Vegetables Can Kill You

brussels-sprouts

That’s what I thought when I was a kid. For many years, I refused to be in the same room with vegetables, let alone eat them. “Are you really part of this family?” people would cry as they tucked into heaping plates of breaded escarole soup, while I sat meekly in front of a plate of macaroni seasoned with butter.

I don’t know how it all started, but I abhorred anything that grew: lettuce… all types of salad ingredients… anything green… every sort of pepper… cauliflower– you name it, I hated it. It’s a wonder I managed to thrive on macaroni and meat, but I did somehow. (That  probably explains why I am a sucker for any type of carbohydrate these days.) Christmas Eve at our house was a particular nightmare: every fish dish was seasoned withsome sort of vegetable flavor, and so I sat– again– withmy plate of buttered spaghetti. I used to actually wonder if I hadn’t been given to the wrong family at birth: I was born in Sister Elizabeth Hospital in Brooklyn, which is now Lutheran Medical Center, so I may really have been meant for a family named Larsen or Svenson or Knutsen.

Lima beans were an especial horror when I was growing up. I mean, why give something like that to a kid when you know he’d rather tuck into an egg salad sandwich? Instead, I would be faced with a serving of those bland, washed-out beans, which I refused to eat. Mom got so mad at me one night at supper that she banished me to the enclosed porch to eat my meal in solitary; I couldn’t reappear until I’d finished every bean, but instead I buried them in the soil of Mom’s potted plants. (She always had some philodendron growing.) Years later I discovered that my sister Lois used to do the same thing!

[Lois was often particularly troublesome at dinner, for reasons I don’t recall. Often, I’d get so mad at her that I’d angrily pack a little suitcase for her and put it by the door, with orders for her to leave NOW. Sometimes she was sent out into the hallway to eat by herself, tucked into a tiny folding ladder that served as a stool. Above her dangled a bare light bulb, making her seem like a cross between Jane Eyre and Baby Jane Hudson.]

Mom tried. One night she served us from a bowl of something mashed and white and creamy, which was delicious. We couldn’t get enough of it! “What was it?!?!” we demanded at the end of the meal, only to be told that we’d been tricked into eating cauliflower disguised as mashed potatoes! Ironically, the South Beach Diet features this as a palatable way to eat cauliflower– Mom was WAY ahead of her time!

These days I’m much more flexible in my vegetable habits; the previous post credits my shrinking taste buds, but maybe I’ve just grown more adventurous. Kirk actually made me dictate a list of vegetables that I would eat, one day while we were driving to Key West. The conversation began thus:

Kirk: Hey, look over there… that’s the plant nursery I went to with Mark.

Jim: You went to a nursery with Barb?

Kirk: Who’s Marv?

I laughed for the next 400 miles, but the conversation eventually led to the aforementioned vegetable list, hand-written by Kirk, which is still Scotch-taped to the inside of a kitchen cupboard door:

“Peas, corn, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, lettuce, string beans, black-eyed peas, baked beans, beets, some fresh garden tomato, artichoke hearts, potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, creamed spinach, lima beans.”

I re-read this list on occasion in order to remind myself how grown-up I’ve become, and I can even add things like romaine lettuce, fresh spinach, and the kinds of greens you find in those “mixed salad” bags at Publix: who could resist something called BUTTER lettuce?

I swear, I’m going to live to be a hundred!

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A HUGE Vegetable Garden (Not Mine)

Jon's Vegetable Garden. Photo by Jon M. Foster.

Jon's Vegetable Garden. Photo by Jon M. Foster.

Okay. Faithful readers of these posts know that I struggle in my garden as a cloistered nun struggles within her faith. You know about my encounters with insects and larvae and slimy, pulsating things that cause wreck and ruin.  And you also know that I refuse to treat my plants with chemicals because we all know what happens when you upset the natural balance of the Earth by introducing Union Carbide’s latest wonder drug into the environment.

This year, with determination and confidence, I decided to plant some vegetables and herbs for a ravioli garden. Small as the yard is, my space is limited, but I proudly put in two tomatoes, a pepper, and rows of herb seeds: arugula, bieta, basil, and borragine.  It took me most of an afternoon to ready the soil; it was hot, and the sweat beaded on my forehead as the sun arced across the sky. Birds chirped lethargically, heat-exhausted; the air was still. Somewhere, a dog barked.

