8 People, Places and Things We Love About America

From amazing people and rich history to fabulous foodstuff and one-of-a-kind parades, check out some of what makes our country great.

from Reader's Digest Magazine | July 2009
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    Hit the Road

    Gastronomes Jane and Michael Stern have spent the past three decades searching for the best food in America. Here, they narrow the finds in their latest book, 500 Things to Eat Before It's Too Late, down to five all-time favorites -- each worth a road trip, as long as you check your calorie counter at the door.

    Barbecued prime rib: Smitty's Market, Lockhart, Texas. "The ultimate in pit-cooked luxury: boneless prime rib cut to order (extra thick, please), rosy pink in its center, and drenched in juice."

    White clam pizza: Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, New Haven, Connecticut. "No need for mozzarella. This pie is topped with just a dusting of sharp Pecorino and the clams, along with garlic, spices, and a drizzle of oil."

    Hot chicken: Keaton's Original Barbecue, Cleveland, North Carolina. "After being fried to a golden crisp, the bird is dipped in simmering sauce just long enough to suck in the zest. The result: moist meat saturated with flavor."

    Cherry pie: The Cherry Hut, Beulah, Michigan. "At America's fruit pie mecca, each unwieldy serving is one quarter of a whole pie, with tart, sweet fruit spilling out from the crust."

    Pico de gallo: Taqueria Pico de Gallo, South Tucson, Arizona. "A chunky mix of watermelon, coconut, pineapple, mango, and jicama. Spritzed with lime juice and sprinkled with chili powder, it's a heady culinary collusion."

    Pictured above: John Fullilove serves up succulent beef at Smitty's.

    Hotel for Dog Lovers

    On the way into Cottonwood, Idaho, four hours out of Boise on U.S. Highway 95, it bursts into sight: a three-story, 30-foot-high, beagle-shaped bed-and-breakfast.

    The pet project of Dennis Sullivan and Frances Conklin, canine lovers with a sense of humor, Dog Bark Park Inn has been welcoming visitors since 1997. "Sleepin' in a dog's head -- nothin' could be better," reads a guest book entry from one of the nearly 500 people a year who pay $92 to spend the night.

    Special touches include a headboard with 26 canine heads carved by the owners, dog-shaped cookies on the pillows, and an 11-foot fire hydrant that is the public restroom. Naturally, dogs are welcome.

    Historical Comeback

    The battle that raged on November 30, 1864, near Franklin, Tennessee, has been described as "the bloodiest hours of the American Civil War." The Confederate army suffered more than 6,000 casualties—and surrendered six months later.

    Fast-forward to 2004. On the same Tennessee turf sat a red-roofed brick building. A Civil War memorial? Nope. A Pizza Hut.

    Enter the Civil War Preservation Trust, which has reclaimed more than 25,000 acres of battlefields in 18 states, including Mississippi's Champion Hill, the last stepping-stone to the Siege of Vicksburg; the land adjacent to the Gettysburg battlefield, on which a casino-hotel had been planned; and Slaughter Pen Farm in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where Robert E. Lee famously said, "It is well that war is so terrible -- lest we should grow too fond of it." But no Civil War site had been as modernized as Franklin's had.

    Step one for the trust: Buy and destroy the Pizza Hut. The town's mayor was among those who took a sledgehammer to it. Step two: Purchase 100 acres of a golf course that had gobbled up another portion of the battlefield. The homeowners who lived along the green were at first opposed but came around. "It was a battlefield before their grandparents were born," says David Fraley of the Carter House, a museum on the site, "and in the end most people respected that."

    The effort to save more of the eight-square-mile battlefield is ongoing. But the land already looks much as it did when the Blue and the Gray fought over it. The Pizza Hut is once again open land. Native grasses have replaced the golf course's sand traps. The treasure trove of war relics -- like bullets and uniform buckles -- unearthed last year is a bonus. "It's exciting to think those things were there all these years," says Fraley, "sitting under a fairway and waiting for us to find them."

    Best Update to a Classic

    "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" conductor Michael Tilson Thomas asked a packed house at the YouTube Symphony Orchestra's sold-out concert in April. "Upload, upload, upload."

    Indeed, the 96 musicians onstage at the famed hall had taken a digital route to the first-ever Internet-born orchestra. Some 3,000 musicians had auditioned via YouTube video. The Web audience, along with professional musicians and Thomas, selected the winners -- ages 15 to 55, from 33 countries. The concert featured 15 works spanning 500 years of classical music, from a Gabrieli canzon to a new piece guest-starring composer Mason Bates on electronic drum pad and laptop. Between pieces, video clips were projected onto the ceiling and walls.

