Old Salts, Salt Licks and Pretzels . . .

They may not actually have much in common, but there is a common thread — Salt constitutes a ribbon of continuity from ancient times to the present, and beyond. It is essential for life. Luckily, salt in its various forms is abundant on earth. Processing techniques have been employed for millennia, and salt as a commodity was once prized as much by nations as by individuals.

Today, the love of salt extends to specialty varieties, including Himalayan sea salt, black salt, Celtic salt, smoked salt,  and rare, expensive Fleur de Sel from Brittany, among others. Every type of salt has its dedicated advocates. 100_2120

But who knew that pretzel salt comes from a small East Texas town?

It’s true. Every pretzel consumed all across the United States has salt crystals extracted from the massive salt dome situated deep below the Texas prairie about 75 miles east of Dallas.

Salty Travels and Tales

I had heard of Grand Saline, but I never — ever — gave its name much thought until I learned last year that it has been the home of a Morton Salt mine for nearly a century.

In the mid-1990s, I had the privilege of visiting the planned nuclear waste repository (WIPP Site) near Carlsbad, N.M., prior to the time it received its first shipment of  radioactive waste. I treasure a large chunk of salt that I brought up from that salt cavern almost half a mile underground. Now I also have two small rock salt crystals extracted from below the earth’s crust in Texas. They are much harder; and they are clear.

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I also remember sailing around Salt Island, in the British Virgin Islands. My companions and I didn’t dive the wreck of the Rhone, nor did we step ashore on the island, but we were enthralled to learn that current inhabitants still pay an annual rent to the Queen — a one-pound bag of salt.  Traditions die hard!

Then, just a year or so ago, I visited Ston, a small town in Croatia, where salt has been harvested from the shore of the Adriatic for centuries. Of course, I brought home a bag of Croatian salt. I regularly buy unusual salts at the grocery store. We enjoy cooking with them, and sampling the various textures and flavors.

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In addition, my husband and I were recently gifted with a beautiful book, “Salt,” by Mark Bitterman, along with a Himalayan salt slab, designed for grilling; it is supposed to embue meats and vegetables with natural salty flavor. We are eager to test it!

So, it was with a sense of expectation that we took a day trip recently to Grand Saline. Its history extends back in time to about 800 BC, when the local Caddo Indians collected salt from surface marshes. Those same drying flats supplied Confederate soldiers with salt during the Civil War.

The salt flats still exist on the mine property, but are no longer publicly accessible. But evaporative salt is still processed in much the same way, although on a much larger scale than formerly.

To my disappointment, tours of the mine itself were discontinued, because of federal (OSHA) safety regulations, in the 1960s, but visitors to Grand Saline can learn the history of the mine through exhibits and a 14-minute video at the Salt Palace, a funky little building right in the heart of town. It actually boasts salt block siding, but licking it is not really encouraged!

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About that Pretzel Salt

The underground salt dome, said to extend downward at least 20,000 feet from the surface, is vast. It is said that this single salt deposit could supply this country’s needs for many thousands of years. At a level 750 feet below the surface, where mining 100_2124operations take place today, the salt dome measures approximately 1.5 miles in diameter. The “mother bed” of salt is said to be a remnant of an ancient sea. Underground temperature is a constant 75 degrees.

Each underground salt “room” is about 75 feet wide and 25 feet high, with solid salt pillars for support that measure 130 feet square. Future expansion will enlarge existing rooms to 75 feet in height from floor to roof. Trucks and all mining equipment are brought from the surface in pieces and reassembled in the mine. Approximately 100 miles of roadway wind through the caverns, and mining operations continue underground 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The salt deposits are 98.5% pure NaCl. Grand Saline is one of only two Morton Salt plants to produce both rock salt and evaporated salt; it produces all major grades of evaporated salt, including dendritic (flaked) salt, and is the company’s sole producer of shaker products and salt substitute potassium chloride.

Salt, of course, is not just for eating. Because of its purity, the salt extracted from the Grand Saline mine is also earmarked for pharmaceutical use. Salt is, after all, salt — but what is taken from the earth at Grand Saline mine is deemed unsuitable for most industrial uses because it is too pure. Although it could be used to melt snow, that would, in effect, seem wasteful! 

