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”.


The Sensual World, or Your June Book of Days

Once again from the Better Late Than Never Department, here is our monthly gift to you: Your printable Convivio Book of Days calendar, this one for June. It was a hectic close to May and it’s been a hectic start to June, and since there’s not much happening at the start of the month, I figured all right then, we would ease into this month’s calendar. In fact, the first red letter day of the month isn’t until the 13th, when we celebrate the Feast of St. Anthony of Padua.

Now my grandmother, Assunta, she would have been celebrating St. Anthony in her way from the start of the month. St. Anthony was her guy, and Grandma would offer thirteen days of novenas in his honor beginning on the First of June. She would sit there in her upright beach chair in front of the statue of St. Anthony, the one that Dad painted by hand, and mumble her prayers, prayers she would read from books sent to her by the children at the orphanage in Padua named for St. Anthony, the one she supported for years with gifts. They were good friends, in a way, my grandma and St. Anthony, but this is how we Italians are, talking to the saints that guide us, as if they are right there in the room with us.

My mom remembers as a girl coming in from outside on warm June days just like this and wandering through the house, wondering, “Where’s my mother?” and there she would be, with Mamam, the neighbor, the one who delivered my mom soon after the doctor had left the house because he didn’t think the baby would be coming any time soon. She was like a second mother to my mom, Mamam was, and she and Grandma would be in the house, these June days, reading and reciting before the statue of St. Anthony, saying their novena. Grandma would read the prayers out loud in Italian, and Mamam, who didn’t know how to read, would say the response. She’d catch a glimpse of my mom, little girl that she was at the time, and wave her in. “Come on, Millie, come pray with us.” Just what a little girl wants to do on a warm June day. But she was seen, and now she was stuck there. It was too late to turn away. And so my Mom would sit there, too, with Grandma and Mamam, saying “Pray for us” in Italian after each petition to St. Anthony. There was no turning away from the old friend.

This would go on each day through to St. Anthony’s Day on the 13th. I imagine not many people do this anymore. For me, a little boy watching my Grandma sit and pray on her beach chair by the statue in the yard, it was always a Grandma thing, something that all the grandmothers I knew did. Then again, all the grandmothers I knew as a child were Italian. I remember the first time I met the grandmother of another boy I knew, a grandmother who was tall and who spoke proper English. I was a little taken aback. It was just plain weird. Like the time in 1970 when my grandparents went back to Italy and came home again with photographs in color. Color? Italy, to me at 6-years old, was sepia-toned.

But I digress. Back to the calendar. June is the month of Old Midsummer, of William Shakespeare and his Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is, as well, the month of Bloomsday and Juneteenth, all days that have some literary connection. It was Ralph Ellison who titled a novel Juneteenth, a name taken from the obscure June holiday that commemorates the formal and official end of slavery in Texas, and Bloomsday is of course based on the work of James Joyce, who wrote about the day’s adventures through Dublin of a character named Leopold Bloom in his novel Ulysses, and now, each 16th of June, people all over the world call down his memory. If there is a cover star of sorts on this month’s calendar, it would be Kate Bush, who recorded a song in 1989 titled “The Sensual World,” a song that is steeped, too, in James Joyce’s Ulysses and in Bloomsday, based as it is on the closing passage of the book, a soliloquy by Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife.

So many words on our lips––prayers and plays, novels and soliloquies–– in a month of beauty. With June we welcome summer by the almanac. We embrace the gentle time of year, the sensual world. Go, enjoy it.