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.)

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!

Somewhere in the Middle

Life happens somewhere in the middle. It’s not at the apex moment of achievement, and thankfully it’s not at the lowest point of tragedy. But it happens somewhere in the middle.

I woke up this morning around 5. My son was already up getting ready to travel with UAB Marching Blazers for a ballgame in Mississippi. He marched with the band last year also. But last year because of Covid, they only marched to their seats in Legion Field. They were not allowed on the field, but continued to play in the stands and support their team and the University. This year, they are back in uniform and in a new stadium. But this morning, the Marching Blazers were in a knapsack on my son’s back, along with an extra bottle of water, some throat lozenges, and some snacks for the trip.

Last year, and I don’t think this will embarrass him, he was a bit trepidatious about driving into Birmingham for practice. Now he zips all over. In fact, he’s driving over early as a part of a service fraternity that is preparing things for the rest of the band to arrive.

We tiptoed quietly this morning because Mother is still at my house. About three weeks ago, she stumbled at home and injured her knee and broke her foot. So for the last several weeks he has stayed with me. Either one of the kids or I have been here with her the whole time. For the first week, she was in a lot of discomfort. But that has subsided. Her foot is healing, and she’s getting more mobile. She’ll be here another week at least, however. Still, she’s much more herself and hilarious without trying. And those of you who know my mother understand what I mean. But right now, she is sleeping.

My little girl is asleep too, except she’s not a little girl anymore, and she’s quick to remind me. But when she’s tired like she was last night, she still curls up on the couch beside her daddy. The kitchen is nice and clean this morning because her stress relief from homework is housework. So every night, I pray that her teachers give her lots of homework. (Let’s not tell her that.)

As the sun comes up, I’ll drink my Metamucil and track my son’s progress toward UAB. When he arrives in the next few minutes, I’ll go back to bed for a while. And then I’ll get up and do something mundane and thank God for life in the middle.

Forsake Not Assembling Together, especially if there are pork chops with gravy

I had lunch today with a long-time friend who had come up because of the death of another Christian brother. As we broke bread, actually chips and salsa, I shared some thoughts that had been running through my head for several months regarding “not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together” (sorry, I think in KJV). Of course, the current situation with the COVID virus and prohibitions on public gatherings has sparked more than one social media conflagration about whether churches should hold services or not. And I’ll sheepishly confess I have been caught up in the machinations, going so saw far as to use the term whack-a-doodle. Yeah, that was mature of me. Anyway….

My thoughts really have little or nothing to do with whether my local congregation will hold worship services this Sunday or next. Instead, they go back to an article I read by a minister some months ago. In it, he discusses Hebrews 10:25. He commented that even when he took his family on vacation he made sure that they were in a worship service somewhere. While there is nothing wrong with this, I’m not convinced that’s exactly what the writer of Hebrews had in mind.  

I attend worship services weekly at my local church. We have numbers of gifted teachers who spend hours in preparation for their classes and deliver lessons that uplift and edify. My pastor’s sermons are biblically sound, culturally relevant, and frequently entertaining. The music pastor and his wife are the most musically gifted couple I have ever met, and they lead a choir and band that I would stack up against anyone. The services are powerful and moving. But for me, the most spiritually nourishing time, if you’ll pardon the pun, is the fellowship supper we share on Wednesday evenings.

Turning to scripture for a moment, consider the Acts 2:46 description of the gatherings of the first believers. They met daily at the Temple, probably observing the Jewish times of prayer, and in homes sharing meals with gladness. Far from the austere stereotype many have of believers, these first century brothers and sisters delighted in each other’s company.  This, likewise, is how I delight in the Wednesday evening fellowship suppers.  

I like seeing Michelle’s beautiful and welcoming smile when my kiddos and I walk in.

I enjoy verbal jousting with Wayne, the guy who keeps the kitchen humming. His dad Marvin and my grandfather were friends. In fact, his dad was instrumental in my grandfather hearing and responding to the gospel. Rita, his sister-in-law, and Pam work the serving window. Pam’s daughter Autumn was my work study when she was eighteen or nineteen. She was and is THE gold standard for being a conscientious young adult. This year I had her daughter in one of my college classes. She is a sweetheart like her mom.

I enjoy chatting with Lisa. We’ve known each other for about ever. Her dad was a minister with my dad. Back in the day, I served with her late husband as his music pastor. Our sons are about the same age and friends. We share memories, the struggles of single parenting, and hopes for our children’s futures over loaded baked potatoes or meatloaf.

I’ve known Johnathan, our young adult pastor, his entire life. His dad and my Uncle Allen were extremely close growing up, and over the last four years, Johnathan and I have grown close.  He’s my accountability partner. Since I am a single adult Christian, I hold myself accountable to him, and he inserts humor when he checks on me. His wife Tammie is mission focused! I like to pick at her, telling her that she’s one of only two people in this world I’m afraid of. (My Aunt Susie is the other.)

I enjoy chatting with David, a new friend, who should have his own food-on-the-go blog. The man knows food and how to enjoy life! He knows sorrow, too, a type of sorrow we share.  

Finally, my pastor and his wife eat with the congregation. He’s not a celebrity; he’s one of us.

Lest it seem I’m viewing life through stained glass colored lenses, I’m not buds with everyone. Sometimes we have disagreements. (Remember my whack-a-doodle comment. Yes, I’ve repented for it.) We may disagree, but we’re still family. We love each other, even when we don’t like each other so much.

THIS is “assembling together.” This is communion and community. This is where iron sharpens iron. It is also where wounds are bound and healing takes place. This is where we share our joys and sorrows.

Though it is important to spend time together in corporate worship expression, it is equally and maybe more important to share our lives intimately with each other, to strengthen and support each other, “especially as the Day approaches.”

Oh and yeah, pork chops with gravy are my favorite.

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

“Be kind. It really is important.” – Dr. David L. Walters

One of my dad’s best friends, Pastor William “Bill” Ridgeway, once said, “Life is a journey.” The statement is both simple and profound. Everyday, we travel through life. We make footprints of different sorts as we go along. These rambles and ruminations are the footprints of my journey. I hope you enjoy them. And as I share these footprints, I will try to follow the advice of my college band director, Dr. David L. Walters: “Be kind. It really is important.”
All images copyright Stephen W. B. Rizzo
“Tarantella Americana for Clarinet and Piano” (c) 2021 Stephen W. B. Rizzo