December 2017

Hot chocolate, cutout cookies, marshmallows, and a candy cane make for a cozy December 25. – tangledpasta.net

By Mary Anna Violi | @MaryAnnaVioli

December. I cannot fathom what in the name that is good and holy went awry.

The first week of December, a beloved uncle dropped dead, literally. True, he had been in heart failure, and had suffered various ailments, and yes, he had turned 96 on Halloween, but still, his death was unexpected, at least it was to me.

On Saturday, the day after I had the honor of singing at said uncle’s funeral Mass, I awakened to an unwanted bout of a gastro-intestinal virus. Fortunately, it lasted only 24 hours, but still, it seized me for a most unpleasant duration.

Sunday began nicely enough: I attended Mass, later focusing on my last two days of classes for the forthcoming week. The usual flurry of activity surrounding end of the semester college classes hastened to a close. On Monday morning a most wretched pain affected my neck. I could not fathom what had happened during my night of repose; however, I knew I had to make haste to pull myself together for these second to the last classes. I popped a couple of Ibuprofen and figured those would do the trick. Sadly, they did not. I managed to grit my teeth, and not turn my head too much, and somehow crawled through the day. During the night I was either howling or crying from the dreadful pain in my neck. I rifled through the medicine cabinet in hope of finding something to alleviate the pain. While the medicine dulled the pain in my neck, I entered the Twilight Zone. Unable to focus, I stumbled throughout the day at home, nearly falling on several occasions. That night I managed to get about three hours worth of sleep; the remainder of the night passed in my screaming in pain or in tears.

Morning dawned: the last day of classes. Every fiber of my body ached from pain: I was a wreck. I fumbled around my computer in attempts to make arrangements for my students. Since pain and medication had rendered me unfit for the classroom, or for anything else, in anguish I reached out to colleagues for help in collecting my students’ final work.

After multiple nights of virtually no sleep, I lay propped up in a comfortable chair, still in pain, yet not immobilizing pain. My physician also changed the type of muscle relaxant so that my out of body experience lessened. I managed to read my students’ final work, and the next day I completed the final grading. For the first time in over 30 years of teaching, however, I missed my last classes, and could only bid my students adieu over the classroom management system.

The following week I felt better. I then turned my attention to Christmas preparations. Later I decided to make Tuscan Farro Soup. One of my favorite kitchen gadgets is a mandolin that makes slicing vegetables a breeze. On the box, I noticed a picture of sliced carrots. I surmised I didn’t need to use the safety device that holds the vegetable in place. As I merrily sliced away, the carrot buckled, broke, and the mandolin sliced off the top of my middle finger [not the tip, but the flat part below the nail]. Once again I screamed in pain as blood spurted down the drain, for I had turned on the cold faucet water. It took awhile to then stanch the flow of blood. My daughter wanted to take me to the ER, but I said there was nothing to stitch. Washing the wound, then applying triple antibiotic ointment on it, and wrapping it in the large bandage seemed the best course of action.

For the next week I could not stir anything, or cut Christmas wrapping paper, or tie ribbon around gifts. Days before Christmas I managed to make my mother’s classic “Connie’s Fudge” recipe, bake and decorate Italian Ricotta Lemon Cookies, and make a homemade coconut cream pie to take to m brother and his family. The only way I could do this was with my daughter, who formed the balls of cookie dough to bake, and to stir the stovetop portion of the fudge recipe, and to stir the cream part of the coconut cream pie.

Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas!

Ciao for now.

 

 

How to Keep Occupied During a Snowstorm

Winter's beauty diminishes not, even in a snowstorm -tangledpasta.net
Winter’s beauty diminishes not, even in a snowstorm -tangledpasta.net

 By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

As a hearty Italian American in the Heartland, I have learned how to brave winter.  When winter visits a snowstorm upon us, we Midwesterners prepare and hunker down to ride out the iciness of it all. As we anticipate the worst snowstorm and subzero temperatures in twenty years, I offer engaging activities to occupy one’s self.

