Merry Christmas 2021

“Christmas Gifts”

Silver bells ringing, chestnuts roasting, reindeer prancing
Sleigh bells jingling, lords a-leaping, sugar plums dancing

A one horse open sleigh to ride; Church bells to play their old familiar carols
A Red Ryder to shoot your eye out; Pa rum pum pum pum a drum to tap
A whistle and a ball and a whip that cracks

Angels we have heard on high
And a crutch in the corner with no owner

Tannenbaum, holly, mistletoe
Fruitcake, nutcracker, snowman
One spear, three spikes, five wounds

(The accompanying photo titled An Old Fashion Christmas was taken in U.G.White Hardware in Athens, Alabama.)

Hymns

Over the last year, I’ve dusted off my trumpet. (Actually, I bought a new one. Thanks, Pastor Roger Daniel, for letting me try yours and, Scott Berry, for letting me buy one of yours.) And I’ve dusted off my composition and arranging skills, or at least I’m trying to. This arrangement of “Crown Him With Many Crowns” and “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is a product of that. For the time being, this computer generated version will have to suffice until I can get a “real” recording made. (Pat Bowden and Cheryl Crauswell, thanks for the feedback on the piano accompaniment.)

This arrangement (c) 2021 Stephen W. B. Rizzo

I love hymns! I love to sing them and to play them. Unfortunately, the church tradition I grew up in used what is traditionally called gospel or convention or camp meeting songs but precious few traditional hymns. I was introduced to the vast corpus of traditional hymns of the Church in high school by two people. One was my high school  choir director Marla Wilson. (I was introduced to the quadratic equation and pressure on the trapezius muscles by her husband Jerald, which is a story for another day.)  The other was my band director and now long-time friend Allen Bailey. 

My senior year in high school, I was in Teen Talent, a talent competition hosted by the Church of God (Cleveland) to foster participation in the arts as a means of worship and ministry. Allen arranged “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us” and “The Church’s One Foundation” for trumpet and piano and accompanied me. I fared well in the various levels of competition, but  the real win was in getting to know these hymns that remain two of my favorites. 

Not to make this a music class, but hymns for the last few centuries tend to be strophic, syllabic, and homophonic. This is a generalization. Different church traditions adhere to or diverge from it. Of course, the primary purpose of hymns is praise and worship of God. I recall Dr. David Horton’s  (Lee University) discussion of traditional hymns, how they extoll or proclaim the attributes of God or make affirmations of faith. Generally speaking, they tend toward a more corporate than individual expression of worship. Also, they are chock full of theology, much more so and much more sound than gospel songs or contemporary worship choruses. In fact,  Dr. Timothy George of Samford’s Divinity School recalls his days of seminary and how various professors would parse the lines of the hymns and joined in or refrained from singing certain verses because of their theological content. I fear today we too often glibly sing along to contemporary church music because of the catchy rhyme or repetitive hook but give no thought to the Biblical validity – or lack thereof – of the lyrics. But hymns provide the depth of Biblical truth set to tune. 

Finally, some of those tunes and verses stretch back hundreds and hundreds of years. The melody of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” dates back to the early Baroque. (Today, most are probably familiar with Bach’s chorale setting of the melody, but Hans Leo Hassler is actually responsible for the melody that is used for German and English settings of the hymn.) The lyrics date back to a Latin hymn Salve mundi salutare from the Middle Ages that speaks of the physical sufferings of Christ during the crucifixion. Therefore, when we sing this hymn we are singing a melody from 500 years ago during the heart of the Protestant Reformation with lyrics from the Middle Ages during a time of suffering and uncertainty when some fifty percent of Europe died from the Black Plague. Yet, this is more than an exercise in history. It is a recognition that the same pepituary death of Jesus 2000 years ago unites us as His Body, across time, geography, language, and culture. 

I still respond to the camp meeting songs I grew up with and see validity in worship choruses, both of which are a more personal expression of praise. But if these are the appetizer and dessert, the hymns are the main course, musically and theologically. If you participate in a worship tradition that uses hymns, don’t sing them dispassionately but do so with fervor and listen to the lessons of the faith contained in their lines. If you do not use hymns in your worship, may I invite you to consider adding them and join with your brothers and sisters in Christ who have sung hymns for hundreds of years to declare His majesty and love.

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!

Buon Natale 2020

And when we have all known the bitter bite of cold

The pain of separation

The longing remembrance of loss

The horror of alienation,

Then may we learn the warmth of the love of Christ

That reunites, restores, and reconciles

Through manger, cross, and empty tomb.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been fortunate to engage in several arts events sponsored by the Walker County Arts Alliance, which has given me the inspiration and opportunity to explore my interest in photography. During that same period, my kids have gotten licenses and now chauffeur themselves around, which has given me a tad more time to pursue my photographic endeavors. Oh, and last but not least, my mentor Alice Wilson has given me ample direction and feedback to help me improve. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting better and having fun doing it. Of course, all of that rambling preamble is simply to say that for my Christmas card this year I got creative and used some of my own work.

The photo accompanying the blog, titled Winter Woods (2009), is one I made several years ago and used this year for the cover of my Christmas card, and the Christmas Meditation is one I included in the card.

No, I’m not about to start creating cards for Hallmark. In fact, I really hope my words reflect the opposite of the too sweet sentiment of Hallmark fare. The photo was for fun. But the meditation is about something more important.

The love of Christ is not a warm fuzzy that rolls around at Christmas and vanishes by New Year. When we truly encounter His love, we will not remain the person we were. To learn of the love of Christ is not just to hear of it, but to be changed by it. We will not do the selfish and self-destructive things we did. Instead, we will live out the new life he gives.

My prayer this Christmas is that you learn of the love of Christ and allow Him to change you from who you were to a new person in Him.  

Juneteenth is an American Holiday!

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!

English Garden – Well, Maybe Not

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.

From Lexington and Concord to Bagdad, thank you.

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!

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!

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?