Sliced With Love

In ten months’ time, my daughter will be getting married. The planning of this event is sure to inspire an occasional post on this blog. My daughter is so laser-focused on the details of her big day it’s as if her hospital crib should’ve been labeled “Wedding Planner” instead of “Kelly”. Let’s pluck one item from her list today.  Or rather, taste one item.  Let’s talk about wedding cake.

Are you a fan of this grandiose dessert?  Do you revel in the wedding ceremony and the reception, but secretly count down the minutes ’til the big white cake is sliced and served?  Twenty years ago you’d be guaranteed a piece of wedding cake.  Today, the after-dinner options run the gamut.  A cupcake from a tower.  A cookie from an endless table.  Strawberries from a chocolate fountain.  Petit fours or truffles.  Cream puffs.

That’s some veil… er, CAKE!

Given all those temptations, I still choose wedding cake.  Why?  Because it’s not just any cake.  Wedding cake is heavy and layered and full of frosting.  It’s sinfully delicious.  Furthermore, wedding cake makes a statement, one much bigger than the generic desserts you find in the supermarket bakery.  Consider, wedding cake is:

  • white.  “Well of course it is, Dave, but so are a lot of other cakes.”  Yes, but in this case, white means pure and refined (as with the bride’s dress).  Makes that bite of cake just a little more special.
  • tiered.  It’s like several cakes in one.  Stacked with columns or not, cake tiers create an elegant display (and serve a lot of people, avoiding a cake the size of the American flag).  Don’t even think about a taste of the uppermost layer.  It’s (supposed to be) reserved for the bride & groom to enjoy on their one-year anniversary.
  • topped.  Sure, a kid’s cake can have a doll or a dump truck, or some other toy on its surface.  Birthday cakes are dotted with candles.  But only wedding cakes have true “toppers”, typically a miniature bride & groom.  These days you don’t see wedding cake toppers so much.  I’m okay with that (even though I liked the little Precious Moments couple atop our own cake).
  • fondant-ed.  Fondant is like edible wallpaper.  It’s a smooth, dense, shiny layer of sugary frosting you can roll out like cookie dough, to perfectly costume the cake, or to create flowers and other three-dimensional objects.  Fondant seems to come out of the closet just for wedding cakes.  My take?  Fondant looks a lot better than it tastes.  In other words, I’m not really “fond” of it.
  • a statement.  Think about it.  At a wedding you’re celebrating what is, at least for now, the most important day in the lives of the bride & groom.  It’s not as if this occasion happens once a year or on holidays.  It happens once.  Sit back and admire your plate for a second.  That’s an important slice of cake you’ve got there.
Gotcha!

Here’s a happy-ending wedding cake story for you.  When my wife & I got married, our hotel not only hosted the reception, but also created the wedding cake.  As we dashed away to our honeymoon they assured us they’d keep the top layer in their refrigerators.  But when we returned, there was no top layer to be found anywhere.  Maybe a waiter got a little hungry one night or something.  Anyway, without skipping a beat, they perfectly recreated our top layer at no extra charge.  One year later we enjoyed our anniversary with cake after all.  How did it taste?  Just like you’d expect a one-year-old piece of cake to taste.  We threw the rest away.

Our cake (w/ fondant latticework!)

Here’s a slice of wedding cake trivia.  It’s technically called “bride’s cake”.  Sometimes you find two cakes at wedding receptions.  The darker, shorter, more modest-looking dessert; he’s called a “groom’s cake”.  He’s meant to acknowledge more manly tastes.  Accordingly, a groom’s cake is often alcohol-infused.  Or covered in chocolate.  Or shaped like a football.  But no matter how you slice it, the bride’s cake wins out with the bigger, bolder statement.  Hmmm… guys, is there an underlying message at work here?

A groom’s cake

Heads up as I close this post.  There’s a reason I chose wedding cake as today’s topic.  This week, you and the $300 you’ve been saving for a rainy day could win a slice of Princess Diana’s wedding cake.  It’s up for auction as we speak.  It’s forty years old, wrapped in plastic and packed into an old cake tin.  One of a kind, right?  Not really.  Charles and Diana had so many guests at their royal celebration they required twenty-three wedding cakes.

No wonder there’s still a slice left.

Some content sourced from the CNN.com article, “A slice of Princess Diana’s wedding cake is going up for auction”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Two-Color Tangos

Last week I stopped at a traffic signal and it happened again: I had me a little Christmas moment.  Visions of Santa Claus, sugar plums, and all that. The traffic light is red, you see, but then it changed to green. Combine those colors and presto!  Dave goes all holly/jolly in the head. Can’t really explain it but at least, maybe, a brief bit of Christmas cheer keeps the road rage at bay.

When two colors tango, untold images fill my brain.  Pair up red & green and I’m ready to wrap presents.  Pair up light blue & cream and I’m lounging on a beach in Hawaii, frosty piña colada in hand.  But maybe you’re different.  Maybe you celebrate Hannukah (in which case you should lobby for blue & silver traffic lights).  Or maybe your world of red & green is simply something other than Christmas.  Strawberries.  Tennis courts.  Those colorful maracas you hear a-shake-shakin’ in a Latin band.  A dozen roses.