1.  Grocery Shopping, Preferably before the Snowstorm – I stocked up on eggs [poached, scrambled, or in a fritatta or quiche], tuna [I love tuna salad when snowbound], soup [in case I am too lazy to make my own], cannellini beans [in case I do rouse myself to make soup], bread [okay, I forgot to buy the bread, even though it was on my grocery list], P.F. Chang’s frozen shrimp dumplings, ricotta [a must for Italians], low-fat vanilla yogurt [my ice cream substitute, sort of], garbanzo beans [because they are so delicious roasted stove top in olive oil], and honey [in a teddy bear bottle, of course].

2.  Dining Out Hours Before the Snowstorm – After I did the Readings at 5:30 p.m. Mass last evening, it had not yet begun to snow.  A friend phoned me.  Did I want to dine out before the estimated 8:00 p.m. snowfall?  It was 6:43 pm., I noted, but sure, why not?  A nearby Japanese restaurant was packed with like-minded individuals.  However, we instead nabbed a booth at my favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant.  A salad and baked rigatoni sated me; in fact, I took half of it home, anticipating it would make a fine Sunday lunch, had hunger pangs not attacked at 10:00 p.m., I would have eaten the baked rigatoni for lunch.  As I wound my way up the hilly winding drive to my friend’s abode in what was now heavy snowfall, I looked forward to nestling inside my warm home.

3.  Putting Away Christmas Decorations – While my daughter and I had taken down the Christmas tree, the boughs that decorated the archways and windows, there were still plenty of Christmas decorations left for me to store. This morning a stray CD of Christmas tunes manifested itself under a bough tossed on the desk. A Santa Claus statue and a large musical Santa snow globe still grace an end table. The Christmas stockings, while taken down, are draped over a dining room chair.  In the bathroom a Christmas tree with bright ornaments and a wreath hung on the wall beckon to be put away for winter slumber. A pair of Christmas socks my daughter forgot to retrieve from the clean laundry basket surfaced today too.

    4.  Updating the Nativity – Yesterday before she left a day ahead of schedule for law school due to the severe winter storm warnings, my daughter remarked that we had not brought out the Three Kings [We Three Kings of Orient Are…remember]. Consequently, this morning, I hauled out the Three Kings and their three dromedaries [camels], and I boxed up the shepherds, their sheep, their cats, and their dog.  Tomorrow, January 6, is the Feast of the Epiphany [and my brother’s birthday].  The Three Kings should be present in The Nativity, and besides, they are beautifully attired.

   5.  Cleaning Up the Ranch, so to Speak – After the mayhem of packing to return to school, settling Shelton Rae, her cat, in his plush travel carrier, transferring Poseidon, her red Beta fish, from his tank to his large pitcher travel container, and my packing up the cooler with Italian beef, homemade macaroni and cheese, yogurt, eggs, bread [I remembered to buy her a loaf], I awoke to the reality of gritty floors.  On this frosty Sunday morn as the snow flies nonstop, I vacuumed the house and rugs.  At least I’m not hearing crunch, crunch, crunch, under my feet as I move from room to room.

6.  Re-imagining Wall Décor – In taking down pictures in late November to hang Christmas art on the walls, I realized that I was ready for a change of scenery.  Throwing on a CD of Adele, I sang and danced as I repositioned artwork. I even moved pictures to others rooms where they offer a new perspective for a New Year.

7.  Brewing Tea – Nothing says, “Drink me” like freshly brewed tea. Inveterate coffee drinkers with substitute “Brewing Tea” for “Brewing Coffee”, which is perfectly fine for java aficionados. After cleaning the house, putting away Christmas decorations, and brewing tea or coffee, it is time to settle into an easy chair, and sip the hot beverage.

