A Gorgeous Sunday West Orange Trail Group Bike Tour

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There was a chill in the air this morning when I went outside to load my bicycle onto the car’s bike rack, but the sky was a brilliant blue and the weather radar showed an absence of those rough-edged yellow and red and black things which look, lately, like remnants of burnt fried eggs roaming across my iMac’s screen.

West Orange Bikes and Blades  hired me to give a two-hour guided bike tour of the Trail from the Killarney Trailhead five miles east to the Winter Garden Heritage Museum and Ms Bee’s Popcorn and Candy Store, and the weather was perfect. I always jump at the chance to share West Orange County’s history with new people, and these conventioneers were a great group to work with

 

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Here’s the gang, laden with popcorn and candy after their long haul.

Their bikes are parked across Plant Street at the Heritage Museum.

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They got to see the new History Research and Education Center (our new offices) going up on Plant Street…

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… our eastern gateway to the downtown Area…

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…the beautifully preserved Edgewater Hotel…

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…Centennial Fountain…

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… the Garden Theatre, where Carol Lee is starring in Hairspray…

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…Splash Park on Plant Street…

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…City Hall…

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…Brayton, an old community just west of downtown Winter Garden, where a former fertilizer company has been repurposed as Roundtable Productions, a multimedia production company…

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…the former South Lake Apopka Citrus Growers Association offices in Tildenville…

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…the old SLACGA water tower…

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…the Luther Willis Tilden home (c.1910) on Tildenville School Road…

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…Lake Brim behind the Tilden home…

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…mile marker 801 from Richmond, Virginia, which stood along the old Orange Belt / ACL railroad tracks…

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…a home on Oakland’s Tubb Street which began life as boarding house for railroad men when it was built in the late 1880s…

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…Historic Town Hall in Oakland, which started out as a bank in 1912…

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…and one of the views south of Oakland, former grove land stretching towards Lake Apopka’s south shore. It was a great ride and a great experience and, after I sent them off on their bus and back to the Portofino, I went exploring through some of the groves which still stand between Oakland and Tildenville…

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Along the old Tildenville-Oakland Road, you pass through some very old properties…

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…and the old road pops you out through here onto Oakland’s Starr Street.

SO… anybody up for a bike tour? There’s so much to see in West Orange County!

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Bulldozing Winter Park

CAPENThe Capen House, Winter Park, Florida. Photo by George Skene of The Orlando Sentinel.

The world is a volatile place: turn on NPR on the way to work and you might find yourself in a righteous rage by the time you set foot in the office. The human species, in reaction, tries to create places of refuge which will enable us to isolate ourselves from the outside fray, even if for just a few hours.

Winter Park is one of those places. Planned as a leafy retreat from cold, northern winters in the 19th. century, it’s always held a special cachet in the hearts of people who dream about living as ideally as possible. Though we all know that bad things lurk behind the front doors of our homes, and perfection is impossible, we still strive for utopia and we build with that in mind. On so many levels, our homes reflect the people we wish to be.

Winter Park was lucky in that its original settlers and earliest families built homes that truly reflected their idea of living beautifully. They decorated the landscape with representations of architecture from various periods, some practical, some fanciful, but so many of them memorable.

And so many: gone.

RussellAnnie Russell house in Winter Park. Gone.

I realize that, with no historic district in place, a house can still be marked notable… and still liable to being razed.

I realize that people can do what they want with their property, and can build what they want, and can tear down what they don’t like. This is America and, when a house is not on a protected list, it goes extinct.

I understand all that.

What I don’t understand is why people would move to a town because of its historic charm, and then proceed to obliterate one of the things that drew them to that town in the first place. It’s almost sacrilegious.

Sometimes, good things happen. Remember Casa Feliz, the beautiful home in Winter Park that was purchased and then threatened with demolition by its new owner? He was going to build a new house on the lot; apparently, the last I heard, he never did. The community got angry, however, and pitched in to have Casa Feliz moved slightly west, on the golf course… and it’s now a valuable, cherished part of Winter Park. It’s a piece of the past functioning as a vital part of the present-  ergo, the future.

