Happy Thanksgiving: Italian Style

I wanted to share a recent Thanksgiving tradition in our family. During Thanksgiving week, my wife, Pamela, and I make Italian pizzelles—both anisette and chocolate flavored—according to the recipe of my late mother, Carmella DeCosty Ruane. This simple Italian cookie pairs well with a cup of coffee; it’s also one of the few things I can make from scratch, along with pasta fagioli (fazool), lentil soup with ditalini pasta (box version) and marinara sauce (pronounced madinad in Rome, New York). The pizzelle tradition is even more meaningful as this time of year always reminds me of my mother, since she passed away seven years ago on Nov. 22, 2011.

You will need a pizzelle maker in order to cook up a batch of your own.  Here’s a snapshot of our final product:

Chocolate and anisette flavored pizzelles.

And here are the instructions from Carmella’s original recipe, with some slight modification by Pamela and me:

Italian Pizzelles

3 Eggs
1 Tsp. Anise Flavoring
1 Tbsp. Vanilla Flavoring
2 Tsp. Baking Powder
2 Cups Flour
½ Cup of Butter or Margarine, melted
1 Cup Sugar

Beat eggs and sugar. Add cooled melted butter or margarine, and vanilla and anise. Sift flour and baking powder and add to egg mixture. Batter will be stiff enough to be dropped by teaspoon. Makes 30 Pizzelles.

Before the first pizzelles of the day only, use a pastry brush to carefully coat the entire surface of the both halves of the pizzelle maker with vegetable oil or melted shortening. Spray shortenings work very well for this purpose. Do this only at the start of each day that you bake pizzelles. Wipe excess shortening off the grids. The first pizzelles may not come out well. These directions are for my pizzelle maker. Your pizzelle maker may not require you to do this.

Pick up about one heaping teaspoon of batter and place in the center of each grid pattern. With some experimenting, you will learn that placing the batter slightly behind the center (that is, away from you) can produce full-size pizzelles. You may also prefer to use half as much batter to produce smaller pizzelles with a snowflake border. Baking will take approximately 30 seconds depending on your preference for browning, or the consistency of your batter. Remove pizzelles with spatula and place on a flat tin. Once pizzelles are completely cool, put in a plastic container or a plastic bag so the pizzelles stay crisp.

Chocolate Pizzelles

Use 1 ¾ cups of flour (not 2 cups), add 3 heaping tablespoons cocoa and add 3 tablespoons sugar to the basic pizzelle recipe. If desired, you can substitute chocolate flavoring instead of the vanilla. Do not add anise flavoring.

Something to Say

Gosh it’s been so long since I have posted anything on this blog. I apologize for my dormancy. Life has invaded my writing space, as family and work obligations have kept me preoccupied. I am still pecking away at some long-term creative projects—nothing worth mentioning at the moment, since the completion of my goals seems very far off. So this is just a brief dispatch, a few scattered words to let anyone who may be interested—very few people I’m sure—know that I am still here, I am still active, I am still writing. And since I feel compelled to leave you with something more valuable than my aimless sentences, here is a new photo of my toddler son Colin. Who doesn’t like cute kid pictures?

Colin Joseph DiClemente. Age 2 years, 8 months.

And here is an excerpt from “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which I have been reading via the Kindle app on my iPhone. A possible interpretation of the passage eludes me, but I found the words stirring nonetheless.

From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard …
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease …
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

Medical Magazine Message

Please forgive my terrible alliteration, but I couldn’t think of a more accurate headline.

While getting some blood work done at the Upstate University Hospital patient blood draw lab, I spotted this message written on the back of an issue of Upstate Health magazine (Winter 2018):

Dear Meadow,
I am so Glad
you have a friend
like reily (or reilly). I hope
you have fun tonight.
I Love You!
You deserve to have fun!

The message was dated Saturday, Sept. 22 and was written with a black Sharpie and adorned with two red ink hearts.

I hope Meadow had a fun weekend.

