Category Archives: Obon

Halfway through August: Obon & Ferragosto

The middle of August brings some of my favorite days, all based in memory. First, there is Obon, the summer festival of Japan that honors the dead. In some prefectures of Japan, Obon is celebrated in July, and in others, in August, always around the 15th. For me, growing up in South Florida, it was August, for that’s when the Morikami Museum, west of Delray Beach, used to celebrate it. It was always hot, and we would smell of pennyroyal, to keep the mosquitoes at bay. There were often thunderstorms in the afternoon, because that’s the typical weather pattern here in summer. But there was something unforgettable about the dark grey sky behind the tall pine trees mixed with the heat and the humidity and the thundering sound of taiko drums, the electric lanterns hung between the trees, and the elevated yagura platform, painted in red and white stripes, around which the dancers would dance their mysterious Obon dances, like this one: the Coal Miners’ Dance, in which the dancers journeyed around the yagura with a shoveling motion, taking a few steps forward and almost just as many back. Their progress around the yagura was always very slow and languid: the rhythm of late summer.

At nightfall, fireworks, and then the setting sail of hundreds and hundreds of floating lanterns on the water: these are the ancestors, returning home as the festivities conclude, home to their distant shore.

I seem to have an affinity for any holiday / holy day that connects us to those who have passed. Cemeteries and church yards do not bother me and I talk to my beloved dead on a daily basis, which all may have a lot to do with the way I was raised. The dead never seem very far away. Just a slight shift in manifestation; but these people are all still very much part of my daily life.

And so I love Dia de Muertos, which has grown so popular, and I love Obon, which is not quite as popular, but which serves a similar purpose. The Morikami no longer celebrates Obon proper––they’ve moved it to the cooler, drier month of October and anglicized it to “Lantern Festival,” and they’ve moved all the traditional dances, which are meant to be danced beneath the dome of the sky, to a spot beneath a roof. All with the best intentions, of course, but in doing so they’ve whitewashed the experience, sanitized it, made it safe and out of touch with Obon’s authentic spirit.

Ah, but still I have my family’s Italian traditions for this time of year… and what follows here is a reprint of last summer’s Convivio Book of Days chapter for Ferragosto, called “A Ferragosto Recipe.” I loved re-reading it so much, I thought you might, as well. As for the cucuzza longa in the recipe, if you’re local, you’ll be happy to know that I bought some today at Rorabeck’s Produce on Military Trail west of Lake Worth, near Atlantis, and my sister bought some at Doris Market west of Boca Raton. I’d recommend a meal on the 15th of my family’s Ferragosto Recipe, along with some crusty bread and a nice pitcher of red wine with sliced peaches. E buon appetito!


August 15, 2018

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). You’ll find them, too, at Rorabeck’s in western Lake Worth. 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!


Tales from Two Continents

In Japan it is the time of Obon. It occurs in mid July in some places, and in mid August at others, depending on the region and the use of solar or lunar calendars. But for me, growing up near the Morikami Museum, founded on the site of an old Japanese farming village west of Delray Beach, Obon has always been a late summer holiday, for this is the time it was celebrated at the Morikami; at least until a few years ago, when they decided to rename it Lantern Festival and move it to October.

Obon is the time when the ancestors come back to visit the land of the living for a few days. It has no fixed dates, but where it is celebrated in August, it is generally about this time, these middle days of the month. There are street fairs and there is dancing and music and there are altars in the homes designed to welcome the spirits of those passed. For me, just six months now since I lost my dad, it is a time to think more about him and to welcome his spirit back home to us. Will he be there? I cannot say, but I do feel I’ve had some contact with him over these six months, messages delivered in ways only he and I and a handful of others would understand, bolstering my faith that we can still communicate, still commune, just in ways transformed from what we both had been accustomed to before.

When Obon at the Morikami was in August, I had a way of dragging people there to experience it, even people who hate crowds, and oh, it was a crowded affair. There were one or two times I got Mom and Dad there. I remember them sitting on the grass, watching the fireworks at the end of the festival, and then watching the lanterns set afloat upon the water… hundreds and hundreds of lanterns, carrying the ancestors back to their homes on the distant shore. Such a beautiful sight. My father now part of that luminous procession, sailing upon the water.