8.  Watching the Snow Fall – When winter keeps me housebound, I marvel at the beauty of the winter wonderland outside my windows.  The trees and shrubs glisten in winter white garb, the rooftops in the neighborhood glow with their white cover. Throughout my life I have relished the hush a snowstorm provides; its quiet is relaxing. Imbibing my tea, I feel content as I view the bounteous winter landscape stretched out before me as our cats, Fellini and Coco Chanel, nap.

9.  Reading – In my bungalow snow palace, I sit and read, uninterrupted since I cannot venture out.  It is a blessing to have hours to re-read a Jane Austen treasured book, and even begin reading a signed book my brother bought me for my birthday:  The Stonecutter’s Aria by Carol Faenzi.

10.  Writing – Writing offers a fine creative outlet during a snowstorm. Instead of thinking about writing a short story, novel, poem, or a blog, or penning those gift thank-you’s.  A snowstorm offers the gift of time for one to begin these artistic endeavors. Of course, this assumes one has neither power, nor heat.

Ciao for now.

 

 

 

 

Giving Thanks

Giving Thanks encourages us to pause with family and friends - tangledpasta.net
Giving Thanks encourages us to pause with family and friends – tangledpasta.net

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

   Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.  For the second day in a row I landed in a grocery store.  One would think we were preparing the entire Thanksgiving feast, but no, we are bringing the crudités, cheese ball [rolled in nuts] and a homemade coconut cream pie. My daughter and I are cooking my November 30th birthday dinner, which is why we had a second day of grocery shopping.

   Today’s grocery experience took place at Whole Foods, fortuitously because we were hungry, and the day before Thanksgiving, samples were out in full force.  We noshed on organic dates, Clementine oranges, Gruyère cheese, roasted lamb, cranberry walnut bread, and vegan pumpkin pie. The only problem with selecting items one actually needs while shopping on an empty stomach is that one winds up with a cart full of extra items not on the original shopping list.  We exited the store with four spanakopita and two pounds of spinach and Gruyère stuffed mushrooms, both of which were not on the list, and a fresh turkey breast, which was also not on the list, but it is snowing fast and furiously here and what if we cannot travel to my brother’s house two-and-three-quarter-hours away on Thanksgiving morning?  I judged it safer to have the turkey breast on hand, although after we loaded up the SUV I realized that we had been invited to share Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow with some dear friends, and had received an invitation from lively local family members.

       “The turkey breast could be frozen until the Christmas holidays,” I mused.        Rationalization intact, I thought about all the frenzied shoppers I observed today.  Maybe we now place too much pressure on ourselves for Thanksgiving.  All the stress used to be reserved from frenetic Christmas shopping. Yet it seems to me that the quest to make Thanksgiving Dinner Perfect has overtaken some of us.  We tend to be a culture of overachievers who sometimes border on anal perfectionists.  Or maybe that is simply who I am and I am in denial.

   At Thanksgiving we need not worry about bearing gifts, for which I am thankful. After all, Thanksgiving’s allure is sharing a delicious meal with one’s family, although this year the first night of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving. Since I am not Jewish, I am off the hook for buying Hanukkah presents.  If gifts were involved, it would mean making sure all gifts looked no less than perfect. That is what I look forward to early next month.  All right, I confess:  I started Christmas shopping over a month ago. However, tomorrow we will sit down with our family and relish a delectable Thanksgiving banquet.

Ciao for now.

 

Bottles

A barrel of wine and bottles remind me of my father's wine-making = tangledpasta.net
A barrel of wine and bottles remind me of my father’s wine-making = tangledpasta.net

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

As the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays fast approach, I am reminded of a tradition in our family, or at least one of my father’s.  The other evening as I poured the last vestiges of a Pinot Noir into my wine glass, I stood the empty bottle upright, looked long and hard at it, and began to smile.  The bottle evoked memories of Christmases past in my mind’s eye.