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Oneonta Lodge, Winter Park. Gone.

I work in historic preservation out in west Orange County. My office is in a railroad shed that was built in about 1915, and what we do is collect family history, documents, photographs, and the like. We are well past halfway in our capital campaign to have a NEW preservation facility built; however, the old building will remain part of an expanded Central Florida Railroad Museum.

EdgewaterThe Edgewater Hotel. Three restaurants, shops… and history.

That’s the way they do things in Winter Garden. When the brick buildings that you see were built between 1912 and 1930, they were built mainly to replace rows of wooden businesses that had disappeared during the fires of 1909 and 1912. Winter Garden built their new edifices to last, and they still stand proudly– and are all occupied and put to good use. They stand next to the 1927 Edgewater Hotel, the 1934 Garden Theatre, and so much more.

Winter Garden couldn’t afford to tear everything down and build spanking new modern edifices in the 70s and 80s like so many other towns. The pollution of Lake Apopka, the decimation of the orange industry due to freezes, the shutting down of the railroads, and the construction of highways around the little city all conspired to keep the area overwhelmingly unable to dynamite the old and build the new. Granted, some unforgettable, iconic structures bit the dust, but early efforts by concerned townspeople led to the creation of organizations dedicated to the preservation of a world from the past; a world that continues to spin. People riding through Winter Garden, Oakland and Tildenville on the West Orange Trail are amazed at what the area looks like today.

The past is palp[able in Winter Garden– it’s appreciated, nurtured, catered to, and loved. Since I work out there but live in Winter Park, I get to see the latter city often, and I’m always dismayed at what I see happening in the name of progress where I live. It makes no sense, this bulldozing of what attracted people here. Why kill the reason why you came here?

But, it’s happening. And it will continue to happen. So many people want to live in Winter Park, but they want it to look like Palm Beach. (Notice the tall hedges now obscuring many previously-visible houses?)

Winter Park, with all its resources, should be ashamed of itself. And I wonder if there’s a corner in their history museum that keeps track of what continues to disappear? I’m almost afraid to find out.

Many of the iconic old homes still stand, documented in a booklet I have called “Historic Winter Park– A Driving Tour,” published by the Junior League in 1980. I just hope this little treasure doesn’t end up becoming nothing more than a book of memories.

The Winter Garden Heritage Foundation: Where I Work

Many of you know, thanks to the instant technology of eMails and Facebook, that I have recently been hired by the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation as a Writer / Collections Curator. That, along with my organization and eCommerce work for The Black Sheep Needlepoint Shop and various other gigs, keeps me busier than ever these days. Ultra Organizers is a little enterprise I’ve also started up, so I’ve been doing organizing projects for businesses like The Awards Store as well as for people in their homes.

The position at the Heritage Foundation is really something special for me, because I get to hang out in West Orange County– places like Winter Garden, Oakland, Tildenville… Beulah, Ocoee, Crown Point… Fullers Crossroads… Killarney… it’s great. And I get to write about it now, and sift through boxes of history. Lots of the volunteers have deep roots in the area, and they’re always so generous with their time and their stories.

The Heritage Foundation, along with lots of business owners and concerned individuals, have done so much to revitalize downtown Winter Garden after the fallow 80s and 90s. Well, it was still a place where people lived and worked, but there was a lot of potential that hadn’t been tapped. It’s even more beautiful now– the West Orange Bike Trail and the Green Mountain Scenic Byway meander through the area, taking you past and through well over a hundred years worth of concentrated history: beautiful homes and buildings, a restored movie theatre, busy shops… it’s all very invigorating.

The Winter Garden Heritage Foundation where I work  manages the History Research Center, the Central Florida Railroad Museum, and the Heritage Museum. If you have any interest in trains– boarding them, riding them, or even just knowing about them– the Railroad Museum, housed in a former depot, will astound you with all the ephemera you’ll find inside…  this is just a small part of it:

Visitors spend hours in here!

