Lost in a Dense Fog

When I first learned to play the piano, it was a challenge to master the weight of the keys. Weighted keys allow the piano’s sound to be louder or softer depending on how hard you press them down. Since fingers vary in size and shape it takes practice before the index and ring fingers (for example) generate the same volume on the keyboard. In hindsight, if I’d chosen the theremin over the piano I could’ve developed the technique much faster because this instrument makes its music without weighted keys. In fact, the theremin makes music without any touch at all.

I should’ve posted about the theremin closer to Halloween because it produces one of the eeriest sounds you’ll ever hear.  Click the red preview button on this list of Theramin Sound Effects and tell me if you disagree. Doesn’t your mind conjure up a ghostly apparition floating in the darkness of a haunted house?  The theremin provides the perfect soundtrack for all things scary. New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg once described the theremin’s wail as “a cello lost in a dense fog, crying because it does not know how to get home.”  I like that (and it’s much classier than “pig squeal”).

How the theremin creates its unique sound involves too much science to keep your attention today (and more words than I want to type).  Suffice it to say, the instrument has two antennae; a looped one to control volume and an upright one to delineate pitch.  The player’s darting hand/finger movements – touching nothing but the air in between – create its spooky music. 

Now watch the following performance.  Seeing the theremin played is almost as jaw-dropping as listening to it.

I find the theremin to be a fish out of water next to traditional orchestra instruments, yet there are several other weirdos out there.  The bassoon features a tiny mouthpiece attached to a massive piece of black pipe and requires a deliberate overbite to create its nasal tones.  The glockenspiel (which gets points for a fancy name) is really nothing more than a metal xylophone.  The tam-tam is a giant gong, lucky to be struck more than once in a performance.  And the hand saw doubles as a musical instrument when you warp and release the blade (and sounds pretty darned close to the theremin).  But each of these outliers requires physical touch to make their sounds.  The theremin sings with mere jabs of the air.

[Author’s aside:  Every time I write theremin my brain wants to override with Theraflu, the over-the-counter cold and flu medicine (“Discover the Powerful Relief!”)  You don’t find many thera- words in the English language – therapy being the only other one I can come up with.  I’m happy to announce I need neither Theraflu nor therapy at the moment.]

The theremin was invented in the 1920s by Russian physicist Leon Theremin (whose life story involved a lot more than science).  RCA picked up the commercial production rights but the musical instrument never really developed a following.  Instead, its soprano voice showed up randomly in music and movies.  If you recall the Beach Boys’ hit, “Good Vibrations” you should also recall the theramin solo at the end of the song.  You’ll also hear its moan in the opening bars of Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies”.  But the theramin seems a more logical fit in the soundtracks of horror and science fiction movies like The Spiral Staircase, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing from Another World, and more recently, Monster House.

My favorite account of the theremin (and with this I close) is a collection of melodies recorded and blasted into outer space back in 2001.  The effort was an attempt to communicate with other worlds, including Gershwin’s Summertime and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.  The name of this collection? First Theremin Concert for Extraterrestrials.  Seriously?  We chose the theremin?  Wouldn’t these classics have sounded a whole lot smarter on the instruments they were originally written for?  No wonder the (more intelligent) races out there haven’t stopped by our little planet to say hello.

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

Third-Wheel Meal

In last week’s ’tis the Seasonings post, I wondered why “ginger” and “red hair” were synonymous. Paula from Monday Morning Rail replied with the answer which probably trumps all others (thanks, Paula!).  Ginger Grant, the glam character from the sixties sitcom Gilligan’s Island had a healthy head of red hair.  Sometime after the sixties a “ginger” became a person with red hair.  I’m satisfied, so let’s move to a question more appropriate for this week.  Why is (America’s) Thanksgiving celebrated on a Thursday?

