Cucuzza

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.)

“Tarantella Americana for Clarinet and Piano” (c) 2021 Stephen W. B. Rizzo

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

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.  

Cucuzza Stew

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.)

Ingredients

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.

Directions

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. 

Buon Appetito!

Banana Heads

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!

L’Dor V’Dor

I was at the college recently chatting with my colleague Jimmy and his English class. I don’t recall the specifics, but he commented something jokingly to the class about Dr. Rizzo’s great-great grandfather. Knowing I’m something of a family historian, he confessed he was trying to stump me. So I rattled off about two hundred fifty years of one of my family lines: my father Fredrick “Bucky” Rizzo, his dad Fred, his Nicolo, his Matteo, his yet another Nicolo, and his yet another Matteo, and finally back to the 1700s to Calogero Rezza in Contessa Entellina, a small village in the mountains of Sicily that was settled in the mid 1400s by Albanian refugees fleeing Islamic armies. (Like I said, I’m the family historian.)

But the significance of generations struck me in a different way last Sunday when I saw two smiling faces singing during the altar service.

My pastor, Victor Massey, had preached from the book of Ruth. (Incidentally, if you’ve never heard my pastor preach, you should. He’s good.) In the closing of his sermon, he referenced Ruth 4:21 & 22: “And Salmon begat Boaz, and Boaz begat Obed, and Obed begat Jesse, and Jesse begat David.”

The David mentioned is King David, who was the first king of Israel and the ancestor of Jesus. But there’s much more to unpack. Salmon’s wife was Rahab, the woman who hid the Israelite spies in Jericho and in doing so saved herself and her family. Of course, Ruth was the wife of Boaz. She was a Moabite, descended from the incestuous relationship of Lot and one of his daughters, yet because of her faithfulness to her mother-in-law after her father-in-law and husband died, she ultimately became the wife of Boaz. Both women, who otherwise were outside of the covenant between God and Israel, nonetheless, became ancestors of Jesus the Messiah. Their actions not only affected their lives, but their families and successive generations.

L’dor V’dor  is the Hebrew term that translates “generation to generation.” As Pastor Massey expounded on the passage, I couldn’t help but think about the idea of generation to generation, particularly as I noticed those two smiling faces singing together. The two smiling faces belonged to my son Nick and my cousin’s daughter Ashlyn. Both Nick and Ashlyn do, indeed, have beautiful smiles. Both have also dedicated their lives to serving the Lord, leading worship in song each week at the Sumiton Church of God. In that moment in my mind’s eye, however, I saw not only their smiles but envisioned the generations that came before, all a part of this one congregation.

Nick and Ashlyn share great-great grandparents Travis and Gladys Burton, who were members of the Sumiton Church and served faithfully some seventy plus years ago, which is a conservable part of the congregation’s history of just under one hundred years. Counting Ashlyn’s beautiful kiddos, there are now six generations of my family who have been part of this congregation – L’dor V’dor! Of course, you can’t bequeath salvation like you can a farm or a car. Still, it is each generation’s responsibility to pass on the faith, to live an example, to teach the scripture, from generation to generation.

What would have happened if one generation had failed in the charge? That’s something, frankly, I don’t want to think about because the potential consequences are too disconcerting. At the risk of invoking syrupy echoes of “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” I cannot emphasize too much how this is a charge that is our responsibility to the next generation, whether family or friend.

So from Boaz, to Obed, to Jesse, to David…

Or the Apostle John, to Polycarp, to Irenaeus…

Or from Travis and Gladys, to my Grandfather Buel and his brother Lowell, to my mother and her cousin June, to my cousin Kevin and me, to our children and grandchildren and generations to come…

L’dor V’dor!

Victimae Paschali Laudes

(This is a little note I posted on social media Easter 2011. Without going into the details, 2011 was one of the most difficult years of my life. Only the passing of my dad in 2016 surpasses it for shear grief and struggle. But even in the tough times, God is faithful – He gives hope – and is to be praised.)