My workspace is in the History Research Center, a documentation and preservation facility jammed to the rafters with photographs, donated items, newspapers, letters, and anything else you can think of that has to do with West Orange County. We are currently involved in digitizing the photograph collection, an ongoing project, and we also produce a quarterly newsletter and displays that are set up in various venues in town. Many people drop things off so that their family history can be added to the collections. It’s a great place to ask questions, too, as the staff is ready and able to share information or steer you in the right direction; some local visitors like to stop by and see if we can help them find their cousins.

The History Research Center where I work is in that white building:

The Heritage Museum is also housed in a depot, just a block or so away from the Railroad Museum and the History Research Center. It features lots of displays and photographs which focus on the area, as well as a large collection of yearbooks from Winter Garden’s Lakeview High School. (I really enjoy looking at all the senior grad hairstyles; hairspray stock must have zoomed to the ceiling in 1964.) The citrus label collection is definitely worth seeing, as it highlights the very fruits that put West Orange County on the map. My favorite corner of the museum displays rare photographs of Oakland, with striking views of the large, rambling Mather-Smith home that stood on the site of what is now the Southern Oaks subdivision. (You can still see the Mather-Smiths’ original front gate– it’s survived.)

The Winter Garden Heritage Museum

All of these museums are free to explore, by the way, though your contributions are always appreciated. Winter Garden is unique because, for such a small city, its historical facilities are vast. Stop by and see what’s going on down here, and then take me out for a coffee break!

Deeper Inside West Orange County, Florida: Oakland, Beulah, and “To Kill A Mockingbird” in Winter Garden

This area is caked with history… you should have a slice!

I know what you’re thinking– but I can’t seem to get enough of this area. Something about it’s even tenor matches mine; I feel the same way out in Oakland as I do in Key West. Maybe I was always meant to be a small town kind of guy– Brooklyn is wonderful and all, and I can’t get enough of it when I’m there (when Mom lets me out of the house), but I feel most at home in small towns and rural landscapes. Maybe it comes with age. Maybe there’s a front porch in my future– can you see me sitting there with a pistol hidden under my lap robe, like Mrs. DuBose in “To Kill A Mockingbird?” Who can say? Damn kids running all over the lawn… !

But I digress. I’ve been going out to West Orange County because I’ve become affiliated with the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation, their History Center, and the Central Florida Anthropological Society. They’re all busy cataloguing some of our area’s history via sophisticated computer programs and doing digs on historic properties. It’s amazing what they unearth, and it goads me into further explorations on my own.

I did a leisurely tour a couple of weeks ago, taking photos in places I hadn’t been to in a few years, and revisiting other old favorite spots. I was pleasantly surprised when I drove south on  Daniels Road down to where it meets the 429 at the intersection with county road 435 (Fowler Groves). On the left, backing up to Lake Tilden (there are your Oakland and Tildenville Tildens again) is a horse farm.

The day I’m writing this, I picked up a copy of the West Orange Times and read that the land will be considered in a sale to a hospital that wants to build here in the Fowler Groves area. Don’t mistake me– hospitals are good, though my Inner Utopian wishes otherwise.

Going north on 435 you’ll pass a beautiful old home set back from the road on the right; this is the Hause-Roper house. The Ropers owned a lot of agricultural land in these regions; they helped establish Winter Garden and many of them are buried in the Oakland cemetery. The house was built in 1932 and has orange groves on three sides. It looks like it has a coffeepot warming on the stove all day, with maybe Mr. Cleaver sitting in the breakfast nook reading the day’s newspaper headline: LIZ LEAVES EDDIE FOR DICK.

Going back north from here, towards Highway 50 and the Turnpike, you’ll find Beulah, a tiny settlement (and the home of giant West Orange High School). Driving through here in the 1980s, the surrounding area was pastureland and orange groves: Lakes Beulah, Tilden and Black supplied water for agriculture. And, since there weren’t enough highways in the neighborhood, they added the 429 Western Beltway recently. There’s a reason why they call the intersection of 50, 429 and the Turnpike the “Fruit Loop.” I distinctly remember driving along lonely sand roads which hugged Lake Beulah, but now it’s hugged by houses on three sides. The west side does feature the beautiful and tranquil Beulah Cemetery however; Beulah in the bible means “heavenly Zion.”