Yes, it’s time for my annual Thanksgiving rant.  Rather, my everything-steps-all-over-Thanksgiving rant.  It’s not really an annual rant but perhaps it should be.  Three years ago I had so much to vent about Thanksgiving’s due, it took me two blog posts to let off the steam (see A Distant Third).  This year I realized, zero progress has been made since then.  In fact, the situation is snowballing.  Thanksgiving is finding less and less air as it gasps between the behemoths known as Halloween and Christmas.

Poor choice of word, “snowballing”.  It’ll make readers think about Christmas and I need you to stay focused.  My campaign is to keep each of the year-end holidays corralled into its respective month.  In other words, November equals Thanksgiving. (Repeat ten times, please).  Turkeys and pumpkin pie, not Santas and plum pudding.

There, I said it.  Apologies to those of you who’ve already shopped and wrapped presents.  Apologies to the rest of you who’ve already decorated your houses.  I’m just trying to give Thanksgiving its rightful place among the “big three” instead of its laggard position as “third wheel”.

You can name a dozen things associated with Halloween, and two dozen more with Christmas.  But with Thanksgiving?  Three (at least here in America).  We have the meal itself, the parades, and football.  That’s pretty much it.

Let’s dig a little deeper into the American Thanksgiving trifecta.  The meal is hanging in there despite efforts to make it healthier.  Turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie are still Thanksgiving staples (while “tofurky” is not).  I sometimes wonder why I don’t enjoy these foods on other days of the year as well.  Also, more people make the Thanksgiving meal at home than order online or go to a restaurant. (Do I have the data to back this up?  No, I do not.)  But I must acknowledge Friendsgiving, which has become common enough to remove the quotation marks.  Not only is Friendsgiving celebrated on any day but Thursday, the table spread can be decidedly different. Watch out.  There may come a November when – GASP! – more people celebrate the “friends” version than the “family”.

Parades remain more about Thanksgiving than the other two holidays.  You’ll find the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on television this week and at the same time, Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Plymouth, MA host large-scale parades.  But here’s my Davey-downer factoid.  The Macy’s Parade may be the world’s largest (as well as the second-oldest in America) but it’s also an imposter.  It began as the “Macy’s Christmas Parade” in 1924, designed to launch a longer retail season at the end of the year.  So you see, the name may have changed but the parade is still decidedly “holly-jolly”.

Football brings out the smirk in sports fans again this Thanksgiving.  As they have every year since 1934 (save the WWII years) the NFL’s Detroit Lions will be playing on Thanksgiving Day.  As they have been every year (seemingly), the Detroit Lions are a truly awful football team.  In the last twenty years the Lions have amassed exactly four winning seasons.  This year?  The Lions are the only team in the NFL without a win.  The Lions are so bad in fact, the NFL has added two other games to your Thanksgiving Day lineup so you have options.

We’re almost done here, but don’t panic; I haven’t forgotten the original question.  Why is Thanksgiving celebrated on a Thursday?  Here’s the easy answer.  President Lincoln made it so back in 1863, as the final Thursday in November.  President Roosevelt also made it so back in 1941, more specifically the fourth Thursday in November.  Yeah, but… why a Thursday?

Here’s the real answer (or at least my answer).  Thanksgiving is on a Thursday.  Thursday is named for the Norse God Thor.  Thor is the God of Thunder.  See the pattern?  Thanksgiving-Thursday-Thor-Thunder.  It’s the whole “Th” thing.  Thanksgiving doesn’t really fit on a Friday (but maybe Friendsgiving does).  Besides, by Friday we’ve forgotten all about turkey and stuffing as we turn to computers and shopping malls.

Now then, banish all that “Th” nonsense from memory.  The real intent here is to give Thanksgiving its proper time and space mid-holiday season.  Let’s move Turkey Day from “third wheel” to “equal wheel” by finding more Thanksgiving stakes to claim in the month of November.  Maybe we should all dress up as pilgrims.  Maybe we should also have our kids “trade” instead of “trick-or-treat”.

With that, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.  And next week, I might even wish you a Merry Christmas.  You know, in December.

