Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Robert St. John: A Birthday to Remember

 PETROGNANO-SEMIFONTE, TUSCANY— My mother used to speak disparagingly of grown men who kept changing careers later in life. Even as a kid, I never agreed with that. It seemed— and still seems— to me that, when it comes to an occupation, one should do whatever makes one feel happy, fulfilled, and successful. I have been blessed to have worked in the same career for over 40 years. I love the restaurant business. I never plan to retire and could never see myself doing anything else for my primary vocation.


Though, I have learned that careers sometimes gain momentum and pick up additional occupations along the way. In addition to the restaurant business, I ended up writing books, producing television programs, founding a non-profit, and most recently have delved into documentary film production, the first of which will be released in a few weeks. I also lead tours in Europe.

None of these secondary careers have been planned. The tour thing happened when my friend, watercolorist Wyatt Waters, and I were on a promotional book tour with a coffee table cookbook we wrote based on our travels in Italy. People who had followed our journey in Italy kept saying, “I wish you’d take me over there to go to those restaurants you wrote about.” Or “I’d love to travel with you to see those places you painted.” At first, we thought it was just people making small talk while we signed their books. Though we kept hearing the same statements. One day I called Waters and said, “I think people want us to take them to Italy.” I made one Facebook post, and— five years, and over 300 travelers later— I have ended up in a career I never planned but love just as much as the restaurant business.

In non-Covid times I spend a little over two months a year working in Europe leading tours. In March of 2020 we were all set to go to Spain. The most amazing part of the Spain trip was that most of the people were going to be traveling with us for the third or fourth time. After Spain I was scheduled to lead four tours in Tuscany, and in the fall another Rome/Amalfi/Naples tour and then more Tuscany tours. Covid had different plans.

I should be writing this column from the Amalfi coast where I would be leading 25 guests around one of the most beautiful places on the planet. But Covid apprehensions and the delta variant gave many of our travelers cause for concern when it comes to overseas travel. I most certainly respect that. So, for safeties sake and for the peace of mind of our guests, I rescheduled all groups for 2022 and look forward to finally getting to travel with them. I have also added new dates because there is a waiting list of hopeful travelers which has grown very long during Covid.

Waters has retired from overseas touring and is focusing on a new book. I, however, have grown to love turning people onto all the people and places I have discovered over the past decade in Europe, and plan to do this— with my wife Jill by my side— for as long as people want to travel with us.

So, after having to reschedule the 2021 fall tours, and since I had already blacked out the dates on my work schedule back home, I decided to grab Jill and head over to Tuscany to search out new site, places, restaurants, wineries, and experiences for our future groups to enjoy, as now we have begun to create tours for those who have already been with me to Tuscany and want to return. I call it Tuscany 2.0.

Without question, the absolute best— and most unexpected— part about leading tours in Italy has been the friendships I have made. I knew I would like turning people on to the places I had discovered over the years, but I never knew that I would make such meaningful friendships doing it— friends who travel with us from the United States, but also friends here in Italy.

I write this column from the villa I have been frequenting for over a decade. I am currently feeling extremely grateful for the Italian friends I have made over the years. I turned 50 years old in this villa. Last night I celebrated my 60th year in this villa. That was nice, but the icing on the tiramisu was that I spent a wonderful dinner seated at a table with so many of my Italian friends.  

It was a collection of the Europeans I love most. Annagloria and Enzo, the owners of the villa were there, along with Marina and her boyfriend, Marco. Our friends Barbara and Alberto drove down from Milan, and our friend Jesse took the train up from Rome. The dinner table sat 16, and two of the best Italian home cooks I know, Nadia and Rosanna prepared a six-course meal filled with all my local favorites. Annagloria and Enzo’s daughters, Gemma and Bianca helped serve.

In the middle of dinner, I pushed away from the table and took in the scene. Marco and his wife Christina who make the best pecorino I have ever tasted, at their sheep farm down the road, came bearing a five-pound wedge of aged pecorino. Massimo and Cecilia, owners of a fine restaurant in town where our guests learn to make ravioli, brought wine. Paolo who owns one of our favorite local restaurants arrived late after working the dinner shift. Toby and Susanna, from the local bakery I visit every morning, brought a beautiful birthday cake made from a Napoleon shaped in the numbers six and zero, and husband and wife tour guides Ricardo and Cindy drove down from Florence. It was one of the most memorable and meaningful dinners I have ever experienced.

After dinner, a band Marina and Annagloria booked performed in the lower room of the tower. It’s a band I first heard over 10 years ago during my first visit, and the one that made me realize that Mississippi truly is the birthplace of America’s music.

Last week, before we left for Italy, my wife arranged an early 60th birthday dinner with some of our closest friends back home. To be lucky enough to also share a birthday meal with our Italian friends feels like an embarrassment of blessings.

It took me a while to learn about the things in life that truly matter. For years I valued the material and monetary things most. Eventually, I learned that the things that truly matter in life are the spiritual and relational things. Faith, family, friends, food, and fun is where I find happiness and joy these days.

After dinner, I told my wife that I believe I am entering what will be my best decade. I plan to spend it with friends I will meet in upcoming tours, and friends I have known since kindergarten, friends who I have made overseas, and friends from all around Mississippi and the United States.


Rosanna’s Tiramisu

4 each              Large egg yolks
6 TB                Sugar
1 cup               Heavy whipping cream, cold
1 TB                Marsala wine
1 lb.                 Mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
2 each              8 oz. boxes highest quality lady fingers, preferably Pavesini brand
2 cups              Strong brewed coffee, cooled
¼ lb.                Bittersweet chocolate, chopped, divided into thirds
Unsweetened cocoa powder as needed.

Combine the egg yolks and sugar in the chilled bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whip attachment. Beat on high until pale yellow and doubled in size. Add the whipping cream and continue beating on high until soft peaks begin to form, about 3-4 minutes. Add the softened mascarpone and Marsala and continue whipping on high speed until stiff peaks are formed, about 5-6 minutes.

To build the tiramisu, spread a very thin layer of the cream mixture across the bottom of a 9” x 11” clear casserole dish, just to help keep the first layer of lady fingers still. Divide the remaining cream mixture into thirds.

Briefly dip each lady finger in the coffee and cover the bottom of the casserole dish. Follow with a layer of the cream mixture and the chopped chocolate. Repeat this process until you finish the cream mixture. Sprinkle the top with the cocoa powder and the remaining chocolate.

Refrigerate for a few hours before serving.



Anonymous said...

I had a Whopper, all meat, a Bud light and played a Willie Nelson CD for my Birthday.

Ham and cheese on white bread said...

I observed my Birthday home alone during the "15 days to slow the spread" when I kept my Dukes mayo and Grey Poupon in the freezer. Talk about murdering white bread with a butter knife. That sucked.

Anonymous said...

Even if I could afford a month long vacation in Tuscany, I would rather hang with the folks on an "up river" sand bar.

And yes. I can mingle with the local Country Club crowds ... (if I have to) .

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Trollfest '09

Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).

Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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Trollfest '07

Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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