Our visit to the Salt Palace was enlightening. Poking around Grand Saline on a beautiful early spring day was pleasant, although there’s not much there other than the Salt Palace. But it’s an easy day trip from Dallas or Fort Worth, and it’s always fun to get out on the back roads; you never know what you might find!

I will never again take salt for granted, but will instead savor the many varieties that are available. And, for sure, I’ll continue to collect salty stories.

Planning the perfect vacation . . .

I don’t think it used to be difficult to plan a vacation. There was once a time when it wasn’t even about the destination — we just picked a place and figured out how to get there. We often didn’t even think about being there, or what would be involved in finding lodgings and food. Getting away was the focus.

Lately, however, no matter how much I would love to be my former spontaneous self, I find that planning is necessary. And therein lies the problem, as they say. Planning ahead (the old visual joke comes to mind) has never been my strong suit.

The dilemma — and a solution

As always, there is much too much world and far too little time. Comfort rules today. Long flights are no-no’s. Even long, leisurely road trips are less appealing than they once were. Packing and unpacking was always a pain, but now it’s a great turnoff!

Schedules, for the most part, are just not happening. Quick weekend trips are perfect, sans crowds and traffic. That all adds up to some serious travel limitations.

So, in considering where to celebrate an upcoming anniversary, my spouse and I started planning early. Many possibilities came to mind.

Cruises — of course! An island — conducive to relaxing days of little more than beach-sitting and book-reading — always a good choice. A long weekend in New Orleans — tempting because it’s been too long since we were there, but again — the drive!

What then; and where?

Paris!

We laughed. Then we laughed harder. And it was settled.

You see, we were married in Paris! Yes, that Paris!

But that Paris is not where we’ll be headed the end of this month. A trip to that Paris will require considerably more advance planning. It will have to wait.4289545362_a3906198e6_o

Instead, we’ll be spending this anniversary in Paris, Texas, only about two hours from our home, reasonable enough for a quick getaway.

We settled on Paris, Texas, with some giggles and guffaws. There is not a single scene of the town in the movie that bears its name; there is, however, a “quaint downtown square” with a pint-size replica Eiffel Tower. It’s notable because of the red cowboy hat perched at its peak, even though it’s only about 70 feet high.

We have always enjoyed small Texas towns — our favorites have quirky personalities that fit well into our idea of fun. This Paris fits the bill nicely.

So, we’ve booked a stay at a local B&B and run an online search of eateries and attractions, in addition to the Eiffel Tower. It all sounds promising!

As for eats, we expect Paris is much like other small Texas towns. We’re sure we’ll find the local coffee shop and favorite burger joint. There’s also a catfish cafe, a Japanese/sushi spot and a traditional steak house. We’ll be looking for others.

For this weekend, at least, we won’t have to brush up on our French or pack any “goin’ out on the town” clothes. And that’s just the way we like it!

Photos by Joseph Novak/Flickr

Rubber duckies and the road ahead

Several years ago I wrote a column about rubber duckies, discussing the pervasive fascination with that familiar childhood bathtub toy. Who doesn’t love a rubber duck?

A personalized rubber duckie was one of the first gifts I bought for my grandson — that turned into a progression (and a collection) of rubber duckies of various colors and costumes. The obsession spilled over into gifts for my then high-school-teacher son (Professor Duck) and various other family members, and ducks for each succeeding holiday. Then, like other enthusiasms, my duck-gifting phase ran its course to echoes of “Enough, Mom, enough.” 3478249785_bc1b8b1ae5_z

Rubber Duckies are available in all sizes, a few varied shapes, numerous colors and with all sorts of “costumes” and personalities.  However, the perennial favorite is still the yellow version, with bright orange bill and black eyes. Many collections feature “one of a kind” or limited-edition duckies; Stories are circulated about duck adventures, and tales are told of lost or rescued ducks.  Ducks are used in NASA glacier-tracking experiments, and there are still sightings of some of the group of “globe-trotting” ducks that “jumped ship” in the Pacific in January of 1992.  Really.

