Any Way You Slice It

Labor Day is right around the corner, but I call your attention to a couple of tastier holidays this time of year. Last Thursday was Peach Pie Day and a month henceforth will be Strawberry Cream Pie Day.  October will usher in Pumpkin Pie Day, as well as Boston Cream Pie Day.  In November, we’ll celebrate Bavarian Cream Pie Day.  Next May we’ll celebrate Apple Pie Day (and that one should be designated an American holiday).

These pie-eyed celebration days come and go with little more than crumbs for fanfare, but any attention to pie is a good thing in my book.  Whether sweet or savory, fruit or cream, single or double-crust, bite-size (“cutie pies”?) or multiple-serving-size; you can never have too many fingers in pie.

Pie is literally a part of my DNA.  My grandmother used to make delicious Cornish pasties, those hearty beef stew pocket-pies favored by generations of coal miners, each containing an entire meal within their flaky golden-brown crust.  My mother raised my brothers and I on the fruit pies her own mother taught her to make.  My favorites were cherry, peach, and mince; piping hot and a la mode (or in the case of mince, “a la hard sauce”).  I can still picture my mother adorning her creations with strips of dough – elegant top-crust latticework too pretty to consume.  She made it look easy as pie.

They say the signature of a great pie is its crust – ironic because history says pie crust was never meant to be eaten.  With the advent of flour in ancient Roman times, pie crust served a practical purpose: to contain and preserve the food within, especially for a soldier or sailor or some other kind of several-days traveler.  It wasn’t until bakers turned their attention to the crust when “real pie” was born.  Can you imagine the first time someone tasted a savory buttery crust, melded with hot fruit filling, cooled by the freshness of vanilla ice cream?  The whole is clearly greater than the sum of its parts.

   Royer’s Round Top Cafe, Texas

Any Texans reading this post will likely direct me to the Hill Country in the southeast, to little Marble Falls or tiny Round Top.  Both towns boast of serving “the best pies in the Lone Star State”, be that the Blue Bonnet Cafe in the former or Royer’s Cafe in the latter.  Blue Bonnet has a “Pie Happy Hour” and a regionally-renowned German Chocolate Pie.  (My favorite cake as a pie?  Sounds like a slice of heaven.)  Royer’s has something called a “Texas Trash Pie” (pretzels, graham crackers and coconut) and I can get one with a few clicks of my mouse.  Don’t tempt me.

No nod to pie would be complete without saluting Hostess Fruit Pies and Kellogg’s Pop Tarts – staples of the American childhood.  Hostess enticed you with those colorful wrappers and the promise of “real fruit filling” (though my favorite was actually the chocolate).  No matter the flavor, you consumed a brick’s worth of glazed sugar, chewy crust, and gooey fruit filling.  It’s a wonder we didn’t sink to the bottom of our swimming pools and bathtubs.

    

Kellogg’s Pop Tarts were svelte by comparison; a deck of large playing cards.  My mother favored the non-frosted fruit variety to keep our pantry “healthy”, but she snuck the brown-sugar cinnamon tarts into the basket too.  I ate hundreds of those.  Someone needs to invent a brown-sugar cinnamon pie.

Any Hollywood-types reading this post would remind me the ultimate pie movie is “Waitress” (now a Broadway musical), or “Michael”, where in one glorious scene Andie McDowell surveys a table’s worth of pie and gleefully sings, “Pie, pie, me-oh-my, I love pie!”

Thanks to a new local restaurant, I don’t have to travel to Texas to find amazing pie.  3.14 Sweet & Savory Pi Bar is as inclusive as it sounds.  Choose from a dozen or more “Pot Pi’s” for your entree (my favorite is the Irish-stew-inspired “Guinness Sakes”); then sprint to dessert by choosing from over twenty temptations (hello “Blueberry Fields Forever” Pi).

For the record, cake gets its share of celebrations as well.  Last Wednesday was “Sponge Cake Day” and November 26th is “National Cake Day”.  For me, those days will come and go like any other.  Those who celebrate cake should eat some humble pie and admit which dessert deserves the higher praise.  But hey, no time to debate; a chicken pot pie is in the oven and calling my name.