Here’s little Beulah Baptist Church, and a cozy old house surrounded by palmettos.

Heading back to Winter Garden you’ll come to Resurrection Catholic Church, a rarity for these parts.

In the chapel, this rather exuberant Madonna and Child keep watch: you wouldn’t want to get tangled up with HER.

One of the linchpins of the resurrected downtown Winter Garden is the History Center, where you can get lost in all the documents and photos they have. I mean, imagine moving to central Florida and never availing yourself of this information? There are people who come here who aren’t even curious. I just don’t understand that; when you move to a new place, the first thing you should do is not check out the malls– you’ll find the same stores back in Ohio and White Plains– but you should read up on the history of the area you’re helping to populate.

The Winter Garden History Center is housed in one of the former train stations. Staff and volunteers help maintain and preserve the collection, and they’re building a brand-new addition and expansion nearby. And their train ephemera and memorabilia collection is incredible!

A couple of beautiful country miles east is the Petris home in Oakland, built in 1885 by the Orange Belt railroad men. It’s one of three homes standing which were constructed by this railroad company. A sign out front reads “The 1879 House” but that could be wrong.  The stone block in front, which was a carriage block, originally began as a tombstone which the original purchaser was dissatisfied with; it was subsequently sold to the man who first lived in this house.

 This yellow house on Tubb Street, the Hartsfield house, was once the Oakland hospital. The Central Florida Archaeological Society did a dig here recently and uncovered lots of artifacts from the town’s past. Back in those days, refuse and broken objects were often buried on site, effectively serving as time capsules. Excavations help show that Oakland was once an industrious, populous town, busy with railroad and agricultural enterprises as well as being a noted social hub for Orange County.

Speer Park is named for one of the town’s earliest settlers, James Gamble Speer. (You can read about the Speer family’s unfortunate burial circumstances here.) This man was incredible, not only having provided much of Oakland’s history, but Orlando’s as well.

One of THE most peaceful spots in Florida can be found right here at the northernmost end of Tubb Street (which stretches from Lake Apopka south to Johns Lake.) Yes, there are alligators here, so you are encouraged not to swim, but you can rest on the dock’s benches and not hear a sound for hours. Hard to believe there used to be a band pavilion here, back when Oakland was hopping; you can still see the concrete posts in the water.

I thought to myself: what would happen if I tapped my foot lightly on the dock? And this guy showed up a minute later…

This is the Hovsepian home, “The House of Three Mayors.” I need to find out exactly which mayors, who and when. The house faces Tubb Street but has been joined, I believe, to at least one other house around the corner on Speer Avenue– it’s huge.

This day I also planned on exploring the older of the two black cemeteries in town; there’s the historically white one at Walker Street and Sadler Avenue, and the black cemetery that you see on Highway 50 just outside the southwestern corner of Oakland… but I only recently became aware of an even older black cemetery, forgotten until it was rediscovered by highway planners when the Turnpike was being configured. I had no idea where it was, only that it was near the black cemetery that you see from the road, so I parked there and began to walk into the brush. Three people were in the cemetery a few yards east of me, and a woman called out and asked if I needed help. I explained my mission, and it turned out that she was in charge of the Oakland-Tildenville Cemetery, Inc., and would be happy to escort me to the older cemetery. What a stroke of luck! The four of us (the two women in dresses) plowed through the high grass and weeds, traffic on Highway 50 whizzing by closely, and then we disappeared into the woods. I was thinking about ticks, deer flies, rattlesnakes, bobcats, panthers, bears, ants, wasps, hornets and poison ivy, but all the while jabbering a mile a minute with Sharon about the cemetery. On we pressed… stumps, spider webs, fallen trees… on and on we walked, and I’m thinking thank GOD I wore long pants and socks that day. Soon we came into a low area, actually a wide, shallow sinkhole surrounded by a high chain link fence with a locked gate, and we were there. Sharon spun the tumblers on the combination lock and we went inside. I tell you, it’s incredible– here’s an old burial ground that very, very few people even know about, considering its location between two busy roads. We walked and walked, very carefully, because there are many red flag indicators planted in the  ground: a crew from UCF has gone in here and identified many of the plots, though most of the stones and markers are gone. Also, due to varying family circumstances, many graves are marked only with metal signs or even faded paper cards.