It took me the rest of the afternoon to recover. You’d think that I’d been working an acre on my hands and knees, but my actual tilled area doesn’t even come close, being as roomy as, perhaps, a dozen large manila envelopes laid side by side.

I should mention that I don’t really eat that many vegetables; I eat more than I did, but I was a child who was raised on pasta and hot dogs. To me, vegetables were corn, peas, carrots, and maybe cauliflower if it was doused in cheese sauce. Tomatoes were okay as long as they were pulverized, simmered in olive oil, and transformed into sauce. Broccoli? Maybe… but things like lettuce and cabbage and spinach repulsed me. Now I love most all those once-hated vegetables, probably because my taste buds are withering and dying as I age. I won’t go so far as to experiment with anything that is popular east of Europe, because most of those delicacies look like they have faces and limbs. And, in the final analysis, what do you eat while watching a movie at home? Ice cream or a bowl of pearl onions? I rest my case.

All that said, the ambitious vegetable garden pictured above is, therefore, not my own. It was tilled and platted by Jon, a friend who lives out in the far reaches of Osceola County. His extensive acreage allows him as much room as he wants for his vegetable project, and he took full advantage of the opportunity. I call that determination, and BOY was I impressed when I saw it! Perfectly-aligned posts await climbing beans… soft green leaves poking above the soil conjure up pictures of sweet, sun-ripened fruits… perfect for wrapping with prosciutto!

See that circle in the middle? Two types of corn are coming up there; the rest of the perfectly-plotted surrounding areas will yield melons, radishes, beans, okra, peppers, squash, tomatoes, and the like. The view you see was taken from his third floor deck, and I was amazed when I saw it from above. I didn’t even want to tell him about my two tomatoes, one pepper, and tiny rows of herbs. Ironically, our natural challenges will be similar, though I believe that the critters coming to investigate his plants will be somewhat larger and bolder than the menagerie I can expect to have to put up with. In readiness, I doused my plot with ground black pepper, thinking that the squirrels might begin sneezing once they start snuffling around; this may goad them toward leaving. Or, they’ll actually appreciate the pepper and then attach themselves to my screened porch and demand salt for their meal, and Worcestershire sauce. Who can say with animals? The smaller and more nervous animals are, the more unpredictable. And I know  our yard has seen its share of possums, cats, and snakes. A possum one year took up residence withing a bank of blue sky vine, its nest lined with Publix plastic bags that it had gotten from recycling bins. And we’ve had our share of field rats.

As small as my garden is, and as large as Jon’s is, we’re both aware of the rewards to come. It makes one feel “green,” though not the type of “green” to be found within homes whose owners drive their monster Escalades to the farmer’s market. Our efforts might not change the Earth radically for the better, but they are small, muddy steps in the right direction.

Big Dreams … Bigger Hair … Girl Groups !

The Secrets, 1963

The Secrets, 1963... From ThatPhillySound.com

Big dreams. Bigger hair. The Secrets… the Crystals… the Ronettes… the Tammys. In 1963, there were ninety-three million girl groups, but it was all about the hair. If you had big hair, and a voice that could stay more-or-less on key, then you were allowed to record a 45. If the record was a hit, then your next 45 was allowed to have a picture sleeve. If  THAT record was a hit, then you were able to record an “album” of your “greatest hits–” the four songs from your two 45s, plus eight other songs (usually covers of other people’s hits). By 1964, you and your career were off the charts. Sucks, huh? Still, 1963 was a banner year for girl group music, with many chart hits devoted to the sound. And, actually, just a few writers and producers based in the Brill Building were responsible for most of the butterscotch that poured from transistor radios that year. Phil Spector (yes, him) worked with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil  over at Philles Records (for the aforementioned Crystals and Ronettes, plus the great Darlene Love); Carole King and Gerry Goffin worked with Don Kirschner at Dimension (Little Eva; the Cookies); and Leiber and Stoller worked with Barry and Greenwich at Red Bird, who were responsible for massive hits by the Shangri-Las, the Butterflys, and the Jelly Beans. The Secrets were a group of sweethearts from Ohio, who loved doing sock hops and driving from gig to gig in their car; they probably had the biggest hair of all. Another group, called the Girlfriends, recorded my namesake song that year– penned by David gates of “Bread” fame,” “My One and Only Jimmy Boy” was a mid-chart stormer that year.  That particular ditty sounds like a femme thunderstorm rolling from your speakers.