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

Peanuts and Pumpkins

Three years ago, New York Magazine’s website Vulture ranked all forty-five Peanuts animated television specials from worst to best, including a paragraph on each one to justify its ranking. I wouldn’t have guessed Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy appeared in fifteen television specials let alone forty-five. But let’s be honest; only two Peanuts adventures have had any staying power: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (#2 on Vulture’s list), and A Charlie Brown Christmas (#1).

Maybe I’ll weigh in on the Christmas special in a couple of months, but with Halloween on the horizon I need to speak to the runner-up. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown first aired on television in 1966, so those who were alive back then (me) have the chance to see it for the 56th time this year. But maybe not? The networks stopped showing Great Pumpkin two years ago.  Other than PBS in select locations, you’ll have to buy the DVD or subscribe to Apple TV+ to watch Charlie Brown get another rock in his trick-or-treat bag.

Writing about a Peanuts special dates me – there’s no question.  But it’s still worth the words.  The Peanuts gang was the comic strip of my youth.  I remember the anticipation of the Sunday morning newspaper and the “funnies” pages.  Charles M. Schulz and his Peanuts characters always got the first slot.  When the specials debuted in the mid-60s, it was a big deal.  It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown only showed up once a year, in mid-October.  We didn’t have DVRs (let alone streaming) back then, so watch it live or you’d miss it.  Peanuts specials were always the hot topic of conversation at grade school the next day.

After so many watches, Great Pumpkin becomes an interesting study.  You pick up on the little things, the ones which would implode under the weight of today’s social media scrutiny.  Right out of the credits, Linus & Lucy head to a patch to pick out a pumpkin.  On the way, Linus picks up an apple among the fallen leaves, takes a single bite, and tosses it into a trash can. (Unnecessary waste!).  In another scene, Lucy stabs a pumpkin with a giant knife as she begins carving (Children with weapons!).  Then Linus looks on in horror and says, “I didn’t realize you were going to kill it!” (Violence!)

Great Pumpkin touches on other themes to sink today’s children’s shows, including bullying, teasing, and casual use of words like “stupid” and “blockhead”.  Charlie Brown is the butt of several jokes, including Lucy pulling the football away just as he tries to kick, and the girls using the back of his head to draw a pumpkin carving design.  Yes, I laughed at these scenes when I was a kid, but only because I wasn’t that kid (and because it was the 1960s humor).

Here’s an oddity with Great Pumpkin.  You’d think a short animation would be a continuous story.  Not so.  Great Pumpkin jumps awkwardly between disconnected scenes, from carving pumpkins to trick-or-treating to a Halloween Party.  The middle minutes shift randomly to Snoopy acting out his costumed “World War I Flying Ace” in the middle of France.  It’s as if Great Pumpkin didn’t have enough Halloween material to fill a half-hour, or at least needed an excuse to include Snoopy in the story.

Finally, “the Great Pumpkin” itself is completely akin to Santa Claus, but for a different holiday.  Linus writes a letter to the Great Pumpkin to say he’s looking forward to the arrival on Halloween night and hoping for lots of presents.  The Great Pumpkin visits pumpkin patches the way Santa Claus visits houses.  There’s even a mention of “pumpkin carols”.  You’re left wondering why this figment of Linus’ imagination wasn’t a little more unique.

If you haven’t watched It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, I probably haven’t given you reasons to rush to your television.  It’s simple and disjointed, and the animation doesn’t win the show any awards (even in the 1960s).  But just like A Charlie Brown Christmas, the characters are endearing, and the story has a pretty good message.  I’ll probably find myself looking for it again next year.

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

Lucky Strikes

Have you checked your basement lately? (uh, Dave, I don’t have a basement). How about the crawl space (nope, don’t have one of those either). Maybe a deep closet, the kind with empty space behind the hanging clothes? If I haven’t pegged you yet, just lift up your area rugs (assuming your floors have been around a while). Why? You might find something interesting down there! Loose change. Old love letters. Bowling balls.