Come along with me… 

From the frying pan and into the fire: we still had a ways to walk after entering the woods from the high grass…

Believe it or not, you are looking at a cemetery, complete with many markers…

A very old marker made with seashells, a tradition which reminds many families of their coastal origins.

There’s a Herriot Avenue in the traditionally African-American “Quarters” in Oakland.

The next day we were back in the area with Darlyn and Brad, this time to see To Kill A Mockingbird at the restored movie theatre in Winter Garden.

The stone benches in the center of town are constructed to look like citrus crates, complete with reproductions of original labels. Here’s Grace, the doyenne of Edgegrove, the Mather-Smith estate in Oakland.

We had dinner at a restaurant inside the Edgewater Hotel…

This was taken inside the theatre…

It was wonderful seeing To Kill A Mockingbird on the big screen; Gregory Peck never looks so good as when he’s towering over an audience. And you see details which you miss when watching the film at home. Incredible. And what an audience! It was composed of all ages, and everyone was quiet, polite, respectful, and attentive. Nobody was playing Tetris or Angry Birds!

I hope you’ll get out to West Orange County one of these days… you’ll come away with a broader sense of the history of the region, something that California-based Disney just wouldn’t understand.

More History / PhotoBike Tours and blogs:

PhotoBike Tour 16: Oakland and West Orange County, Florida

Where’s Grandma? (Not in the Osceola Vault.)

PhotoBike Tour 9: Biking the West Orange Trail

My Italian Grandmother– A Key to Me

  

If you assign alpha-numeric values to each letter in the word “blog,” you come up with the number 36… add 3 and 6 and you get 9…  and “I” is the ninth letter of the alphabet. And blogs are about “me,” aren’t they? 

 In our house, we’re obsessed with genetics and patterning and how and why we do things; “that’s so Norwegian of you” I’ll tell Kirk when the dishwasher overflows and he assesses the situation impassively while I holler and blame the world and all its ills. “That’s so Italian of YOU,” he’ll respond after I’ve pointed out his Nordicness. While we’re both aware that we’re regarding our reactions stereotypically, we both know that stereotypes are based in fact. 

Giorgia in 1914 (age 15); and at the 1939-1940 NY World's Fair.

Giorgia in 1914 (age 15); and at the 1939-1940 NY World's Fair.

 

I personally am aware that much of my behavior has been copied / patterned / inherited from my maternal grandmother, Giorgia. There are some things I do that have doubtlessly come to be part of me because I saw her doing them, and liked what I saw; other things were either genetic or behaviorally imprinted… who can say? I’d have to stay in a clinic long enough for scientists to poke and prod and examine me, but who has that kind of time these days? I’ll just have to come to my own conclusions, and so here are the things she passed down to me… 

Gardening— She would take cuttings from rose bushes, stick them in the ground, and soon we would have more rose bushes than ever. So many times I’d come home from school to see her rear end facing the street as she knelt in the soil, her knees wrapped in old rags. The shame! In the front yard was an arbor that stretched over the garden gate and all Summer and Fall it was covered with dark pink blooms. My bedroom window overlooked this paradise and, if I had had any imagination back then, I would have pretended that I was someone in a Bronte novel surveying my domain before settling into my carriage, heading to The High Street, and causing Anglo mayhem. Did this impress me? I think so; as an adult, I do have a way with orchids, group-2-02-04-09and can keep the yards here at the house looking swell so long as I have the time and energy. (Kirk has a deep knowledge of tropicals and palms, which helps, and he is able to grow just about anything from seed.) And here are some orchids, blooming as of February 7th. 