I picked up the lamb for Easter yesterday, and I’m going to pull fresh herbs today and start working on the rub for it. I also got some Easter bread from Nabeel’s Market. It came with plastic eggs to put in it, but we’ll be boiling real ones for it. (By the way, yellow onion skins make an amazing and dark red dye for the eggs.) There will be more Easter goodies for Sunday. The family is coming to the house to celebrate. All this is heritage and tradition and celebration, but it’s meaningless without first of all acknowledging the true and resurrected Passover Lamb. Without Him, all else is meaningless.

The hymn Victimae Paschali Laudes, which is almost a thousand years old, presents the simple yet profound faith of believers from the first century to the twenty-first, a faith based on one person, fully man and yet fully God, who was crucified, raised from the dead, and who will one day return to judge both living and dead. Without Him, there is no hope, but through Him, and through Him alone, we have hope – we have access to the Father. To Him be praise forever.

Latin Text:

Victimae paschali laudes
immolent Christiani.
Agnus redemit oves:
Christus innocens Patri
reconciliavit peccatores.
Mors et vita duello
conflixere mirando:
dux vitae mortuus,
regnat vivus.
Dic nobis Maria,
quid vidisti in via?
Sepulcrum Christi viventis,
et gloriam vidi resurgentis:
Angelicos testes,
sudarium, et vestes.
Surrexit Christus spes mea:
praecedet suos in Galilaeam.
Scimus Christum surrexisse
a mortuis vere:
tu nobis, victor Rex,
miserere.
Amen. Alleluia.

English Translation:

May you praise the Paschal Victim,
immolated for Christians.
The Lamb redeemed the sheep:
Christ, the innocent one,
has reconciled sinners to the Father.
A wonderful duel to behold,
as death and life struggle:
The Prince of life dead,
now reigns alive.
Tell us, Mary Magdalen,
what did you see in the way?
I saw the sepulchre of the living Christ,
and I saw the glory of the Resurrected one:
The Angelic witnesses,
the winding cloth, and His garments.
The risen Christ is my hope:
He will go before His own into Galilee.
We know Christ to have risen
truly from the dead:
And thou, victorious King,
have mercy on us.
Amen. Alleluia.

Peter Frampton is Bald!

(from June 28, 2011)

I’m sitting on my front porch and gently rocking in my porch swing. I should be grading papers, and I’ll get back to that shortly. But it is just so nice outside right now. It rained today and cooled things off. So it’s nice out here with the tree frogs and crickets serenading me. (Sorry, I waxed a bit sappy and poetic there.) Yeah, my front yard needs cutting, but it’s not that bad. I’ll get to it by the weekend. From here I can see the herb and flower garden in the front of the house. It’s looking good. It’s nice and green with a splash of colors from the flowers and has plenty of mulch, so it won’t require too much weeding as the summer progresses. I can see the new American flag I got over the Father’s Day weekend. It looks good hanging there, and if you’ll allow me a moment, I want to thank all the men and women past and present who served under it and who kept and continue to keep me safe to sit on my front porch.

Now, to some of my younger friends and students, it might seem odd to celebrate sitting on a front porch swing. But in reality, there’s a lot of peace that comes along with owning a front porch and a swing to go on it. My kids are nearby playing and are safe and healthy. In fact, I just got back from the doctor today for a checkup for Nick. You know, they say that when you have your health, you have everything. Well, I think when you know your kids are safe and healthy, that’s actually closer to having everything.

Sure, I have problems; we all do. Some of you know mine more intimately than others. But I have many, many blessings more blessings than problems, and I should count them more often. One, two, three, there’s another one and another one… Seriously, there’s a lot of good and love in my life. I have lots of family and friends who love me, and thanks to social media I get to trade messages with family and friends down the block or across the country or even on the other side of the globe. I really do have lots of things to be thankful for.

You know, I just thought of one more before I close. I have hair and Peter Frampton is bald! Have you guys seen him in those Geico commercials? For those too young to recall, the man had lots of hair “back in the day.” And now, well, not so much. Yes, I really do have lots to be thankful for.