Bowling balls?

A small part of Dave’s “bowl” collection

Talk about a lucky strike.  Another Dave in my country (he of Norton Shores, MI) recently began a DIY house renovation when he unearthed a bowling ball from behind the crumbling concrete of his back porch.  So he pawed the sand some more and found another ball.  And another.  Pretty soon he had fifteen.  By the time our industrious friend cleaned out his subterranean bowling alley – er, crawl space, he’d amassed 150 balls – some black, most blue, and all designed to knock down pins.  I’m sure Dave would agree with this Dave when I say, “What the HECK?

Seriously, how would you react if you found hundreds of bowling balls under your house?  Me, I’d wonder if they weren’t part of the structural foundation (Don’t laugh; a 1940’s house we used to live in had glued-together schoolroom yardsticks in the walls.)  My next thought would go to an abandoned underground city, with my house right on top of the bowling alley.  And my final thought?  Aliens.  Aliens put those hundreds of bowling balls down there.

Did THIS used to be under Dave’s house?

Norton Shores Dave was more rational than my own thinking.  After finding the first fifteen balls he stopped digging and picked up the phone to Brunswick Bowling.  Some of the balls had date stamps back to the 1950s and Dave was concerned about toxicity. (Good thinking there, Dave.) But Brunswick glanced at a few of the photos he sent and said the balls were fine.  So it’s official: bowling balls last forever.

Hidden rooms – and the hidden treasures they contain – have always captured my imagination.  In the movie National Treasure, Nicolas Cage sorts through clue after clue on the hunt for a hidden fortune.  The final scene where the underground room reveals itself in bursting firelight is jaw-dropping.  Or how about any movie scene where a sliding bookcase protects a passage to the secret space beyond?  Wouldn’t that be a great feature in your house?

I designed a house with a sliding bookcase once (true story), back in my days as an architect.  The hidden room was accessed from the landing halfway up an open staircase, behind innocent-looking shelves of books.  The hidden room was meant to be a home office, with a small balcony overlooking the backyard.  I pictured the owner’s guests, standing on the lawn and looking up, saying, “Wait a sec’, how come I haven’t seen that room?

Admittedly, bowling balls aren’t a sexy find (even 150 of them).  It’s not like you’d go, “Perfect… just what I’d been hoping for!”  That’s not stopping Norton Shores Dave, however.  He thinks there may be even more balls down there, but – letdown ending to the story – he’ll probably just turn them into decorative pavers in the yard.

Plant orange trees… find a church instead!

Other hidden-space stories yield more satisfying treasures.  Last year a gardener in England – simply pulling weeds – unearthed sixty-three gold coins from the era of Henry VIII (now that’s what you call “paydirt”).  Another gardener – this one in Turkey – found an entire 6th-century church under the ten acres of land where he was about to plant orange trees.  Old rolled-up movie posters under the floorboards of a house were so pristine they brought $600,000 USD at auction.  Finally, in 2009, an English doctor passed away and left his house to his relatives.  What they overlooked for many months? The dusty, vintage 1937 Bugatti in the garage.  Selling price: $4.2 million.

Maybe the best finds are up in the attic.  In 2013 a family found a Van Gogh in the rafters of the house of deceased relatives.  The painting had been gathering dust for over a century because the original owner thought it was a fake.  Not so.  It turned out to be a priceless example from Van Gogh’s most prolific years.  Okay, not quite “priceless”, but how about $90.6 million?

It’s only fitting – as Halloween approaches – I ask you to crack the seal on your hidden spaces.  You’ll probably need a flashlight.  You’ll brush aside spiderwebs or put the boot on a creepy crawler or two.  But c’mon, you know you’re curious.  There could be something valuable right there underneath your feet.  A stash of cash.  A famous painting.  Or 150 bowling balls!

Some content sourced from the CNN.com article, “Home renovation leads to the discovery of over 150 bowling balls under a family’s porch”, and the lovemoney.com article, “People who bought homes and found treasure”.

