can find those hunks of plastic. We are the action figure hunters. We seek Star Wars, Star Trek, Spawn, Starting Line-Ups, Total Justice Wave 3, and more specifically we hunt high and low for that Slave Leia, that Parallax, that O'Brien with Tribbles. Some of us are hostile, pushing people down for that box in the arms of the blue-shirted TRU minion. Some are nice: "I heard they had a Green Arrow at the PlayCo in Simi Valley." When we're not haunting aisles not designed for us, we're haunting web sites where we share our mutual passion (sickness?). Perhaps the best among these is Raving Toy Maniac. The site keeps our breed up-to-date on new releases, news from the all-important conventions, and anything else the Raving Toy Maniac might want. Other features include the hilarious "figtoon" where they dismantle a figure and let users write captions that apply to the refuse, and the creator corner, where people send in pictures of their own action figures. My favorite part of the site is the column by John Gersten. Gersten spends his time searching for figures in the San Francisco Bay area (only two Toys R Us's , poor man). His "Stalking the Wild CyGor" is a modern classic in which he describes enlisting his mother-in-law (who "LOVES a project") into the search. The site is thorough and informative and maintains a nice sense of humor throughout. The news updates are frequent and I check it often. Any toy lover will spend a lot of time here. Even if you don't seek a plastic action figure grail, you'll find some wonderful insight into a subculture that may catch you up in its fever. Let me know if you've got anything good to trade. --ETA
Elvis Presley's Graceland
    "I have reason to believe that we both will be received in Graceland." Yep, Paul Simon and child would absolutely be received in Graceland for $10 and $5 respectively (that's for the mansion; the cars, airplanes, and personal items are more. Paul and child could opt for the Platinum Tour but I'll leave that up to them). How do I know how much it costs to get into Graceland? Why the official site of Elvis Presley Enterprises of course. There's a virtual gift shop (I want a "Love Me Tender" pillow for my birthday--March 23) and a special events calender--Christmas at Graceland, make your plans now. Beyond Graceland, there is lots of Elvis information--all I'd ever really need--a disc and filmography, highlights of the 1997 candlelight vigil (30,000 people attended the vigil to honor the 20th anniversary of his death--where were you when you heard?). A nice FAQ (did you know that Elvis has sold more than one billion records worldwide?) and links round out the site. The site has to be the jumping off point for the Elvis fan on the web. And which of us aren't Elvis fans at our cores? Ok, maybe we aren't all Elvis fans, but in memory of the King, let's all have a cyber moment of silence for the king (may he rest or live in peace). --ETA
Il Palio di Siena
    One of the most vibrant and lively festivals in all the world is the Palio of Siena, Italy. Siena often takes a back seat to its Tuscan neighbor, Florence, but nowhere in the world is there a horse race and festival quite like the Palio. The festival has its origins in the middle ages and the race has been run every July 2nd and August 16th for at least 600 years. The festival has a complicated structure--the horse race is a competition between seventeen neighborhoods or contrade. These contrade are represented by a symbol [eg. Giraffa (giraffe), Pantera (panther), Drago (dragon), Oca (goose), Onda (wave), and Valdimonte (Ram)]. There is much more to the festival than the race itself, though-- feasting, the blessing of the horse inside the contrade's church, elaborate parades, music and medieval costumes are all elements that add to it's complexity. Until recently, any attempt to learn about the Palio has been left to academic tomes (the best of which is Alan Dundes and Alessandro Falassi's La Terra in Piazza). Anyone wanting to follow the Palio in its current form, root for one of the contrade, or learn more information about the festival has needed to know Italian or stick to non-Web based material. Fortunately for the closet Oca fan in all of us, the city of Siena has put up a dual language site with excellent background information and increasingly sophisticated coverage of the annual races. The site now includes Quick Time movies of the Piazza del Campo--the "racetrack"-- and time lapse photographs of the entire July and August 1997 races. It also includes background information, listings of all the Contrade, the years they have won the race, and pictures of the banners (Palio means "banner" in Italian) that the winners receive. The banners will be appreciated by art lovers; they are wonderful example of modern European art and are fascinating for their manipulation of the elements they all must include (an image of the Virgin and the colors of the contrade running the race). The sometimes challenged translation is charming and site is a must for the Palio aficionado, the festival fan, the horse crazy, or merely those with a penchant for things magnificent. --ETA

