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”.

Creamer Schemers

A couple weeks ago, my Nespresso coffee maker sprung a leak. As it brewed a cup, it also “espressed” a small river of coffee from the base of the unit. An online chat with the good people at Nespresso determined, a) the maker really was broken, b) the one-year warranty covered the repair (whoo-hoo!), and c) the fix would take up to ten business days. Well beans; ten business days meant regressing a full two weeks on drip coffee instead.  Hold the phone; did I just label myself a coffee snob?

Nespresso

Nespresso – for those of you not familiar – is one of the many capsule coffee systems on the market today. Unlike the Keurig K-Cup, “Nestle-Espresso” capsules spin as the water passes through the grounds (7,000 RPMs – vroom vroom!), adding a light-colored frothy cap of “crema” on top. The crema enhances the aroma, but more importantly delivers the mouth-feel of a latte, as if you stirred something in from the dairy family. But call me fooled; Nespresso’s nothing more than coffee in the cup.

Bunn’s coffee-monster

Coffee snob? Parvenu, perhaps. It wasn’t that long ago I contentedly drank “joe” from one of those big metal Bunn machines, flavor-boosting my Styrofoam cup contents with a sugar cube and powdered Coffee-mate. Then, I spent a year in Rome and my world was forever coffee-rocked. I returned to the States armed with words like cappuccino and espresso and caffe latte. But America didn’t even know the word Starbucks yet. A “coffee shop” was still a greasy spoon diner; forgettable joe in a forgettable cup.

Mind you, not having Starbucks didn’t mean I was gonna crawl back to the Bunn, especially after a year of Italy’s la dolce vita (look it up). Eventually I dropped hard-earned cash on one of those early model home coffee/espresso/steamed milk contraptions – a machine requiring twenty minutes, twenty steps, and a phone-book-sized operations manual to produce a small cappuccino. The birth of the American barista did not start at Starbucks, my friends. It started in the frustration of orchestrating an overly complicated home-brew system in search of pseudo-Italian-style coffee.

Sometime after Starbucks opened its first doors (but before Nespresso), Keurig developed the K-Cup. The Keurig coffeemaker felt like a huge step up from standard drip (and ushered in the concept of single-serve coffee at home). Keurig opened a seemingly new world of coffee to me – exotic names like Green Mountain or Paul Newman’s or Donut Shop – but let’s be honest. Keurig was basically glorified drip, and I still wasn’t taking my coffee straight, like I did in Italy. And that’s where Nespresso shines. If the K-Cup is a step up from drip, Nespresso is the entire staircase.

Ironically, the same company producing Nespresso markets a line of oil-based creamers sugary enough to make your coffee taste like Easter in a cup. Nestle already offered creamer flavors like Peppermint Mocha or Italian Sweet Creme or Toasted Marshmallow, before recently adding Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Funfetti. Not to be outdone, International Delight augmented its own coffee creamer line – REESE’S Peanut Butter Cup, Cinnabon, and OREO Cookie Flavored, with – no joke – a PEEPS flavor. Better check for bunnies before you take a sip.

For the record (if the Pulptastic website is to be believed), I’m not even close to being a coffee snob. I can choose from any of their twelve defining characteristics and come up short. I don’t read about coffee. I don’t speak the lingo (“Robusta?” “Arabica?”). I don’t know what “cupping” is. I do enjoy a Starbucks coffee every now and then. Finally, I’m half-tempted to check out the PEEPS creamer (maybe I won’t even need the coffee in my cup). See the Pulptastic list for yourself. Maybe you’re the coffee snob instead of me.

I’m still waiting (im)patiently for my repaired Nespresso coffeemaker to come back. I’m barely surviving on my backup K-Cups. But I’m no coffee snob. And I was just kidding about wanting to try PEEPS in a bottle. On the contrary, those creamer schemers can keep their product far, far away from my Nespresso.

Some content sourced from the 2/3/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Rich Sales Boost Coffee Creamers”.

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”.