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.

The Ghost of Saint Francis

“Saint Francis” (Digital Art by Randy Wollenmann)

I’ve long been a fan of the Google Calendar app, even after switching my mobile from Android to Apple. Google Calendar allows the option to add “Christian Holidays” so I promptly checked the box. We’re talking Christmas and Easter of course, but how about the Feast Day of Saint Francis (last Sunday), Saint David (3/1), and Saint Patrick (3/17)? Saint Patrick sure, but why also Francis and David? There are hundreds of saints yet Google chose just three. My curiosity was piqued.

So begins my beyond-the-grave story, perfect with Halloween on the horizon. Google’s choice of saint days got me wondering if there’s a spectral connection between me (David) and Francis. So I dove into the details. Now all I can say is, be careful what you wonder about.

Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi, Italy

The quick history of Francis. He’s the patron saint of animals. He was an Italian living in the 1200s from the central hill town of Assisi. Francis grew up wealthy but abandoned his riches to serve the Church and the poor. But it’s the animals that make him so popular among today’s saints. He (supposedly) communicated with wolves. He often preached to flocks of birds. He built the very first Christmas crèche, including live animals alongside the manger.

Now then, my Francis ghost story. Let’s cover this spookiness from present to past. I’ve discovered a pattern of events that has me convinced Saint Francis is trying to reach out. As a matter of fact, he’s been in touch every ten years back to when I was a baby. If you agree you can see why I’m expecting another “call” in 2023.

  • 2013: I’ve told you Francis is the patron saint of animals but guess what? He’s also the patron saint of avoiding fires. In June 2013, my family and I evacuated our Colorado house for a week (horses and dogs in tow) to escape one of the worst fires in our state’s history. When we returned, our house was not only intact but had no smoke damage. Meanwhile, over 500 properties within a five-mile radius were completely destroyed.

  • (Also in) 2013: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected Pope. He promptly changed his name to Francis. There have been 266 Popes in history, but Cardinal Bergoglio is the very first to select the name “Francis”.

  • 2003: The Front Range of the Colorado Rockies experienced one of the worst blizzards in our state’s history. In a matter of hours a single storm dropped over thirty inches of snow, with drifts of five feet or more. My family and I were snow-locked in our house for over a week. 100,000 residents lost power while 4,000 travelers were stuck at the international airport in Denver. Saint Francis is also the patron saint of the environment. Was he making his presence felt with unprecedented weather?
    Assisi’s sister city

  • 1993: My family and I moved from San Francisco to Colorado. San Francisco (named for Francis) is the sister city of his birth town of Assisi. But here’s where I really paused. Francis is also the patron saint of… Colorado. And how many other U.S. states chose Francis as their patron saint? Zero.

  • 1983: I’m in my junior year in college, studying abroad in Italy. The patron saint of Italy is… Francis, of course. I also traveled to Assisi while I was there, including a visit to the church where Francis is buried. This is the only time I’ve ever been to Italy.

  • 1973: Acclaimed biographer Ira Peck writes, The Life and Words of St. Francis of Assisi. It’s a short read, with easy language intended for middle-schoolers. Where was I in 1973? Starting my first year of middle school.

  • 1963: On March 21st, the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary closed for good after thirty years. Alcatraz is the famous island prison in the San Francisco Bay. What does Alcatraz have to do with my ghost?  Back in 1202, a young Francis was thrown in prison for a year, captured while serving a military effort. His spiritual conversion from wealthy patron to humble priest, it is said, took place during this time in prison.

Our Saint Francis statue

And there you have it. Every ten years – starting the year after I was born – Saint Francis seems to have reached out to me. Oh, one more thing.  My wife and I have a statue of Saint Francis in our garden. “Of course you do”, says Francis.  He’s been standing quietly there for years, facing the house, just keeping his eye on us.

