Monthly Archives: June 2018

Flower of the Mountain

It was on the 6th of December, 1933, that Federal Judge John M. Woolsey of the Southern District of New York ruled that the novel Ulysses by James Joyce was not only not obscene, but also a work of literary merit. He had spent the month prior reading the book, which had been banned in the United States since the time it was first published in 1922 on account of it potentially causing American readers to harbor “impure and lustful thoughts.” In 1934, thanks to Judge Woolsey’s ruling, Random House could finally publish the book and sell it in this country.

Ulysses follows the adventures of Leopold Bloom over the course of a single day, June 16, 1904, through Dublin. Joyce chose the date with intention: It was the day he first went out with Nora Barnacle, the woman he would spend his life with. You might celebrate Bloomsday with a reading of Ulysses. You might stop at the apothecary to purchase a bar of lemon soap. Certainly there will be stops to be made at pubs, and ale is known to play a big part in a good Bloomsday celebration.

James Joyce was first aware of people celebrating Bloomsday in 1924, just two years after the publication of Ulysses. In 1954, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the events in the book, a more formal pilgrimage through Dublin was organized. Nowadays, you are likely to find Bloomsday enthusiasts around the globe, dressed in Edwardian garb and quoting James Joyce each 16th of June. How wonderful is that?

But if all that is above and beyond your means today, here are a couple of simple suggestions. You can read some Joyce, of course. I’ve yet to read Ulysses but I do love Joyce’s short story collection, Dubliners. Especially the final story of the book, “The Dead.” James Joyce bestowed many gifts upon us, and today is the perfect day to delve into them.

And then there is Kate Bush. She, too, has bestowed many gifts upon us. In 1989, Kate recorded a song called “The Sensual World,” based on the closing soliloquy by Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife, in Ulysses. She actually wanted to set the soliloquy to music, but at the time, the James Joyce estate refused her request. There was at some point, though, a change of heart, and in 2011, Kate was granted permission to remake the song according to her original vision. The newer version, recorded 22 years later, is familiar yet different, the fruit perhaps of a maturity of voice and vision. Both, I think, are beautiful, and today the words are on my lips, as they have been since the month began. With these things––the songs, the stories, the ale and lemon soap––Bloomsday will come and go through this sensual world. Love calls us to the things of it, like the season’s first sumptuous apricots and peaches, the ocean’s first lapping at our ankles. June is filled with days like this––Bloomsday, Midsummer––that make these things manifest.


The Sensual World, 1989

Flower of the Mountain, 2011


Eid Mubarak

Ramadan, the month of fasting, is coming to an end, and for Eid Al-Fitr, which arrives in this part of the world with tonight’s setting sun and the sighting of the new crescent moon, here is a reprint, slightly revised, of a Book of Days chapter from 2014. The sentiment is the same: Eid Mubarak. Blessed days. ~ John

My maternal grandparents came from Lucera, a small city in southern Italy that was, in the 13th century, home to a population of perhaps 60,000 Muslims that had been expelled from Sicily by Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor. The colony became known as Lucaera Saracenorum, or Saracen Lucera. My grandmother, a small woman whose deep olive complexion would grow darker and darker as each summer progressed, often told of long-ago Moroccan blood in our family lineage, and whether this is fact or the stuff of story is not entirely known. A good story is a good story.

But the facts do tend to support Grandma’s story. The Saracen colony at Lucera was comprised mostly of people of Northern African descent––Arabs and Berbers from Arabia, Tunisia, and Morocco. And they left their imprint on the culture of Southern Italy in subtle ways that still persist to this day linguistically (the dropping of vowels at the ends of words––which even came over to America and has influenced the Italian American communities in New York, especially) and in the way we cook. When we add fresh mint to a traditional Italian frittata or make a favorite summer zucchini dish that comes from my Grandma Cutrone, heady with the scent of vinegar and mint, it is a nod to that influence on Italy from Northern Africa.

And so I have a longstanding fascination with the cultures and traditions of Northern Africa, and am always in awe of the tile work and the paper marbling and the cinnamon-infused tagines and sweets scented with rose water. And in my mind, itself an aromatic stew that does such a good job of melding fact and fiction that I sometimes don’t know what is real and what is dream, I like to imagine myself at a feast celebrating a holiday like Eid Al-Fitr. It is the three-day celebration concluding Ramadan, the month of fasting. It is a time of prayer but a time of abundance, with good food and good aromas and good company and good deeds. It is a time meant to bring out the best in people. It begins with the sighting of the new moon’s first faint crescent, which, this year, should be just about now, this 14th night of June. Being a lunar holiday, the dates are not fixed in our Gregorian calendar, which is a solar calendar. But as the days passed last week, I watched the waning crescent moon grow increasingly slight with each passing morning near sunrise, knowing that the waxing crescent moon would soon follow, bringing these joyous days to Muslims all over the world. To them and to all of us, Eid Mubarak.


Image: Detail of a small enamel plate from Morocco that was a gift to Seth & me from someone, long ago. The memory melds with all the others in my mind, into that aromatic tagine… but that’s what makes for good cooking and for good stories: Sometimes it’s not the details so much as the whole. The patterns on this plate fascinate me.


Tony Tony Come Around

It’s way past midnight. Past one, even. I’ve been thinking to myself, “St. Anthony won’t mind so much if I skip writing about him this year,” and that’s probably true, but then I began hearing the voice of my grandma, Assunta. If I wasn’t eating my stewed prunes or if I was being stubborn about cleaning up my room or something like that, she would come up to me and say, “Come on, Johnny. Do for Grandma.”  St. Anthony was Grandma’s favorite saint, and by the 13th of June, his feast day, she would have been offering prayers to him for thirteen days straight. There’s devotion for you, and an example to follow if ever there was one. And so this late night, when the clock is telling me it is already well into the 13th of June, I will––super quick––write to you about St. Anthony’s Day. I “do for Grandma” (and for you, too).

St. Anthony of Padua is a familiar figure. He was born in Lisbon in the late 12th century, but he spent most of his life in Italy, in Padua especially. He was an early follower of St. Francis, and as a Franciscan, he wore the iconic brown cowled habit with a tonsured haircut that left the crown of his head bare, a clear portal, perhaps, from head to heaven. He is a populist saint, and is called upon for many reasons, but he is best known as the saint who helps you find lost articles. And so when we misplace our glasses or our keys, we say Tony Tony come around, something’s lost and must be found, an old children’s rhyme. And more often than not, it works. Perhaps because of that populism that surrounds him. He died in Padua in 1231 and was canonized soon after. Some of the miracles attributed to him: a donkey knelt before him. And he preached to the fishes––the people weren’t listening to him but they did once they saw the fishes listening. And just before he died, he was seen in ecstasy holding the baby Jesus in his arms. This is the image we see most often depicted in all those statues in front of Italian American homes. He’s a presence we Italians like to talk to, like an old paisano. Grandma certainly did. I do, too. And who knows, maybe you will, too, the next time you misplace your keys or your wallet or those pesky reading glasses, and there’s no harm in that. We need all the help we can get.

Image: Grandma with our backyard statue of St. Anthony, before Dad painted it. Grandma is on the left, and nearby is one of any number of her friends, all Italian, and all of whom were referred to as “Cummara”.