Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 22, 2017
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The faces of Philadelphia

The city with a Revolutionary past is anything but old news

The success of the Rocky movies proved that everyone loves an underdog. Though the fictitious Rocky Balboa's hometown of Philly may lack the glitz of Manhattan or Miami Beach, this birthplace of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is a slice of big-city dazzle with unpretentious hometown charm.

My mate and I recently spent a long weekend in Philly where we discovered a plethora of attractions, not the least of which was King Tut's official last stop in North America at the Franklin Institute (222 North 20th Street; tel: 215-448-1200; www.fi.edu) until September 30.

Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs includes more than 130 artifacts from the boy king's tomb (discovered in 1922 by archaeologist Howard Carter), as well as treasures from other 18th-dynasty pharaohs. All those contributing to "Tut-mania" will be happy to know that revenue generated from the tour will go toward building a much-needed new archaeology museum and for the preservation of the Pyramids, Sphinx and other national treasures. Rumour has it that this will be Tut's last traipse through North America.

While the pharonic Egyptians were preoccupied with mummification and the afterlife, Philadelphia's own Dr Mütter was fascinated by medical anomalies. "Disturbingly informative" is how the folks at the Mütter Museum (19 South 22nd Street; www.collphyphil.org/mutter.asp) describe their exhibits.

In 1858, Thomas Dent Mütter, a retired professor of surgery at Jefferson Medical College, bequeathed his personal collection of unique anatomic and pathological materials to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Housed over two floors, the collection's highlights include the plaster death cast of the torso of the world-famous Siamese twins, Chang and Eng. Born in 1911 and co-joined around their mid-section, it's mind-boggling to contemplate that these brothers managed to marry two sisters and sire no less than 21 children between them (pardon the pun.)

Also on display are the brain of a blind deaf mute, a wall of skulls from Eastern Europe each with a note explaining how the owner died, a jar holding the jaw tumour of President Grosvenor Cleveland and wax models of various deformities.

Not for the squeamish, this bastion of body parts was founded to educate future doctors about anatomy and human medical abnormalities in those days before body scans and sophisticated computer technology. It's also a great place to pick up a deck of "Pioneers of Medicine" playing cards before your next poker game.

Pennsylvania Hospital (800 Spruce Street; tel: 215-829-3370; www.uphs.upenn.edu/paharc/) is also worthy of a stop. Founded in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin and Dr Thomas Bond, you can take a self-guided tour of the historic wing. America's first surgical amphitheatre, complete with amputation instruments, is on the third floor and the medical library on the second floor contains more than 11,000 volumes and journals on medicine, science and natural history -- the most comprehensive collection of medical tomes published between 1750 and 1850. Guided tours are offered on Thursdays and Fridays at 10am and 1pm (call to reserve a spot).

Philly has no less than 75 museums and art galleries for the culturally inclined -- from the obscure Mütter to the charming Rodin Museum (Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 22nd Street; tel: 215-568-6026; www.rodinmuseum.org), which houses the largest collection of the sculptor's work outside of France, to the interactive Please Touch Museum (210 North 21st Street; tel: 215-963-0667;www.pleasetouchmuseum.org) designed for kids seven and under.


Philly for Foodies
And for those of us who tend to rate destinations by the quality and variety of dining options, you'll be happy to know that the city that gave the world greasy cheese-steaks actually has much more going for it in terms of culinary accolades. Close to the French Renaissance-style City Hall in the centre of town, the Reading Terminal Market (12th & Arch Streets; tel: 215-922-2317; www.readingterminalmarket.org), established in 1893, is one of the largest and oldest farmers' markets in the US.

Amish merchants from Lancaster County dominate the northwest corner. You must try the made-from-scratch sticky buns from Bei-ler's Bakery and sink your teeth into the sensational smokey offerings from the Rib Stand.

My husband decided to go for a shoeshine --"Three dollars if you're a Democrat; 20 if you're a Republican" -- as much for the entertainment factor as the buffing. From Pearl's Oyster Bar to Delilah's Southern Cuisine (which Oprah Winfrey believes dishes out the best macaroni and cheese) the Reading Market is worth a couple of hours of noshing and people watching.

Now we were sufficiently fortified to explore some of Philly's historic icons.


History Marches On
When William Penn founded Philadelphia in 1682, he applied his Quaker ideals of racial and religious tolerance. In the early 1700s, Philly was the second-largest English-speaking city in the world and, by 1776, patriots were meeting at the State House to declare their independence.

In 1787 the country's founders gathered again at the State House, now renamed Independence Hall, to draft the Constitution of the United States. From 1790 to 1800, Philadelphia became the nation's capital.

Today the Historic District (now called Old City) houses a combination of old-fashioned cobblestone streets, historic landmarks and hip bars, eateries, funky boutiques and galleries. Browse DeLancey Street and you'll be walking in the footsteps of such politicians as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.

Elfreth's Alley, the oldest continuously occupied street in the United States, is lined with Colonial- and Federal-style homes. In bygone times a communal oven at the end of the lane was used for baking bread. The tiny house of Betsy Ross, seamstress of the first American Stars and Stripes flag, is appropriately bedecked in patriotic bunting.

Around the corner, a sign in the window of Viv Pickle reads, "Betsy did flags, we do handbags." This design-your-own tote shop and other edgy boutiques pre-sent a dynamic contemporary contrast to the historic past. In the evening this neighbourhood takes on a bohemian vibe, reminiscent of New York's Greenwich Village, especially on the first Friday of every month when the entire neighbourhood celebrates with open-house parties offering free drinks and snacks to passers by.