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American Tune-Up

Each of the fifty United States is represented by more than just a flag. America’s state symbols include animals, birds, trees, flowers, and songs. As a kid growing up in California I memorized these items, and years later I’ve still got them.  The “Golden State” has the Grizzly Bear, the Valley Quail, the Redwood, the Poppy, and “I Love You, California”.  Imagine my interest then, when Brooklyn Magazine took an updated stab at the state songs, publishing “The Musical Map of the United States”.

Image courtesy of Brooklyn Magazine, October 2016

Brooklyn Mag’s map is more than meets the eye (see here).  It’s not a collection of easy ditties you and I might come up with: Beach Boys for CA, John Denver for CO, Frank Sinatra for NY.  Instead, it’s a broad spectrum of lesser-known tunes, attached to the states by writers who chose them.  Read their stories and listen to their song choices.  It’s like 50+ blogs in one, plus a playlist if you want to shift the whole shebang to your smartphone.

Here’s a sampling of the Map’s creativity.  The writers chose Kenny Knight’s “America” for Colorado, a “dusty, country rock gem” with lyrics befitting its patriotic title (even if the song itself twangs along modestly).  For California, the writers needed two songs – Joni Mitchell’s “California”, and Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode”.  The former artist is Canadian; the latter raised in the gangland streets of Compton near Los Angeles.  You’ll find Mitchell’s folk music as appropriate as Dre’s rap for such a diverse state.

As I studied the Map, I realized each of us possesses our own musical geography, accumulating map dots as we move through life.  My own map began on the 8-track player of my father’s Cadillac in the 1960’s, crooning along with Perry Como as he claimed, “the bluest skies you’ve ever seen (are) in Seattle”.  By the 1970’s, I’d moved on to a hard-earned collection of 45-rpm records (“singles”), focusing on Top 40 bubble-gum one-hit wonders like Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died” and Terry Jack’s “Seasons in the Sun”.  Also in the 70’s – courtesy of my brother’s extensive LP collection (and a stereo capable of a sonic boom) – I mapped to all kinds of rock, including Emerson Lake, & Palmer, The Eagles, Elton John, and Linda Ronstadt.

By the 1980’s, I’d graduated to cassette tapes and the easy-listening music of John Denver, Olivia Newton-John, and Barry Manilow (to which some would say, two steps forward three steps back).  Later in the ’80’s, I embraced compact discs with a budding affection for country music (Alabama), continuing to this day (Thomas Rhett).

Throw in a handful of downloads from my kids (Katy Perry, Meghan Trainor), sprinkle the whole mess with classical symphonies and concertos – a carryover from childhood piano lessons – and you have my musical map.  I’ll bet yours is wildly different.

Even the world of sports has a musical map, as Steve Rushin wrote in an excellent piece in this week’s Sports Illustrated (“Cheer and Trebling”).  You can’t hear the whistling of “Sweet Georgia Brown” without thinking Harlem Globetrotters, just as you can’t make it through baseball’s seventh inning without singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”.  You won’t leave Yankee Stadium without Sinatra’s “New York, New York”, just as you won’t hear John Williams’ spectacular “Fanfare” without thinking Olympic Games.  Moments of silence at sporting events are literally reserved for the dearly departed.  Otherwise it’s all marching bands, pipe organs, and loudspeaker instrumentals.

My now-home state Colorado has a set of symbols like California.  The “Centennial State” has the Bighorn Sheep, the Lark Bunting, the Blue Spruce, the Columbine, and John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High”.  But the song could just as easily be Katharine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful”, inspired by the Rocky Mountain peak I can see as I type.  The song could also be Kenny Knight’s “America”.

You listen.  You choose.  There are no right or wrong answers here.  Remember, even Google Maps gives you several options as you navigate your way.

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Patriot State

Back when my wife and I lived on the West Coast, we had a neighbor who planted a “victory garden” in their front yard.  The houses on our block were small and close together, so the postage-stamp spaces in front allowed for modest landscaping at best.  There we were, nineteen neatly-mowed little lawns and one wildly out-of-control victory garden.  One of these things was not like the others.