“Cha-cha-cha!”

If we were talking about single colors we’d be back in elementary school, wouldn’t we?  Green as the grass, red as the fire truck, orange as the pumpkin, and so on.  Not a lot of fun in that.  Not to mention, a single color dancing the tango by itself would be awkward.  But two colors?  Now… now we’re getting closer to a barrel of monkeys.

What do you see here?

Psychologists like their Rorschach inkblots well enough, but two-color tangos would be a more interesting reveal.  Tell the patient to close their eyes and concentrate.  Now hold up a card half-white & half-orange and say, “Okay, open your eyes.  What’s the first thing you think of?” Creamsicles.  Blue & yellow card?  Swedish Flag.  Purple & red? Sunset.  You get the idea.  But that’s just me.  My morally straight brain sprints to morally straight images.

A “black-and-white”

Let’s put a thug in the same psychologist’s chair.  He’s got “better things” to do but somehow we’ve convinced him to take the two-color tango test.  He doesn’t even have to concentrate.  Black & white?  The police car headed his direction.  Black & gray?  His favorite handheld weapon.  Black & red?  Brimstone and fire in the afterlife known as Hell.  Creepy, right?  At least you have him in a chair instead of out on the streets.  Might want to summon more psychologists for further evaluation.

My version of bliss

The irony of my thug friend (foe?) is black & red is my favorite tango; more vivid than my red & green Christmases.  I’m a nut for licorice, you see.  Always have been.  Love the whips, twists, shoestrings, Australian, salty, All-Sorts.  You name it as long as it’s black or red.  I prescribed myself thousands of Good & Plenty “pills” as a kid.  I’ve eaten enough black licorice in my life to risk the consequences of this poor fellow’s habit.

[Author’s note: Any licorice with a color other than black or red does not deserve to be called “licorice”. Green Apple?  Blue Raspberry?  Watermelon?  B-L-E-C-H.  Those colors are fully inferior to the candy.  They’re also trying to tango solo, which we’ve already established as awkward.]

“Go Bucs!”

Despite my overconsumption of black & red licorice, live and breathe I continue to do.  And my two-color tango images are unfailingly consistent.  Play me a game of checkers?  Pass the licorice.  Red bell pepper and black olive added to my salad?  Where’s the licorice?  Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday Night Football?  Fill the snack bowl with licorice.  Venomous eastern coral snake?  WHOA… hang on now.  No licorice image there, not at all.  More like get me the hell outta my brain.

Before I get the coral snake outta my brain, let me pass along a PSA.  The coral snake and the harmless scarlet king snake look remarkably similar with their bands of black, red, and yellow.  If you come across one of these bad boys, try to remember this little “nursery rhyme”:

  • Red Touch Yellow – Kills a Fellow
  • Red Touch Black – Venom Lack
  • Yellow Touch Red – Soon You’ll Be Dead
  • Red Touch Black – Friend of Jack

Fun, huh?  Better yet just look at the snake’s head.  If it’s black, run away.  FAST.

I planned to finish this post with three-color tangos and the images I came up with there.  After all, traffic lights just as often go from green to yellow to red.  Bell peppers.  Macaws.  Skittles candies (“Taste the Rainbow!”)  But let’s be honest; I don’t have those images at all.  Instead, I’m fully focused on speeding through the intersection before the signal wants me to stop.

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

Hopping on Pop

In the Dr. Seuss children’s classic Hop On Pop, readers travel through pages of rhyming word pairs, with the usual whimsical cartoon characters acting out the scenes (ex. “All Ball, we all play ball” and “Day Play, we play all day”). It’s not until about halfway through the book where you see the title pair, “Hop Pop”.  And when I saw “STOP, you must not Hop on Pop”, I decided Dr. Seuss was referring to the latest junk food mashup, “Pepsi x Peeps”.

This blog often comments on sweets – so much so I should probably have a category called “sugar”.  I’ve talked about Halloween candy, chocolate, and licorice, and it’s a little unsettling I’ve discussed doughnuts in two of the last ten posts.  Naturally, my literary sugar addiction couldn’t resist a word or two on a truly disturbing concoction.  Just in time for Easter, Pepsi is advertising a Peeps-flavored soft drink.  I’m trying to get my taste-buds imagination around this “pillowy-soft and sweet” marshmallow-flavored cola.  I can’t taste it, can you?  All I come up with is sugar.  Lots and lots of sugar.

You know Peeps.  Of course, you do.  The colorful marshmallow bunnies and chicks are the hot item every Easter in the U.S. and Canada.  Consumer demand for the cute little creatures means Just Born Quality Confections cranks out 2 billion every year.  Naturally, Peeps has moved past Easter to be available year-round, especially for other holidays.  Just Born even expanded the product line beyond candy, most notably with a Peeps-flavored line of lip balms.

Courtesy of PepsiCo.