And then there were the Faith Tones, whose picture you see below. Since this is a Christian girl group, the hair could place them as having posed anywhere from 1959 through 1979. Who can say? And do higher hairdos denote a person’s furthercloseness to God and the heavens? All that hairspray is RUINING the heavens… but I guess the Faith Tones were warbling before things like Earth Day and Earth shoes were hot. Further research may unearth the particulars regarding this album. (Do you have a minute?) The Faith Tone on the right resembles a boy I went to high school with. (Jeff, do you know who? Stephen, how about you?) I wonder if they all went to the beauty parlor together that day… and how long did they take for them to decide who wore which scarf?  And why didn’t she take off her glasses? Maybe she had an unsightly sty.  Who knows? The answers are lost in the mists of the 60s, along with their boyfriends…

hair

The Joyful Sounds, also a Christian group, were adept at convincing their mothers to whip up matching creations from Butterick patterns:

joyful

And last, but not least, the fetching Geraldine:

geraldine

HAPPY EASTER (BASKET) EVERYONE !

A Night At the Opera– Damned Women

Do you love opera? A lot of people say it’s an acquired taste, and that may be. After all, the perceived wisdom decrees that you often have to sit there from one to any number of hours listening to a lot of sung exposition while waiting for the arias you recognize from NPR. And that’s so wrong. I love the ones I’ve seen so far– not only has the staging been beautifully done in all cases, but the voices were superb. I must commend the Orlando Opera for always giving its level best.

We experienced two here in Orlano very recently– Giacomo Puccini’s Suor Angelica, and Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.

First, a side note about Puccini. My grandmother had a best friend named Iolanda “my doctor and lawyer sons have mansions on Long Island” Puccini, who lived in Brooklyn. The apartment house she called home featured a tiled lobby floor featuring swastikas in the design. I saw them myself, though everyone knew they were patterned after the ancient American Indian symbol whose four arms point in a direction opposite those in the Nazi version. Iolanda also worked in a wholesale bakery, and she would often bring us boxes of vanilla and chocolate butter cookies. (Lois? Tony? Gina? Do you remember?) One day when I was about three, the phone rang in my grandmother Giorgia’s kitchen, and I scrambled up onto a chair and answered; it was Iolanda. As soon as I recognized her mellifluous voice, I asked “are you going to bring us cookies?” Then, out of nowhere, a hand appeared and connected with my mouth. I fell off the chair as Giorgia admonished “you never ask anyone for ANYTHING!!!” To this day, I have trouble asking for anything; as a result, I am very independent and can tie my own shoes without help.

Back to the opera. We attended opening night of a three-night run, and it was a Friday evening with no job to go to in the morning, so I dressed up. (See picture.) All that red had me blending into the theatre’s plush, red seats, so all you could see were the whites of my eyes in the dark. Don’t shoot!! Yet, I was upstaged by the furs and the hats and the gowns and the sequins, but no matter– nobody was taking my picture anyway.

opera-duds 

Puccini’s Suor Angelica is an hour-long opera, one third of his Il Trittico. You probably know one of the other thirds thanks to its famous aria– Gianni Schicchi features the gorgeous  O mio babbino caro, which any number of divas have sung or recorded over the years; it is also the musical centerpiece of that fabulous movie set in Florence, A Room With A View. And the lyrics are simple, in keeping with opera’s roots as entertainment for the common people: “Oh dear daddy, I want that guy… I love him, and he’s going downtown to buy me a ring. If you don’t let me marry him, I’ll throw myself into the River Arno!”