Thankfully, victory gardens carry more significance than the presence of hippies next-door (who knows what was in that garden).  Victory gardens were originally planted during World War I to reduce pressure on the public food supply.  The gardens were also considered a morale booster for citizens supporting the war effort back home.  In that context, it’s nice to see an occasional victory garden around my neighborhood today.

Three days ago – the second Monday in August – the United States celebrated Victory Day, commemorating Japan’s surrender to the Allies at the end of World War II.  On second thought I shouldn’t say “United States”, because forty-nine of fifty states ignore V-Day altogether.  The only state still recognizing Victory Day?  Small but steadfast Rhode Island.  Since 1975, when Arkansas dropped its “World War II Memorial Day”, Rhode Island stands alone.

“The Ocean State” has good reason to continue its jubilant celebrations.  92,000 of its residents served in WWII alone (more than 1 in 10), and almost 2,200 were killed.  Rhode Island is the smallest U.S. state in size and the eighth-least populated, yet the proportion of participants in “The Good War” was far higher than most other states.  Perhaps that’s because Rhode Island hosted several armed encampments.  Perhaps that’s because of patriotism born from the first of the thirteen colonies to declare independence.

Victory Day was originally labelled V-J Day or “Victory over Japan Day”.  President Truman declared the holiday shortly after the atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The original V-J Day was September 2nd, 1945 (marking the formal end date of WWII), but revised to August 14th to recognize the actual day of Japanese surrender.  V-J Day came shortly after V-E Day (“Victory in Europe” Day), signifying Nazi Germany’s formal surrender to the Allies the previous May.

Victory Day became infinitely more famous when Life Magazine published Albert Eisenstaedt’s photo of an anonymous sailor and nurse celebrating the moment of Japanese surrender in downtown New York City.  Today a massive statue of the “Unconditional Surrender” (more affectionately referred to as the “Kissing Sailor”) can be seen in San Diego’s downtown waterfront, adjacent to the USS Midway aircraft carrier.

Thirty-six countries besides the United States celebrate some form or another of a Victory Day.  Why not our other forty-nine states?  Are we (as in the recent events in Charlottesville) determined to erase the nice/not-so-nice history defining the freedoms Americans enjoy today?  Victory Day recognizes the triumph of good over evil, not the Confederate brand of freedom.  Note a critical detail as well: Japan struck first, in its late-1941 assault on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor.  America was not the aggressor.

Maybe someday I’ll get to Rhode Island so I can a) witness the celebration of Victory Day, and b) thank the residents for keeping a most important moment in U.S. history alive.  In the meantime I’ll count on George Bailey every Christmas to remind me, immortalized in the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life”.  George was deaf in one ear so he couldn’t serve in WWII alongside his brother Harry.  Instead he stayed on the home front, running “paper drives… scrap drives… rubber drives.”  And, “… like everybody else on V-E Day, he wept and prayed… on V-J Day, he wept and prayed.”

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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Color of Courage

I am a civilian living in a “military town”, considering the number of Army and Air Force bases in and around Colorado Springs.  The contemporary Air Force Academy campus (USAFA) to the west is the dead giveaway, but the Army’s Fort Carson to the south is larger in terms of acreage and personnel.  Fort Carson is also the largest employer of any kind in this part of the state.  Then there’s Peterson Air Force Base to the east (co-located with our municipal airport), Schriever Air Force Base to the slightly-further east, and Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station hiding in the foothills to the west (which may or may not have missiles pointed towards North Korea).

All this presence-of-the-defense in Colorado Springs prompts the question whenever I purchase: “military or civilian?”.  You get a deserved discount if you are the former.  I am the latter so I pay full price.  Safe to say I will also never be awarded the Purple Heart.

This past Monday (August 7th) was “Purple Heart Day” – on the list of U.S. Holidays and Observances – honoring the date the award was created in 1782.  The Purple Heart was not given between 1783 and 1931 – the span of time between the Revolutionary War and World War I – so it has “only” been awarded a total of 86 years since the days of George Washington.  That still amounts to countless acts of valor (over 1.8 million by some estimates).

