As the harvest moon implies, September marked the time when Grandpa would be bringing in the last of the vegetables from the garden. And for Grandma, her canning season would begin. “Even though I put up all these vegetables for the winter, just look at the treasure you girls have — you eat fresh from the back yard every day.”
This was the season when Grandpa loved showing off his fennel plants, finocchio (fen-nok) and a prize cucuzza (coo-gootz). An Italian squash known to grow up to three feet long, cucuzza became a key ingredient for a month of meals.
Grandpa was so proud of his finocchio, that he would bring them to some of the merchants in town near the family pastry shop. With a texture similar to celery and an anise taste, we would have them sliced thin for munching between courses at dinner or slivered into a salad to accompany a cucuzza dish.
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My younger sister just wrote me of their trip to a roadside stand. “Our intention was to pick up fresh peppers, but lo and behold they were selling cucuzza. I had to buy a 3-foot-long squash to make stuffed canoes, and Gramma Water Stew. Can’t you just taste the cucuzza, onions, garlic, carrots, fresh lima beans, and tomatoes?”
Not only could I conjure up the taste, I can still see Grandma dipping her long ladle into the deep soup pan, then pouring the sweet-tasting stew onto a thick frizelle at the bottom of a bowl to seep in the juices. Then at the table there would be a shaved stack of Parmesan cheese to top off the meal.
My sister remarked, after making it in her own kitchen, “All we needed was a glass of Gram’s homemade grape juice and it would be like having her standing there, smiling, and saying, ‘Mangia.’”
While Grandma and all of us savored the stew, Grandpa’s favorite was the stuffed cucuzza. After scooping out the squash, Grandma would dice a yellow onion and mix it with diced Roma tomatoes, fresh garlic, parsley, and basil and mix it together with cucuzza. Then she would add bread stuffing, usually day-old crusted bread that she soaked in water. She mixed this together with diced mozzarella and an egg and stuffed the canoes. Before baking she topped the dish with some fresh tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese. While it baked, it seemed as if the entire neighborhood had the aroma of her little village in Italy.
When we would sit to eat, Grandpa would pinch her cheek and say, “Eh Brava.” She would teasingly push away his hand, then hold it and say, “Now we give thanks.”
— Rita Watson, M.P.H., a Providence Journal relationship columnist, writes “With Love and Gratitude” for PsychologyToday.com.