Hike: A Poem

Here’s a speculative poem that seems to fit an autumn theme.

Tree Canopy. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Hike

The trees are haunted with ten-thousand eyes,
hanging in the place where leaves should be—
the remains of those who came this way before,
but did not survive in the forest.

They study me as I hike along the path,
searching for an opening to the other side.
I grow weary and stop to rest.

And then ten-thousand eyes blink in unison.
It seems like a signal.
And as I look around,
buzzards and crows fly at me,
then peck away at the flesh.
I fall to the ground and
the birds snatch pieces of me
as they take off in flight.

When I wake up, the sun is shining
and my eyes are now hanging in a tree.
Another man is walking on the path.
I look down on him and
when he looks up at me,
I give him a wink and then close my eyes,
as the birds circle him and dive in to attack.

©2017 Francis DiClemente
(Sidewalk Stories, Kelsay Books)

Farewell Summer: A Poem

Here’s a short poem I wrote about the shift of seasons, as we transition from late summer to fall.

Wiki photo by Acidburn24m.

Farewell Summer (Apologies to Bradbury)

The death of summer—
sadness reigns
as the season wanes.
No more soft-serve
ice cream cones,
lakeside walks,
baseball games and
backyard cookouts.
Late August
blues ensue,
giving way to the
birth of autumn.
And you know
what comes next.
Mother Nature
pulls Old Man Winter
down from the attic,
sharpens his dentures
and deprives him of food—
until she’s ready
to set him loose
on the world again.

©2018 Francis DiClemente

 

My Mother’s Tupperware

My late mother’s handwriting. Black Sharpie marks on masking tape stuck to an old Tupperware container.

She wrote this out on August 30, 2011, less than three months before she died from lung cancer. I claimed the Tupperware from my stepfather’s house after her passing and never had the heart or the desire to peel off the tape.

This summer I cooked my mother’s zucchini and green bean stew with onions, Italian seasonings and crushed tomatoes. I don’t have a recipe of hers to follow, but I winged it and it came out edible. For the full effect you need to dunk fresh Italian bread in the juice.

And it was fitting to dump the leftovers in my mother’s Tupperware and stick the container in my freezer. Marking this date, I thought I would defrost the Tupperware today to honor my mother’s memory and enjoy the last zucchini stew of summer.

Yet when I pulled out the container from the freezer this morning, I saw another one, filled with the same stew I made, with my mother’s handwriting on masking tape (also dated 8/30/11), tucked in the back of the freezer. I think I’ll save that one for a frigid night in the middle of winter.

Memories of Summer Stock Theater

Act I:

I loathed musical theater when I was growing up. My first exposure to the genre came during my college years in the late 1980s and early ’90s when I attended SummerStage performances at the Capitol Theatre in my hometown of Rome, New York. The productions featured college students from across the region who were majoring in drama or theater studies, and I remember seeing many shows, including Guys and Dolls and South Pacific.

Capitol Theatre, Rome, New York.

My mother, Carmella, and my stepfather, Bill, would buy me tickets, and in a failed attempt to impress the many young women who attended the performances, I would “dress up” in a black blazer that I had purchased at the Salvation Army store in Rome; yet my appearance and fashion sense drew no positive feedback from the females in the audience.

And while I wanted to go to the Capitol shows because they were summer social events, I was afraid that if I actually liked them, and expressed this appreciation, I would get laughed at or be regarded as effeminate by my friends in our sports-obsessed city.

Once the lights went down and the curtain opened for a show, I would snicker when the actors would break into song in the middle of a conversation. I wanted to stand up and scream, “This is absurd. Why am I the only one laughing here?”

Capitol Theatre Interior.

Live musical theater seemed even more preposterous than its cinematic equivalent, which I had been introduced to as a kid while watching my mother’s obsession—the 1965 film The Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. And just like with TSOM, I could not suspend my disbelief and accept the characters speaking dialogue one moment and singing the next. Yet I seemed to be the only one dismayed by the experience because the packed houses at the Capitol responded to the final scenes with thunderous applause and standing ovations for the performers.

