Feel free to dance like you’ve been bitten by a spider!
Last week we had a diversity event on my college’s campus, and I was asked to prepare a booth on Italian-Americans. Since October is Italian-American Heritage Month, I thought I would share some of it as a blog as well. (Oh, and I’ve included a tarantella to put you in the right mood while you read.)
There’s a litney of contributions by Italian-Americans I could have shared and a long list of names, nationally and locally, all of whom deserve recognition. But instead, I opted for something more basic, something we share, something that reflects us as a group – good, hearty, and comforting food.
As with other immigrants, when Italians came to America most were leaving behind a difficult life in hopes of a better future. The bulk of Italians who made the Atlantic crossing were mezzogiorni or Southern Italians, which reflected the historic reality that Southern Italy was significantly less prosperous than Northern. While in Italy, they lived and made the most of what they had. An example of this is the cultivation of cucuzza, an edible gourd that can grow up to five feet in length.
The plant requires little space when trellised and is a prolific producer.
Southern Italians made the most of the plant, consuming both the gourd and its tender shoots and leaves.
Tenerumi is made from the (deveined) leaves and tender shoots sautéed with garlic. Cucuzza can also be incorporated into soups and stews, stuffed, breaded and fried as a stand-alone dish or incorporated in cucuzza parmigiana, or served raw in salads.
As they immigrated, Italians brought the seeds with them. Today, it’s not uncommon to find cucuzza in the gardens of Italian-Americans across the country.
If you are fortunate enough to have an Italian-American neighbor who grows cucuzza, ask for one. Trust me, they will have extras. Like I said, these plants produce. If you’re not as fortunate, then you can probably find cucuzza in a market that specializes in Mediterranean food or sometimes in Asian markets as well.)
One large cucuzza (3 or 4 feet long)
A large bunch of carrots peeled and chopped or large bag of baby carrots.
Three or four garlic cloves chopped
Two large (28 ounces) cans of petite diced tomatoes
(Fresh tomatoes are better if they are homegrown. But don’t use the tasteless ones you get from most groceries.)
Optional – one large can of tomato puree
Oregano, salt, and pepper
You can also add celery, potatoes, etc., pretty much veggie that strikes your fancy, of course. Adding stew meat is also an option.
Peel the Cucuzza. Slice it down the middle longways. Clean out the soft interior with seeds. I usually use a spoon to scoop this out. Then cut the cucuzza into roughly half inch cubes.
In a ten quart soup pot or crockpot, combine cucuzza, carrots, diced tomatoes, and garlic.
Add dried or fresh chopped oregano, salt, and black pepper to tastes. (I really like oregano, so I tend to add a little extra.) Add two to four cups of water as needed water.
You will probably need to cut the acid of the tomatoes. For this batch, I used about a tablespoon of sugar. Don’t worry, it does not make it taste sweet. It just balances the acid. There are other options as well. Mr. Maltese, one of my music instructors from my undergraduate years added raisins to his sauces. I do this for sauces, but tend not to do it for soups and stews. Another trick that I have used is adding a whole, peeled Russet potato, which you remove before serving. Baking soda also could be used.
Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat and simmer until the vegetables are tender. I usually like to let it set overnight to allow, as a friend says, the flavors to marry.
Galveston, Texas, has from the time I was young has been a special place to me. My dad regularly took us to visit his father’s family in Galveston. Galveston held something of a magical, mythical place in my mind. Dad’s family came from Sicily, Italy, and Milos, Greece, in the late 1800 and early 1900s. Coming through the port of New Orleans, a port of immigration at the time second only to New York, the various families finally found their way to Galveston.
I knew about Galveston first-hand growing up spending time with my cousins, going crabbing or just playing on the beach. Oh, and there was that one time when my Maw Maw’s keys got locked in her VW Beetle on the beach in Galveston while the tide was rolling in. So, on Galveston beach I learned the importance of being able to unlock a car with a coat hanger. Of course, I loved Glenn Campbell’s hit song “Galveston” about a solider off at war dreaming of his home and love in Galveston. Like the solider in the song, “I still hear [the] sea waves crashing” in my mind.