Rubber Duck Races, generally to benefit local charities, are held from Seattle to the Ozarks, from Washington, D.C., to Crested Butte, from Texas to Tahoe.  One of the largest duck races is in Hawaii, and some of the most informal are held in small town creeks, canals and swimming pools.

I am still tempted when I see an especially appealing little duck in a store window. And I gasped with delight at news photographs of the giant rubber duck “paddling” its way through Lake Superior at the recent Tall Ships Festival in Duluth, Minn.

So, imagine my surprise when I encountered a stylized rubber “duckie” with mane and tail in the middle of Virginia horse country during this summer’s road trip.

20160610_072309I was immediately smitten, not only with the little rubber horsie that perched on the edge of the Lexington motel room bathtub, but with the motel itself. After the whoops and the grins — and the picture-taking — I thought about the marketing genius that played to the playfulness of tired travelers.

The clerk was accommodating, more than willing to let us pick a mate for our little rubber traveling companion, only exacting a promise that we would honor the commitment to snap pictures as we traveled on. That we did, and the little horsie-ducks happily sat on the dashboard — a pair of cute mascots — for the next 3,000 or so miles of our journey. They traveled through city traffic, along country roads, into Quebec and Ontario, skirted along several of the Great Lakes and sat under the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. It proved, I think, that we are never too old for a little silliness in our lives.

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Our little companions abandoned their perch on the dashboard when the temperature soared regularly above 100 degrees back home in Texas. But you can be sure that they will accompany us once again when we take to the road for another adventure.

Rubber duckies don’t take up much space or make a mess; they are exceedingly patient and compliant travelers, requiring no food or special accommodations. But they did, do and will continue to make us smile!

*Multicolored duck photo by Jo Naylor/Flickr; others by Adrienne Cohen; Motel is Comfort Inn Virginia Horse Center, Lexington, Va.

Mainely good: Up country, Down East

Maine in the summer is full of good things: salt air, brisk nights, bright sun, wispy clouds, lobster, ice cream parlors seemingly on every corner, breathtaking scenery, a lazy way of taking one day at a time and putting aside the rush.

There’s also traffic; getting anywhere by car is apt to take twice as long as anyone thinks it should, with distances measured in time rather than in miles. And, yes, it’s easy to spend a lot of time in the car in order to see it all.

But Maine is the kind of place that gets under your skin. It’s hard to resist coming back — and the more one returns, the longer one wants to stay.

Yesterday’s excursion took us along the back roads of Midcoast Maine from Wiscasset, the self-proclaimed “prettiest village,” northeast to Belfast, another old seafaring village about 50 miles distant. 101_3156Then we clung to the seacoast to reach Camden, where Mount Battie stretches to the sky along one side of scenic Route 1 and the surf crashes against the rocks on the other side.101_3149

It was a leisurely drive, interspersed with frequent stops for photos, some “on purpose” wrong turns, and a drive up the bluff to view storied offshore islands from the heights at Point Lookout in Lincolnville.

Summer is alive with color — vibrant flowers, lobster buoys glistening in the sun, colorful sails silhouetted against the sky, canoes and kayaks forming their own artistic displays in their racks.101_3015

Farm stands and roadside booths abound — offering everything from fresh strawberries and blueberries to ever present lobster rolls, fried clams, and whoopie pies (definitely a Maine thing!) 101_3107We even found ice cold Moxie for sale by the bottle. Yes, it still has a medicinal taste, but apparently it has never lost its appeal.

We made a stop at Beth’s Farm Market in Warren, and were thunderstruck by the beauty of huge floral hanging baskets. Alas, it’s still a bit too early for Maine sweet corn. But that’s another story; instead we stocked up on fresh strawberries, tomatoes — both red and green, and on purple carrots!

Make no mistake: Eating your way through Maine is half the fun.

Our lunch destination, and one of the main reasons for the trip, is an unassuming eatery with a loyal following in Belfast. Behind bright yellow doors at 96 Main St. is a thriving vegetarian lunch spot (open for dinner one night a week) that also has an in-house produce market, bakery and flower shop. The owners are all family, and their history in Maine dates to 1969; Chase’s Daily opened its doors in 2000.

