Up With the Birds: Nature Appreciation, and My Growing Sicilian Tendencies

When I was a younger man, things were pretty straightforward, without much confusion.

You were expected to act a certain way. Dress a certain way. Treat your elders with respect. Show up to the dinner table most nights, but especially on Sunday afternoon. That was a non negotiable.

Once I turned 12, it was time to stop slacking and help out in the family business, albeit on a very part time basis. Household chores were a necessity as well, whether in my parents’ house, or the modest brick ranch where my grandparents’ lived.

When my cousin Anthony got too busy with life to mow my grandparents’ half acre of land with the smallish 20″ cut push mower, and trimming hedges that covered the entire fence line, he handed the reigns to me.

I always wondered why he would perspire so much, in the summer heat, doing that job. It didn’t take me long to find out.

Between navigating tree trunks, pushing up inclines, and squeezing through shrubs with their sharp, pointed branches, being my grandparents’ personal landscaper turned out to be an intense job, manual labor that I couldn’t outsource to other relatives even if I tried (and I did try).

When the chore was done, mower and trimmer put away, t-shirt wrung out from two plus hours of sweat accumulation, I was hoping to go into the house to an offer of a couple of gallons of cold water.

The refrain remained the same: “How about a nice, hot cup of coffee?”

Nonna Rosina’s Wild Kingdom

That yard, with its plentiful gardens, grape vines, and fruit trees was the source of some confusion during my teenage years.

I had never seen animals quite like the ones in that yard. Birds were bloated, squirrels had the shape of Sherman tanks, and chipmunks ran wild in numbers that I had never quite seen on my own property.

Nonna, who always indulged in recycling before it became cool, didn’t waste a morsel of food. If it wasn’t eaten at the family table, it made its way to the patio or the grass, for the birds and animals to enjoy.

Obviously, this wasn’t regular bird food. If there was leftover spaghetti, that went out. Snack food that didn’t get eaten? Out the door.

When she was done making her 20 pounds of homemade bread crumbs with whatever stale bread she had lying around the house, she was more than happy to spread the scraps around for the squirrels hiding in the bushes, waiting for the latest bounty to drop.

The only thing that wasn’t offered was the obligatory cup of coffee. These animals probably had a no caffeine rule for their diet.

Any confusion ended there. My grandmother willingly put them on the high carb plan, probably admonishing them for being “too skinny” and “not eating enough.” Like all good Sicilian grandmothers do.

Nowhere to Be But Home

Since we were all encouraged to spend the majority of time at home these last few months, venturing elsewhere only when necessary, the three of us (including my son) took advantage of nicer early season weather, with a lot of that time spent on our back deck.

My wife planted her usual number of herbs and flowers, with some pots added later. We noticed, during morning coffee sessions on the deck, the birds and animals in the yard seemed more prevalent.

Maybe it was just the fact that I was no longer commuting to an office and developed more of an appreciation, but the yard seemed more alive than ever.

The bird species we observed each day were plentiful: cardinals, blue jays, sparrows, cedar waxwings, finches of different colors, robins, orioles, doves, and a coopers hawk or two that used our property for his personal hunting ground.

And, of course, we had squirrels take over the land in large numbers.

My wife had always tossed out bread and other items for the birds to enjoy if we weren’t going to use it. Now, as I began spending more time than ever on our deck, I started doing the same: lining small pieces of bread along the wooden rails, then flinging some to the ground below, waiting for the bird buffet line to form.

Just like any good Italian grandmother.

It didn’t stop there, however. When we did have a couple of guests this summer on our deck, or a nice socially distanced dinner party, I found myself defaulting to the same type of service standards that Nonna made obligatory:

“Want some coffee?”

“A little more on that plate? I’m going in the kitchen…”

You’re finished?? We still have some left on the stove!”

You might think I (or my wife, for that matter) do it just for the guests. That wouldn’t be the case. Whenever I offer coffee, or espouse my love for what we just put on a guest’s plate, or compliment them on their eating prowess, I’m staying true to my genetic code. In a small way, keeping a flame of tradition still flickering; even if it is getting more difficult to do these days.

The guests are the recipients, but there’s no mistake I’m doing strictly for myself.

My grandmother gave, nurtured, and cherished her closest relationships with symbols of unerring hospitality. As I grow older (but not old; let’s get that straight right now!), those symbols that I recognize as part of my bloodline are my obligation to move forward.

Fine feathered photos by Gabrielle DeGiorgio

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Taking Your Seat at the Table

As I pore over the 130 plus blog posts here, I noticed a bit of a trend: the table is a recurring theme, albeit as a metaphor for my life.

It started with tables at my grandparents’ house, eating sandwiches at one great aunt’s table in my elementary school days, and having yet another provide spectacularly simple lunches as I grew older.

Even when there was no food (a rare occurrence), there was always the ubiquitous cup of brewed coffee. A mainstay, and requirement if you were to be seated at my grandmother’s kitchen table for any length of time.