Francis will reach out to me again in 2023, I’m sure of it now. He’ll find another way to make his presence felt. When I read up on him I noted he’s also the patron saint against dying alone and the patron saint of needleworkers. Against dying alone? Am I destined to perish alongside several others in 2023? That’s not very nice of you, Francis.  I’d better take up knitting.

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

Confection Perfection

While grocery shopping the other day, my wife asked me if I’d eat something containing “77% dark chocolate”. I replied casually, “No, my limit’s more like 72%”. To those in the know, the percentages refer to the cacao content; not the broader term “chocolate”. And that level of technical shows you how far I’ve come from the 3 Musketeers bar of my youth.

Each of us taps into our particular coping mechanisms as we deal with impacts of the pandemic. My wife spends countless hours playing brain games on her iPad. More of my neighbors take daily walks than I’ve ever seen before. Me? I’m getting lost in a few rainy-day projects, but more to the subject at hand, I’m tapping into my dark chocolate stash. There’s something therapeutic about a small square of the good stuff slowly dissolving on the tongue.  Dark chocolate is medication for troubled times.  It sates my soul.

I can’t recall when I graduated from “candy bar” to “chocolate bar”, let alone dark chocolate.  Like most kids of the 1970’s, I was drawn to Milky Way, Snickers, Nestle Crunch and the like, due to an annual dose of “fun-size” every Halloween.  But somewhere I had an epiphany and realized chocolate was pretty good all by itself. The clincher: studying abroad in Italy during college.  Overnight it seemed, I graduated from the products of Hershey’s and Mars to the more refined of Perugina and Ferrero. 

The Wall Street Journal recently interviewed Thierry Muret, the executive chef chocolatier at Godiva, and after reading the article I thought, “Now there’s a dream job”.  Not so fast, Mr. Goodbar.  Turns out Monsieur Muret is an industrial chemistry grad who leans heavily on his knowledge of science to create Godiva-worthy delicacies.  Muret’s all about “molecular gastronomy”, or decomposing/recomposing the very elements of chocolate to develop new textures and tastes.  Think about that the next time you bite into a Godiva truffle.

This much I know.  Chocolate’s most common varieties are “milk”, “dark”, and “white”, and while each contains cocoa butter, they’re better defined by their other ingredients (i.e. the dairy in “milk”).  My taste for dark chocolate evolved over a lot of years, the way my coffee matured from “instant” to “espresso”, and my wine from “Chardonnay” to “Cabernet”.  The basic versions simply don’t cut it anymore.

Thanks to Monsieur Muret, this much I don’t know about chocolate.  There’s a tight temperature range (65°-75° F) where fine chocolate can be “tempered” (shaped into truffles, etc.) without altering its delicate flavor.  There’s also a tight time frame to temper, because you don’t want the temperature to fluctuate more than a degree or two.  But Muret colors outside of the lines.  He throws temperature and time frame to the wind to concoct new textures and tastes.  He once spent an entire year perfecting a single ganache.  Whoa; that’s taking it to a whole new level.

The path to chocolatier typically goes through culinary school, not the chemistry lab.  You start with a pastry degree (pastry degree?) and then specialize in chocolate/confections.  Nope, not what I studied in college – not even close.  But I do deserve a “tasting degree” for my years of experience.

If the pandemic goes on long enough, I may find the shelves of our grocery store devoid of dark chocolate.  No problem: I’ll settle for a good ol’ 3 Musketeers bar instead.  Milk chocolate (not to mention the dose of childhood nostalgia) is a passable backup coping mechanism.

The so-called experts say there’s “no high-quality evidence that dark chocolate provides health benefits”.  With coping in mind, I couldn’t disagree more.

Some content sourced from the 2/7/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Nothing Could Be Sweeter Than Being Godiva’s Top Chocolate Chef”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

A Distant Third (cont.)

