A Ferragosto Recipe

The Fifteenth of August brings my maternal grandmother’s birthday, and since she was born on this day, the Feast of the Assumption, my great grandparents named her Assunta. American neighbors sometimes called her Susan or Suzy, but that just never sounded quite right to me in naming a small, feisty Italian woman who spoke broken English. Grandma always was Assunta, or, as Grandpa would call her, Assu.

This Feast of the Assumption, which marks the ascent of the Virgin Mary body and soul into Heaven, marks other days, as well: the Dog Days of Summer are over today, and it is the great Italian summer holiday of Ferragosto. The waters today are blessed by priests and so most Italians close up shop and head to the sea, some to soak their aches and pains in the blessed waters and others just to swim or float or get a suntan. One thing is certain: work is not a priority today. (We could learn a lot from the Italians.)

Grandma’s birthday and Ferragosto mean, for us, a simple supper of cucuzza longa simmered with eggs. It is hearty peasant fare that is quick and easy to prepare, which makes it the perfect sustenance for the evening of a hot day in late summer, especially when it is paired with a crusty loaf and some wine––perhaps a sparkling white or a rosé, or maybe, if you have someone like Grandpa in your life, a pitcher full of the finest summer peaches, sliced, with red wine poured over them and set in the refrigerator for just a few minutes before dinner is served. This, anyway, will be our Ferragosto dinner. I encourage you to join us.

You’ll need to first get hold of cucuzza longa. This translates to “long squash” and in fact these past two years I’ve found them in markets labeled as just that. They are not a squash at all, but actually an edible gourd, which, left to their own devices, will grow to two or three feet in length and might end up straight as pins or in curls like snakes. In markets, though, where uniformity is prized, chances are you’ll find them looking just like the ones in the photo above. For the locals: I found ours at Doris Italian Market in western Boca Raton (there are a few locations in South Florida; perhaps one near you). Rorabeck’s in western Lake Worth had them last year, but not this year (at least not yesterday). Whether you call them Long Squash or Cucuzza Longa, this is not a vegetable you’ll typically find in the supermarket; it’s definitely a specialty market thing. In a pinch, you can substitute zucchini… but the cucuzza is different and so much better.

Here’s Mom’s recipe to prepare your traditional Ferragosto dinner. She learnt it from Grandma, who learnt it from Mom’s Great Grandma, and so on and so on… which is what I love about a meal like this: It’s not just dinner; it is, as well, a communion with others across time and space, and there is powerful magic in that.

F E R R A G O S T O   S U P P E R
3 cucuzza longa
1 large onion
olive oil
1 can crushed tomatoes
8 to 12 eggs
1/2 cup (or more) grated cheese: Romano or Locatelli or Parmigiano-Reggiano
flat leaf parsley, leaves removed from stems
fresh basil
salt & pepper

Wash and peel the cucuzza using a knife or a vegetable peeler, then cut into thick slices, each slice about 3″ long (you’re cutting lengthwise with the cucuzza, as opposed to slicing rounds). Chop the onion roughly and in a large pot, sauté the onion in olive oil until translucent and just beginning to brown. Add the crushed tomatoes to the cooked onion. Let simmer about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk, then add the parsley and grated cheese. (A note here about measurements: recipes like these, handed down from generation to generation, don’t come with precise measurements. You put a handful of this, a pinch of that. As Grandma would say (though she would say it in her Lucerine dialect): The more you put, the more you find.) Once the tomato/onion mixture has simmered, add about one quarter of the sliced cucuzza, followed by about one quarter of the egg and cheese mixture. Continue layering cucuzza and the egg mixture until everything is in the pot. Add a handful of fresh basil leaves; season with salt and pepper. Simmer, covered, without disturbing, until the egg is set and the cucuzza is tender (about an hour, maybe less).


All the ingredients, in the pot, about to be simmered.

This one-pot summer meal will serve 6 to 8, especially if it’s served alongside warm, crusty bread, and perhaps a simple salad of escarole dressed with olive oil, wine vinegar, and salt. It’s delicious. And it was on our table pretty much each and every one of Grandma’s birthdays. Grandpa certainly loved it. He would have eaten his Ferragosto supper and then made a simple hand gesture, his finger pushed into his cheek with a forward twisting motion, proclaiming it Saporite!

 

Get Out There, it’s Your August Book of Days

You’d think I’ve been on summer vacation, what with your Convivio Book of Days calendar for August coming so late, but no. Life has just been hectic, nonstop, go go go, which is not the way August is supposed to be. August is supposed to be sandwiches at the picnic table out back and trips here and there, big trips or maybe just little excursions. And so that’s the August we’re giving you this month on the calendar. Cover stars include my mom, Millie, and my Aunt Anne, when they were little girls. The year is 1930 or so and they are sitting in the backyard with Grandma, eating sandwiches, just as August beckons us to do.

It is the month of Lammas, which has passed, but still to come are Obon, the traditional summer holiday of Japan, which in some prefectures comes in July and in others in August, but I have always been more of an August Obon kind of guy, for that is the time we celebrated it here (though even that has changed). And still to come as well is Ferragosto, the holiday of Italy that comes with the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, the Fifteenth of August. It is the day that same grandma of mine was born, back in 1898. Each year for the Assumption we would eat the traditional cucuzza longa, the odd long squash that actually is a gourd. So far this month I’ve had no luck finding it in the markets but my hopes are high, for there are still a good many days to go before the 15th.