It was a trend, for sure: wherever I went, I was always provided a seat at the table.

In what seems a lifetime ago, my great aunt Nicolina, and her husband Aldo, always invited me as a Saturday afternoon dinner guest in their home. Seated next to my older cousins, and their children, it was always a treat to be invited to what was sure to be an extended period of great food and lively conversation.

Being a teenager, and then in my 20s, these scenes are now distant memories. But I take time to reflect on them often.

Crafting My Seat at the Table of Life

As that teenager, I can say I was a lot like the modern teens of today: at times filled with anxiety and angst, interrupted by periods of thinking I was headed in the right direction.

My relatives did their best to mold me into the man that could easily take a seat at any table, if he wanted to.

I learned many life lessons from my cousins Nancy and Mike at those Saturday dinner tables. They married young, and stayed married for life. They are one of the models on which my own marriage is built.

Mike’s father, Aldo, was an imposing figure, a well spoken Italian immigrant whose military like tendencies made him one of the sharpest individuals I’ve ever met. He provided lessons on how to speak, carry yourself, and dress like a gentleman: going so far as to bring me back expensive Italian dress shirts from his trips overseas.

My great aunt, Aldo’s wife, is well chronicled throughout this site: she was pure class, taught me manners (especially how a man should treat and respect a woman), and showed me the way to enjoying a good life, no matter how simple and basic the means.

Along with my grandmother, on those Saturdays I was the only person not named “Carucci” at that table. I was always made to feel like a special guest of honor, although I was family. In that amazing dining room, I knew I would always have a seat there, for as long as I wanted.

Withstanding the Storms

Fast forward to 2020, especially the last few months, many of us feel like we not only don’t have a chair: but the table, like a rug beneath it, has been pulled out from under us.

Millions of Americans, and people from around the world, feel the same way: my wife and I included. Between health, financial concerns, and fractured relationships, this year – which held much promise at the outset – feels like a Mike Tyson uppercut striking with laser accuracy at the point of our collective chins.

If you’re out there, and you’re frustrated, anxiety ridden, and more unsure of your future than ever before: you’ve got a friend here. I feel you. Like our former heavyweight champ, 2020 is a barrage that won’t stop coming.

But, if I know you – if we are friends, or blood – I also know this: your foundation is strong. Like my own foundation, built with care at dining room and kitchen tables with individuals that now inhabit my fondest memories, yours has resilience and character. The ability to withstand a storm, and punch back.

Decades ago, in an eerily silent Japanese stadium, a relatively unknown fighter withstood the fury of Tyson, absorbing blows raining from everywhere, wearing him down and waiting for his chance to win.

We can retake our seats at the nation’s table with the same approach: withstand the blows as best you can. Reshape your mental framework into one that believes in a brighter tomorrow, outside forces be damned.

Take the focus off of yourself, if possible, and help others who may be struggling even more mightily.

Talk to someone. Laugh with someone. Cook for somebody. Write an 800 word article to show that you care. 😉

Take your seat, because as a child of God, it is rightfully yours.

As my cherished relatives conveyed to a young man so many years ago: that seat will always be there for the taking.

Dedicated to Nancy Carucci (1955-2020)

“Hacking” the Seven Fishes – How I Cheat My Way Through a Holiday Tradition

img_1141Yeah, that’s right. I cheat my way through an Italian American staple of Christmas Eve celebration.

There’s no reason to feel guilty about it, however.

Your traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes – which is reported to have started in southern Italy – feels like just a little too much work, being seven separate fish dishes. And in some families, the fish count can go as high as twelve (in homage to the 12 apostles).

I like to think of myself as an ambitious worker, especially in the kitchen. With some of the dishes my grandmother used to make – meatballs, fresh pasta, rice balls, chicken cutlets being examples – I think the long, slow, hard work route is the most satisfying. I try not to take shortcuts, and actually enjoy the labor involved.

My grandmother always featured a fish dish in the house on Christmas Eve – but I don’t recall her doing seven of them, as she had little time for such endeavors. Aside from cooking for her family, she was always buried in food prep during the day for the family restaurant that she helped establish.

On Christmas Eve, she had already worked plenty hard. I doubt she had any interest in the intense work of creating such a meal after a long day running her business.

Her meal that she liked to make was a simple one: a piece of freshly fried haddock, or one of my favorites, a linguine tossed with a sauce of tuna and tomatoes. A dish like that is a memorable one for me, bringing childhood flooding back all over again.

That’s the idea of trying to recreate tradition, right? To release the memories from their time capsule, to bring forth an even more enhanced holiday experience.

As I’ve said before, I don’t like to live in the past but I do like to make the occasional visit.