Good food and sustainability are hallmarks of the operation; the owners and operators are down to earth, realistic and nothing if not approachable. The food is good, with unexpected layers of flavor and unusual ingredients; the ambience is pleasant, the wait staff congenial and the history heartwarming.

Maine has changed over the years, but in important ways this state remains the same as it was decades ago when I first visited. It’s still a little foreign, perhaps a little provincial, and rough around the edges at times. Portland, the largest city, is a cosmopolitan 101_3181center today, full of fine restaurants, hotels, shops, museums and galleries.

But, get out to the country and there’s still a whole wide world to explore. That’s part of the delight, and that’s the reason for the traffic on the coastal highway. You need to get out of the city and away from the resorts to really experience Maine. As a state slogan proclaims: It is “the way life should be.”

Up country and Down East are not only destinations; they are states of mind.

The open road: Traveling tips

101_2217Fast food isn’t particularly good for the waistline or the pocketbook! And, no matter how familiar, most of it is nothing to write home about.

So, this summer, why not slow down a little to nurture your spirit as well as your body? Whether you take a quick weekend jaunt or an extended trip across the country, here are some good ways to make your next driving trip a memorable one:

Pack a picnic basket

Seriously. There was a time when a wicker basket was a staple in the back seat or the trunk of almost every vehicle. Those were the days when people planned a day’s journey based on the distance between gas stations, and pulled off the road to enjoy a field of flowers or a lakeside vista. Today, with conveniences available at every highway exit, it’s not so necessary to plan ahead, but having a picnic basket full of good food still makes sense.

Fill yours with hard boiled eggs, a package of mini carrots or sugar snap peas, cans of sardines and packets of tuna, a jar of peanut butter, a loaf of crusty French bread, crackers, and homemade granola or trail mix. Bring along either a round of Brie, a wedge of blue, or some string cheese that can stand being out of the refrigerator for a few hours. Include apples, oranges and dried fruit, and maybe some homemade cookies. Pack plastic plates, glasses and silverware, a roll of paper towels and a plastic tablecloth. Include a blanket or quilt for sitting on the ground.

If you’re taking a long trip, restock at a local grocery store; forego the chain restaurants. Forget the cooler full of soda, but bring a large thermos filled with iced tea or lemonade. In cooler weather, fill the thermos with hot chocolate, tomato soup or chicken bouillon. Invest in refillable personal water bottles and fill them with tap water. When you get hungry, get off the road and get out of the car. Park by a stream or find a city park: Walk around, lounge on the grass, walk the dog, and let the kids run!

Get off the road – go local

Turn off the interstate occasionally. Even if you want to make good time getting to your destination, you’ll be surprised how invigorating it can be to take a scenic route or venture onto a back road. Forget the GPS and the app, and buy an old-fashioned road map, the paper accordion-folding kind that you spread out on the hood of the car, the kind that shows small towns, county roads, twisting dirt paths, historical sites and topographical features. Then make time to explore.

Leave the smart phone in your pocket and teach your children map-reading skills; get lost on purpose, just so you can find an alternative way back to the highway. Cultivate spontaneity! Take a few chances. Laugh a lot!

The highways were built to move goods and people quickly from place to place, and they do that well. But, any journey can be as interesting as the destination if you take a turn through the countryside and small towns along the way. It’s a whole different world view and one you don’t want to miss. Stop to photograph wild flowers, historical markers, spectacular views, a herd of longhorns, or an old barn. Look for the unusual. Stop at farm stands and “pick your own” orchards. Buy freshly-squeezed orange juice in Florida, fresh shelled pecans in Texas, cherries in Washington or just tapped maple syrup in Vermont. WP_20160508_007 (1)

Keep a travel journal

Don’t worry about the literary quality; just make it personal and it will be memorable. Simply write quick notes to keep in an old three-ring binder and punctuate with doodles, postcards, snapshots or restaurant business cards. Or take notes on your digital device to accompany the pictures you snap: Transfer the notes and photos to an online journal when you return home. Just be sure to date (and place) the entries so that you can look through actual or virtual pages later to recall specific events.

