Thursday, December 31

Get Your Red Undies Ready!

(Fireworks display under Brooklyn Bridge, October, 2009)

As an Italian-American, I can't say I have followed the Italian traditions for New Years, perhaps out of laziness or because my kids don't like sausage and I don't like lentils very much. (Ok, it's not the taste as much as the after effects, but I digress) So we don't eat anything special in my family on New Year's Eve. But in Italy, New Year's Eve is celebrated with a meal consisting of a special type of spiced sausage called cotechino, it is said to symbolize fat wallets in the coming year, and lentils, which, because of their shape, symbolize coins, and as such, prosperity for the coming year.

Italians frequently drink spumante as their wine of choice on Capodanno (New Year's Eve), and their underwear of choice is traditionally red- it's supposed to bring luck in the new year. So, after a meal of sausage and lentils, washed down with some spumante, you take in the traditional fireworks display wearing your red underwear. If you have the time, you can toss some old items you don't need anymore out of your window to get rid of the old and ring in the new.

So, to everyone, Felice Anno Nuovo! And if you want to try the cotechino and lenticche recipe, here's one, courtesy of

1 1/2 cups green lentils
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 pound prociutto, pancetta, or bacon, diced
1 medium onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 small fennel bulb, diced
1 shallot, minced
2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound sweet Italian sausage with fennel
1 medium can of chopped tomatoes
1 small dried chili pepper, or red pepper flakes to taste
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste
Most lentils sold these days do not need to be soaked ahead, but it is best to follow any package directions that come with the lentils you buy. Put lentils in a pot of boiling, salted water; when the water boils again, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes or according to package directions. Drain..

Saute the bacon, onion, carrot, fennel, shallot and garlic in the olive oil in a large skillet. When vegetable are soft, remove and brown the sausage in the same skillet. Set sausage aside on paper towels.

Remove all fat from the skillet and return the bacon and vegetables to the pan; add the tomatoes, hot pepper, and bay leaf, and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the sausage and heat through, simmering for 5 minutes or more.

Season with salt and pepper and serve on a large platter accompanied by mashed potatos.

Serves 4 to 6 people

Sunday, December 13


One day in 1964, my mom left work on her lunch break and went to Market Street in Philly bought a collection of pixie knee hugger dolls for Christmas decorations. They were made in Japan and were decked out in sparkly outfits and hats. She still lived at home with my grandparents then and she began hanging them from the chandelier at Christmastime. When she and my dad got married, she took the pixies with her and hung them from the chandelier in her new home. They have been dancing from the chandelier for over 40 years.

My mom, who is the consumate Christmas decorator and should really be doing the window dressing at Barney's, begins decorating the day after Thanksgiving. She sends my dad up to the attic and the procession of boxes begins. She carefully unpacks everything and places them in their pre-arranged spots. As kids, she would direct me and my sister as to where to place each decoration. But it was watching my mom hang up those pixies that I most looked forward to every year. They were my favorite Christmas decorations and I used to watch them sway and turn as they dangled. When Christmas dinner got boring, I would stare at the pixies and blow up towards the chandelier when nobody was watching so I could make them dance. I don't know if as a kid I thought they were magical or just mesmerizing, all glittery and sparkly, but to me, they represented the holidays at home.

One year, as an adult, I was discussing decorations with my mom. She had recently had surgery and didn't feel up to the usual lavish decorating marathon. I said "you're going to put the pixies up, aren't you?" "I don't think so, it's a lot of work." I said "You have to put them up! I'll come do it for you! It's not Christmas without them!" I was actually whining! Well, she put them up afterall, without my help. WHEW!

In 2006 I decided that in my new home where I finally had a chandelier, I wanted some of those pixies. I began to look online because I had never seen then in any stores. I couldn't find them anywhere online except eBay- and those were all used. There were no new ones to be found- they hadn't been made in years! Rats! So I did the only thing I could, because by then I was hell bent on getting those pixies- I started bidding on other people's throw aways! But guess what? Many other people had the same idea! The ones I wanted- the sparkly, blingy-outfitted ones, were rare- I could only find the ones dressed in felt. So the prices were high and I kept getting outbid. In 2006 I managed to win a few but not enough for my chandelier. The next year I went through the same thing- I won a few auctions and had to salvage a few good ones from each lot because some were filthy or just really battered. I won some more in 2008 after Christmas and by then I had about a dozen. I was already excited for Christmas 2009.

It's now 2009 and I finally have my complete collection of other people's used Christmas decorations. Today I decorated the house and the tree and the first thing I did was the chandelier. It took over an hour to get the clear string attached to their little hats if they didn't have their original string, then position them. They are larger than the ones my mom has, but this year I got to recreate a little childhood magic in my home for my children. I hope these don't disintegrate from age because when they are married, they will only have a pile of pixie dust!

Thursday, November 26

Where's the Lasagna?