Six months ago, I promised you Dad’s stories. So for this Obon, as the Dog Days of summer reach their close, let’s get to a story or two. A good one, I think, for this time of year, is the Watermelon Story. My dad was just a boy, dinner was done, and his mom, my grandma, sent him downstairs––the basement, I imagine, for this was in Brooklyn where they have those things (here we do not)––to get the watermelon after dinner. Down the stairs he went, got the melon, a big oblong one, whole. It was the old fashioned kind that we hardly see any more in these days of seedless melons; probably a Charleston Gray, no doubt half his size. He hoisted it up on one shoulder and headed up the stairs and got all the way to the top and there, at the landing, the delicate balance tilted just a bit, just enough for that melon to tip back slightly. The laws of gravity took over and Dad got to turn and watch the melon crash down the staircase, exploding with each impact on the way down, spraying watermelon pulp and seeds and juice upon the steps and the risers and the walls and the banister and all the wooden balusters to boot. That little kid, my dad Angelo, spent the rest of the night cleaning up the sticky mess. He did, I’m sure, a thorough job.

He still loved watermelon, even after the watermelon incident. Fruit of all kinds, in fact, and I think of Dad most every time I am at a produce market and most every time I am eating fruit. I also think of him when I am involved in some tedious cleaning task. It seems he was charged with lots of these tasks growing up. It was his job to clean the kitchen floor each Saturday night, once everyone had left the room after dinner. He scrubbed the floor, listening to “Gang Busters” on the radio, laying sheets of newspaper on the floor after it was dry. As far as I know, he never delivered papers or sold papers on the corners of Brooklyn, but he did start working for his dad when he was 13, helping Grandpa with his ice, coal, and oil route. One of his first days on the job, my dad put the truck in the wrong gear and drove it right into a customer’s house. The customer made Grandpa promise he wouldn’t harm the kid… but that promise didn’t cover Grandma, who had large arms and who believed in the old proverb, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” There was probably some sparing of the rod after the watermelon incident, too, before the big cleanup. My poor dad. It was a different time, of course, and Dad took all of these things of his childhood and made them into the stories he told all his life, his honor badges. And told them always with good humor… and like you had never heard them before.

Sometimes I feel like I do that with you, too. But such is the nature of a blog that covers the wheel of the year. The wheel turns and turns, in constant motion, and though we move forward, everything is the same as it was before. It is one of the paradoxes of the seasonal round, making time seem both linear and yet a circular spiral, as well. The players change, but the events remain constant.

If you wish to learn more about Obon and its traditions in Japan, click here and you’ll be directed to a past Convivio Book of Days chapter about the holiday. As for that photo at the top of the page here, those are the Cutrone Brothers. Aunt Mary, their only sister, is not in the photo; perhaps she was the photographer. The tallest in the photo was the eldest, Uncle Al. Next to him is Uncle Dick. The little one is Uncle Frank, and holding his hand, my dad, looking a bit mischievous. He is in this picture the spitting image of my great nephew Joseph, especially when he is being mischievous. Joseph, my dad’s first great-grandchild. He would make my dad crazy sometimes, like when he locked Dad out of the house and watched with delight from the other side of the glass as Dad yelled and cursed at him. My theory? The little kid that was my dad would rile up Grandma Cutrone just as Joseph would rile up my dad.

We saw this photo for the first time only after Dad’s passing, when my cousin Cammie brought it to us after the funeral. It was one of many photos tipped into old photo albums, the ones with black paper pages and photo corners and captions written in white ink. I had never seen photos of Dad as a child before. It was the most amazing thing.


Bon Festival: Obon

Bon No Tsuki

Here in late summer comes another celebration honoring those who have gone before us: in Japan, it is the time of Obon. It is a celebration familiar to us here in South Florida thanks to the presence of the Morikami Museum in Delray Beach. Although I do have a bone to pick with the Morikami these days, now that they’ve moved their Obon celebration to October and renamed it “Lantern Festival”. (What the… ? You can’t just move traditional celebrations around like that!) In this strange green land where things can change so rapidly and so immensely (someone once attributed Florida’s malleability to its sandy soil, which can be so easily bulldozed and sculpted… an idea that seems to hold some truth), I get a bit wistful about Obon.