Suor Angelica is simple too– young Sister Angelica is a resident of a convent, and it turns out that she was put there by her family because, at a very young age, Angelica bore a child out of wedlock. Scandalosa!!  The story opens with a group of sisters singing about their day, giving voice to what they’d indulge in if they weren’t behind the walls: fruit… favorite foods… that sort of thing. Angelica denies any such wishes, and the other nuns chide her: LIAR !!! Of course you long for something… you long for news from your family !  Angelica demurs– as the apothecary nun for the convent, skilled at brewing cures from herbs and flowers, she’s not about to belittle her position by admitting any weaknesses.

So. Sister Angelica receives a visitor one day– an aged, imperious aunt who has come to announce that Angelica’s younger sister, Anna Viola, is getting married. Angelica is told by her aunt to sign away her rights to a family inheritance inheritance, figuring that she’s going to be walled up inside a convent for the rest of her life. (The parents are both dead.) Sister Angelica is appalled– how can her aunt be so cold?? Has she no compassion? And what about my baby… the baby I gave birth to seven years ago, that was ripped from my arms as I was sent to this convent… the Virgin Mary will damn you to eternity for being such a bitch! (Or words to that effect.) The aunt finally admits it: your baby boy died two years ago. The news hits her like a brick, and Angelica falls to the ground in grief; she is made to sign the paper, and the aunt goes offstage, with not one word of sympathy for her niece.

Then we get the famous aria: Senza mamma o bimbo, tu sei morto! Le tue labbra, senza i baci miei, scoloron fredde, fredde! E chiudesti, bimbo, gli occhi belli!    Without a mother, my baby, you died! Your lips without my kisses grew pale and cold! And you closed, my baby, your beautiful eyes!  By now the audience is practically prostrate with grief. I know I was– when I first heard the recording, starring the great Renata Scotto, I cried my eyes out. Picture it: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, 1985. I’m hanging out with Sammy Polk and his music major friends, and they play a recording that turns out to be Scotto’s Suor Angelica. Tears… I’m splashing tears all over the place as they translate the lyrics for me, right there in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the home of the Cat Lady and the Drive-In Funeral Parlor. .

Okay. We next see Sister Angelica as she mixes a potion of herbs and flowers which promise to be lethal– she has decided to end her own life so that she can join her baby in Heaven. Oy !! There she is with her mortar and pestle, grinding away at life as she prepares for death. We wait and wonder as she sings happily about soon being able to meet her son. And she does it– she prepares and drinks her potion, and sinks to the ground again in ecstatic pain. (There’s a lot of sinking to the ground in Italian grand opera, as well as ecstatic pain. These people are raised as Roman Catholics, which means there’s no room in their lives for phrases like “Samantha, may I have a word with you in the other room?”

But wait… the violas scurry tremulously as Angelica realizes something terrible– suicide is a mortal sin !! Not only is she not going to see her son, but she’s going straight to Hell! Major turmoil… drama… and shrieking! By now the audience is wet with despair, as gowns and sequins become irreperably ruined by tears and running mascara. Angelica is wailing, the angelic choir is chanting in Latin, and it’s all so Italian that you wonder how it will end– Angelica is beseeching the heavens on high and she begins begging the Virgin Mary to save her as an offstage angelic choir accompanies her: Ahhh, son dannata!O Madonna, salvami! Una madre ti prega, una madre t’implora…  Ahhh, I am damned! …Madonna, save me! A mother prays, a mother implores!  The choir’s sung Latin underscores this– O gloriosa virginum sublimis inter sedera, qui te creavit parvelum lactente nutris ubere… Oh most glorious of virgins, sublime among the stars, who created and nursed you as a baby, with milk laden breasts… Just when you think the top of your head is going to pop off,  the doors to the convent chapel open slowly to swollen crescendoes, revealing a glowing, beatific Virgin Mary gently coaxing a tiny and golden boy child to toddle over to his dying mother. Angelica sees him, sighs a full octave, and dies forgiven, finally and ultimately united with her little boy.

Another Suor Angelica: Sondra Radvanovsky. Photo by: Robert Millard

Another Suor Angelica: Sondra Radvanovsky. Photo by: Robert Millard

 Talk amongst yourselves for a minute.