With off-the-charts (and inexplicable) demand for Peeps, I shouldn’t be surprised Pepsi injected the flavor into its latest hybrid drink.  But here’s what bothers me.  Even if marshmallow-tasting cola is your thing (and you should have your taste buds examined), why does it have to be “Pepsi x Peeps”?  It’s not as if the marshmallow taste of Peeps is unique. (It might as well be “Pepsi x Lucky Charms”.)  The appeal of Peeps is exactly what’s not in the Pepsi product: fluorescent colors, cute little creatures, and sugar-dusted spongy-soft marshmallows.

I consider “Pepsi x Peeps” a disservice to marshmallows everywhere.  Marshmallows deserve their place in more respectable foods.  Oozing out of S’mores around the campfire.  Adorning sweet potato casserole on Thanksgiving.  Buried in Rocky Road ice cream.  Abundant in Rice Krispy treats.  Floating gracefully in a sea of hot chocolate.  But reduced to a mere flavor, wandering aimlessly amidst the carbonation bubbles of a cola?  That’s just harsh.

A more deserving “frankenfood”

No matter.  Consumers love new products, especially combos of tastes that were already good by themselves.  Burger King combined Cheetos and Mac ‘n’ Cheese for a carb-loaded side dish.  Taco Bell combined Doritos and tacos into one of its all-time best-selling entrees.  And Reese’s perfected peanut butter and chocolate as a candy (as did many others as an ice cream).

Courtesy of PepsiCo.

I won’t be buying “Pepsi x Peeps” anytime soon.  But neither will you.  In the ultimate snub, this promotion is not for a product you will find on your grocery store shelves anytime soon.  Instead, you can only “win” the drink by hashtagging #HangingWithMyPeeps on your springtime photos.  3,000 of the most creative Instagram and Twitter promotions will win three-packs of the colorful cans.  I won’t be entering.  Instead, I’ll be expending my limited social media energy elsewhere.

I was raised in a Coke household so maybe it’s natural for me to knock Pepsi down a peg or two.  But they’re kind of asking for it when they’ve already test-marketed products like “Pepsi Holiday Spice” and “Pepsi Salted Caramel”.  They even amped the caffeine level in one of their varieties to promote it as a ‘breakfast drink”.  Pepsi will stop at nothing to get your business.  Including coercing you to provide free advertising on social media.  Suckers.

Stay strong, little one

I hope “Peepsi” amounts to nothing more than an out-of-reach sweepstakes giveaway.  I hope marshmallows soon return to their roles as cute, colorful, edible animals.  C’mon, Pepsi – the Easter Bunny wants you to know: Stop hopping on pop!

Some content sourced from Laura Miller’s YouTube audiobook, “Hop on Pop”,  the People.com article, “Pepsi and Peeps Have Joined Forces to Create Marshmallow Soda”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Halloween’s Element of Surprise

Same ol’, same ol’… sigh…

Our grocer dedicates an entire aisle to Halloween this time of year.  It’s a pile-on of kid costumes, yard decor, plastic jack-o’-lanterns, and party supplies.  You’ll also find massive bags of assorted small candies, enough to load up your front door bowl with a single pour.  These treats are individually wrapped and brand-familiar to carefully conform to the holiday’s “safe standards”.  In other words, there’s no element of surprise in all that sugar.

When was the last time you were treated to a little something you didn’t expect?  Here’s a good example.  My wife and I traveled to Texas last weekend to visit our son.  As we settled into the hotel room we noticed a tray on the table with two bottles of water and a couple of wrapped candies.  Not so unusual.  But then we read the little card next to the tray.  Not only was the water free of charge (hotels typically stick it to you with bottled water) but the candies were handmade salted caramels from a local culinary kitchen.  Suddenly I’m thinking, “What a nice hotel!”

Perhaps you know a few other hotels with the same gesture, as Doubletree does with its chocolate-chip cookies (see Calories of Contentment for more on that).  But unlike our Texas hotel, Doubletree always goes with the chocolate-chip cookies.  Stay there enough and you come to expect them.  No surprise.

That, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with Halloween today.  You still get the occasional trick (TP in the trees?  Shaving cream in the pumpkins?) but the “or-treat” routine has been reduced to just that – routine.  Think about a child’s anticipation for the big night.  Hours spent making sure their costume stands out in a crowd.  Miles spent covering sidewalks and front walks.  Fingers spent on doorbells and knockers, all so they can get, what… another fun-size Hershey bar?  Where-oh-where is the element of surprise?

Mom’s Halloween treats

Back in the “ol’ days” (because I’m feeling old today) a lot of front-door Halloween treats were homemade.  People handed out family-recipe popcorn balls and caramel apples.  My mother made the frosted ginger pumpkin cookies you see here.  A guy down the street dressed as Dracula and manned a little round grill in his driveway, handing out barbecued hot dog bites on toothpicks.  You never knew what you’d walk away with until you made it to the next house.

A mini pumpkin has zero HTV

Creative treats only boosted the night’s excitement back then.  I remember catching up with friends in the darkened streets to compare the collective efforts in our bags.  More importantly, the wide variety of treats upped the ante on what one candy-ranking opinion piece referred to as “HTV” or Halloween Trade Value.  After all, the most important event of the night was the post trick-or-treat trade, right?  You’d spill the contents of your pillowcase into a big pile on the floor and the back-n-forth would begin.  “I’ll give you three rolls of Smarties and a Baby Ruth for your Charleston Chew”.  Yes, friends, those were the days.