Your kids will love reliving this part of their history, and you can tell friends and relatives about your experiences.  Write about the wild flowers or the weather; the long, boring miles of highway, or the squabbles in the back seat; add anything that describes the moment! And don’t wait for an epic two-week vacation to Europe to begin journaling. You don’t have to be born with a sense of adventure to enjoy travel. You simply have to keep your mind open to possibilities, your heart open to fun and your eyes focused on the new sights all around you.

Slow down and look around

Take advantage of state tourist information centers as you cross state lines. Great sources of information,  they are staffed with knowledgeable volunteers, and often offer snacks, coffee and cool drinks. They also provide a welcome break from sitting! Many states also have upscale, modern rest stops with clean rest rooms, playgrounds and picnic tables.

Turn off the highway and head for a small town square. Look for a local café, or a diner with lots of cars parked outside. Chances are you’ll discover friendly people, good food and good times. Strike up a conversation with your server; ask questions about the area if it’s new to you.

Travel without reservations if you don’t have a deadline, and look for local hotels in small towns rather than chain motels along the highway. Consider it a bonus if you find a charming country inn, a lakeside cottage at a state park, or a historic hotel in the heart of a Midwest city. Another way: Take day trips to other towns in your area. You’ll be surprised at the things you discover!

Walt Whitman said it pretty well:

         “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, 

         Healthy, free, the world before me, 

        The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.” 

Fishing in Waxahachie? Oh, yes!

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Sometimes the best places are close to home, just undiscovered.

And sometimes all that’s necessary to find great food is to listen to friends.

Both were true this past weekend as my husband and I took a pleasant drive to a small town just 30 minutes south of Dallas.

Getting off the highway is key to discovering the best Texas towns. I have known Waxahachie for many years as the site of the Scarborough Renaissance Festival, and I have been down that road several times. But I had never before gotten “off the road” to get into town.

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On this trip, however, the destination was Waxahachie’s downtown square, across the street from the historic Ellis County Courthouse.

The reason? A friend had recommended that we try a newly-opened restaurant. Actually, the friend and a partner own this newly-opened restaurant, and we were only too happy to be invited to sample the fare prior to the grand opening.

Both the restaurant and the town are unexpected treats.

Fresh and Local — and Seafood!

The Fish Grill is a labor of love many months in the making. Open for only seven days when we visited, it is sure to enjoy a long and healthy life. Retired architect Dana Wenzel partnered with Chef Christopher Stanford, a fifth-generation native Texan to bring a beautiful old bank building back to life as a charming and eclectic downtown eatery.

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The Fish Grill, Waxahachie

The building dates to 1900 when it was Citizens National Bank. It served at one time at the Ellis County Tax Office, but had stood forlorn and empty for a couple of years when Wenzel and Stanford found it. Well-known Dallas developer Jim Lake of Design District and Bishop Arts District fame, had already seen the potential for a restaurant in the space.

Features include the original vault doors, ornate brass 101_2138handrails, stunningly detailed wall and ceiling medallions, and native stone inserts in polished wood floors. A mezzanine and upstairs bar offer patrons spectacular views of the stately courthouse and other historic buildings.101_2147

Large, arched windows let in lots of light, and etched glass doors both lead outdoors and can be closed to provide private dining areas.

There are vibrant red-orange walls, modern art, linen cloths and napkins, and a friendly vibe — it is immediately welcoming. And the menu is as special as the space.

Menu offerings are Stanford’s creation, with a layering of flavors that is at once satisfying and unique. The goal, according to Wenzel, is to produce “good food to get out to the world,” and the governing philosophy is “fresh and local.” All seafood is from the Gulf — none of it arrives frozen. Other menu offerings, including the catfish, pork and beef, vegetables and greens, are locally sourced.

The word is that if it’s not in season, you won’t get it at The Fish Grill — that includes the battered fried oysters and the Grilled Strawberries au vin rouge!

Our lunch began with an impressive Mexican Shrimp Cocktail, highlighted by a piquant tomato sauce  with bits of onion, pepper, avocado and just the right amount of spice. We followed that with Fish Tacos and the ultimate comfort food — Mac and Cheese, served with grilled shrimp.

The only appropriate comment? Delicious! The only downside? No room for dessert, tempting as those grilled strawberries were. The bonus? Enough food in “packed with a smile” to-go boxes for additional taste treats at home.

