Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Robert St. John: It's A Tough Job But Somebody’s Got To Chew It

 PETROGNANO-SEMIFONTE, TUSCANY— The first tour I ever led was seven years ago. My friend, Andy Wiest, a history professor and war historian at the University of Southern Mississippi, and I created a tour we called Battlefields and Baguettes. We toured London, Belgium, Normandy, and Paris with a group. Wiest led our group through battlegrounds, museums, and WWI and WWII cemeteries during the day, and I took them to local cafes and brasseries in the evening. It was a blast. 

Every day was educational and meaningful, though the highlights of that trip were the entire day around the beach at Normandy and a day in Paris when we sat for a few hours visiting with a French holocaust survivor. It was around that time that I began thinking about leading more tours to other parts of Europe. 


Three years earlier I had spent six months traversing Western Europe. It’s a trip that took me two years to plan. From January of 2009 through July of 2011, I spent almost every night from 10:00p.m. to midnight in the bed plotting and researching the 17 countries, 72 cities, and dozens upon dozens of hotels, villas, restaurants, and VRBOs across the continent. That research became important because after that initial tour, I began to field numerous inquiries from people who were interested in visiting Italy. 


My friend, and uber talented watercolor artist, Wyatt Waters, and I began leading people to areas of Italy we had discovered while working on our book, “An Italian Palate.” The first tours in Italy were mostly filled with places I discovered during that original research stint, but also places that were recommended by locals and places we discovered while we had feet on the ground while working on the book.


The Italy tours were going to be a one-time thing, but word spread, and the tours kept us busy for a few years. We began adding new locations and even new countries. Once Covid hit, Waters made the decision to retire from overseas tours to focus on local projects (he never stops, keep your eyes out for his new book, soon) and I have made the decision to carry on, as I love doing it, and plan to keep turning guests on to the people and places I have discovered— and keep discovering— over the years. 


Something must be going right in all of this because, of the 25 people who are touring Spain with me in March, more than half of them will have traveled with me before, and for many of those, it will be their fourth or fifth trip with me. Basically, we are now a group of friends traveling together.


Covid hit the pause button on the tours, but we have a full slate we are booking in the spring and fall of 2022. Those will be with guests we have rescheduled due to Covid and new travelers who have been patiently waiting to travel overseas with me for the first time. As I type I am in one of the villas we frequent in Tuscany. The Covid situation over here is being handled very well. Ultimately, it’s probably safer over here than it is back home.


The Tuscany tours have been honed down to one week where our guests get a full immersion into the people, places, food, wine, architecture, art, craftsmanship of this part of the world. The cool thing about it for travelers is that it’s all “hits.” There are no misses. I have tweaked the agenda over the years and added new restaurants, wineries, and sites to make it a one-of-a-kind and local non-touristic experience. I am also working on a tour I call Tuscany 2.0 for the people who have already toured with us in Tuscany and want to return for new encounters.


So, I am in the middle of a two-week discovery tour with my wife. My friend Jesse who helps us with tours in Rome, the Amalfi Coast, and Spain calls it a “survey.” It’s basically research and development for points of future travel. When I am leading tours there isn’t a lot of time for the exploration and scrutiny of new places. 


That was a very long setup to say, I have just eaten the two best pasta dishes in my life. Over the past 10 years I have eaten pasta from the tip of Sicily to the Alps. Though the two pastas I recently had— one in our local village at our friend Paolo’s restaurant, and another by the Mediterranean in a beautiful seaside village— were the best. Period. End of story.


One was an old favorite; the other was a new discovery.


