Counting our Blessings

I took only two photographs at Thanksgiving dinner last year and this is one of them: Mom and Dad, at the table, in their usual seats, with two of Mom’s homemade pies: cocoanut custard and pumpkin. Ours will be a quiet celebration this year, our first without Dad. It’ll be Mom and my sister and Seth and me. There may have been more than the five of us last year; I really don’t recall. The year before that, we were all in Illinois, seated at a table for 17. Thanksgiving is like this––you never know year to year what it might be like.

Even though it is just the four of us, Mom and Marietta, my sister, have been cooking up a storm and they’ll be roasting a turkey that is just shy of 20 pounds. We don’t know how to cook small in my family. There will be leftovers and plenty of them.

We gather and we will certainly remember those who are not with us, but we will gather and appreciate that we are there for each other. For us, it’s been a year mixed with good and bad, a year that helps us truly appreciate our blessings. And so we give thanks for them and for each other. And I give thanks for you, too, for being with me on this journey each year around the sun, for reading every now and then and for letting me know that you do. I can’t thank you enough. From my family to yours: Happy Thanksgiving.

John

 

Roots and Wine and Poppies: Hollantide

Confession: I was once a November curmudgeon. It was not all that long ago, either. I loved September, October, and December, but November? November to me was best described by another guy who was not fond of November, Thomas Hood, whose fame comes from a poem titled “No!”

No sun––no moon!
No morn––no noon––
No dawn––
No sky––no earthly view––
No distance looking blue––
No road––no street––no “t’other side the way”––
No end to any Row––
No indications where the Crescents go––

Etcetera etcetera until the end: No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees, / No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds, / November!

But it is good to sit back every now and again, reassess, and to reconsider our opinions. I’ve done that with many things over the years, like rhubarb, and I am still on the fence about rhubarb, to be honest. But I’ve also reconsidered my opinion about November in recent years and discovered that I’ve come to really love November. Haden, the Convivio Shop Cat, loves November, too, and that is part of my shift in perspective. In the print shop and at the front door in November, the sun streams in through the glass windows like nobody’s business, and she basks in the rays until she gets drunk on the stuff. That alone brings me so much happiness. And, as I’ve grown older and perhaps wiser, I’ve come to realize that some of my favorite days of the year are actually part of celebrations that span several days. I, like many of you, have always loved Halloween and its accompanying apparent magic. It took a lot of years for me to understand that Halloween ushered in All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which includes the beautiful ceremony of Dia de Muertos. And it was many years more before I understood that these days of the year when we especially remember our beloved dead continue well into November. This is Hollantide––a corruption of Hallowtide: the time of the sacred, the time of the holy. And tomorrow, the Eleventh of November, brings Martinmas, their conclusion, ending this annual time of remembrance.

St. Martin of Tours, who we celebrate on Martinmas, was a veteran (and we’ll talk of veterans later, for it is also Veterans Day) of the Roman army in the fourth century who opted to take up Christian pacifism and is known best for helping a poor, drunken man on a cold winter’s day by tearing his own cloak in two so that the poor fellow could have something to keep him warm. St. Martin has since become a patron saint of tailors (and, for better or worse, of vineyard keepers and winemakers and drunkards).

What makes Martinmas the bookend to Halloween? The connection may have something to do with the Celtic New Year––Samhain––which, over the centuries, evolved into our Halloween. Samhain marks, as well, in traditional reckoning of time, the transition to winter. With all of these November days since Samhain, since Halloween, our thoughts have gone deeper below the earth, just as the natural world also shifts its energy below the earth. Winter leads us there. Persephone leads us there. The trees take us there: The leaves have flown, all growth now is below, in the roots. This makes for stronger growth above ground come spring and summer: balance. As above, so below. Oh and guess what? November 11 is the old style date of Samhain. And here we are, then, at Martinmas.

It is, as well, Veteran’s Day, when we honor in the United States all who have served in the military. We used to call it Armistice Day, for it originally marked the signing of the armistice that ended the Great War, which is what we used to call World War I before World War II came to be. The armistice that brought peace after years of senseless fighting was signed in 1918 on Martinmas, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

So much associated with this day. One more thing: Martinmas is, traditionally, the time to taste the new wine, a fact certainly related to St. Martin’s patronage of winemakers and vineyard keepers. Each year’s Beaujolais Nouveau wines of France, always young wines, are typically released on or around Martinmas, and the day is often accompanied by a good meal featuring roast goose or turkey and chestnuts––typical harvest celebration foods––and, in Italy, Biscotti di San Martino: biscotti that are so hard, the only way to eat them, really, is to first dunk them in wine. My grandparents, all of them immigrants to the US from Italy, all made wine. My father was glad to get married and leave the winemaking that went on in his family home behind… but he married my mother, and her family made wine each autumn, too. The barrels that had to be cleaned out with water and chains, the crates of Zinfandel grapes that had to be washed and crushed… it was hard work, and I wish I could have been part of it. Winemaking is knowledge that has passed by the wayside in my family, drifted away. But certainly San Martino was important to all of my grandparents and to their wine. Grandpa made the wine, but Grandma made the cutto from the same must, the same grape juice, boiled down on the kitchen stove, reduced to a thick syrup, so specific to her region of Italy, used in desserts specific, too, to autumn and winter, some of which are full of meaning, too, as we remember those who have passed.