Everything changed when Halloween lost its young-and-innocent status.  Parents inspected treat bags to filter out anything remotely suspicious.  Homemade items only made it as far as the next-door neighbor’s kids or backyard Halloween parties.  Suddenly a treat didn’t pass muster if it wasn’t recognizable and wrapped.  The creative license of trick-or-treating has expired.

But hold on now.  What about the other 364 days of the year?  Can’t the element of surprise show up on one or more of those?  Can’t we still be caught off guard… in a good way?

Here’s an attempt.  At least two companies offer monthly treats by subscription and you have no idea what’s coming.  SnackCrate describes its product as “a world of snack surprises – monthly”.  TryTreats advertises “each month’s box will feature snacks from a different country in the world.  The country you’ll receive is a secret until you receive the box!”  Kind of a spin on my ol’-days Halloween nights, don’t you think?

Speaking of treats I think the dog got wind of this topic.  The other night I prepped his dinner with the usual two cups of kibble topped with a few bits of lunch meat.  He ate the bits but left the kibble.  He’s never done that before.  Maybe he’s bored with it?  I need to shake things up.  Throw in a few doggie treats.  Add the ol’ Halloween element of surprise and get his tail wagging again.

Loony Binge

I know very little about Oscar Wilde, except he was a 19th-century Irish playwright famous for “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. Wilde lived to be just 46, producing his best works in the last ten years of his life. He was often quoted, lacing words of wisdom with pretty good wit. Here’s one of Wilde’s best: “Everything in moderation, including moderation”.

Poisonous snakes?

Perhaps you caught this story from last week’s headlines: “Man Dies from Eating More Than A Bag of Licorice a Day”.  (I mean, who wouldn’t catch a story like that, right?)  It seems a Massachusetts construction worker with a daily candy habit switched from red to black licorice, and a few weeks later he went into cardiac arrest.

After futile attempts to revive our candy man, medics discovered he was experiencing ventricular fibrillation, meaning the lower chambers of his heart stopped pumping blood.  So he died.  From licorice.  You’ve heard of death by chocolate, but seriously, death by candy?

The New England Journal of Medicine says black licorice contains glycyrrhizic acid, which in ample amounts tanks the body’s potassium levels.  Low potassium levels contribute to heart arrhythmia (and heart arrhythmia is never a good thing).  Can’t say I’ve heard of glycyrrhizic acid until now (bet you haven’t either) but it doesn’t matter.  All I took from this story was: black licorice = death.  That’s disturbing because I love black licorice.

Check out my previous post connoisseur for a “taste” of my licorice obsession.

Whips, twists, nibs, wheels, shoelaces – licorice comes in all shapes and sizes.

Not gonna lie; the moment I read this not-so-dandy candy story I pulled open my desk drawer (left side, second one down) and grabbed the bag of black licorice sitting innocently in front.  Then I reviewed the ingredients very slowly and very carefully.  “Corn syrup, sugar, modified potato starch, caramel color, carnauba wax…” (and several other ingredients I really shouldn’t be eating).  But nowhere did I find “licorice root extract”, the bearer of that nasty acid.  Whew.

Let’s be honest – the real message here isn’t “don’t eat black licorice”.  Rather, it’s Oscar Wilde and his “everything in moderation”.  Our poor construction worker, according to family members, consumed “one to two large bags of black licorice every day for three weeks”.  If it wasn’t the glycyrrhizic acid, something else in the candy would’ve done him in.  Or maybe the gallons of water he drank to wash it all down.

Yep, that’s a real thing too (water intoxication).  Drink too much and you can succumb to an “imbalance of electrolytes” and die.  Then again, 99% of us avoid stupid dares or sustained exercise where you lose track of how much water you take in.  But then there’s the other 1%.  Stay away from those people.

Nine of ten of you don’t like black licorice (easy guess) so you’re not breathing a sigh of relief alongside me.  But you may not be innocent of other binge-worthy foods.  Take your pick: popcorn, potato chips, nuts, trail mix, or peanut butter (especially those little PB-filled pretzel-bite thingies – oooooo).  “You can’t eat just one”, am I right?  You probably can’t even put the container down.  And don’t get me started on Chinese food, where I seem to get hungrier the more I eat of it.

The good news is, you’re not heading for potassium deficiencies or cardiac arrest with these binge foods, but it’s fair to say they contribute to the downward spiral of unhealthy eating.  One day you wake up and find yourself sprawled atop a mountain of junk food asking, “how did I get here?”

Since we’re talking about killer (or diet-killing) foods, let me throw another one out there: coconuts.  Yes, you think coconut oil, milk, and extract are all the healthy rage these days, and you’d be… right.  But I’m talking about tropical islands and swaying palm trees.  There lies (er, hangs) the reason coconuts are called “the killer fruit”.

Urban legend perhaps, but they say falling coconuts kill several people every year.  At least ten cases have been documented since the early 2000s.  In Queensland, Australia they remove coconut palms from their beaches for this reason.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  Coconuts kill.