    "Anything you can do to get live orchestral music in front of younger audiences is a good thing," says Jon Brummel, a 34-year-old trombone player. Three hours, one encore, and three standing ovations later, the audience clearly agreed.

    Best Mind-Benders

    "I have a unique relationship with my customers," says Steve Richardson, president of Stave Puzzles in Norwich, Vermont. "They pay me to torture them."

    The one-of-a-kind wooden brainteasers are indeed so intricate in detail and devilish in design that they humble their conventional rivals. Many of the more than 2,000 whimsical varieties, whose fans include Bill Gates and Queen Elizabeth, are 3-D. Some have pieces that fit together in multiple ways. Others have irregular shapes, forcing builders to work without corners and borders.

    Richardson has plenty more ideas for driving his customers crazy. "People need these puzzles, particularly in terrible times," he says. "Everyone's looking for a great escape."

    Best Pranksters

    "We're out to prove that a prank doesn't have to involve humiliation," says Charlie Todd, 30, cofounder of Improv Everywhere. "It can simply be about making people laugh, smile, or stop to notice the world around them." Thousands have joined in their spectacles of joyful chaos. Samples:

    For "No Pants! Subway Ride," thousands of "agents" trekked onto subway cars in 22 cities around the world, shed their pants, and enjoyed the ride. Subway riders gawked -- then laughed when they realized they were audience members for this underground underwear extravaganza.

    To play the "Best Game Ever," pranksters took over a Little League game in Hermosa Beach, California, turning it into a major-league contest complete with a JumboTron behind the outfield fence, NBC sports announcer Jim Gray calling the game, and a Goodyear blimp flyover. Players, coaches, and parents were thrilled once they figured it out.

    In "Frozen Grand Central," agents entered the bustling train terminal in New York City and froze in mid-stride. Slowly, commuters' confusion turned to cheers when the performers "thawed" -- after providing a few precious minutes of surprise and delight in the middle of the day.

    Best Processions

    America loves its parades. Among the more than 50,000 flag-waving, baton-twirling, band-marching celebrations of community spirit every year, here are six we can't resist:

    Procession of the Species Celebration, Olympia, Washington: The only people having more fun than the 3,000 nature lovers in flower and animal costumes every April may be the 30,000 spectators taking it all in.

    Midnight Independence Day Parade, Gatlinburg, Tennessee: These revelers can't wait till the Fourth, so they start the night before, with entertainment in the streets. At midnight, the main event kicks off with bands and giant balloons.

    Alaska Day Festival, Sitka, Alaska: On October 18, 1867, the U.S. acquired "the last frontier" from the Russians. To mark the anniversary, men grow period-worthy beards and women wear hoopskirts and bonnets.

    Golf Cart Parade, Palm Desert, California: In this self-appointed golf capital of the world, the carts make perfect floats—and may arrive at this October spectacle decked out like a Cadillac Escalade or Bob Hope.

    The Coldest, Loudest, Shortest Chinese New Year Parade in the World, Butte, Montana: Ten-degree temperatures don't stop this city from honoring its Chinese community every year. A gigantic multicolored dragon, a gift to the state from the people of Taipei, leads the way; for the finale, 10,000 firecrackers usher in the New Year.

    Barkus Parade, New Orleans, Louisiana: Canines get their own event during Mardi Gras. Past themes include Joan of Bark and Tails from the Crypt, with registration proceeds going to animal shelters.

    Best Birthday Wisher

    If you meet Beth Catlin, she'll ask for your name, address, and birth date. And on your next birthday, you'll receive a handmade card from her -- a square piece of paper, actually, with Happy Birthday written in colored pencil.

    And you, like the 3,834 others in her birthday circle, will receive a nearly identical greeting every year after that. She won't need to look up your name, address, or birth date, because she has them all memorized. The spellings are exact, the dates precise. And not one card has ever been returned because of a wrong address.

    Catlin, 50, is an autistic savant. Mentally and emotionally challenged, she lives with her parents, Don, 80, and Barb, 78, in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. There, after dinner each evening, she carries out the extraordinary mission she began sometime in 1972, when she decided to make cards for every person she has ever met, plus their friends and relatives, whether she has met them or not.

    "This is Beth's gift. Hers is a world of word and number association and constant observation," Barb Catlin, her mother, says.

    While Beth's gift is not uncommon among "number" savants, the way it has manifested itself is touching to those on her list. "Some people have told us that Beth's card is the only one they can rely on receiving," says Don Catlin.

    Every year, more than 200 people respond in kind, sending cards to Catlin on her own special day: September 22. "We're proud because Beth has made so many people happy with her thoughtfulness," says her mother. "This is our reward -- and her triumph."

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