The Twenty-four Days of Christmas

The Christmas season seems to begin a little earlier each year. Stores decorate and start their sales around Halloween. Lights go up on houses well before Thanksgiving, while Christmas cards show up in mailboxes by Black Friday.  The longer the season though, the more abrupt the conclusion. Be honest; who among us sings Christmas carols (or watches Hallmark movies) on December 26th?  Not many.  We worry and scurry for weeks about a single day – then suddenly it’s over.  Here’s a better approach.  Let’s focus instead on the one, true Christmas season preceding the day. Let’s focus on Advent.

For most Christians, Advent refers to the twenty-four days before Christmas (not to be confused with the song-famous Twelve Days, which come after Christmas).  Advent begins four Sundays before December 25th.  The word literally means “coming”, as in the (first coming) birth of Jesus at Christmas, and the (second coming) reappearance of Jesus at the end of time.  If you’re looking for the season’s theme song, go with “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”.  It’s the one, true Advent carol.

Once upon a time Advent included fasting, penance, and daily prayer, but today the season seems to be nothing more than a countdown.  Even in Sunday church services, the four candles of the Advent wreath are lit as the four Sundays pass by – a weekly countdown to the Christmas candle in the center. Here’s a more efficient idea.  Let’s add another ball in Times Square; one that takes twenty-four days to drop instead of sixty seconds.  Might save a lot of wreaths and calendars.

Speaking of calendars, maybe a countdown is enough to signify a season.  Advent calendars are all the rage these days.  I had one when I was a kid; the flat, cardboard kind with twenty-four numbered doors of varying shapes and sizes.  Oddly, the doors were never arranged numerically, as if the calendar was made more appealing by having to search for a given day.  Not so oddly, each door fronted a bit of chocolate.  As if waiting twenty-four days for Christmas wasn’t hard enough, Advent calendars forced a kid to wait twenty-four hours to “open” each piece of chocolate.  A test of patience.

       

If cardboard and chocolate don’t catch your attention, perhaps you’d prefer a more elaborate version of an Advent calendar.  Consider Fran’s Chocolates of Seattle (above left), which produces its annual calendar fronted by an original watercolor.  Add in twenty-four delectable chocolates in twenty-four drawers, and this calendar sets you back $175.  Or how about Liberty London’s “Beauty Advent Calendar” (above right), which includes twenty-four wellness products – many of them full-size – like probiotic deodorant, essential oil candles, and skin bronzer?  This one sets you back $275, with the price justification you can re-gift whatever items are not to your taste.

Lest you think a fancy (or not) calendar is the only way to acknowledge Advent, I can’t close without mentioning the Christingle.  I don’t remember creating one of these as a kid.  A Christingle is made up of an orange, a candle, a bit of red ribbon, and four sets of dried fruits or sweets, skewered on cocktail sticks.  It’s a strange-looking assembly, but the Christingle gets an “A” for symbolism.  The orange represents the world.  The candle represents Jesus as the light of the world.  The red ribbon represents God’s love (or Jesus’ blood).  The fruits/sweets represent the gifts God gives us, and the cocktails sticks represent the four corners of the globe.  Lots going on in one sort-of-neat package.

Austria may lay claim to the biggest Advent calendar in the world!

If you’re reading this post before December 1st, you have the entire twenty-four days of Advent ahead of you.  Twenty-four days to slow down and appreciate the meaning of day twenty-five.  Sounds more like a season than a single day, doesn’t it?  Mark your calendar then.  Advent is here.

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

Candy-Crunching the Numbers

If you sift through your kids’ trick-or-treat bags today, you may be in for a surprise. When it comes to Halloween candy, we Americans are a fickle bunch. “Best” and “Worst” lists kick into high gear this time of year – with fierce debate – and the results are likely reflected in what gets handed out at the front door. Would you agree – Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are hands-down America’s most popular Halloween candy?  By the same analytics, would you agree Circus Peanuts are the worst?  Do you even know what Circus Peanuts are?