The winemaking, the slow all-day cooking of the syrup, the remembrance: all of these are related, returning us to Hollantide. We eat, we drink, we keep the bridges open. Our thoughts below the earth, yet above, too: you may see poppies this day, for Armistice Day, for remembrance, poppies that come out of another famous poem for November, this one by John McCrae: In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row . . . . We are the Dead. Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, / Loved and were loved, and now we lie / in Flanders fields. We remember our veterans, we remember our winemakers, we remember all who have come and gone before us in these autumnal days as we continue to turn thoughts and actions inward with winter’s approach. These are rich traditions, tangible through tastes and aromas. And this, too, is why I now love November.

 

Image: I’ve used this photo before for Martinmas, but I can’t help using it again. I love the fact that every single person is raising a glass. The photo was taken, probably by my dad, at my sister Marietta’s christening dinner in Brooklyn in February, 1953. The folks in the picture are parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents. The wine, no doubt, was my grandfather’s own vintage, and he is right there in the foreground, exuberant as he always was. Salute!

 

 

Dia de Los Muertos: Remembering

Did you read the Convivio Dispatch for Halloween? The story, just slightly ghostly, was titled “That Which is So Universal,” and if you are subscribed to my Dispatches from Lake Worth, it would have arrived as a plain text email to your inbox on Halloween. If it did not, then it is either in your junk mail box, or you are not subscribed. If you are not and you’d like to be, just click here to do so. I’ll see that you get the story.

The archway in the photo above is the entry to Woodlawn Cemetery in West Palm Beach, where I was walking late this morning. Home now, but there is much to do to prepare for our Dia de Los Muertos celebration, which, for us this year, will be spread out over a few days. Tonight Seth and I will be together and we will remember our loved ones. Saturday, though, is the day we will get together with my mom and sister for more festivity, for it is the day of our annual Dia de Los Muertos celebration here in Lake Worth. My mom and sister and Seth and I will all be there, along with the mariachi and the dancers, the wonderful food, and all the people dressed as Catrinas and Calaveras. We’ll have a booth selling our traditional handicrafts from the artisans of San Miguel de Allende. It is an amazing night in our community, and I hope you can join us if you are nearby. Here is a link to the event’s webpage, and here is a link to the event’s Facebook event page. It all takes place at Hatch 1121 (the old Lake Worth Shuffleboard Courts) at 1121 Lucerne Avenue (between Lake and Lucerne just west of Dixie Highway) in Downtown Lake Worth. The music and the dancing and the food at this celebration are wonderful, but mostly it is the community that impresses me so much. Please come, and if you do, be sure to say hello.

Some more photos… here is a Pan de Muertos from La Villa Bakery in Boca Raton:

Our family version, for which I posted a recipe in yesterday’s chapter of the blog, looks a bit different. Ours is braided and long, not round, and the bones are always white, as we make sure to avoid sprinkling the sugar on them, and our sugar topping is actually a blend of cinnamon, sugar, and anise seeds. And then here is a photo of Cicci Cutto:

That’s a close up shot of the concoction, which is made from pomegranates, roasted almonds and hazelnuts, cooked wheat grain, and small chunks of chocolate, all swimming in an unusual homemade spiced syrup called cutto, traditionally made from grape juice reduced over a low flame for many hours. We call it U Cutto in our dialect from Lucera, and it is the subject of a book I made many years ago. Someone recently bought a copy and it was nice to get reacquainted with this work of mine from two decades ago. My mom and sister made the cicci cutto for Halloween two nights ago, but we were too full to eat it then, so we are saving it for Saturday’s gathering. In some parts of Italy it is made for December 13th: Santa Lucia’s Day, but my grandmother always made for this time of year, these autumnal days of the dead known in Italy as I Morti. It is a somewhat penitential dessert, something rich and complex that invites us to think about what we are eating and its connection to story and metaphor… especially that of Persephone and her pomegranate seeds and her yearly descent down below the earth. We follow in her footsteps at this time of increasing darkness.

And so we do these things we do just at this time of year, this time of increasing darkness, and we remember those who have come and gone before us. It is good, it is right, to do this, shining love and light across time and space and connecting us all.

¡Feliz dia de los muertos!

 

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