 

 

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Two projects, 95 years apart.

 

Giorgia's Bedspread, c.1913

Giorgia's bedspread, crocheted c.1913

 

String– She could do amazing things with string; I’d watch her flash metal rods and twist colorful balls of yarn and thread into intricate patterns that ended up as bedspreads, blankets, dolls’ dresses, doilies, and cunning toilet paper covers. I’d make her slow down so that I could see exactly what was going on, and until she was compelled to show me how it was done. Days that I was home sick from school with asthma– there were many– found me in bed wrestling with her hooks and yarn as she patiently taught me what she had learned. One day she told me that the crocheted bedspread she used was something she’d made when she was about 14 years old– and that would have been in around 1913, because she was born in 1899. I have it now, as well as a recently-discovered affinity for needlework. The pictures show my grandmother’s crocheted 1913 bedspread, and my latest piece of “string art;” it’s 20 x 13 inches, and the bedspread is 8 x 7 feet– 56 square feet of tiny, crocheted string. The  second picture shows part of the bedspread alone; amazing. She slept with that for probably eighty-three years, almost up to the day she died. 

Elitism. I can be a snob, albeit theatrically and for effect, but never really to put anybody down. If tradesmen appear at the front door, I gently but firmly direct them to the back , where a little plaque that says “Servants’ Entrance” directs them to wait with their eggs and bread and milk. Wouldn’t that be nice? It’s easy for me to indulge in these flights of superior fancy, and I blame my grandmother. When I was very little, I pretended that I had a pair of butlers standing by my bed, making sure I fell safely to sleep; their names were Jonathan and Sebastian. My grandmother never had butlers, but manufactured her own little snobbish rite of passage. She and her husband married in 1920 in Italy, and came over here on the Dante Alighieri. I once asked her to describe their immigrant experience: the thousands of souls coopped up in steerage… the watery soup… the rolling hull… the endless vomiting… the humiliation of Ellis Island!  “What do you think?” she chastised. “We came over Second Class, and we took the boat to Boston, not Ellis Island with all those people. I had a fur coat!” I believed every word, until just a few years ago when I looked up her passage on the manifest for that ship– it’s all online, and there they were– Second Class, yes, but they went through Ellis Island just like everybody else. She may have been wearing a fur coat, but the health officials probably chalked a big “L” on it to signify “Liar.” And her brand of spoken Italian, as she reminded me many times, was the best. She was from Tuscany, born in a tiny village in the hills above Lucca, and so she spoke a particularly beautiful Italian– just like they teach in college courses, but with a slightly softer accent. “We speak Italian like Dante wrote,” she’d say. “No dialect.”  She basically looked down on people who came from Southern Italy– Neapolitans and Sicilians– because their Italian wasn’t “up to par.” And that included my father’s family, who were Neapolitans and spoke a dialect. How she listened askance to them! “Those people” was how she she would refer to them, though she was always very nice when she had them over the house and put on the dog.  It reminds me how my dear friend John and I refer to certain people as DNOC… “definitely not our class.” 

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From gourmetmeatman.com

 