The audience, awash with unleashed sentimentality and grief, rose from its seats and headed to the bar for an intermision cocktail. Granted, the Orlando production used a slightly different ending– there was no Virgin and little boy; Angelica imagined it all and production star Melody Moore performed a touchingly intimate yet virtuoso gathering of an unseen baby into her arms, caressing him as she crumpled slowly to the ground. A bit French and symbolic, yes, because we were expecting the no-holds-barred original Italianate ending, but it was still wonderful to finally see this rarely-mounted, exquisite jewel of an opera performed. And the set was beautiful!

Cavalleria Rusticana, featuring a damned woman named Santuzza, seemed like a picnic after Angelica’s trials. Set in Sicily, you just know that it’s going to be dramatic and over the top, and this production did not disappoint. You could practically smell the garlic!

Let’s see. Turiddu has come back from serving in the military, only to discover that his fiancee Lola (just by the name you know she’s a tramp) has instead married Alfio. More scandalosa!  To assuage his wounded pride, Turiddu seduces young Santuzza, a village virgin. Hearing of this, the married puttana Lola enters into an adulterous affair with Turridu, just to get strong on Santuzza. Madonna mia! It gets worse. Santuzza is pregnant with Turiddu’s baby, and this is explained onstage via subtly dramatic abdominal caressing.

Santuzza eventually tells everything to Lucia, Turiddu’s mother– about the seduction, the pregnancy, and his cheating with Lola. The pregnant Santuzza cannot enter the church to join in the glorious Easter celebration that’s going on inside, but she begs Lucia to go inside and pray for her. Orlando Opera staged a glorious Easter procession, by the way: a bishop, priests, altar boys, nuns, young girl communicants, villagers of all stripes… it was great! And they all managed to pile into the offstage church interior with dignity and professionalism. Bravi !

Then Santuzza meets Turiddu in front of the filled church as he arrives to go to the Easter service. Santuzza upbraids, yells, admonishes, and clings, all to no avail– Turiddu is intent upon attending Mass with his secret lover, Lola. Puttana! And, perhaps, puttano?? Why should the guys always get away with things?? They shouldn’t but, as in much of Italian opera, the woman is the catalyst, the cunning Eve who moves the Earth upon its axis every time she raises an eyebrow. Turiddu enters the church, leaving the square wide open for Santuzza’s next move. Lola’s husband Alfio appears, and the distraught and spurned Santuzza tells him everything. Now that everyone is updated on the plot machinations, the square is emptied of principals so that the orchestra can play the beautiful Interlude— and beautiful it is! Bravo, Orlando!

Mass finally lets out. The Interlude is cannily performed at the right point, because you know that Easter Mass is a long Mass– there are a lot of people in there for communion, and you might not be seeing them again for a year. Turiddu appears, happy to have been near Lola, and pleased to see that Santuzza is gone. Everyone gets wonderfully drunk (Turiddu’s mother Lucia owns a wine shop), except for Lola’s husband Alfio. OH OH !! Words are exchanged, and Alfio challenges Turiddu to a duel as the women leave the stage. It will be a duel to the death! Alfio goes off to the dueling spot and Turiddu stays behind and calls upon his mother, telling her, in effect, that he may never see her again: act as a mother to poor Santuzza, he asks Lucia. And he bids her farewell.

Lucia is weeping as Santuzza appears again; they embrace, and soon the square fills with villagers: Turiddu has been killed… he is dead!! Santuzza realizes the horrible result of her obsession and sinks to the ground as the opera ends. Ahhh, the irony!

All in all, it was an emotional night heightened, for me, by a $6.50 Manhattan ($10.00 with tip). The release was good– at times my throat formed sobs, which I duly swallowed– after all, this is Orlando, and I was most likely surrounded by Episcopalians. But wait! Everyone’s faces were wet at the evening’s close, proving the reach and effectiveness of the Orlando Opera. It was Italian. It was even Sicilian! It was grand… and we’ll do it again next year: Puccini’s La Boheme is coming to town, along with Georges Bizet’s Carmen and Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata. ! By the way, the company needs our support in these thin economic times, so feel free to contact them with a pledge. They can be reached at www.orlandoopera.org. We’ve had hours of enjoyment thanks to their wonderful productions, so I hope you locals will avail yourselves of their upcoming offerings. And then I will holler bravi  to you !