I also know a bit about the history of Galveston and that those sea waves crash against a seawall that was constructed after the Great Strom of 1900 that decimated Galveston. In 1900, Galveston was home to many affluent citizens and was a popular up-scale vacation destination. But a hurricane made landfall on September 8, 1900. The death toll for the hurricane numbered in the thousands, but they could not be buried because the land was saturated from the flooding. Burial at sea was attempted. But the bodies floated back in on the tide. Eventually as this became a public health crisis, martial law was declared and men at gunpoint were forced to burn the decaying bodies of family, friends, and strangers. According to my dad’s cousin Benjamin Franklin Biannos, Mitchell Biannos, who was his grandfather and my dad’s great-grandfather, was among those who were required to under take this horrific task.
From Louis Ciaccio, another of my dad’s cousins, I know a more lighthearted story about the family’s “store on three corners.” It was a store run by Louis’ father Vincent with the help of my dad’s Uncle Nick, who was a young man at the time. The building that it occupied was physically moved three different times to three different locations on Galveston island. I know where my dad went to school at Stephen F. Foster Junior High in Galveston. I know where my precious Aunt Catty Mencacci lived just a few blocks from the beach. Though the last time I saw her I was young, I still remember her standing in the yard waving goodbye to us as I suppressed the urge to run back and hug her one more time. In fact, one of my few regrets in life is not running back for the one last hug.
Another though different type of regret is that as much as I romanticize, love, and know about Galveston, until a few years ago I did not know about Juneteenth, a commemoration of the end of slavery initiated by African Americans in Galveston on June 19, 1866. To be fair, a “few years ago” in my convoluted memory could be two years or two decades. But even if it is two decades ago, that is still late in life for me to learn about such a significant event, not just in the history of Galveston, but in the history of my country. I have been a history buff (OK, geek) since I was a kid. I remember much from my history classes. But I absolutely have no memory of Juneteenth being mentioned in elementary, high school, or even college.
Though it should have been recognized long before, Juneteenth is now an official American holiday, and rightfully so. It is a day that we – collectively – recall that what was wrong with America began at long last to be put right. I am not a fan of many of President Binden’s policies. But I applaud him, the Senate, and all but fourteen members of the House of Representatives for making Juneteenth a national holiday as of June 2021.
For those who do not know, here is a brief history of the date. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/299998), a wartime executive order, declared that effective January 1, 1863, slaves were free in the states in rebellion against the Union. The eventual military defeat of the armed forces of the Confederacy enforced this act battle by battle and mile by mile. Texas, the most remote extent of the Confederacy, was last to give way to Union advance. On June 19, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and issued General Order No. 3 (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/182778372) that announced the end of slavery in accordance with the provisions of the Emancipation Proclamation.
But slavery still legally existed in a few states that had not seceded from the Union, and slavery ultimately could have been reestablished across the South. However, the ratification of Thirteenth Amendment on December 6, 1865, declared slavery at an end in America. Then, on June 19, 1866, the anniversary of Granger’s General Order No. 3, African Americans in Galveston publicly celebrated the end of slavery on what they called Jubilee Day. (The term Jubilee, of course, was taken from the Old Testament of the Bible as it was the year that Jehovah commanded the enslaved in Israel were to be set free.)
I do not care whose granddaddy owned slaves and whose granddaddy did not. The fact is slavery is America’s original sin. As a nation we were born with this deformity. The Declaration of Independence‘s lofty ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” stand in stark contrast to the Constitution’s measurement of slaves as “three-fifths” of a person. This stain on the soul of our nation was excised only by the sufferings of generations of our brothers and sisters held in bondage and by the blood of hundreds of thousands in the American Civil War (as if any war could be civil). At great cost this was accomplished. Then should not we – regardless of race or creed or political inclination – exult in this together as one people.
No, we have not arrived. There is much yet that can be done. Yes, we are very divided. We are divided on what to do and how to do it. But on this date, let us as Americans all celebrate, not what has not been accomplished, but rather what has been. On June 20th, we can again debate a host of things. But today is a day of remembrance, a day of Jubilee, a day of celebrating the end of the enslavement of one group of Americans by another.
Juneteenth is an American holiday!
This is a social media post I made in January 20, 2009. With the exception of a few grammatical corrections, it is exactly the post I made at the time. This many years later, I’m sad at the division instead of unity in my country. Step back in time with me.