I have the utmost respect for the men and women in uniform, so I am awed by those who receive the Purple Heart.  “Those” includes my father-in-law, who served and was injured in the Korean War back in the early 1950’s.  “Those” include various notables, including Kurt Vonnegut, Pat Tillman, Rod Serling, and Norman Schwarzkopf.  “Those” include Curry T. Haynes, who died less than a month ago.  Haynes served in the Army in the Vietnam War and received a total of ten Purple Hearts for the injuries he suffered.  That’s more decorations than any other recipient.

Ponder for a moment: Over a million Purple Hearts were awarded during WWI alone.  Another 350,000 were awarded during the Vietnam War.  All in defense of freedom.

Because decorations were not always documented (Purple Hearts were often awarded on the spot; even attached to the hospital beds of recipients), there is no accurate total.  Instead, the Military Order of the Purple Heart commemorated a network of roads, highways, and bridges in the states of Purple Heart recipients.  Whenever you see a sign like the one above, be reminded of the high (and frequent) price paid for your freedom.

Between 1942 and 1997, civilians serving in the armed forces were eligible to receive the Purple Heart.  Nine firefighters in the Honolulu Fire Department were decorated during the attack on Pearl Harbor.  After 1997, Congress passed legislation limiting awards to men and women in uniform.  Civilians now receive the Defense of Freedom Medal for similar sacrifices.

    Sergeant Reckless photo – by Andrew Geer

Animals are also eligible for the Purple Heart.  The most impressive: the decorated war horse Reckless, a thoroughbred mix rescued from the race track and trained by members of the Marine Corps.  Reckless served in the Korean War, frequently carrying supplies and ammunition to the front line.  Remarkably, Reckless memorized her routes so she could deliver unattended.  During one battle, she made 51 trips in a single day between supply depot and front line.  Reckless was wounded twice and thus received two Purple Hearts.  She was promoted to the rank of sergeant shortly after the war ended.  A plaque and photo of Reckless can be seen at the Marine Corp base Camp Pendleton in California.

As I began with, I’m a civilian living in a military town.  I am surrounded by my Colorado peers who serve or have served in the armed forces.  I may not be one of them, but at least I can tip my hat on the streets, especially to those who wear the Purple Heart.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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Midwest Cookie Madness

I wonder how many modern-day brides still wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” on their wedding day.  This time-honored gesture of good luck includes a nod to 1) continuity, 2) optimism for the future, 3) borrowed happiness, and 4) purity, love, and fidelity.  But some brides would rather not mess with the dress, understandably distracted by other wedding-day traditions.  Like 18,000 homemade cookies.

Thirty-one years ago, after my wife and I exchanged our rings, we sliced into an impressive three-tiered wedding cake at the reception; miniature bride and groom perched on the smallest layer at the top.  Per tradition we took that smallest layer home, stored in our freezer and shared on our one-year anniversary: a toast to continued good luck and prosperity.  Had we been raised in Ohio or Pennsylvania however; our guests might’ve been drawn to the cookie table instead.  So says a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

Thousands of cookies at a wedding reception?  Sounds to me like the latest quirk of the my-wedding-is-more-memorable-than-yours game (besting cupcake towers and chocolate fountains).  On the contrary, cookie tables are almost as traditional as wedding cake, dating back several generations.  They are the reception obsession of some Italians, Catholics, Greeks, and Scandinavians.

Cookie tables are traditional in Ohio and Pennsylvania as well, and these communities take their baking seriously.  There’s even a Facebook page to exchange recipes, ideas and guidelines (see here).  Cookie tables may soon become a wedding reception norm from coast to coast.

Here’s a “taste” of cookie table guidelines.  Every item must be homemade by family members; or if purchased, only specially-ordered from your neighborhood bakery.  Cherished recipes (i.e. “lady locks” and “buckeyes”) must carry over from generation to generation, no matter how time-intensive the preparation.  Cookies must be as fresh as possible, leading to a flurry of baking in several houses days before the wedding (and lack of freezer space in those houses).  Even the layout of the table itself has rules; considering the number of cookie varieties and which varieties deserve prominent placement.  Finally, the table “reveal” must be decided: 1) Already on display as guests arrive?  2) Revealed by the bride and groom with a dramatic pull of a curtain?  3) Self-serve, or closely guarded by tuxedo-ed cookie stewards?