And later this month, the Bartlemas Wayzgoose, a day of great importance to all of us book artists. Whether we be papermakers, letterpress printers, or bookbinders, St. Bartholomew is relevant to us all, and so his feast day is one we have been known to honor and honor well. Locally, here in South Florida, the place to do this this year is at the Jaffe Center for Book Arts in Boca Raton, at Florida Atlantic University’s Wimberly Library. We’ll be part of the big Library Wayzgoose Festival that is taking place there on Saturday, August 25, from 10:30 to 5:30. One of my favorite printers, Ben Blount from Evanston, Illinois, will be featured with print shop demos and a gallery talk, and there will be live music all day (I know, libraries are supposed to be quiet… but not on Wayzgoose day) and we’ll be making printers caps from paper and there will be games and fresh baked artisan breads for sale from Louie Bossi’s in support of the Jaffe, and the works of about 20 local makers and small creative companies like ours will be on display, too, for your small-shopping pleasure. It’s going to be a lot of fun, which is only natural: “Wayzgoose” is a fun word to say, so what else would it be but fun? The St. Bartholomew’s Day Wayzgoose connection to book artists goes back many centuries… something I’ll certainly tell you about on the blog later this month. For now, get out there and enjoy what’s left of summer. It won’t be long before we start thinking thoughts suited to cooler months.

 

Sister Mildred’s Lament

In the late 1990s, when I was in grad school learning how to print and how to make books and paper, I’d spend my summers at Chosen Land, the only remaining active Shaker Community in the world. Each summer I would pack my little Dodge Neon and drive up from one corner of the east coast to the other, up from Florida to Maine. I would research, write, print and bind books together with Seth Thompson and with Brother Arnold Hadd, who is one of the busiest people I know, and yet he always found time to warmly welcome me into his world and allow me to immerse myself in it. Aside from the researching and writing and printing and binding, there would also be barn chores and gardening and herb packing and haying and storekeeping and who knows what else. And there would be amazing meals and Sunday Meetings. My world was filled with Shaker music and Shaker lore and Shaker history, day in and day out, and then suddenly in August, just about now, it would be time to go back to school, back to Alabama, which, truth be told, was never anywhere near as good as being in Maine. To leave all these people, who had become like a second family to me, brought me an annual bout of summertime melancholy.

Before leaving each August, though, would come one of the high points of the year in the Shaker calendar: the day they call the Glorious Sixth. It is the day that marks the arrival of the Shakers in America on August 6, 1774. They were a small band from Manchester, England, led by a woman named Ann Lee. Her followers called her Mother Ann, and after suffering much persecution in England, she had a vision that she should move her small church to America, and this is the day they landed in New York Harbor. They called themselves then the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, but they became known as Shaking Quakers, a derogatory name given to them by outsiders to describe the whirling and sometimes frenetic dances that were part of their worship. In their own empowering move, they embraced the name and began referring to themselves as Shakers, and following their arrival in America, the Shaker movement gained momentum. Shaker communities sprouted up throughout New England and west into Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. A short lived community was founded even in Florida. They are a liberal and progressive bunch, embracing technology (and inventing a lot of things we use commonly today) and believing in social justice and equality of the sexes and the races even way back to their founding in the 1700s.

The Shakers from early on in their history were monastic communities, and this type of life gradually fell out of favor in the United States. There were thousands of Shakers at the height of the movement in the mid 1800s, but that number declined as the years went on, and one by one in the late 1800s and 1900s Shaker Communities closed and consolidated. And now there is but one left that is still a place of Shaker worship and that is Chosen Land, the Shaker Community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine, the place I was lucky enough to spend summers at. Most of what people know about the Shakers these days are the artifacts they left behind: things like oval boxes and exquisite furniture, handcrafted with beautiful, modern simplicity––pieces that have been known to fetch tens of thousands of dollars (or more) at auction.

Sister Mildred Barker was the eldress at Chosen Land long before I ever started coming around, and though we’ve never met, still I feel I know her in a way. I know her voice, thanks to recordings, and I’ve heard plenty of stories about her thanks to conversations I’ve had with Brother Arnold and with Sister Frances, when she was alive. Sister Mildred famously said a variation of the words in the woodcut that’s in the photo at the top of this essay. Her actual words were, “I almost expect to be remembered as a chair or a table.” The woodcut is one I made in Alabama one of those late summers after leaving Chosen Land, feeling, no doubt, a bit wistful and melancholy. I had the words wrong, but my heart was in the right place. My heart was at Chosen Land. And my heart will be there tonight, too, this Sixth of August––this Glorious Sixth, where Brother Arnold and Sister June will gather with friends at sunset to honor those who came before them, including Mother Ann and Sister Mildred, who will be remembered not at all as a chair, but as the kind and good soul she was.

 

The print is titled “Sister Mildred’s Lament” and it was carved and printed in August or September, 1996. It’s a print I had long forgotten, but in gathering up some Convivio Bookworks broadsides that are headed off for an exhibition in Japan, it resurfaced––oddly enough, on the eve of the Glorious Sixth. I told the story to the curator and sent her a quick photo, and now Sister Mildred, too, is headed off for Japan in the form of this print. I’m chalking that up to the quality of the story, rather than the quality of the print.

Your purchase of the culinary herbs and herbal teas we sell here at Convivio Bookworks, by the way, all support Chosen Land. The Shakers have been packing and selling herbs since 1799, and helping to support them through their herb industry is one of my favorite things about our catalog. That and how wonderful the place smells every time we receive a shipment of herbs from them; the aroma that comes out of every box we receive from the Shakers takes me right back to the Herb Department inside the old Sisters’ Shop at Chosen Land.