Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Flying Leap

So what would you do if you had one extra day this year? I guess that's a silly question, since that day is upon us, and clearly you are blowing it reading my latest entry. But no matter how you cut it, there will be 366 days this year, rather than 365. Remember that between now and December 31st when you find yourself about to say "If I just had one more day, I'd..."

It all comes down to the fact that a full trip around the sun takes the earth 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes, and 16 seconds. So every four years, or thereabouts, you pick up an extra day. So we add that day, called a "intercalated" every leap year. Before the calendar was switched from Roman to Gregorian (about 2000 years ago), the lack of this "leap day" correction would cause the seasons to eventually misalign. So if you lived long enough, it would be snowing in July. Of course if you live in Vermont, that happens anyway. But I digress.

So the adding of this day does create some weird situations, not least of which is birthdays. I guess it would be a lifelong icebreaker to have your birthday happen only once every four years. And you do get to pick your birthday in all of the non-leap years (Feb. 28th or Mar. 1). But those are about the only positives I can think of. Maybe that is why it is considered bad luck in some places to be born on this day. On the upside, you get a standing invitation to join The Honor society of Leap Year Day Babies, whatever that is. The chances of making this club are 1,461-to-1, which is pretty exclusive. But if you want to really up the ante, have a kid also born on leap day. Know what the odds are on that one? Try more like 2 million-to-1. And then there is the curious case of the Keough family of Ireland. The Guinness Book of World Records acknowledges this family as the only one to ever have three generations in a row with children born on February 29th. And these were not scheduled C-sections, like some people will do, but three natural births all on leap day. Of course, Ireland is one of the aforementioned places where this is not considered a good thing. Needless to say, the current generation of Keough's are hoping to have this tradition die with them.

Of course there are always fun traditions that spring up around these types of events. One such example is women proposing marriage to men, or ladies' privilege. If you are as old as I am, which may not even be possible, you'll remember this as Sadie Hawkins Day from the Li'l Abner cartoon strip. Sadie was the "homeliest gal in all them hills" in the fictitious town of Dogpatch. With her 35th birthday rapidly approaching, her Dad cooked up a scheme to keep her from spinsterhood (and out of his house). He proposed a foot race between all of the eligible bachelors in town, and his daughter Sadie. He fired his gun and gave them a running start. The first bachelor that Sadie could run down, had to marry her. The lessons learned here are that homely girls are often faster than they look, and don't ever agree to marriage based on the outcome of a foot race.

There is even a town - Anthony, TX - that has claimed the moniker of Leap Capital of the World. I guess they only feel like having a festival every four years. But when they do, they pull out all the stops, and this town of less than 4,000 welcomes visitors from all over the world. Most of them are born on leap day, or have family members that are. But I don't think they check IDs. You can get a timeshare rental in neighboring New Mexico and make it part of a Southwest, quadrennial getaway.

Well, I am off to don my blue and yellow Leap Day clothing and poke people in eye who are not wearing theirs. What, am I really the only person left who watches 30 Rock?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

King for a Day

So did you have some fun on Mardis Gras and get all of your naughty behavior out of your system before hunkering down for the lenten season? Yeah, me neither. I totally did the Fat Tuesday part, but not so much on the lenten hunkering down. The way I see it, I'm not even two months into breaking my New Year's resolutions - not to mention my Chinese new Year's resolutions - and adding more bricks onto the load is just setting myself up for failure. But I did pick up one new obligation out of this carnival season, which I will absolutely honor. I was the recipient of the baby trinket in my piece of king cake, making me king for a day and putting me on the hook for making next year's king cake.

You have no idea what I am talking about, do you? That's okay, neither do I most of the time. But when it comes to cake, as you may well know, I am totally locked in. The king cake is a traditional sweet in the Christian tradition, and is typically associated with the three kings' visit to the baby Jesus on the twelfth night after his birth - also known as the Epiphany. However, as immigrants from Spain and France brought Catholic traditions with them to the New World, the cake began making appearances in the pre-lenten festivals of Carnival and Mardis Gras. The composition of the cake varies, but it is usually a ring or a braid, similar to a cinnamon roll. The king cakes of the Gulf Coast are typically covered in a sugary icing in the yellow, green and purple colors of Mardis Gras, and have a hidden trinket inside or underneath them. Sometimes the trinket is just a bead, like those thrown from the parade floats, but more often than not, it is a small figurine of a baby. The person who gets the piece with the trinket is the king (or queen) for the day, and now has to provide the cake for the following year's celebration. Some regional variants suggest that the recipient is going to have a baby in the next year. So unless you know something I don't, it looks like I have 364 days to figure out how to make one of these things.

Of course I could just buy the thing online and have it delivered. Looks like I can get one for about $50 (including the baby) from Cannatas or Dianne's King Cakes. They both get great reviews and appear to be just like what I had at the king cake party. But it feels like cheating to me. Of course I travel for a living, and baking a cake on the road can be challenge. Not to mention that I cannot bake. But, I've got nearly a year to figure this all out, and I have to imagine that not fulfilling my obligation will be accompanied by some sort of voodoo hex. Just what I need.