Sigh. I don't like turkey much. I'll eat it but given my druthers I'd rather not. When I was young and we used to go to my late Aunt Rita's house and she always made the American food- turkey, potatoes, veggies, etc. But in a nod to our Italian-ness she always had a huge dish of lasagna, too. Now that's what I eyeballed when the table was heaped with "cibo.". Everyone else took some of everything. Not me. Just lasagna. And my Aunt Carole's ( rest her soul) cranberry nut mold. Madon! I was a happy camper.

Today turkey day is at my younger sister's house and it's all American. I'm bringing sweet potato casserole with pecan topping- my dad loves it. I'm working out extra this morning so I have no guilt later, needless to say.

At dinner I always ask everyone to name something they are grateful for besides health. As I said in my previous post, I'm grateful for my family and friends who have made my 40th year on earth very meaningful.

I'm also grateful for my wonderful career that I absolutely love. Eighteen years of teaching and only one tough one. Not bad. A student asked me last year if I knew when I'd stop teaching. I said "when they pry the chalk out of my cold, dead hands."

I wanted to make special mention today of my dearest friends. I'm grateful, in particular, for Michael, Stephanie, Julio and Sharon who have given me such happy moments and memories this year.

I wish I could be grateful for lasagna today but I think not having it will make me grateful tomorrow at weigh-in at the gym.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Think about what you have to be grateful for today and don't forget it!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Friday, January 16

The Maloik (Malocchio) or the "Evil Eye"

While not Italian in origin, many Italians believe in il malocchio (often pronounced "maloik.") Part superstition, part tradition, it is the belief in the evil eye, placed on someone when someone else is jealous or envious of the other's good luck. The malocchio then manifests itself in some sort of misfortune onto the cursed person, usually some physical ailment.

It can also be done involuntarily, like when you see a beautiful baby and you compliment the parent. That could be construed as envy and the parent must then say something like "God bless her" right after it to ward off a possible malocchio, many believing that even though the compliment may have sounded sincere, its real motive was envy. That's why my cousin made me put a red ribbon over the threshold of my new home and told me to throw salt out of all the doors- to protect us from envious people. The person who gives the evil eye is not necessarily evil, but does indeed harbour jealousy.

One can also ward it off by wearing a horn (cornuto) around the neck
or making a gesture with your hand (mano cornuta-which you may know from heavy metal concerts). It is said that Italian men wear the cornuto to protect their genitalia from the malocchio, as the curse is said to harm sperm.

I can't say that I believe or disbelieve the malocchio and I only have one indirect experience with it...

When my mom was in her twenties, she got a great job with the government. Soon after, she began getting terrible headaches that aspirin would not relieve. She suffered with them intermittently for a few weeks when it dawned on my litte Sigi grandmother what the problem was.

"Someone gave you the maloik. (malocchio).""You're crazy. Who would do that?" my mom responded, not telling her she was crazy for believing in "stregheria" or Italian witchcraft, but, rather, for thinking someone would put the curse on her. (The irony that my grandmother was a devout Catholic whose church forbids belief in witchcraft is not lost on me.)
"Who knows? You have that nice job now- someone is jealous and put it on you."
"Nobody is jealous of me."
"I want you to go see the strega down the street."
The local strega, or Italian witch, was known to be capable of removing the horrible malocchio that afflicted unassuming Italians in the South Philadelphia neighborhood where they lived.
"I'm not going to the strega. Forget about it. The headaches will go away."
My grandmother never mentioned the malocchio again to my mother.

About a week after the strega conversation, my mom could not find her watch when she was getting ready for work. She asked my grandmother if she had seen it but she had not. My mom, a very organized and detail-oriented individual (you say anal, I say detail-oriented) who never misplaces anything, was disturbed by the missing watch. She looked everywhere for it and finally resigned herself to the fact that it must have slipped off to or from work. The stress only contributed to her constant headaches. (Knowing my mom like I do, I don't for a minute believe that she accepted that her watch was gone, and she probably continued to search for it for at least 24 hours more.)

A few days later my mom woke up and found her watch on her bureau. She put it on and asked my grandmother how it got there. My grandmother told her she didn't know. When she got home from work she grilled my grandmother about the watch.

"Are you sure you didn't borrow it and not put it back?"
"Bah, why do I need a watch? I don't go anywhere!"
"Did Daddy find it and put it in my room?"
"I don't think so. So... how are your headaches?"
"Funny, I didn't get one today."

My sigi grandmother smiled but did not say anything.
"Why are you smiling?"
"I took your watch to the strega since you wouldn't go yourself. She took off the malocchio."
she yelled
"It worked, didn't it?" My mom didn't know what to say to that. It was more troubling to her that someone had put the malocchio on her then the fact that there was a Sicilian witch living on their street who claimed to be able to both curse and remove curses.

How did the strega allegedly remove the malocchio. Probably by inserting the tip of a needle into the eye of another needle while saying: “Occhi e contro e perticelli agli occhi, crepa la invida e schiattono gli occhi." That means “Eyes against eyes and the holes of the eyes, envy cracks and eyes burst.” She then dropped the needles on top of three drops of olive oil in water and sprinkled three pinches of salt into the water. The strega would then jab scissors into the water through the oil three times and cut the air above the bowl three times and POOF! The spell was FINITO!

...or the aspirin finally kicked in.