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year, family, friends, and vendors would come bearing gifts of alcoholic refreshment to my father.  The liquid offerings consisted of primarily liquors, in particular Anisette, Amaretto di Saranno, Fra Angelico, and the occasional Peach Schnapps.  Others bore bottles of Canadian Club, Royal Crown, Jim Beam, with a brandy thrown in for good measure.  Most evenings, after the table had been cleared, the dishes washed, and the leftovers stored away, my parents would sit in their cozy living room.

My father would inquire of my mother, “Kitty, you wanna shot?”

Invariably she replied, “Yes, Ciccio, that would be nice.”

I would be pressed into service as family bartender to pour them each a shot of their choice – Anisette was a favorite during the Holidays, with Amaretto di Saranno vying with Fra Angelico for a close second.  With great deliberation did I select the shot glasses.  My personal favorites were the etched glass pedestal ones.

My father carefully cleaned and stored the empty liquor and whiskey bottles.  He delighted in giving gifts to family and friends.  Since he was a master wine maker, he tapped into a huge oaken barrel and filled each of the cleaned empty bottled with his hearty dry red wine.  He annually made his wine with only a variety of grapes from the Napa Valley in California.  Family and friends eagerly looked forward to his cheery smile, his broken English greeting of “Hiya!  Merry Christmas!  How you are?”, as he handed them a bottle of wine in one of his bottles.  Though I was unaware of it then, my father was light years ahead of the recycling movement.  While I do not make my wine, I do recycle the empty bottles in the bin provided by my town, and I do give gifts of wine at Christmas.

Dad would be proud.

Ciao for now.

 

Labor Day Weekend

 

 

Summer's end, The Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island - tangledpasta.net
Summer’s end, The Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island, one of my favorite places tangledpasta.net

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

When I was a young sprig, the last hurrah of summer was spent swimming, fishing, and boating at our summer-house on the lake.  Amid whoops and splashes, diving, and floating, we frolicked throughout most of those sun-drenched summer days. We also feasted in between swims.  At least one Labor Day Weekend dinner included hamburgers and hot dogs on the old brick grill my grandfather had built.  There was Mama’s homemade coleslaw [light on the mayonnaise], Aunt Agnes’ potatoes and side dishes, and Aunt Adelaide’s homemade German chocolate cake.  Life was good and mighty tasty too.

We cousins knew that after we bade one another adieu on Labor Day itself, the school year commenced the next day.  Labor Day heralded the end of summer; it placed the cherry on the cake of summer.  Labor Day also paved the way to autumn.  We donned new school attire, and polished saddle shoes and penny loafers, we headed for the classroom, armed with our metal lunch boxes, and new pencil cases in hand. In an uncertain world, we could count on school commencing the day after Labor Day.  There seemed a kind of security in knowing that.

Back then we understood the cyclic nature of the seasons:  Autumn equated with school; Winter meant snowy white nights and Christmas; Spring reminded us Nature awakened; and Summer beckoned with the lure of languid days at the lake. My daughter fell prey to the lunacy of the extended school day, the elongated school year, and the mania of increased standardized testing.  School began for her in the oppressive heat and humidity of the August dog days of summer.  I haven’t observed youth getting any smarter or adept at the traditional 3 R’s of writing, reading, and arithmetic with this prolonged school year. A wave of sadness overtakes me to know that the young cannot partake in the ritual of summer’s end that Labor Day used to offer my cousins and me.

Ciao for now.

 

 

Buona Pasqua, Ancora

Cugina Chrissy's limoncello and chocolate raspberry-chocolate chip cakes - tangledpasta.net
Cugina Chrissy’s limoncello and chocolate raspberry-chocolate chip cakes – tangledpasta.net

By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi

Easter Sunday dawned auspiciously today:  The sky was gray and overcast.  As I was leaving for Church, rain began to puddle on the patio.  Since I had scheduled the 9:30 a.m. Mass on Easter Sunday in memory of my parents, Catherine “Kitty” and Frank, I realized I neglected to negotiate with the meteorologist for sunshine.  Yet halfway through Easter Mass, the sun shone, filtering through the Church’s stained glass windows.  It was a glorious omen for Easter.