Top Secret Recipes
    Todd Wilbur is a man on a mission. More notably, perhaps, he's a man who left a thriving career in broadcast journalism to devote his life to fast food. For such a feat, he has nothing but my highest esteem. It's beginning to seem that these reviews only target sites that are about food or use food as a metaphor, betraying a certain weakness on the part of the author. Nevertheless, Todd's site is justified in being the next recipient of our Seal of Approval in the very least because his decade-long odyssey began with an Urban Legend: when sent the now infamous recipe for Mrs. Fields cookies, he tried it out only to be disappointed. Todd then became determined to figure out how to make them himself. Upon the success of this experiment, he sought to sleuth out other trade secrets. His third book is now selling briskly and the nightly news' loss is our artery-clogging gain. On the website, atop blueprint drawings of hamburgers and fries, you'll find recipes for the infamous cookie, In & Out's Double-Double, Fiddle Faddle popcorn, Taco Bell Mexican Pizza and more. I couldn't pass up the recipe for Starbuck's Frappucino. I even put it in Starbuck's bottles for effect. After all, I'm cheap, but seduced by packaging. The end result was, I'm sad to report, not quite the real thing, but then I'd used skim milk instead of the recommended 2%. Maybe the fault was mine, maybe it was that those corporate recipes are just darned hard to match, but neither of these things has me deterred from Todd's site or further experimentation. Todd gets you in the kitchen with all your gears spinning and your hopes flying. I just know that with that extra 2% and perhaps a pinch more cocoa I'll reach nirvana. --SMP
    (Update: Nirvana was attained very shortly after this review went online. Join me there. All of Wilbur's detailed recipe books are available here.)

The Spoon
    Many things are birthed over the conversation generated by a good meal, and the Spoon was one of them. Wes Modes and friends were sitting around one night at a local Bloomington, Indiana hangout (the real Spoon) discussing their dreams. What they wanted: "A deeply thoughtful place." "A greasy spoon where strangers meet and talk and get to know each other." A place "where we come together to do our own things, read or write, or tell stories, or visit, a place that was warm and social." And the Spoon was born. The main dialogue actually takes place via a mailing list, but the website gives you an ample taste of the creativity and amiability you'll find there. Even the recipes contain a dash of storytelling amidst their cups of sugar and pinches of salt. The proprietor's gallery contains a number of interactive adventures (Now may be a good time to blackmail an old flame; I'll say no more). So sidle up to the counter at this "greasy spoon out along the information highway," have a cup of joe and a piece of pie. The conversations are good and the servers are friendly. The only thing missing? An archive of stories from the mailing list. After all, nothing is better than a few leftovers. --SMP
Krispy Kreme Doughnuts
    Elizabeth Adams and Joel Risberg have long extolled the praises of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and I must admit I had doubts about just how good a doughnut could be. I mean, c'mon, fried dough is fried dough. Recently, however, on a trip to the South I was proven wrong. In any other hands, fried dough is indeed fried dough, but a Krispy Kreme doughnut is a religious experience. Yes, I tell you, I saw God. Or I was kidnapped by aliens. Or something. In any case, this was no ordinary doughnut. Now, back home in California, I can only mourn the absence of Krispy Kreme in my life. My only comfort is the Krispy Kreme website where I can read about their illustrious history and be held hypnotically captive by a bouncing glazed doughnut gif. Sigh. It will probably be fairly unusual for American Folk to give an award to a site that basically serves as an advertisement for a commercial product, but for sixty years, Krispy Kreme has been a presence on the landscape of the American South. When a recent issue of Newsweek reported that a Krispy Kreme doughnut would be included in the Smithsonian's permanent collection, who were we to argue with its significance? Company president Scott A. Livengood noted that the inclusion of Krispy Kreme at the National Museum of American History marked "An important day for Krispy Kreme and the evolution of the doughnut." Here at American Folk we think it's no coincidence that this report appeared in the same issue as the Mars landing. As we like to put it, "One small step for Krispy Kreme, one giant leap for doughnut kind." --SMP