I suppose if I want it to be super-authentic (and fresh), I could get a timeshare rental in New Orleans the week of Mardi Gras 2013. The Maison Orleans/Hotel de L'eau Vive has full-size kitchens and is within steps of the French Quarter, where I could score my ingredients. I don't see anything posted on RedWeek yet, but I'll sign up for a posting alert and keep it in the old tickler file. Hotel de L'eau Vive, by the way, translates into Hotel of the Living Waters in English, which I suppose is some sort of reference to indoor plumbing. But don't quote me on that one.

Ooh, I know. I can get one of the many New Orleans celebrity chefs to help me. I am sure John Besh, Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme, or Leah Chase have nothing better to do than to teach a rank amateur how to knock out a king cake. Hey have you ever noticed that you never see Dom DeLuise and Paul Prudhomme together? Okay, I know DeLuise died in 2009 and it is time for me to hang up that joke, but they really did look exactly like.

I guess a cookbook and some trial and error are in my future. This much I do know: my king cake is NOT going to have a baby in it. No sir. I am going with the Timeshare Ambassador action figure instead. That's right, will take a photo of my face and put it onto a 3D head that fits any 1/6th size action figure body. Now I just need to find a 1/6th action figure body of a portly older(ish) man in a Hawaiian shirt.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Happiness Effect

If you're like me, and I really hope you're not, then you probably think that too much coffee is really bad for you. And if you are knocking back a pot or two of the stuff a day, you're probably right. But like a lot of folks, I tend to have a cup or two in the morning, and then another in the mid-to-late-afternoon. And I am not terribly good company when either of these things don't happen. So I've been operating under the assumption that a) I'm pretty much a coffee junkie, b) it was bad for my heart and my overall health in general. Turns out, I was wrong - about the b) part that is.

Several recent studies have concluded that coffee does elevate your blood pressure for a little while, but only by a few points, and that it quickly returns to normal (unless you have blood pressure problems to begin with). Moreover, filtered coffee does not lead to abnormal heart rhythms, stiffen your arteries, or raise your bad cholesterol numbers, despite what you may have read in the past. Furthermore, in moderation, coffee may in fact improve cognitive function, help the overall health of your heart, lower your risk of gallstones and colon cancer, and even improve the performance of endurance athletes. Plus, a Harvard Nurses Study recently revealed that a group of 50,000 women tracked over a period of 10 years experienced reduced levels of depression when regularly drinking coffee. They dubbed it "the happiness effect". Now I have about as much chance of being an endurance athlete as I do of being a woman, but they had me at lowered gallstone risk. Of course it is worth noting that if you regularly drink alcohol to excess, you negate all gains of drinking coffee. It's always something, isn't it?

Anyway, coffee has seen a major resurgence in this country the last few decades, and a great cup of joe is never too far away. Sure you can hit a Starbucks or other chain just about anywhere, but for money, there's nothing like a great local coffee-shop. And where there are great local coffee-shops, timeshare rentals cannot be too far away.

San Francisco, for example, has a robust coffee scene. There are so many great neighborhood java joints to choose from, but my favorite is Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store in the North Beach (Little Italy) part of town. Don't let the name fool you, this is a fantastic café and the coffee is out of sight. They haven't sold cigars in years, but back in the day, Jack Kerouac and the other beats hung out here and smoked and drank the night away. Of course Kerouac more or less drank himself to death, and as a result, didn't reap any of the heart benefits of Mario's brew. Rent a timeshare at The Inn at the Opera and take a nice evening stroll in this lively neighborhood.

For something completely different, try the southern hospitality of Charleston, SC. Now I know what you are thinking, a good cup of coffee in the Old South? Well, the fact is that coffee was first introduced to the New World in Jamestown, VA. And when war broke out with the British - and drinking their tea was out of the question - sipping coffee became a downright all-American thing to do. Charleston boasts some of the finest Revolutionary War era dwellings in this country, and some dynamite coffee spots. My personal favorite is the East Bay Meeting House in the French Quarter. Try a timeshare rental at the Church Street Inn. It puts you close to everything you want to see in this magnificent town, and never too far from a good cup of coffee.

Of course no tour du café would be complete without a stop in my old stomping grounds, Seattle. That's right, the home of Starbucks, Seattle's Finest, and about a million other coffee brands is now also home to a timeshare resort: The Camlin (WorldMark Seattle). This resort puts you right in the heart of the lively 6th and Pine shopping district. And if you find yourself in the famous Pike Place Market, and you should, be sure to check out the original Starbucks location, where it all got started back in 1971.