Last Tuesday in cycle class, pedaling through the five-minute recovery after an hour of torture, our instructor asked if we’d like a Christmas carol or two from her playlist.  The one rider with enough oxygen lashed out vehemently, “NO!  It’s too early!”  Well how about that; score a point for Thanksgiving.  The sun set on Halloween two weeks ago and mighty Christmas is already trying to muscle its way to the forefront.  But Thanksgiving has a thing or two to say first.  If you please, keep the sugar plums out of my turkey and stuffing.

In last week’s post, I compared popular aspects of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas (i.e. history, music, food).  The final tally: Christmas the clear winner – no surprise – with Halloween solidly in second.  But lest we relegate Thanksgiving to the bronze medal year after year, my blog-intent is to reinvigorate America’s late-November holiday, and remind readers why Turkey Day stands on its own merits.

On that note, we’re starting November with promise.  My wife is getting endless mailbox catalogs, and I was delighted to find Williams-Sonoma’s “Thanksgiving Headquarters” edition: 180 pages of food, linens, kitchenware, and decor specifically designed for the holidays.  They even photo-profiled a barn-based “Friendsgiving” celebration in upstate New York.  Granted, the Thanksgiving section of the catalog ended on p.67, meaning the remaining 100 pages were all about Christmas.  No matter – 67 pages of Thanksgiving is impressive.  Way to go, Williams-Sonoma.

Starbucks also made a statement – albeit more feeble – putting their unique spin on Thanksgiving.  Right now, you can drive-thru and order a Turkey & Stuffing Panini (with cranberries and gravy!), perfectly nicknamed “a handheld turkey dinner”.  Then pair your panini with a Chestnut Praline Latte (“flavors of caramelized chestnuts and spices, topped with whipped cream and spiced praline crumbs”).  That combo speaks more to November than December in my book.  Not bad, Starbucks.

Retail aside, Thanksgiving plays out as more of an extended weekend than a single day.  Consider the before/after events.  Wednesday (“Thanksgiving Eve”) is routinely labeled “the single busiest travel day of the year”.  Well guess what?  It’s not.  Thanksgiving Day is the busiest travel day of the year, considering 90% of us drive our cars to the family gathering that morning.  Thanksgiving Wednesday (and Thanksgiving Sunday) only seem busiest because the chaos at the airports gets so much attention.

Now, on Turkey Day itself, besides the meal and the backyard football, we begin with the “Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade”.  My family always seems to miss the broadcast because we’re so busy in the kitchen.  Macy’s is three hours of marching bands, dancing Rockettes, Broadway singers, flying character balloons, and – as far as I can tell – one nod to Thanksgiving (the massive turkey in the photo above).  But hang on ’til the very end of the broadcast, because… here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus, wrapping up the parade the same way he’s done every year since 1924.  It’s like the Williams-Sonoma catalog – Thanksgiving on the outside but more “holiday season” in disguise.

Thanksgiving Friday is “Black”, of course – the so-called beginning of the Christmas shopping season.  We Americans spend over $50 billion that day (putting retailers “back in the black” with profits – hence the name).  It’s safe to say this bonanza of spending isn’t going away anytime soon.  By its very nature, Black Friday extinguishes Thanksgiving – almost before the pumpkin pie is served.  Black Friday sales begin as early as 5pm on Thursday evening (making the name obsolete, don’t you think?)  And if Thanksgiving isn’t early enough for you, some stores begin sales a week before Black Friday, with the teaser, “avoid the chaos of Black Friday – shop now!”  Uh, what’s the real meaning of Christmas again?

So there you have it – Christmas putting the squeeze on Thanksgiving like the Grinch on Whoville. Santa concludes the Macy’s parade at 12:00pm ET.  Christmas shopping begins five hours later.  In between, throw a meal on the table, mumble a blessing, and don’t forget to say thanks.  If we’re not careful, Thanksgiving Day will be reduced to Thanksgiving Hour.  It’s a phenomenon known as “holiday compression depression” (okay, I just made that up), but hey; it’s happened before.  In 1971, George and Abe got their standalone birthday celebrations mashed into a single holiday.  Even they feel Thanksgiving’s pain.

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.

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”.