Eternity Began Tonight (from August 16, 2009)

It was so special tonight seeing my babies baptized. Nick was funny. He’d listened to Pastor Rick and my dad about locking one arm with the other hand and holding his nose. He walked up to the baptistery in this position. In fact, we could hardly get him in the water because of the pose. I wanted to roll. Olivia was nervous. She told her mom something about being so nervous that she wasn’t sure she could walk to the baptistery. But they both made it into the water, down, and up again. It was precious and humorous, but it was more than that.

Baring Christ return, at some point we will be separated from each other, but it will be temporary because of Christ death, burial, and resurrection that we were portraying in the baptismal experience. We will never be separated from Christ. He will never leave or forsake us but will go with us all the way.
During praise and worship, somehow it was different tonight. I sensed Christ in such a unique way. He was Savior – from the foundation – for me. I knew I would see Him someday, that I would, indeed, be in His presence. My children had accepted Him as Savior. We would be together in His presence forever. My dad had baptized them. As a family we would enjoy His presence forever. These are things that I knew, and had known, but had never put them in the same context. It wasn’t abstract. It was real. In reality, eternity had begun already.

We sang a Hillsong chorus “Worthy is the Lamb.” There’s a line in it that always moves me, but more so tonight. The Son, very God of very God, eternally existing with and eternally loved by the Father, was the “Darling of Heaven.” He was loved above all by the Father, but He came and the Father allowed Him to be abused and hurt and maligned and so debased that I don’t have the words. He, in the form of sinful man, could have with a whisper ended it all; instead He suffered the pain and indignity for my babies, for my dad, for me, for whosoever will.

How could I not bow and love Him, worshipping at His feet? How could I avoid those eyes of love? Why would I?

I’m proud of you.

As I wrapped up my evening ritual with my kids – prayer and a little conversation, I began to think about my own dad and my relationship with him. I always knew he was proud of me because he told me, even after I was an adult. I always knew he loved me because he told me and showed me. Other than God and my mother, I knew that my sister, my brother, and I were the most important thing in his life, that is until his grandkids bumped us to fourth place. How do I know? He said so.

It was not until I was an adult that I realized what a rare thing this was. Too many kids never heard their dad say “I love you. I’m proud of you.” Too many preachers’ kids felt like church was priority over them in their dads’ heart. And as adults they still struggle with this. I was blessed beyond measure to have Bucky Rizzo as my dad. I pray I walk faithfully in his shoes.

So, to my kids, I love you and am so proud of you and want you to know this. And someday grandkids will bump you down a notch……. but that just better not be anytime soon.

Good night.

I grew up smelling printer’s ink.

The kids and I went to Birmingham tonight and stopped at some bookstores, which is one of our favorite things to do. Yes, I know. We’re geeks. Anyway, after we got home Nick was on the couch reading his new book. He sniffed it and said, “I love the smell of books.”

I relied, “Yes, that’s printer’s ink. I grew up smelling it.”

And I did. I don’t mean I grew up sniffing books. I mean I grew up smelling printer’s ink. I still know the smell. Most print shops have gone to copiers. But I can walk into a shop and tell when they’re still using the real thing. I inevitably strike up a conversation. Are they running an offset press? Is it an A.B. Dick maybe?  I grew up hearing these presses seeing them and smelling them and for a short time running them, which isn’t as essay as it might sound. In fact, running an offset press is as much art as it is science. In the good old days you’d have to set type, shoot a negative, burn a plate, put it on the press, ink the rollers and keep the ink and water balanced and plate clean. Today, not so much. Things go straight from the computer screen to a copier most of the time. It’s more efficient, but not nearly as romantic.

So just why do I know so much about printing? Well, because my daddy was a preacher.

No, he didn’t print Bibles.

Prior to becoming a minister or even a Christian for that matter, my father had a profession as a printer. And he was pretty good at it. Even years after he was no longer a printer, he could pick up a paper that had been printed using three-color separation and immediately see if it was even the slightest bit out of register, even without using his printer’s loupe, a special magnifying glass used by printers. (There’s a story for another day about how he made me learn the language of the industry.)  