The pasta at Paolo’s was a basic Arrabiata pasta which is made by crushing spicy red chilies and garlic into a paste, and then adding it to crushed tomatoes (the Italians would call it a “tomato sauce” but what the mean are canned whole tomatoes that have been pureed, not marinara). They sauté the pepper-garlic mixture with olive oil, the tomatoes, add salt and pepper, a little pasta water, and whatever type of pasta they choose, spaghetti in my case. Extremely simple, but so flavorful. The key is the peppers. It’s hot and it is meant to be as the arrabiata means “angry” in Italian. I have eaten the dish dozens of times over the years, but over the past few days it seems to be better than ever. Our guests this spring and fall will get to experience it for themselves.


The new pasta that I have just discovered was in the beautiful seaside town of Forte dei Marmi, a place unlike any other I have visited in Italy. This is where R&D pays off. I will definitely be taking travelers to this town, to the unique market there, and to eat this specific pasta which was— as all of the best Italian dishes are— extremely simple with limited ingredients. It was a shrimp pasta with a lemon sauce. They wouldn’t give me the recipe, but I am going to figure it out when I get back home. It’s one of those dishes that I should have taken a photo of but finished it before I could even think about it. It’s three days later and I am still thinking about it.


This is how these tours have evolved over the years. The first groups went to the places I discovered on that initial trip. Now I have discovered so much more that I can share. I am returning home in a few days with a few dozen new discoveries, and I can’t wait to share them.


The first official tour I led was seven years ago, but one of the greatest joys throughout my life has been turning people on to things I have discovered, whether it’s a restaurant in some American city, or remote rural outpost, or a new album, or a new band. There is something deep inside of me that loves to share my experiences with others. The greatest outlet of that thing (whatever it is) is touring in Europe. Because when I take a person to a restaurant, or silversmith, or farm, or local artisan’s shop, and I see and feel their excitement and their joy of discovery in that moment, it takes me back to the first time I felt that emotion, and it feels new all over again.


The best way to keep discovering is to share your discoveries with others.





Zucchini Pasta

Gluten free is all the rage these days. This recipe takes care of that, and is vegetarian, too.

3 lbs.               Zucchini
1 TB + 1 tsp    Kosher salt
½ cup + 2 TB  Extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp                Fresh garlic, minced
2 cups              Roma tomatoes, small diced
½ cup              Pesto 
2 TB                Dry white wine
1 tsp                Fresh ground black pepper
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano as needed

Slice the zucchini on a mandoline fitted with the 1/8” shoestring attachment. Toss the zucchini in 1 tsp of the salt and place in a strainer for 30 minutes to draw out excess moisture. This will be used as your “pasta.”

Separately, combine the pesto and ½ cup of the olive oil.

Heat the remaining 2 TB of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly to avoid burning. Add the tomatoes and continue cooking for 2 minutes. Add the zucchini and remaining salt and pepper. Continue cooking for 2 minutes. Deglaze the pan with white wine and cook until it has evaporated, about 2-3 minutes. Fold in the pesto mixture and toss thoroughly for 2 more minutes. 

Divide among 6 bowls and finish with grated cheese and more olive oil if desired.


Anonymous said...

I’d like to go on your tour? Love your posts! It’s really a love of senses. You describe those very well. Good food, beauty, and pleasure. I’m in!

Anonymous said...

There are some great unknown places off the Trace a few miles north of
Ratliff Ferry !

We ran out Zapps and Bud Light, but found an old dude that brewed the best shine ! and he had the best fried chitlins !

Rankin County's version of Tuscany !!

Anonymous said...

Jesus. I wonder if the federal government will come up with a plan to overpay for hearing aids to help the tone-deaf. Certainly wouldn't want or expect anyone to have to save a bit to pay for them out of their own pocket when the taxpayer's pocket is so easy to reach into. Ah, well, you can take the hick out of Hattiesburg but you can't take the shit out of the bullshit.

Anonymous said...

While most of us are working hard to take care of our families and businesses, St. John has to tell us and himself on a weekly basis about how important and wonderful he is.

Recent Comments

Search Jackson Jambalaya

Subscribe to JJ's Youtube channel


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.

Note: Security provided by INS.

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.

Note: Security provided by INS