Back when the Morikami first started its Obon Festival, it was a pretty quiet affair, and it was so beautiful. The beauty seemed to be dripping from the pine trees, which most often at Obon were dripping with rain, too. The celebration was outdoors, of course, because Obon is an outdoor event. The festival began in the late afternoon, for it is at heart a festival of the night, and here, in late summer, it rains most afternoons: it is the daily respiration of the land. I would have the scent of pennyroyal on me: pennyroyal to keep the mosquitoes at bay. In a clearing amongst the dripping pines would be the yagura, an elevated platform, painted with red and white stripes, on which taiko drummers and flutists perform. Illuminated lanterns were strung from the yagura and lines of dancers performed bon odori––traditional folk dances––moving in circular patterns around it. The dancers danced to the rhythm of the drums, but sometimes they danced to recorded music: traditional Japanese folk songs with strange cadences that filled the thick Florida air, and there were traditional motions that were part of the dances––dances like “Coal Miners’ Dance,” in which the dancers journeyed around the yagura with a shoveling motion, taking a few steps forward and almost just as many back. Their progress around the yagura was always very slow and languid… the rhythm of late summer.

Nearby, also in the pines, the street fair: the ennichi, where you could buy food and fresh lemonade and toys and all manner of things. So much to buy! One Obon I bought a set of small woodcut prints tied up in string. Electric lanterns were strung up throughout the pine trees at the ennichi and near the yagura, and that, too, was a beautiful sight. But anticipation grew as the sun grew heavy at the western horizon, for we all knew that once darkness fell, there would be the other lanterns––candlelit paper lanterns, set upon the water. Hundreds of them, certainly; thousands perhaps, illuminated and cast out upon Morikami Pond. In Japan, Obon always concludes this way, for Obon is a celebration of the dead returning to the land of the living for a brief spell, to have some fun again with the living, and when it is over, the spirits return to the other shore aboard these lanterns. It is a breathtaking and spellbinding sight, as they drift silently away. We would stand there, at the water’s edge or as close to it as we could get, watching and thinking, “See you next year.” Any method we have to keep open the channels of communication is all right by me.

My wistfulness about Obon goes back to those early days when the Morikami was small and so was the celebration. And I suppose this is how wistfulness generally works: holidays seemed better when we were younger. But the Morikami grew up into a major museum and the Morikami’s Obon festival grew and grew in popularity to the point where it was hardly fun anymore. Lots of people, yes, but in Japan, Obon is a celebration that goes on for two or three days, and maybe the Morikami could have followed those ways as a device to spread out the crowds. Eventually they began taking very good care of us, too: they built a shelter to protect us all from the summer rains, but in the process of protecting us, they took away the sky and the stars and separated us from the majestic pines. And now they are protecting us from the heat and humidity by moving the celebration from August to October. I’m sure Lantern Festival at the Morikami is lovely… but it’s not Obon.

In Japan, Obon is coming to a close about now, probably tonight. Some regions may have celebrated Obon as early as July. Much with local Obon ways depend on regional customs and with the use of varied calendars, lunar and solar. The Florida celebration was based on the Morikami celebration, and so Obon for me is the August one. Eventually, I suppose, folks here will get accustomed to the Lantern Festival of October and think of Obon as October, as well. And I will be a crotchety old man shaking my fist, yelling, “No, no, damnit! It’s in August!”

One Obon, when it was not possible to go to the celebration, a friend and I made our own lanterns: he made one and so did I. We each cut a block of wood and set it inside a paper bag, upon which we wrote messages in deepest dark black sumi ink. I wrote to my grandparents. We had no yagura, no dances, and no ennichi street fair. But when the sun sank low and night fell upon the land, we went outside to the pond behind my family’s home and we lit our lanterns and set them out to sail. We watched for a while as they drifted further away, two lights illuminated on the water, making their way toward the distant shore.

Image: “Bon no tsuki” (Bon Festival Moon) by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. Woodcut print, late 1800s [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.