Then there’s death by chocolate.  (Chocolate kills too, you ask?)  Okay, so maybe I’m referring to a sinful dessert instead, minimally described as “chocolate with chocolate on top of chocolate”.  The American pub “Bennigan’s” offers the undisputed king of Death by Chocolate: a chocolate crumb-crusted chocolate cake, paired with two scoops of (chocolate) ice cream, topped with two Twix bars and covered with chocolate sauce, accompanied by a side dish of heated chocolate topping.  Woof.  Maybe chocolate kills after all.

How about a smile, Oscar?

Here’s one more ingredient in my desk drawer licorice: anise oil.  Anise gives you the same flavor as licorice root extract but without the occasionally fatal side effects.  Maybe it’s a cheaper or easier-to-come-by substitute?  Unfortunately, anise oil can cause pulmonary edema (also never a good thing).  Maybe I need to reevaluate my licorice habit after all.

I’ll leave you with another Oscar Wilde quote: “Life is too important to be taken seriously”.  With all due respect to our Massachusetts licorice-aholic, I couldn’t agree more.  So I will continue to eat black licorice, and I will continue to enjoy black licorice.  In moderation, of course.

Some content sourced from the 10/13/2014 ShortList article, “20 Pieces of Wisdom From Oscar Wilde, the 9/25/2020 Ars Technica article, “Rare case of black licorice poisoning kills man in Massachusetts”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Slush Fun

In the last few years, it seems every other corner in Colorado Springs sprouts a newly built “Kum & Go” gas station. Kum & Go’s bright red-and-white oval signs beckon consumers to plentiful pumps and come-hither convenience stores. Kum & Gos are clean and spacious, with competitive fuel prices. Started in Iowa by Krause Gentle Co. (hence the “K” and “G” in the name), Kum & Go operates 400 stores across 11 Midwestern states; rapidly adding more. They’re even gobbling up unwanted locations of my favorite childhood hangout: 7-Eleven.

7-Eleven, of course, is the remarkably resilient convenience store of the baby-boomer generation and before. 400 stores is a drop-in-the-bucket to 7-Eleven. Worldwide you’ll find almost 70,000. It’s safe to say 9 of 10 Americans – at some time in their lives – pass under the bright green, red, and orange of a 7-Eleven sign.

7-Eleven roots to 1927, when “Tote’m” Stores launched in central Texas (yes; a totem pole in front of every one). In the post-WWII era, Tote’m rebranded as “7-Eleven” to acknowledge an unprecedented window of operation – earlier in the morning and later at night than most others. Today of course, coupled with gas stations, 7-Elevens keep those doors open round the clock.

Last Thursday – and every year on “7/11” – 7-Eleven offered a free small Slurpee to all who passed through its doors. (I like number-calendar play, don’t you? “Pi Day” = 3.14, “Fry Day” – National French Fry Day = 7/13, and “Star Wars Day” = May the Fourth.) Best Slurpee trivia: its genesis was at Dairy Queen, where a franchisee put Cokes in the freezer and stumbled upon a soda slush he labeled the “ICEE”. 7-Eleven bought the license, changed the name, and the rest is history. Still one of the bestselling drinks anywhere.

This week, I find myself vacationing in the small coastal town where I spent many a childhood afternoon heading to 7-Eleven. I missed out on last week’s free Slurpee, but I went to one of their stores the day after just to have a look. I can’t tell you the last time I’d been in a 7-Eleven but know this: they haven’t changed much in fifty years. You’ll still find an entire aisle of candy. Hot dogs still rotate on heated rollers behind glass, ready for purchase. Doughnuts age in a plastic bakery case. The Slurpee machines grind away towards the back, beckoning with their cups and colors.

I’ll give you five reasons why 7-Eleven was the ideal destination for a tweenager of my day. First, 7-Elevens were located close enough to residential neighborhoods to get there on foot or by bike. Second, 7-Elevens were small; therefore, not intimidating. (A kid-sized grocery store, if you will.) Third, 7-Elevens parked a couple of pinball machines in the corner of the store (I can still hear the “knock” sound when you’d win a free game). Fourth, 7-Elevens had an entire aisle of “coin candy” (dozens of options for your hard-earned penny, nickel, dime, or quarter). Finally, 7-Elevens had Slurpees – the coolest kid drink around.

When I visited 7-Eleven last week, I bought a Slurpee for old time’s sake. Guess what? They’re exactly the same – that slushy mix of syrup, CO2, and water. You still choose from several sizes of paper/plastic cups (although now you can “Big Gulp” if you must have 32 oz.). The drink still rotates and mixes behind that round glass window; a tempting peek at the flavors before you commit. The straws still have that open spoon on the ends. And a Coke Slurpee is still the fan-favorite (I’d choose Cherry were it not for the stained lips). Frankly, the only difference between today’s Slurpee and the one in the 1970’s: you can buy a refillable cup for discounts on future purchases.