 Ravioli. This dish is something that every Italian woman, at birth, was contracted to learn how to make– all except for my mother, who could never compete with the Tuscan Presence upstairs. My grandmother’s ravioli recipe was incredible, especially to a child– me– who would never eat anything that might contain hidden tastes, colors, and textures. It was all hand-made: everything from the dough to the filling was created right there on her red formica kitchen table with the silvery deco trim. I watched her do it all– I was amazed at the little hill of flour and eggs that became sticky pasta which magically turned into floury, pizza-sized circles. The ingredients for filling were fed into a grinder: meats and vegetables and spices, all measured by hand and feel, were transformed into a wonderful spinachy paste that would be placed at intervals on the sheets of dough. Another sheet was placed on top, and then she used the rim of a drinking glass to press the dough over the dollops of filling. Those circular ravioli would then be sealed by “forking” them shut around the edges. Hundreds would be made; so they could dry before cooking, she covered all the beds with linen sheets, sprinked them heavily with flour, and then lined up the ravioli in rows. By the time we got home from Mass, they were firm enough to be placed in boiling water. Her tomato sauce was unmatched– not for her the thick pastes that come out of jars, that Protestants then add sugar to. Scandalosa! Her sauce was light and herbal, with little meat and lots of olive oil– it clung to the ravioli without smothering it. I have a recipe that she got my mother to write down. It begins, in her Italian hand,  “finally your mother has managed to write down the recipe for you from me.” I haven’t yet tried to make them, but I’m growing the herbs that go into the mix. Thanks to the recent lousy cold weather here in Florida– don’t get me started!!– I need to plant some restarts; though the tomatoes survived well, the spinach is gone, and this morning a squirrel tore up my borage. But I’ll get there… 

manhattan-cocktail Manhattans. No matter what the occasion– a Christening, an anniversary, a post-funeral lunch– Giorgia would disappear into her apartment and then reappear with a cocktail shaker filled with Manhattans. It was very old, that shaker; the screw-on stopper had been lost for years, so she substituted a wad of aluminum foil which also turned into an heirloom. Like a life raft, that shaker saved many a Christmas morning… down she would come from upstairs, her slippers clopping on the squeaking stairs. The youngest of us at the time would take the Baby Jesus from its hiding place under the sink and place Him in the tiny manger, and then the Manhattans would be poured. Well-oiled, we would then be able to watch The March of the Wooden Soldiers before sitting down to an enormous meal. Giorgia used a less-strong recipe in making what they call a Perfect Manhattan: equal parts whiskey, sweet vermouth, and dry vermouth. When I was set loose and started ordeing Manhattans in bars and restaurants, they provided the most common standard recipe– two parts whisky to one part sweet vermouth, which is what I tell inexperienced bartenders when they ask me how to make them. (Yes, it happens.) One of my most treasured Manhattan memories has Giorgia visiting us in Florida when she was close to ninety. A bunch of our friends came to meet her, and she mixed Manhattans for everyone, rendering us cross-eyed and hopelessly looped. “I’m gonna go inside and watch Falcona Cresta,” she then said as we sat there chortling helplessly. Those Manhattans appeared everywhere, even at the base of the Statue of Liberty when a batallion of grandchildren, two mothers, and two grandmothers paid a visit to the park. While Giorgia and her paisana Maria remained at sea level, we all trooped up to the Lady’s head; we came back down to find them laughing happily in the sun, a flask of cocktails sitting in full view on the picnic table in front of them.  Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her. She loved nothing better than to cook for her friends and family; she never mentioned her ills (she had a bad heart); and she treated her grandchildren like gold. As a babysitter, she was matchless: while she watched black and white Italian movies on the television, we were free to explore and snoop. Everyone thought she was perfect and, if she wasn’t, we didn’t know it. This woman dragged her charges to the New York World’s Fair numerous times (she loved the Mormon pavillion), to Coney Island after a bus trip that seemed to involve fifteen transfers, and on Christmas week shopping trips to downtown Brooklyn. (“Look,” she said once on the bus. “That Puerto Rican lady doesn’t shave her legs but she’s wearing stockings.”) As an adult, I was able to take her to Sea World here in Orlando; after a very long day, I asked her “so what did you think?”  “Ehh… it’s all fish,” she replied.  And she was always there for me, with her advice and warnings: “If I hear you’re taking drugs when you go to high school, I’ll kill you.”  I hope I learn to handle life with her generosity and Tuscan equanimity as I age, though I seem to favor my emotional Neapolitan grandmother in that respect. We’ll see; I’ve still got thirty or forty years left to figure it all out.  

 

Leu Gardens, 1979. Giorgia is 79; I'm 23.

Leu Gardens, 1979. Giorgia is 79; I'm 23.