CandyStore.com recently assembled the candy list of lists – the current bests and worsts. Check out the details in their blog post here (and buy some candy while you’re at it).  CandyStore combed the Web for best/worst candy lists from a dozen publications, then mixed in the opinions of 40,000 of their own shoppers. How they sifted all that data into a single list is a worthy advertisement for Excel.  Here are the results:

BEST Halloween Candy
10. Hershey Bars
9. Skittles
8. Sour Patch Kids
7. Butterfinger
6. Nerds
5. M&M’s
4. Kit-Kat
3. Twix
2. Snickers
1. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

WORST Halloween Candy
10. Mary Jane
9. Good & Plenty
8. Licorice
7. Smarties
6. Tootsie Rolls
5. Peanut Butter Kisses
4. NECCO Wafers
3. Wax Coke Bottles
2. Candy Corn
1. Circus Peanuts

Some comments (er, opinions) about the BEST list.  I can’t argue with Reese’s in the #1 spot, since I adore peanut-butter-and-chocolate, and a Reese’s cup is a convenient size somewhere between “full-size” and “fun-size” for the trick-or-treat bag.  Reese’s also happen to have an orange wrapper, so no adjustment needed for Halloween. The top five on the BEST list are solid choices, though I wonder where Snickers has the edge over Milky Way, Mars, or Almond Joy.  Three of the remaining five reflect candies joining the party well after I was a kid.  To this day, I’ve never had a “Sour Patch Kid”.

The WORST list is a little more interesting.  I’m surprised some of these earned a spot (even on a “worst” list), considering they were popular way back in the 1960’s.  But Smarties, Wax Coke Bottles, and Candy Corn bring a smile to my face, as each of them screams “Halloween” to me.  They seem to appear in October, then disappear for the next eleven months.  Wax Coke Bottles were the thought-we-were-cool 2-in-1 candy.  Bite off the bottle top for the drink, then put the wax in your mouth for a chewing-gum sensation.  In hindsight, ewwwww.

Candy corn, no surprise, is a polarizing confection.  You either love the little kernels or you simply can’t stand them.  They’re essentially corn syrup + sugar doused with a little food coloring.  Jelly Bean Candy Company has been making candy corn for over a century and sells hundreds of thousands of pounds of kernels each year, most in October.  Yet candy corn almost snagged the top spot on the WORST list.  Go figure.

On the other hand, Circus Peanuts deserve the WORST trophy.  I’m old enough to remember enjoying a real bag of peanuts at the circus, so why go and “candi-fy” my memory?  CP’s are peanut-shaped orange marshmallows (orange I suppose, because brown would not be an appetizing look for marshmallows).  Remarkably, CP’s have been around as long as candy corn, and you can still find them on your supermarket shelves.  Careful – some of those bags may have been manufactured in the late 1800’s.

Here’s another angle on the BEST list.  CandyStore took their analysis one step further and figured out, based on purchases August through October, which candy is most popular by state.  The methodology is not quite as scientific but the results are amusing.  You’ll find most of the BEST list represented, but you’ll also find a few head-scratchers.  Kentucky’s “favorite candy” is Swedish Fish.  Montana and Oklahoma prefer Double Bubble Gum.  West Virginians prefer Blow Pops.  As for my own state of Colorado?  Twix.  I can live with that.

CandyStore may take pride in its BEST/WORST lists, but let’s all just agree to disagree, shall we?  IMHO, licorice (of any kind) belongs nowhere near a WORST list – and that includes Good & Plenty, while 3 Musketeers is embarrassingly absent from the BEST list.  Not a fan of chocolate-covered, fluffy, whipped nougat?  Pick one up sometime and reconsider.  3 Musketeers almost feels lighter-than-air, a clever ruse to offset the guilt as I add one to my shopping cart.