Kum & Go also offers a refillable cup – the $50 “gold” for unlimited coffee and soda for a year. But that’s hardly kid stuff nor kid prices. I only go to K & G for the gas anyway. But take my advice and stop into a 7-Eleven again. Buy a small Coke Slurpee (and a hot dog – they’re actually pretty good). The pinball machines are history, and the candy costs a lot more than a penny. Otherwise it’s like a step back in time.
Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and the CNN.com article, “It’s 7-Eleven Day…”

A Distant Third

America’s Election Day finds us one week post-Halloween, fifty days pre-Christmas, and still adjusting to that pesky hour gained from the loss of Daylight Savings Time (got all that?) Fittingly, I’m working through a small pile of candy corn and M&M’s while placing a couple of online orders for holiday gifts. And that, my friends, is the perfect lead-in to today’s topic. With Halloween fading fast as the sun, and Christmas approaching like Starbucks’ holiday cups (just when did those show up already?), where in God’s name is the love of Thanksgiving?

Of course, Thanksgiving gets steamrolled every year between the other two loudmouths – just seems the real estate on either side is getting bigger. Our neighborhood’s professional haunted houses, pumpkin patches, and corn mazes opened gates in early September. Then Christmas’ onslaught of decor, music, and retail made its entrance the moment front-porch lights switched off on trick-or-treating. In short, Holiday 1 and Holiday 3 officially overlapped each other, suffocating Holiday 2 onto life support. It’s the classic case of middle-child syndrome – “exclusion caused by the more specific attention to the others”. Poor Thanksgiving.

To be fair, ranking the standard aspects of holidays puts Thanksgiving in third place in just about every category.  Let’s review a few:

ORIGIN: Halloween dates to 2,000 years ago; the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (in present-day Ireland), when people lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts. That’s pretty cool.  Thanksgiving dates a mere 400 years, mimicking the harvest meal shared by the Wampanoag Indians and English Pilgrims. Christmas – at least to us Christians – dates over 2,000 years ago to the birth of Christ. Measured by the calendar then, Christmas (C) takes first place, Halloween (H) second, and Thanksgiving (T) a distant third.

CELEBRATION: Halloween used to be just children’s trick-or-treating. Now we’ve evolved to a month of the aforementioned haunted houses, pumpkin patches, and corn mazes; then costume contests, themed drinks, and increased cover charges at the bars; and a plethora of scary movies at the theater. Thanksgiving?  One day preparing one meal to be consumed in (more or less) one hour.  Christmas has its December 25th, but it also has a season’s worth of caroling, parties, movies, concerts, parades, church services, craft shows, decorations, temporary ice-skating rinks, and on and on and on.  Again – First Place: C, Second: H, (Distant) Third: T.

MUSIC: Halloween: “Werewolves of London”, “The Time Warp”, “The Monster Mash”, “Ghostbusters”, “Thriller”. Christmas: You-pick-’em – a dozen of your favorites (from hundreds if not thousands of carols). Thanksgiving: Not one.  Not one single, solitary tune comes to mind. First Place: C, Second: H, Late-to-the-party: T.

COLORS: Halloween: Red, Orange, Yellow (and every shade in between). Thanksgiving: brown. Christmas: Red, Green, White. Let’s call it a first-place tie between C and H.  In third place (and looking awfully uncolorful): T.

APPAREL – Let’s give this category about five seconds. Halloween is all about apparel, so anything goes and everything works. Christmas allows for – at least once in the season – your Sunday best, or getting all dolled up for some special occasion. Thanksgiving? All I come up with is stretch pants to ease the digestion of the meal.  First place: H, Second place: C, Absent-From-The-Podium: T.

FOOD – Halloween brings forth every imaginable candy, with a side of bobbed apples and witch’s brew. Christmas explodes with candy canes, decorated cookies, the Grinch’s roast beast, and those wretched fruit cakes. But here comes Thanksgiving for the kill – turkey, stuffing, potatoes, cranberries, dinner rolls, salads, vegetables, two-maybe-three kinds of pie, and whatever else you can cram onto the table. Assuming this carb-crazy feast is your cup of tea, Thanksgiving wins in a runaway. First place: T, Second place: C, Third Place (+ Sugar Coma): H.

Let’s tally the results.  In five of six categories, Thanksgiving gets the beat-down from Halloween and Christmas.  The mega-holidays appear to be reducing Turkey Day to a trifle.  But lest you think it’s a dying bird, I’m here to convince you Thanksgiving isn’t down for the count.  Stay tuned: there’s more to discuss about the little holiday that could.

The Sweets Life

“Pagina Non Trovata” has the look of an elegant Italian phrase (or an opera title), until translation and context reveal its harsh reality. The phrase means “page not found”, which in my instance referred to a (former) on-line job posting for Italian candy company Ferrero. My punishment for seeking the advertisement two months after the fact? Ferrero, the second largest chocolate/confectionery company in the world, is (was) looking for sixty taste-testers – “sensory judges” if you will – to offer opinions on its products. O.M.Gee I wish I’d seen this sooner.  Instead, I won’t be one of the chosen few because, well, “page not found”.

Let’s ponder this (past) job opportunity for a paragraph, shall we?  Ferrero is (was) searching the world for several “average consumers”, who would (will now) get paid to eat chocolate.  “No experience necessary”, they claimed (otherwise by definition you aren’t an average consumer).  The only real requirement, absent food allergies, is (was) a willingness to move to northwest Italy, which darn-it-all means France and Switzerland are just as easy to visit.  Ferrero gives (gave) three months of paid training, followed by an offer to join the company as a part-time taster. “Part-time” in Italy translates to maybe a) second job, or probably b) la dolce vita (“the sweet life”, which definitely does not include a job).  Ferrero’s job is akin to unwrapping a bar of chocolate and finding a Wonka golden ticket.