To make our tradition here easier and a little less laborious, my wife and I will condense the formidable preparation of seven fishes down into three straightforward dishes:

  • Dish number one is a simple crab dip made with lump crab meat, cream cheese, mayo, dashes of worcestershire sauce and ketchup. It’s my mother in law’s recipe, but my wife sweetens it up by adding chili sauce from a secret family recipe that was created decades ago by my grandmother’s sister, Carmela.
  • Number two? An even simpler shrimp cocktail, made zesty with a horseradish sauce my wife mixes, with a little extra kick of wasabi. We buy raw, frozen shrimp with the shells still on, for two reasons: they’re more cost effective (at half the price) than cooked shrimp, and I actually like peeling the shells off. Years ago, I helped peel shrimp in the restaurant kitchen – and I was trained well.
  • Number three is the big one: cioppino, or seafood stew, is the centerpiece for our Christmas Eve, and has been for several years. The sauce consists of tomatoes, fish stock, thyme, tomato paste, wine, and a touch of hot pepper. Once the sauce simmers for a bit, the fish is thrown right into it: scallops, clams, mussels, calamari, and a firm fish like cod or haddock.img_1142

If you’re counting, the number of fishes once the stew is done, comes together as seven.

My wife and I like to serve this dish simply, as well – with just a crusty bread on the side, to soak up all the goodness from the sauce and fish liquid that shouldn’t be wasted.

We do have company for this meal, and the preference for a couple of family members is to have the fish and broth ladled over pasta. It’s an option that’s delicious, and one I can recommend, as well.

Interested in a recipe? Try this one, from the celebrity chef (and our favorite television personality) Lidia Bastianich. Her version can be found here:

Seafood Soup

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“Make America Great Again?” – You Can’t Be Serious

“Politics is an easy place to go to avoid dealing with your real problems. In fact, many of the people who spend their time worrying about partisan politics do so as a way to avoid addressing what really needs to change in their life. The changes you need to make are not going to be addressed by any politician or government agency. While elections are important, they aren’t nearly as important as what you can do for yourself.” – Anthony Iannarino

As we steamroll into these final months of an election season – with heated debates that promise interest and entertainment – this is not going to be another internet political rant.

I don’t have an agenda against one candidate, or for another. That’s not my deal.

As a small town citizen, who would I be to bash anyone that is running a campaign to acquire the world’s most demanding job?

I do, however, have a small problem with the slogan “Make America Great Again.”

Albeit, the slogan sells. Look at the campaign rallies – the citizens have come droves to bathe in the rhetoric.

With smart phone at the ready, clutching a Starbucks or upgraded handbag in their one hand, waving their rally sign with the other.

I look at our country of today and think to myself, “are we really in that much trouble? Has America lost her greatness?”

This slogan, and perhaps the campaign itself, preys on fears that you have created that have no basis – fears that you should put on the shelf.

A Different Perspective

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My great grandmother, pictured here, could possibly have told you about the greatness of America, if she could speak any English. Arriving here in 1929, she stepped off the boat onto Ellis Island just in time for the greatest stock market crash our economy has faced.

She left the comfort and familiarity of her small town in Sicily, and if my facts serve me correctly, the first home in that town with indoor plumbing and running water. Truly the lap of luxury.

I would not blame her if she thought she left her homeland to travel great distances to a country with big problems.

Luckily, she had a rock steady family unit around her. Up against the odds and mighty struggles, that family turned out successful business owners, physicians, teachers, cooks, artists, and all around American success stories.

The secret to that success?  Embracing simplicity, values, and a never say die work ethic.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote a wonderful article about our 2016 Olympic athletes – but as I was reading his words, I felt he was talking about my immigrant family more than anything:

They had a drive more powerful… They swapped resentment for goals. And they worked. By God, did they work. We tend to marvel at their freakish gifts, but we should marvel even more at their freakish devotion. That’s what made the difference.

They invested hour upon hour, day after day. They sacrificed idle time and other pursuits. They honed a confidence that eludes most of us and summoned a poise that we can only imagine. They took risks, big ones.

And they pressed on, because there was this thing that they wanted so very, very badly and the only way to know if they could get it was to put everything on the line.

And herein lies the issue with modern America – everything is expected, and little is earned.

Should we be shocked most people don’t think America is great? How could you, when the perception is – the wolf is at the door, at all times?

We all need to leave our warm, comfy cocoons and come to one realization – the resident of the Oval Office doesn’t matter. In the end, you are responsible for your life.

Statistics bear out that we live in one of the safest, and most prosperous, times in our history. We have running water. Indoor plumbing. Plenty of food. Perhaps, too much food. Modern conveniences that have no purpose other than to make our unfit bodies more comfortable, within houses and property so opulent that the rest of the world may not be able to fathom.

And we need to “Make America Great Again?” Give me a break.

My Italians came here with little hope other than to live as poor immigrants. They made themselves great. We can all do the same.

Embrace your inner peasant, your inner Spartan. Start earning what you think you deserve. Make yourself a little uncomfortable in the process, on purpose, instead of searching for the convenient answer.

As Mr. Bruni wrote – sacrifice your idle time. Instead of resentment, embrace the work. Cultivate a freakish devotion. Put it all on the line.

That’s what your ancestors did, and what we can do. That’s America, and her greatness.