Cookie tables have one advertised – if not followed – rule-of-thumb.  The ratio of cookies to guests should be around 12:1. That number allows a guest to sample several cookies at the reception, and take several more home for later.  If I apply the 12:1 ratio to the 18,000-cookie wedding (a real-life example), there should have been 1,500 guests.  In fact, there were only 360.  According to the mother of the groom, “…my goal was to have a spectacular cookie table…”  I’m sure the guests thought it was spectacular, helping themselves to an average of 50 cookies each.

Competition plays a role with cookie tables, with the goal of “mine is better than yours”.  One example boasted of “…tens of thousands of cookies, filling nine banquet tables… six people worked for two days on the display”.  Another boasted of “reserved varieties, prepared especially for (and only for) family members of the bride and groom”.  Even the take-home boxes get a personal touch.  With all this attention to cookies, wedding cake – or any other dessert for that matter –  stands in the shadows (like the bride and groom themselves?)

When my son or daughter gets married, perhaps my family will extend the tradition to Colorado and prepare a cookie table.  With my baking skills, I’ll commit to an impressive 3:1 ratio, five different varieties (provided I’m allowed to use store-bought refrigerator dough), and guests will delight in a consistency I can only describe as week-old-but-slightly-burnt.  I guarantee it’ll be memorable.

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Sugar Cured

Coke. Zero. Sugar. Three little words; one new drink. In a nod to those who eschew sugar (and detest calories), Coca-Cola proudly offers its latest beverage. Coke was the original, of course. Coke Zero was the low-cal offering for men (Diet Coke was perceived as a “women’s” drink). And now the soda junkie may opt for Coke Zero Sugar, with the claim of original taste but no calories and no sugar.  For my money, let’s hope the sugared varieties still have a shelf life.  Otherwise my cure for headaches just went out the window.

Coke cures headaches?  Well, why not?  Those of us who experience the recurrent forehead fevers will jump on just about any bandwagon to chase away the relentless pain, and a Coke seems relatively harmless compared to the more potent options out there.  But truth be told, a can of Coke is only half the solution.  Chase the Real Thing with a Snickers bar and you have the coup de grace of headache cures. The combined overdose of caffeine, sugar, salt, and protein packs a punch more powerful than half a bottle of Excedrin tablets.

When I was a kid, headaches were my constant companion.  I could sense the pain unfolding well before it up and knocked on my forehead door.  In full bloom, my headaches could only be cured by retreating to a dark, quiet room and sleeping them off.  But try falling asleep when someone’s rapping a hammer against your brain.  The mental/physical anguish of the battle surely coined the phrase “toss-and-turn”.

My mother and my doctor (seemingly one and the same) drew frustratingly repetitive conclusions.  My headaches were not strong enough or persistent enough to prescribe migraine medication.  My headaches were likely brought on by “not enough of this or “too much of that.  Not enough sleep or not enough water.  Too much sun or too much sugar.  Too much sugar?  And now I’m promoting a headache cure with sugar as an essential ingredient?  Sorry Mom – it works.

At one point in my life my headaches were so bad I believed I could generate one by merely thinking about them.  My mother used to say, “don’t get too excited; you might get a headache”.  Ironically, her good intentions were dashed by the very mention of what she was trying to get me to avoid.  But the conjuring really did happen – on more than one occasion.  Think about a headache = get a headache.

Headaches are attributed – at least in part – to dilated blood vessels.  (Dilated blood vessels are attributed to way too many conditions to list here.)  The brain’s response to dilation is to summon a pain companion; a vehicle to announce, “something’s wrong”.  You see, for all its intelligence the brain lacks its own pain receptors, so it seeks another part of the body to act as its surrogate.  Enter: the headache.  Fascinating perhaps, but no fun for the recipient.  There were times I would’ve traded all of my worldly possessions (which admittedly didn’t amount to much) in exchange for the removal of headache pain.  On that note, I don’t want to even think about how a migraine headache feels (after all, I might get one).