If Ferrero created run-of-the-mill chocolates, searching late on their job opp wouldn’t be such a tragedy.  But Ferrero makes Ferrero Rocher (of course they do), those gold-foiled balls of decadent chocolate and hazelnuts.  They also make Mon Cheri, those pink-foiled chocolate cubes filled with cherries and sweet liqueur.  They even make Tic-Tac’s for gosh sakes, the boxed pill-like mints all-the-rage when I was a kid.  And finally, their pièce de résistance (or in Italy, “piu degno de nota”), on which the entire company was founded over sixty years ago, Ferrero makes Nutella.

Maybe it was half-hearted reading up to now, but mention Nutella and most people really sit up and listen.  I’m convinced Ferrero puts a secret something into Nutella to make consumers crave hazelnut chocolate spread all the more (bolstering the theory Starbucks does the same with its coffee drinks).  Why else would shoppers storm a small store – and engage in a brawl – when the Nutella stock was discounted 50% (see video here)?  Which leads to an even nuttier question: why have I never tried Nutella myself?

Nuts+chocolate equals killer-combination – I get that.  Give me a basket of Halloween candy and I’ll fish out all the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.  Offer me thirty-one flavors at Baskin-Robbins and I’ll easily short-list peanut-butter-and-chocolate.  Sell me M&M’s at the movie theater and I’ll always choose peanut over plain.  But in all my examples, I’m talking peanuts, not hazelnuts.  Nutella spread is new territory for me, which means I’m the perfect candidate for Ferrero’s job. I have no experience with hazelnuts.

The more I read about my future employer, the more I’m impressed with their credentials.  Ferrero buys 25% of the world’s hazelnut production (and fittingly, acquired the world’s largest hazelnut producer four years ago).  They employ 40,000 candy-men and women in a network of 38 trading companies and 18 factories.  Ferrero keeps its recipes under lock-and-key, never letting the press into its facilities nor hosting a press conference, and always engineering its own production equipment.  A recent survey labeled Ferrero “the most reputable company in the world“.

As if I need a clincher to make this decision, last January Ferrero acquired the Nestle’s company’s candy division.  Holy cowbells.  On top of Nutella, I get to taste-test Sweetarts and Butterfingers and Laffy Taffy and the decadent Nestle’s Crunch (silver-foiled chocolate with a generous helping of crisped rice)?  Why even pay me?

I could do this job.  The more I think about it the more I’m convinced Ferrero needs 61 sensory judges.  I’m just (fashionably) late to the party.  All I need to do is brush up on my college Italian (no joke; I spent a year in Rome back then), convince my wife that our dogs, cats, and horses would be next to heaven in northwest Italy, and promptly board the next Alitalia flight.  Sweet life – er, dolce vita – here I come!

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and the USA Today article, “Dream Job: Italy’s Nutella maker seeks 60 taste-testers…”

Almond Joy

Think about the last time you invited friends to your place, for dinner or some other get-together. Did they bring a little something – a gesture of their gratitude – or did they show up empty-handed?  The gesture, whether a bottle of wine or baked goods, is especially thoughtful because it was never really expected, right?  You invited your guests after all, presumably with no strings attached.

When my wife and I hosted friends from Germany a few months ago, they arrived with a plethora of German candies (an embarrassing amount, really). From their suitcases emerged boxes of chocolates and all kinds of licorice. There were German cookies and tempting little cakes. Finally, they placed a curious-looking black round metal tin on the counter.  The label proclaimed, “Mann Des Jahres”, or “Man of the Year” (???)  The tin looked more like an award than candy.  Later, I discovered it was filled with marzipan.

Marzipan translates to “March bread” by some and “a seated king” by others, but to me it is quite literally almond joy.  Sweetened with sugar or honey, marzipan derives its distinctive flavor from the paste, meal, or oil extract of almonds.  Marzipan is more popular in Europe than in the United States.  It is typically shaped into edible fruits, vegetables, or little animals – popular around Christmas and Easter.  Marzipan is also used in thin sheets as glazing for cakes.  The marzipan from my German friends was one big delightful chocolate-covered disc of almond cake.  In hindsight, I wish they’d brought a dozen “Man of the Year’s” and left everything else at home.

Marzipan was not my first introduction to the joy of almonds.  I fell for them back when chocolate bars like Almond Joy and Mounds were kings of the candy aisle (no Kit-Kat or Twix in my day).  Almond Joy was confection perfection: chocolate and coconut topped with whole almonds.  Then I discovered chocolate-covered almonds and realized I didn’t need the coconut.  Then I learned to appreciate almonds all by themselves – roasted and seasoned with sea salt – and realized I didn’t need the chocolate covering.  Today, I keep a bag of Marcona almonds in my car, to fend off less-healthy temptations.