After leaving the restaurant, we took the time for a walk around the courthouse, a tour of WP_20160410_027the abundant antique shops on the square and its adjacent streets, and a leisurely drive past the impressive gingerbread homes that characterize this town. Waxahachie obviously takes pride in its past and looks toward its future. It has the feel of a gracious, cultured college town; actually it was once the home of Trinity University, but that’s another story.

Because there are other stories to be told about this interesting little Texas town, you can be sure I’ll be returning to Waxahachie, and I look forward to enjoying more — perhaps many more — meals at The Fish Grill.

 

Along the road: The giggles are gone

The road goes on foreverIt’s hard to know just what will trigger a long-forgotten memory; it’s harder still to know just where that memory will lead. A small piece in last Sunday’s paper mentioned that the Highway Beautification Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on October 22 — 50 years ago. Of course, here in Texas we all credit Lady Bird Johnson with the impressive expanses of bluebonnets and wildflowers along our highways. That’s all good.

But highway beautification as a national mandate — Wow, I missed that one, I guess, in my youth. Actually, now that I think about it, I was living in Europe at the time — billboard proliferation along American highways was not something I concerned myself with then. But, on Sunday, that little news story suddenly brought back the memory of red and white Burma-Shave signs — and the realization that the act signed into law that long ago October day most likely spelled the end of a long tradition. Those clever advertising messages sometimes contained important messages; they certainly prompted adult smiles and kept young minds occupied for almost 40 years.

The 1965 Outdoor Advertising Control Program did not actually mandate the removal of signs, and it really didn’t force states to control those massive billboards. It was designed to discourage excessive signage along the Interstates, and stipulated that development funds could be withheld for non-compliance by the states. In that way, it was effective. And the Interstate highway system soon supplanted most of the older highways.

You had to be there: Missing one of the signs could sometimes be the cause of tears; more often, an attempt to fill in the missing word or phrase spawned uncontrollable giggles. It was, for generations of kids, one of the few fun things about road trips — often long, hot, dusty treks along not-so-good highways. Towns in most of this United States at that time were far apart, usually small, and boasted no readily available “fast food.” Gas station and rest room stops were the result of advance planning, for the most part.

Summer or winter, travel could be iffy — heat, cold, mechanical problems, flat tires, boredom, seemingly endless stretches of blacktop. Radio station signals made news and music unreliable across vast distances. But the signs — oh, those signs! We all looked forward to them. The “game” became who spotted the first sign first. Then, everyone “won” as the message was revealed across the miles. At the height of their campaign, Burma-Shave had 7,000 signs in all but four of the Lower 48 states.

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Yes, the occasional giant billboard may have ruined the view, distracted drivers and “polluted” the landscape. But, Burma-Shave signs? Although I haven’t thought about them for decades, I miss them. I’m also sorry  I  couldn’t play the game with my own child; I have trouble even explaining the concept to my grandchildren. But, then, today we travel on smoother Interstate highways — and the kids are plugged in to their own virtual world of movies, music or audio books.

The times have changed — but, the “road goes on forever.” I’ll just spend the rest of the day humming that tune and laughing about those verses! There’s currently a new interest in Route 66 and its associated memorabilia. Sadly, though, Burma-Shave signs seem to have disappeared forever.

Some of them were totally about the shaving cream. In 1932:

You’ll love your wife

You’ll love her paw

You’ll even love

Your mother-in-law

If you use

Burma-Shave

Others were just plain clever! From 1945:

‘Twould be

More fun

To go by air

If we could put

These signs up there

Burma-Shave

Sometimes they had important messages. Here’s a good one from 1949:

When frisky

with whiskey

Don’t drive

‘Cause it’s

Risky

Burma-Shave

Another:

Ashes to Ashes

Forests to Dust

Keep Minnesota Green

Or we’ll ‘

All go Bust

Burma-Shave

They could also be a little risque. This one’s from 1959:

Baby your skin

Keep it fitter

Or “baby”

Will get

Another sitter

Burma-Shave

You can read more of the iconic road-sign jingles, indexed by year at Burma-Shave.org.