Forty-five million Americans suffer from some form of headaches.  Thankfully, I’m no longer a member of that vast club.  Whether from corrective eye surgery I had as a teenager or better control of the “not enough of” or “too much of”, the pots-and-pans forehead pain endured as a kid simply doesn’t visit anymore.  I’m very thankful for that.  I’d like to think I’ve done my time with those miserable toss-and-turn episodes.  But as a former Boy Scout, I know it’s wise to be prepared.  If my brain gets into a “for old time’s sake” mood, I’ll have a can of Coke and a Snickers bar at the ready.

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All That Glitters

Audrey Hepburn will always be one of my favorite actresses.  Her grace, beauty, and acting – especially her comedic roles – combined for an enchanting big-screen presence.  I’ve only seen a handful of her movies but it didn’t take many to fall in love with Audrey’s delightful characters.  Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (which premiered shortly after I was born).  Sabrina Fairchild in Sabrina.  Hap in Always (her final film).  And perhaps my favorite role, the quirky Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

In the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly gazes into the New York City Fifth Avenue store window and famously observes, “Nothing very bad could happen to you there.”  Holly’s probably right, but that’s not to say something very bad couldn’t happen to Tiffany’s itself.  Sales and profits are down significantly over the last two years.  Cartier and David Yurman steal market share from the ultra-wealthy.  As detailed in a recent Wall Street Journal article, Tiffany & Company is resorting to pedestrian strategies to restore its cachet.  And those strategies are so not Tiffany’s.

The first sign of Tiffany’s troubles might have surfaced last February, when the company debuted its first-ever Super Bowl ad.  I’m not sure what tarnished the Tiffany’s image more: a television commercial stuffed between plugs for beer and tortilla chips, or Lady Gaga as its newest sponsor.  Apparently, that’s an appeal to the Millennial generation (as if young people shop at Tiffany).  No offense, but Ms. Gaga is no Audrey Hepburn, as Zales is no Tiffany.  There’s a bit of a stain on the robin’s-egg blue.

The one and only time I visited Tiffany’s New York City location was two years ago with my family.  Despite our touristy dress we were greeted warmly by the security guard as we passed through the grand polished brass-and-glass doors.  Once inside, after a nervous glance at the showcases of diamonds (as if we could afford anything whatsoever), we were politely redirected to the fifth floor to “more affordable offerings”.  I took no offense, as I was only hoping my daughter could snag one of the famous blue boxes as a souvenir.  Turns out she purchased a Tiffany’s gold ring for several hundred dollars while my wife and I settled for a set of Tiffany’s ceramic mugs.

As satisfied as we were with our purchases, I have to admit gold rings and ceramic mugs removed a bit of the Tiffany prestige.  I more associate Tiffany’s with priceless diamonds and silver – befitting royalty.  In fact, that’s where Tiffany’s got its start: almost two hundred years ago as a purveyor to the Russian imperial family.  Tiffany’s also brings to mind its trademark advertisement, showcasing a single piece of jewelry against the silhouette of a couple embracing – a refined, iconic portrait of elegance.  Audrey Hepburn, not Lady Gaga.

Today you can purchase Tiffany ceramics, as well as Tiffany leather goods, paper products, watches, fragrances, and even a limited-edition cell phone.  You can find over 300 Tiffany shops in 22 countries around the world.  I thought Tiffany was more of the “Rome-Paris-London-New York City” kind of retailer, complete with stern, immobile security guard at each front door.

Admittedly, some of my first associations with “Tiffany” were far removed from diamonds and gemstones.  Tiffany Darwish was a flash-in-the-pan American singer in my late teens (her only real hit: a retread of Tommy James and the Shondells’ I Think We’re Alone Now).  I developed an affection for Tiffany lamps  – the stained leaded-glass variety – when I studied the Craftsman style of architecture in college.  And it’s hard to get the lyrics to Big Blue Something’s singular hit out of my head; especially the lines: “And I said, ‘What about Breakfast at Tiffany’s?’  She said, ‘I think I remember the film.’  And as I recall, I think we both kinda liked it.”

Tiffany & Co. recently ousted its Chief Executive in search of a new one, with hopes of improving both sales and image.  To the new leader in search of new answers, I say look back to the Golden Age of Hollywood for guidance, when the Tiffany blue was truly iconic.  As Holly Golightly would say, nothing very bad will ever happen to you there.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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