So, back to my dad being a preacher. My dad began pastoring when I was about five years old. He pastored several small congregations, which meant they didn’t pay a salary. The Bible tells us that a person who will not provide for his own family is worse than an infidel, so of course he continued working as a printer to provide for us. But in addition to the paycheck dad used to feed and house and clothe us, there were perks. We had notepads made from scrap paper and coloring sheets of overruns on jobs, and all kinds of paper strips of different sizes and colors and textures. While this might not sound like much, to a six-year old and his four-year old sister, it was a treasure trove!  

Even after he began pastoring churches that provided a more stable income, Dad earned side income for the extra his kids needed. Paul the Apostle made tents to provide for his companions and himself. Dad printed for the same reason. Printing was the primary side job he worked, though he held others through the years, such gas station attendant, house painter, and anything else he could to earn additional income.   

But it was mostly printing that was his go-to.

In addition to believing he should provide for his family, Dad also believed in being with his family. And if he couldn’t be with his family because he had to work, then he had his family with him at work when he could. More often than not, his part-time printing work was after normal business hours, so he could take us along with him. My mom, my sister, and even my grandmother, and I often accompanied him to his overnight shift. We got to experience many different office complexes and print shops through the years. This might sound odd to some. But Dad wanted us around, always, and we knew it – we felt it. It was nice then. The memoires of nights sleeping on the floor on pallets made from oversized shipping boxes, surrounded by art work and proofs hanging on the walls, listening to the clicking pulse of the press in the background lulling us to sleep, and smelling printer’s ink permeating the air – these memoirs are priceless.

Later in life when I was struggling to make ends meet as a musician, Dad taught me how to print. For several years, I paid my bills with my dad’s skills. But I never was the master of the press my dad was. Still, I learned a lot from him, a little about printing but much more about how to be a man and how to be a dad. You do what you have to do. You work extra and late.  But you also go to games and marching contests.  You show up for band booster and PTO meetings. You make sure your kids know you love them and want them with you and you want to be with them!

So now when I smell printer’s ink, for just a moment I’m a kid again and my dad is there, working late into the night to take care of me.  And most of all I know he wants me with him.

My dad passed March 2016. Christmas 2015, he gathered all of us around him – my mom, my sister, my brother, his five grandkids, and me, and told us one more time – in fact, one last time – that he wanted us with him. But he didn’t mean he wanted us there at Christmas with him. Dad knew his time on this earth was short. Where he really wanted us with him was in eternity. He emphasized that the only way to do that was by repenting of our sins and accepting Jesus as our Savior.

Three months later dad left us for a place prepared for him by his Savior.

Just like my dad always prepared a place for us to be with him, Jesus has done the same, not just for Dad, but anyone who will accept Him. I don’t know if Heaven will smell like printer’s ink, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Why don’t you make plans to go with me and let’s find out?

Getting it right?

As I was driving through Birmingham yesterday, I began to reminiscence. When I drive down the side streets and alleys and rabbit trails that my daddy drove down in Birmingham or even as I explore new ones that I have learned on my own, I feel oddly like I am my dad. When I go to the school because my son has lost his keys, as I walk I look down and see my father‘s feet and legs walking. When I sit on the hillside at a funeral because another family is hurting and because my presence matters, I know I’m living out who he was. 

With all of these things and so many more, like when I look at my hands or my face in the mirror and I see that same little wrinkle of skin on the right side of my neck just as he had, I see my father. I hear his words coming out of my mouth, sometimes in jest, sometimes with admonition, and sometimes in frustration or even anger. 

I haven’t changed that much in the two and a half years since he passed. I was already becoming him. I will never be him, never be as much as he was, but I will always be becoming him. But it’s so stark now, now that the original is gone. And here I am – and my brother and my sister too – his walking, talking carbon copies, so much like the original… but like any copy, not exact and usually lacking just a bit.

I think he would be proud. He said he was. In a strange way it makes me miss him less and more at the same time. I guess maybe I wish I could say, “Daddy, how am I doing? Am I doing it right? I need you to show me just one more time.” 

So one more time I play him over in my mind. And I hear his words and I feel his breath and his big hands and those dark brown, often soft and sometimes glaring eyes, and I think I’m getting most of it right.