No discussion of almonds would be complete without a glass of amaretto.  In my junior year of college, studying abroad in Rome and not quite of drinking age, I was introduced to copious amounts of table wine, but also to Amaretto Disaronno, the elegant liquor from the northern part of Italy. The (supposed) origin of Disaronno is as colorful as the drink itself:

In 1525, a Saronno church commissioned artist Bernardino Luini, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s pupils, to paint its sanctuary with frescoes.  As the church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Luini needed to depict the Madonna, but was in need of a model.  He found his inspiration in a young widowed innkeeper, who became his model (and lover).  Out of gratitude and affection, the woman wished to give him a gift.  Her simple means did not permit much, so she steeped apricot kernels in brandy and presented the resulting concoction to a touched Luini. (from “A Brief History of Amaretto” – Shaw Media)

Saronno, Italy

Apricots still play a role in the making of amaretto, but its distinctive flavor comes from bitter almonds (amaretto translates to “bitter”).  Yet it’s still syrupy sweet – too sweet for me to drink straight.  Like most I “sour” mine with a shot or two of lemon juice.

Now that I think about it, we have almonds everywhere in our house.  Almond milk in the refrigerator.  Almond flour in the pantry.  Almond extract in the spice drawer.  Almond butter for our protein shakes and slivered almonds for our salads.  Amaretto in the liquor cabinet.

Still not enough.  I need to go find me some more marzipan.

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

Disc Chalky

Woodstock Candy (“Let Sweet Flashbacks Sprinkle Down”) assembles collections of vintage candy and sells them on Amazon.  The “nostalgic retro mixes” tailor to the buyer’s age, as in “30th Birthday Box” or “65th Birthday Box”.  For those in my decade, Woodstock tosses in classics like Chuckles, Red Hots, Sugar Daddy’s and Smarties. Also, a few Pixy Stix, a Candy Necklace, and a long strip of those colorful Candy Buttons. Finally, buried quietly in the back of the box: one small roll of Necco wafers.

Four months ago, the Wall Street Journal alerted those of us with nostalgic sweet teeth of the fate of Necco wafers.  More correctly, NECCO – the New England Confectionery Company – would shutter if it didn’t secure a buyer.  Apparently, no one came to the candy counter, because the factory closed its doors late last month.  The consumer reaction was immediate – on the order of the Hostess Twinkies frenzy.  Rolls of Necco wafers flew off the shelves.  Frantic calls to candy stores demanded entire boxes be placed on hold.  One Necco devotee offered his 2003 Honda Accord in exchange for the company’s remaining product.  You might call it “disc(o) fever”.

The Necco wafer/disc is an underappreciated candy of years gone by, though admittedly my affection for the confection is not what it used to be.  Necco’s are packaged in rolls of about thirty, in an assortment of eight flavors, including clove.  Clove.  Even the flavors sound dated.  A Necco wafer looks and tastes like a disc of chalk (drywall?), with a hint of flavoring to make it seem like food.  Eat a dozen wafers and your hands and clothes are covered with edible dust.  Eat a dozen more and the flavors all start to taste the same.  What used to be a satisfying crunch now feels like a threat to my dental work.

Why was I drawn to Necco wafers, when my back-in-the-day 7-Eleven store included an entire aisle of more appealing candy?  Maybe I just like little discs.  My father used to drive my brothers and I to some of his building sites, and I quickly discovered the concrete littered with dozens of metal coins.  These were “slugs” – today called KO’s or “knockouts”; the quarter-sized remains of partially-stamped openings in electrical junction boxes.  I collected hundreds of them – God knows why (but I was a kid, so I didn’t need a reason).

I also collected coins – more specifically quarters, because quarters were big money in my day, and translated into just about everything in that 7-Eleven aisle.  Quarters could also be stacked into paper wrappers; perhaps my precursor to a roll of Necco wafers.

At the same time in life, I had what was probably the coolest toy around.  It was called a “Rapid-Fire Tracer Gun” (if you were really cool you had the Star Trek version).  The Tracer fired little round plastic discs, spinning them out of the barrel so fast they hurt when they hit skin.  They even made a Tracer Rifle for more accurate shots.  The Tracer had a spring-driven magazine, so you could queue up a whole pile of plastic discs.  Or Necco wafers.

Necco wafers aren’t nearly as appealing as some of the stories behind them.  A hundred years ago Necco’s were carried by Arctic explorers and handed out to Eskimo children.  Their “suspiciously long” shelf life (Necco’s are sugar, corn syrup, and not much else) allowed them to be stored for months; then consumed by Union soldiers during America’s Civil War.  And therein lies the significance of the NECCO factory closing: the wafers have been around since 1847.

If I still don’t have your attention, consider this: NECCO also manufactures Sweethearts, the heart-shaped romantic-message-stamped equivalent of the Necco wafer, distributed by the billions on Valentine’s Day.  Think about that: no more candy hearts bearing “Kiss Me” or “Love You” or “Be Mine”.  Instead, just inedible greeting cards and meh grocery-store chocolates.  But don’t despair – I think the factory closing is just a hiatus.  The Hostess Twinkie came back and so will the Necco wafer.  It’s already underway, so join the movement: #SaveNecco.