The Sound of Music.

As we would leave the theater, Mom or Bill would often ask me what I thought about the production. I would say something like, “I thought it was stupid. I just hate how they just start singing.” And my mother would shake her head and say, “Oh you never like anything. I don’t know why we even bother to bring you.”

What I didn’t share with my mom is that at the time, seeing the musicals on the Capitol stage tapped into the dark experience of my maturation from a boy to a man.

I had been diagnosed with a pituitary tumor when I was fifteen. In 1984 neurosurgeons performed a craniotomy to remove the tumor and then swept up the remnants in a follow-up surgery in 1988, after my freshman year at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York. Endocrinologists also treated me for panhypopituitarism, as I lacked all of the hormones the pituitary gland normally produces. I was prescribed synthetic human growth hormone and testosterone shots during this period.

So even though I was in college when I attended the SummerStage performances, I still looked like a fourteen-year-old boy who had not passed through puberty. Lacking secondary male characteristics like facial hair, an enlarged Adam’s apple, and a deeper voice, I was sometimes mistaken for a girl, both in person and when talking with strangers or customer service professionals over the phone.

The women at my college were not interested in me romantically, and my low self-esteem grew into rabid self-hatred. I despised my youthful appearance and feminine features, and I became angry over my body’s inability to “catch up” to my chronological age.

So when I went to the theater with Mom and Bill, I resented the easy solutions to problems as presented by the actors. For example, a couple would be on stage bathed in bright amber or violet lights, and they would converse about some family dilemma or obstacle to their romance. Circumstances would appear bleak; and then they would start singing and dancing, and their fate would change and their drama would be resolved.

I couldn’t accept this. Life wasn’t like that. I could not alter my situation or “become normal” through song and dance. My problems stayed with me after I walked out of the theater. And so I hated musicals because they represented an unrealistic portrait of the world.

Of course I was only seeing things through the narrow prism of my personal experience. I wasn’t able to look out, beyond myself, in order to enjoy the artistry of the action on stage.

Act II:

Years later I underwent a reversal and evolved to love musicals, especially the films featuring Judy Garland, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, and Gene Kelly. My all-time favorites are The Wizard of Oz (a given), Young at Heart, and Singin’ in the Rain.

I also attended many live musical theater performances. So what changed? How did I come to appreciate the genre I had hated so much in my youth? For one thing I grew up and matured.

But I also had a more practical reason for liking musicals. I began working at Syracuse University in 2007 and from time to time would receive staff discounts for tickets to performances at Syracuse Stage, Central New York’s professional theater. I took advantage of the deals and soon attended many of the plays produced by Syracuse Stage, including the musicals Fiddler on the Roof, Little Women, Godspell, Oklahoma!, and Rent.

Syracuse Stage Exterior. Photo by Steve Sartori.

I would buy a single ticket, usually close to the stage, orchestra left or right (one of the cheapest seats in the house). And because I paid for the tickets, I convinced myself I would enjoy the shows no matter what, so I wouldn’t feel like I had wasted my money.

Also, even though I was single at the time I started going to the shows, I tried not to focus my thoughts on my bachelor status or become discouraged because I never brought a date with me to the theater (although sometimes I couldn’t help being envious of couples holding hands as the house lights dimmed).

Instead, I turned my attention to the action in front of me. Unlike when I watched the SummerStage shows in Rome, I was able to get out of my head, to look outward instead of inward.

I also surrendered my desire for logic in the plot lines of the plays. In 2008 I began dating my future wife, Pam, a theater actress from the Philippines, and she helped me to suspend my disbelief. She told me, “Just enjoy it. Let yourself go and don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense.”

And in watching a number of musicals unfold before me, I no longer expected a realistic interpretation of the world; it didn’t bother me anymore that the actors behaved irrationally.

I simply allowed the experience to wash over me and marveled at the production values and collaboration involved in bringing the action to life on stage.