Some content sourced from the Wall Street Journal article,”Americans are Divided – About Candy Corn”.

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…”

Kindling the Fire

Last Sunday, in the midst of a sleep-in/no-alarm kind of vacation, my dad dragged my wife and I to early church. That meant falling out of bed by 7 and leaving the house by 8:15. Not my idea of a relaxed schedule, to be sure. On the drive to church and all through the service, I found myself in a fog and close to nodding off (the meh sermon didn’t help). Even at brunch afterwards – stoked with a double-dose of mimosas – I couldn’t seem to shake the cobwebs. It wasn’t until much later in the day I realized something significant went missing from my daily routine. I hadn’t had my morning coffee.

Morning coffee is more a habit than an addiction for me.  Or so I thought.  It wasn’t so long ago I occasionally substituted juice or water, and the day proceeded as normal.  Sunday’s drowsiness made me pause.  Maybe the impact of caffeine is more significant as you age.  Maybe drinking a hundred cups (or more) in a hundred days creates a dependency.  As they say, caffeine is “the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug”.

While I debate the impact of no caffeine today, I can absolutely attest to the impact of lots of caffeine, with two examples of inconvenience.  For me, caffeine sends a loud-and-clear, pulsing, Times-Square-sized announcement to my bladder saying, “IT’S TIME TO PEE.”  Not in fifteen minutes.  Not in fifteen seconds.  Now; as in – get up and go NOW.  I better have my path to the bathroom mapped out, and that door better be open.  It’s like clockwork biology, forty-five minutes after that first coffee sip.  Remarkably, the experts still question whether caffeine is a diuretic AND they wonder whether the amount of liquid expelled is equivalent to the amount consumed.  I emphatically answer “yes” and “MORE”.  With all the expelling, it’s a wonder my body doesn’t dry out and disintegrate.  No matter; it’s a small price to pay for my daily drug.

Here’s the second impact of caffeine.  Beware the cup of coffee (or any choice from Starbucks) after three in the afternoon.  Let that late-day caffeine hit take hold and you’re in for a long night.  I can very dependably fall asleep within five minutes of hitting the pillow except when my coffee intake is late-day (and on that note, why is upscale after-dinner restaurant coffee so good?).  I toss and turn like laundry in the wash cycle, staring at the ceiling and ruing my beverage mistake.  Then I stare at the bedside clock.  What a pretty clock it is.  Such colorful numbers.  It’s fun to watch the numbers change every minute.  Every hour.

Let’s review.  Assuming I plan my bathroom trips and lay off the coffee by mid-day, I can safely embrace my caffeine habit.  And if “habit” concerns me at all – its synonyms include “addiction” after all – here’s some good news.  Four cups a day is ideal for heart health, according to recent research by the Germans (my new favorite people).  Not up to four cups, but exactly four cups, netting you about 300 mg of caffeine.  Four cups is also the equivalent of a Starbucks “Venti” (the Nitro cold brew somehow packs in 469 mg of caffeine) but I steer clear of the big cups.  Wouldn’t want to get “addicted”.

We’ve only been talking about coffee here, but thankfully caffeine is found in only a handful of other foods and drinks.  What starts as a naturally-occurring compound in plants finds its way to teas, cocoa, cola soft drinks, energy drinks, and over-the-counter meds (i.e. cough syrup).  The only one I touch is cocoa (my chocolate habit justifies its own blog post).  So, unless I exceed my daily two-square ration of a Lindt 70% Cocoa Excellence Bar, my caffeine intake is all about coffee.

If you count milligrams the way you count calories, know that 300 of caffeine is the threshold to avoid anxiety and panic attacks.  A warning sign might as well pop up after 300 saying, “STOP!  Proceed with caution”.  It’s like there’s this sweet spot with coffee – an oasis between falling asleep in church and earning the jitters – that kindles my fire.  Gives me justification to start every day with a cup of coffee.  Or four.

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.