Well, I am off to try a cup of the world's most expensive coffee. Kopi Luwak coffee has been known to fetch as much as $160/lb! Why so pricey you ask? Well the Luwak, or Asian palm civet, is a ruminant peculiar to Indonesia, where it likes to eat ripened coffee berries (they are not really beans). Some while later, it wanders off into the woods, and "deposits" them. Gatherers then collect the berries, which are entirely intact, but with the outer hull completely removed by the civet's intestinal tract. They are then dried, roasted, and ground into one very expensive coffee. So I am going to pay about $12 bucks for a cup of coffee that was pooped out in some woods half way around the world by an animal I've never even heard of. I seriously gotta get some help.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Bitter Water

So have you ever eaten 100% pure chocolate? I don't mean semi-sweetened, baker's, or even dark chocolate. I am talking unadulterated pure chocolate? Well I'll save you the trouble if you haven't: it's nasty. Like eating a raw coffee bean, only more bitter. And don't get me wrong, I like a dark chocolate. I typically have a bar of 88% chocolate working at all times. But I inadvertently grabbed a 100% bar the other day at the market, and am wondering what to do with it now. I can't give it to the dog (toxic), and even the squirrels looked at me like I was nuts when I tossed it out in the yard for them to munch on. I guess I'll just leave it out there until I hit it with the mower later this spring.

Hey did you know that chocolate (known as cacao) dates back to at least 1900 BC? Yeah, it probably goes back a lot further, but evidence shows Mesoamericans eating it at least that far back. Later in the Aztec and Maya eras it was used not only as food, but as currency for paying tributes (taxes) to the high priests. Thing is, Mesoamerica lacked both milk fat and sugar. So they pretty much only knew the aforementioned pure version of what we consider a sweet. It's not surprising then that their word chocolate loosely translates to mean "bitter water" in our tongue. Even more peculiar, in its raw form it is inedible and can even be toxic to some people. The cacao pod is about the size of a football and is filled with a mucous-like slime and about 35 to 40 "beans". Yummy, huh? Once said pod falls off the tree upon which it grows, it needs to ferment in its own slime for a while. Then the beans are extracted from the glop, dried, and roasted. Only then do they become the inedibly "bitter water" the Aztecs so favored in food and beverage. Whoever figured all of this out was hungry, this much we know.

But like a lot of New World crops, cacao was taken back to the Old World and turned into something completely different. Outside of Spain, it has rarely made its way into savory cooking at all. Instead it was mixed with sugar and later milk (thanks to the Swiss) and considered a dessert. But it wasn't until the 1800s that a fellow named named John Cadbury (yes, that Cadbury) figured out a way to blend the ingredients in such a way as to make the solid bar we all know today. Why he wasn't knighted for this, I'll never know. I mean, if you are going to knight Paul McCartney and Elton John, isn't the inventor of the chocolate bar a no-brainer? I'll never figure the British out.

When chocolate came back to the Americas in its sweetened form, it was of course a big hit. Early U.S. chocolate factories had trouble keeping pace with the demand as more and more people acquired a sweet tooth for it. In 1894 a young man from rural Pennsylvania started just such a factory that would go on to make his name famous worldwide. I am of course referring to Milton S. Hershey, creator of the milk chocolate bar with his surname printed across the front of it. The Hershey Bar and the Hershey Kiss (invented in 1908) are probably two of the most iconic American candies ever brought to market. They've even made their way into outer space! Milton Hershey went on to lead the way in philanthropic endeavors as well, via The Hershey Trust Company and the Hershey School, both in the town bearing his name in Pennsylvania. You can visit both the Hershey factory and theme park from a timeshare rental at The Suites at Hershey.

On the west coast of the U.S. an Italian immigrant with a hard-to-pronounce last name opened a chocolate factory in San Francisco in 1852 that remains in operation today. Domingo Ghirardelli came to San Francisco in 1849 with dreams of finding gold and striking it rich. The gold part didn't pan out (see what I did there?), but like a lot of new immigrants, he took advantage of the boom and created a chocolate that has become famous the world over. He probably should have just called it Domingo's chocolate, but he wanted his last name on the bar, and to this day, Americans mangle its pronunciation. They ran an ad campaign for years with the phrase: "Say Gear-ar-delly!" but it didn't work, and almost no one gets it right. You can visit the factory in beautiful San Francisco from a timeshare at The Suites at Fisherman's Wharf; 2012 marks the 160th anniversary of the company and they have events planned throughout the year.

Well, I am off to Assumption Catholic School in Houston, TX to catch the latest stop of the Think Big, Eat Smart Tour. No it's not another eating contest (although I do have one of those coming up). It is a 60-city promotional tour that helps children understand the proper use of chocolate and confections in their diet, and it features the largest chocolate bar in the world, as certified by Guinness. This thing is 21 feet long, 3 feet high, and weighs in at 12,190 lbs. That's over six tons folks. Are you kidding me?! Of course if they wanted to teach children about proper portion size, you'd think they'd have a really, really, small one. Perhaps it wouldn't draw the same crowds, but it would certainly be a lot cheaper to lug around the country.