I also viewed the plays with a more critical eye and appreciated how musicals combine elements of multiple disciplines. They encompass the verbal, as represented by the words in the script; the visual through the costumes, lighting, and set design; dance and movement through the choreography; and the aural through the music and sound effects. Musical theater appeals to all senses, even including smell when smoke is used in scenes.

And I discovered what my mother had understood years earlier when watching The Sound of Music—that musicals offer escapist entertainment as the viewer lives vicariously through the characters, relating to their struggles.

I remember rooting for the character of Jo March in Syracuse Stage’s 2009 production of Little Women, hoping she would hold on to her independence as she strove to find her way in the world.

I remember being captivated by the song “Astonishing” and its soaring lyrics: “I may be small, but I’ve got giant plans to shine as brightly as the sun … I will be fearless, surrendering modesty and grace.”

And sitting up close for the performances I saw how hard the actors worked—the sweat pouring off their faces and brows and soaking their costumes as they belted out the songs and danced breathlessly on stage. In the dusty glow of the stage lights I also noticed the smiles on their faces and a flicker of light in their eyes. It was clear they loved what they were doing; and that joy translated to the audience.

I remember seeing Hairspray with Pam at Syracuse Stage in December 2014, sitting in row B, left orchestra. And during one of the songs—either “Good Morning Baltimore” or “You Can’t Stop the Beat”—I turned my head around in the same way Audrey Tautou’s character did when she visited the movie theater in the French film Amelie. In the darkness I scanned the crowd seated behind me, gazing at the mixed audience comprised of older couples, young professionals, and college students. And their smiling faces matched the expressions of the actors on stage; the emotional connection was palpable.

Hairspray Scene. Photo by Michael Davis.

And I joined in on the fun. I turned my head around and nodded my head and tapped my foot as I listened to the music and let the show carry me away. I also thought that if my mother were still alive, she would have loved the performance too.

Vincent in the Waiting Room

While waiting for an MRI on my left wrist at Upstate University Hospital, as a follow up for my rheumatoid arthritis, I spotted a cheap Van Gogh print hanging on a wall directly opposite from me. The image displayed was Vincent’s Irises (1889), and the text read:

Van Gogh in Saint-Remy and Auvers
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
November 25, 1986-March 22, 1987

Inside the small waiting room, on a wall-mounted TV set, local broadcasters recited the morning headlines and a meteorologist gave the weekend forecast. I paid little attention, instead choosing to focus my eyes on the Van Gogh painting. From far across the room, and taking my weak eyesight into consideration, the slanted vertical green leaves looked like snakes writhing in the dirt; even so, the longer I stared at the image, the calmer I felt. The one word that came to my mind was placid.

Van Gogh print hanging on a waiting room wall.

I don’t meditate, but I have discovered that good art, like classical music, has a way of centering my thoughts and ushering a sense of peace in difficult and stressful situations. And even a minor MRI can start the brain working on all of the “what if,” worst-case scenarios. So I was thankful that Vincent spent a little time with me in the hospital waiting room before my procedure.

Here’s a better image of the painting.

Irises by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

And after I left the hospital, inspired by Vincent, I captured my own “still life” image.

Flowers/Flora outside of Upstate.

Stumbling Upon Sylvia

While perusing for books in the library, I spotted a large volume entitled The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. In the few moments I took to scan the 700-plus-page book, I felt like I peered into the troubled soul of the confessional poet and author of the novel The Bell Jar. Plath struggled with depression much of her life and committed suicide in 1963.

The intensity of the language in one of the passages from a section dated 22 November 1955 – 18 April 1956 captivated me, and I thought if you rearranged the sentences in verse form, they would construct a splendid poem. I had no sense of context from where Plath’s agitated emotions sprang, and standing in the library stacks, I felt a great sense of loss about Plath’s life and sadness that she took her unique voice with her to the grave.

Here’s an image of the passage I read:

Plath, Sylvia. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.