My cugina [cousin] Marianne [yes, we Italians like to continuously recycle family names, which is why three-fourths of Italian women have the same first names, as do the men], invited me over for an Easter breakfast with her family.  Her father, my uncle and Godfather, is ninety-four years young, and, as our family patriarch, happily presided over my cousin’s light-as-air Belgian waffles [we Italians in the Heartland are multicultural in culinary spirit as well as ecumenical], crispy center-cut bacon, and her daughter’s delicious once-over-easy eggs.   Her husband Steve poured us shots of Amaretto di Saranno, which I poured into my coffee, thereby punching up my cup of Joe.

I was touched by my cugina’s Easter Breakfast invitation because sitting down with family reminded me of Easter Sunday breakfasts after Mass with my family.  When I was away at college, unable to get home for Easter, my mother made a point of sending me an Easter basket filled with malted milk balls, foil-wrapped chocolate eggs, a large chocolate bunny, jelly beans and decorated eggs.  This year, I too filled my daughter’s furry, musical, ear-flapping rabbit Easter basket with treats and mailed it to her.   It is a worthy family tradition; it even received the Easter Bunny Seal of Approval.

My uncle’s family convened again late this afternoon for Easter dinner at his granddaughter Chrissy’s home.  My cousin follows in the family tradition of fine cooks.  She whipped up enough food to feed the Italian army:  Baked ham, potatoes, corn, green beans, and her mother prepared Italian sausage in a tomato-onion sauce for sandwiches replete with crusty Italian bread.  To top it off, dessert was limoncello cake and a chocolate-raspberry-chocolate chip cake confection.  Naturally, we imbibed vino bianco and vino rosso.  My contribution was an Italian Easter bread in the shape of a crucifix, and a bottle of hearty Chianti.

Tomorrow I am fasting. Alleluia!

Ciao for now.

 

Buona Pasqua!

Italian Easter bread - tangledpasta.net
Italian Easter bread – tangledpasta.net

By Mary Anna Violi |  @Mary Anna Violi

Today I suddenly realized this is the first Easter Sunday I have not shared with my daughter.  For the past twenty-one years we have attended Easter Sunday Mass together, followed by a sumptuous dinner with family.  The good news is that this Easter, Anjelica is commemorating Easter with her uncle, aunt, and cousins.  My brother lives only 75 miles from the Big 12 college campus, while our own home clocks in four hours north.  75 miles to my brother’s sounded far more appealing, particularly since Easter is early this year, on March 31.

The other reason is that I lacked the wherewithal to go out-of-town a fifth weekend in a row.  Frankly, I am weary.  My darling daughter and my dear nephew will graduate with their undergraduate degrees in May.  In June, my sweet niece will marry.  Before my soon-to-be college graduate graduates, there is Mom’s Weekend at her sorority house in April.  These three milestones all are far south from this Italian American’s residence in the Heartland.  Ergo, I opted to relinquish travel over Easter weekend.

This does not equate with me sadly ingesting a frozen Lean Cuisine Easter dinner.  Far from it.  I will be joining my sprightly local uncle and lively cousins for an Italian Pasqua dinner.  After dining with my family, a close friend who happens to be a nun, and I will be celebrating Easter, too.  I am grateful for my family and friends, yet I yearn for my daughter to join in these Easter festivities.

Today I went to a local Italian bakery, purchased Easter bread, an Italian lamb cake, and wished I could transport these traditional delicacies to my daughter.  How she loves the roasted leg of lamb and potatoes that I make, the asparagus, salad, Easter bread and lamb cake!  To assuage my conscience, I have placed some of the lamb cake in the freezer, along with pink sugar-sprinkled bunny cutout cookies, and Easter bread.  I will take these to her on Mom’s Weekend, for the Italian mama in me cannot bear to have her denied some of her favorite Easter delights.  After all, liturgically speaking, Easter season continues through May 12 this year. J

Ciao for now.