Nothing I say below is necessarily eloquent or different from what millions of other Americans are thinking, saying, and blogging. But maybe that’s the point, we as Americans have the right and even the responsibility to speak. On this so very significant moment in American history, I feel the need to engage in this conversation.
I watched history today with my children, along with more Americans than had ever watched a Presidential inauguration in person and via all forms of mass communication. This alone was historic. Beyond that, on the platform were only the second father and son Presidents. Of course, the obvious reason so many were watching, not only was the son of an immigrant being sworn in as the 44th President, but Barak Obama was our first African-American President.
I say “our” President, yours and mine alike. He was not my candidate, but he is my President. I smiled with him as he and Justice Roberts got out of sink during the swearing in. It was poetic. I could see the excitement and restrained nervous anticipation in his face as this happened. It wasn’t perfect, but it was perfectly acceptable. It added just that touch of humanity, flawed and imperfect, amongst all of the practiced precision of the military honors afforded the outgoing and incoming administrations.
I was opposed to him during the election because of his politics, not his skin. But I, like many of his supports, must confess a sense of … well, of I’m not sure what, a mixture of emotions. Tomorrow, or maybe next week, I’ll do battle with his political ideas, I’m sure. But today, I celebrate a fuller meaning of “we the people” than ever before in America’s history.
So many commentators said it today that it may begin to sound passé, but it is true, nonetheless, only in America could we watch and celebrate today’s events, the peaceful, and in fact, gracious transfer of power of arguably the most powerful nation in history. This alone is amazing enough that it should cause us to stand in awe, let alone witness the inauguration of a man, as President Obama pointed out, whose father would not have been served at a lunch counter in the city because of the color of his skin. But today we as a people – not a race, not an ethnicity – but a people created by an idea that “all men are created equal” turned a page in our collective history.
In 1903, W. E. B. du Bois declared that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” Another historic thing about today is that we are facing a financial crisis that if left unchecked could rival that of the Great Depression. So, I hope that we in the Twentieth-first Century have solved, or at least greatly addressed, “the problem of the color-line” because we have many problems facing us in this century.
As I write this, Denzel Washington is announcing the President as they enter The Neighborhood Ball in Washington, D.C., tonight. I’m watching the ball with my daughter and son. I’ve discussed with them that skin doesn’t matter; rather, it’s the person’s character. Maybe their kids won’t even have to have that discussion.
As I said, tomorrow or sometime soon I’m going to have an argument with my President. But, he’s my President. He works for me now, even if I didn’t hire him. I guess it’s OK to argue. After all, it’s all in the family. But tonight I’m going to enjoy the parties and the celebrations and being an American.
There is nothing like Facebook to provide a forum for arguing with someone on the other side of the country or the world whom you will never meet in person.
My interests are varied: history, writing, music, and gardening. I’m a member of a number of Facebook discussion groups corresponding to my interests. In these groups, we have cordial and sometimes spirited discussions. But akin to those whom Stravinsky referred to as “arbiters of cultural taste,” there are some group members who believe it their job to correct the manners, politics, or in this case spelling, of absolute strangers. Normally I keep scrolling. Today my better angels did not prevail. I knew my response would be deleted by the administrator of the gardening group, as it eventually was, yet I could not resist the temptation for a tête-à-tête. (Yes, I know that technically a public post is not a tête-à-tête. But doesn’t it sound cool… and pompous.)
Let the snark begin!
The following is my sardonic critique for the group member who felt a need, in her words, to provide “this week’s lesson in English,” as she explained how to spell tomato and potato. (It’s not like Dan Quail is in the group.)
i no sum people dont no grammer as good as other’s. Butt i wood jest ruther leaf things along then other’s think im been a no it awl.
Indubitably, the essential quality and nature of the English language is ne’er strained by one’s use of dialect, non-standard spelling, grammatical faux pas, or the garden-variety typo.
I have a freaking PhD, but my great grandmother could garden circles around me. So there’s also that.
And that, gentle reader, is your life lesson for the day. You’re welcome.
Y’all come back now, ya hear.
I can stand on the courthouse steps and criticize my government or gather with fellow believers and worship God openly without fear because from Lexington and Concord, to Fort McHenry, to Belleau Wood, to Iwo Jima, to Chosin, to Bagdad, and in thousands of other battles, large and small, for more than 200 years soldiers have put on American military uniforms and all too often have given their lives. Thank you!