The anchor of this area is Independence National Historical Park (tel: 215-965-2305; www.independencevisitorcenter.com) where, after going through a thorough airport-like security check, you may gawk at the Liberty Bell, visit Independence Hall and several other monuments that attest to America's beginnings.


Greener Pastures
Having temporarily overdosed on Philly's historical and cultural attractions, we decided to check out its greener pastures. Founded by William Penn to be a "greene countrie town," Philadelphians are justly proud of their leafy squares and open spaces.

Fairmount Park, one of America's largest landscaped urban parks, has kilometres of walking, roller-blading and cycling trails. Its popular 13-kilometre loop starts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway; tel: 215-235-3200; www.philamuseum.org), where Rocky made his famous sprint up the 72 stairs, then the trail crosses the Falls Bridge before hugging the Schuylkill River along Martin Luther King Drive.

Should you decide to rent a bicycle the Philadelphia Bike and Moped Tours (tel: 866-667-3395; www.philadelphiabiketour.com) will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel. For an offbeat walk in the woods, you can try disc golf at Sedgley Woods, also in Fairmont Park. Basically, the name of the game is to flick your Frisbee in as few throws as possible towards 18 targets throughout the forest. It's cheaper (free in fact), faster and less frustrating than a normal round of golf.


The BYOB Trend
At last count Philly had more than 200 casual eateries where guests are encouraged to bring their own bottle (wine, beer, tequila or whatever you like), thereby saving a bundle on mark-ups.

We brown-bagged a nice Sauvignon Blanc and took it to Branzino (261 South 17th Street; tel: 215-790-0103; www.branzinophilly.com), a cosy Italian bistro in the swish Rittenhouse Square area. The specialty of the house is a whole grilled Mediterranean bass served on a platter with olive oil, capers, lemon and white wine sauce.

Too bad more cities don't adapt the BYOB policy. Everyone wins. The proprietors save on a liquor license thereby lowering their overhead which translates into lower prices for their customers. Philly is such a leader in this trend that the Zagat Survey of Philadelphia's restaurants is one of the only such city guides to contain a separate listing for BYOB eateries.


Little Italy
We decided to spend Sunday on Rocky's turf in South Philly, home to the Italian Market (9th Street between Wharton and Fitzwater Streets; www.phillyitalianmarket.com) where the fictitious boxer toned his muscles by jabbing carcasses in the back of a butcher's cooler.

For brunch, we joined a crowd of locals lining up for a table outside Sabrina's Café where enormous platters of good food are served with a smile. You can't go wrong with the caramelized challah French toast filled with bananas and farmers' cheese and topped with vanilla-bean maple syrup and berries.

Just around the corner along South 9th Street, the Italian Market was in full swing. I am pleased to report that gentrification hasn't come to this colourful corner of Phil-adelphia. Both the character and the characters of the place remain genuine.

A sign offering kangaroo and yak lured me into D'Angelo Brothers where third-generation butcher Sonny D'Angelo explained that along with Heritage Bourbon turkeys and homemade sausages, he ships the largest selection of legal meat and game in the US. A huge bearskin, other hides and feathers also on sale attest to the D'Angelo's mandate to waste no part of the animal.

Across the road, you'd think they were giving away mozzarella and prosciutto at Claudio's Italian food emporium where eager shoppers, including the city's top chefs, dodge the huge hanging provolones at the entrance. At Giordano's the hawker holding up a bunch of bananas promises, "These are better than Viagra."

Originally settled by Irish and Jewish immigrants, the area became predominantly Italian around the time of WWI. Today the Italian flavour still prevails, but here and there you'll get a whiff of incense from a Chinese acupuncturist or spot a Mexican taco joint.

"Our market is constantly evolving; it's a work in progress," remarks a saleswoman at Fantes, which claims to be the oldest cookware store in the US. You can wander around the store with a biscotti and espresso while perusing everything from pasta makers to Moroccan tagines.


Wit or Wit Out
Every Philadelphian has his/her opinion about who makes the city's best cheese-steak. The two main rivals, Pat's and Geno's, are located kitty-corner from one another at South 9th and Passyunk Streets.

The story goes that in 1930 hot-dog vendor Pat Olivieri craved a change in his diet so he bought some chopped steak at a nearby butcher, cooked it on his grill and slapped it into a bun with some onions. A passing taxi driver asked Pat to sell him one of the new sandwiches and the rest, as they say, is history.

We were undecided as to which vendor to try until a good-natured gang of sixtysomething motorcyclists, all with Rocky accents, insisted that Geno's was the best. They also taught us to order like a local -- "wit or wit out" onions. The cheese choice is Cheez Whiz, American or Provolone. Whatever you choose, make sure you learn to master the "Philly lean" before you bite into your sandwich, or you'll be wearing it.

Should you really want to sink your teeth into this birthplace of the cheese-steak and Italian tenor Mario Lanza, take a walking tour with local Celeste Morello (tel: 215-334-6008; tours run from Tuesday to Friday; US$30 per person), market historian and criminologist who combines her knowledge of the food and vendors here with a smattering of celebrity and Mafia trivia.

"I am related to the first Mafiosi who settled in New York and the suburbs of Philadelphia," she admits, thereby coming by her profession honestly. Her three-hour tour covers "everything from soup to nuts" with cooking tips and samples…

In her book, The Philadelphia Italian Market Cookbook she writes that mob boss Angelo Bruno, who put Philly on the Mafia map, purportedly ate his last supper -- chicken Sicilian -- at Torano's restaurant before being gunned down. Morello's three-hour tour covers "the best of food, art and music in this Little Italy. We have it all here," says this proud Phil-adelphian (who, incidentally, prefers Pat's cheesesteak).

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