I enjoy cooking, and since I’ve been sheltering in place because of the threat of COVID-19 on every door handle and shopping cart, I’ve had more than enough time to cook. Throwing a handful of raisins into the sauce today, my mid drifted back to my undergraduate days. (Don’t be shocked at the raisins. They balance the acid and bring out the sweetness of the tomatoes.)
My first degree was in music from Jacksonville State in the middle of rural Alabama. Ironically, it was there in the foothills of the Appalachians of all places, I met a petite Italian (Sicilian)-American, Mr. Giovanni Maltese, who has remained special in my memory. He taught music appreciation, music literature, and class strings. He was a particular pleasure to be around, though if you talked during class he would keep you in line by admonishing, “Shut up, you bunch of banana heads, and listen to the damn music.”
Beyond his passion for music, one of the things that endeared him to me was how he welcomed his students into his home. As with the Maltese family, my dad’s family came from Sicily. Dad tells stories from his childhood of his father cooking spaghetti sauce overnight and of big family lunches on Sundays at Aunt Katti’s after she had spent half the night cooking. In similar family style, Mr. Maltese invited his classes to his home at the end of each term.
The memory of an evening at his home, as one friend said, is like a dream now, just yesterday and yet forever ago at the same time. That night his students arrived to find several small tables set around. Sauce was simmering. The smell, oh, the smell. He placed the sauce and pasta on the tables, along with bowls containing various meats. We sat. He bowed his head and offered thanks. As the meal began, he lamented “a rude student” who some years before had wandered around “looking for God under the tables” after grace. Then I tasted his sauce for the first time, biting down on a raisin plumped with sauce. Ever since, raisins have been in my own sauces. Beyond this, the details of that evening fade to shadow, except for the feeling of welcome and home that permeated the evening and has followed me for forty years.
A few years ago before Mr. Maltese passed away at the age of 95, I contacted his son John for the recipe that I recall enjoying around the table, after thanking God for the meal of course.
I share the recipe below and hope you enjoy it, as well as the love of family and friends around the table again soon. I pray we will recall how being apart from each other felt and allow that to make each meal and each moment all the more special. I think Mr. Maltese would agree, and I think he would also remind you to thank God for your meal… and your health.
In John’s words and shared with his permission, here is the sauce that Mr. Giovanni Maltese learned from his mom from Trapani, Sicily.
It’s very easy. Use cans of tomato paste (two cans of water per can of paste) as the base. I usually add a can of tomato puree. You can make as much or as little as you like, but if you add a lot of meat, you’ll need a fair amount of sauce (for this pot I used 16 ounce cans of paste – remember to add the two cans of water per can of paste) and one 28 ounce can of puree. That’s quite a bit of sauce, but I’m cooking for a lot of people, and I want leftovers (the sauce freezes well). Simmer. Peel a couple of large onions and add 8-12 cloves of garlic (leave them whole) and brown them in olive oil and add them to the sauce. Then brown some sweet Italian sausage and add it. I do the meatballs by feel: ground beef, Italian bread crumbs, grated Parmesan and Romano cheese, lots of finely chopped garlic, parsley, pepper, garlic salt, and enough eggs so that the meat won’t fall apart. Brown the meatballs and add them to the sauce. Sometimes I add breaded chicken or veal cutlets (also browned in olive oil before being added), pork chops, even chopped zucchini. Add a couple handfuls of raisins. Simmer over low heat for about three hours. It tastes best if you refrigerate it overnight and simmer it again for about an hour or so the next day before serving. Believe it or not, there’s no other seasoning – the garlic, onions, and meat add plenty of flavor. Mangia!
I did not like the protests and disruptions during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. I did not believe the allegations. I think the Democratic Senators on the Judiciary Committee were disingenuous and bombastic. Some of you, my friends, disagree with me. All that said, I do like the sound of democracy. Sometimes it is noisy and rancorous but it is the sound of freedom.
In the vast bulk of the countries on the globe, the embarrassing display that we witnessed would have been quickly quelled at the point of a bayonet and dissenting voices silenced, maybe permanently.
Yes, liberty and democracy are sometimes loud and disgusting – but in the end it is still music to my ears.