Have Cucuzza, Will Travel

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As the old adage goes, if you don’t like your situation, change it. If you can’t change it, change your mind. What might have been a dark, depressing weekend for me turned out to be a wonderful one, with a good bit of help from a dear friend and the timely ripening of a somewhat unusual Italian vegetable.

My friend Ann and I were supposed to have gone on a fall motorcycle tour around Lake Michigan last weekend but because I had not yet resuscitated my personal finances following the complete and utter demise of my most recent employer (see Ups and Downs – Part 2 of 3), I was forced to cancel our trip. While I’d like to think I can shake anything off like so much dust from my sandals, the fact of the matter is my mind was headed for a very dark place as the result. Mind you, this wasn’t the first time in my life I’ve had to cancel plans for practical reasons. And yes, as a rule, having to do so sucks like a top-of-the-line Dyson vacuum. But what burns me most is not that I was inconvenienced—I can deal with that all day long—but that it had affected a friend of mine. It doesn’t even matter to me that this friend didn’t really mind all that much. If you want to end up on my bad side fast, do something, anything, that adversely affects one of my friends. When that happens, you may want to step back a mile or two.

But you see, though my employer had failed, miserably so, that had occurred last July. This was September and I still hadn’t pulled out of my own tailspin. So while the time span was quite within reason given my career stage (over seven years at the director level), whom could I blame for inconveniencing one of my dearest friends more than me? Nobody. Thus my smoldering ire was turned back on myself. Fade to black… almost.

Enter the cucuzza, a type of gourd that is grown as a summer squash in southern Italy. The Americanized term for this vegetable sounds like “googootz” and thanks to the myriad of Italian dialects, you may also hear it called something that sounds like “cogozza” or “coguzzigia.” It’s all the same thing. They grow on vines and they grow rapidly to substantial lengths, often over three feet long. The skin is inedible. The flesh beneath is white and tasteless raw, but when cooked, it takes on a translucent, pale green hue and has a mild, somewhat sweet flavor.

So there I was, looking at the prospect of spending four days—the length of our planned trip around the lake—obsessing over something I could not change, and that just seemed so pointless to me. So I reached out to Ann and said as much. “Why should we write off the entire four days? Let’s take at least one of those days and do something worthwhile.” Then for good measure, I added, “I’ve got a cucuzza that will be ripe for picking by this weekend. I could bring it up if you promise not to laugh, and we could prepare something with it together.”

“Like what?” Ann seemed intrigued by that idea—such is the power of a nice cucuzza—and so we so we laid pans for one day of riding, walking, and cooking together. In addition to supplying the cucuzza, on the eve of our day together, I offered to harvest some large leaf basil and grill some Italian-marinated chicken breasts for our culinary endeavor. Ann, in turn, obtained the additional vegetables and grains, along with some bread, wine, and other assorted goodies to complete the meal. Game on!

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The following morning, I carefully wrapped my cucuzza in a favorite cotton hoodie, strapped it securely into the passenger area of Miss Scarlett, my Victory Vision touring motorcycle, and headed to Ann’s place up in Wisconsin. What I was not prepared for, one-hundred-plus miles later, was the immediate affection Atlas, one of Ann’s cats, displayed for my well-endowed squash. When it came time to peel and cook my unusual vegetable, the photogenic feline posed no issues. Still, it made us smile and laugh a bit.

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The temperature and humidity were unusually high for late September, so Ann and I opted to restrict our motorcycle outing to the morning and early afternoon hours. This meant staying relatively close to home, but I didn’t mind. We rode a relatively short distance to Oconomowoc and ever my reliable navigator, Ann directed me to Fowler Lake Park, a delightful spot on the eastern shore of Lake Fowler, right in the midst of Oconomowoc proper. Once off the bike, Ann proceeded to lead me on a walking tour of approximately three miles around the lake, pointing out all manner of man-made and natural points of interest. Sure, it was a little warm, but the day was beautiful and we had a really fun time together.

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Once we got back to Ann’s place, we set about to chopping, sautéeing, and simmering our food. You’ll have to wait for my book to come out to get the full non-recipe, but the essential elements are the cucuzza, some aromatics and root vegetables, tomatoes, stock, meat, grains, and seasonings. Many options and variations are possible. The end result is a hearty, flavorful stew that makes a meal in itself. A few hours later, Ann, her son, and I had eaten our fill and true to the Italian tradition into which I had been born, there were ample leftovers.

It had been such an awesome day. In the course of that day, everything wrong had quickly become overshadowed by all that was right. Still, as is often the case, the ending was bittersweet. Why? Because it was an ending. After all the pots, pans, and dishes had been washed and put away, I packed up a few leftovers on Miss Scarlett and after we had exchanged our goodbyes, I headed for home, literally riding off into the sunset before turning south.

Sometimes all you need to do, in order to understand that all is not bad, is to be willing to see the good. Thanks for hanging with me.

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Our Last Ride of Summer

36867579861_9a7ae99a3e_oWhen a motorcyclist and his pillion passenger of choice live over 100 miles apart in two different states, they tend not to take their outings for granted. Such is the case for my friend Ann and me. While we absolutely have gotten together on the spur of the moment, we usually put some thought into scheduling our rides based on mutual availability, weather outlook, etc. We had both been hoping to go riding together sometime over the 2017 Labor Day holiday weekend; we just weren’t sure which day it would be. After all, we went riding for three days during the 2016 Labor Day weekend. Surely we’d be able to get a simple day ride in this year, right? Well, it almost didn’t happen.

36737811802_a94173bea1_oMy current employment situation might have put any multi-day excursions on ice, had we planned any, but would not have stopped Ann and me from taking a day trip together. When my wife took an unplanned trip to the hospital the weekend prior, however, a visit that turned into an extended stay, everything else in my life became tentative—including my career search activities, scheduled meetings, and leisurely motorcycle excursions. Such has been my practice for decades, so no big surprise there. When I say family first, I mean family first.

Four days later, Karen was back at home with no physical restrictions, life was quickly returning to normal, and everything that had been put on hold was suddenly back in 21389322_10213547112773090_2064896616_oplay. The very next day, I resumed job search activities, had an awesome meeting with a former colleague of mine, and with a favorable weather forecast in place, I reached out to Ann and made firm plans to take her out riding.

The morning of Sunday, September 3 was a cool one in central Wisconsin. Foggy, too. Ann set out some breakfast goodies and two mugs of fresh, hot coffee. We took our sweet time sipping coffee, looking at potential routes on Ann’s map app, and watching out the window as the fog gave way to a beautiful sunny morning. Once that happened, Ann added her gear to mine on the bike and we set out together for what would surely become our last ride of the summer.

It may have been just a simple day trip, but wow, what a ride! We opted to run north and do a simple loop through the Northern Unit of Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest. 21363237_10213547112653087_1549845227_oWe ran north on Wisconsin 67 and then took a few county roads—A to T to G, which rejoins 67 and then departs again—to make a loop within the Northern Unit.

We made three relatively quick stops while touring the Northern Unit that day. Our first stop was at the Ice Age Visitor Center, which we had visited last fall (Rides with Ann: the Autumn Runs, October 26).  As we pulled into 36819817166_b9c3a7fa8a_othe parking area, Ann spotted a small bicycle rack positioned on the sidewalk leading to the Visitor Center. Leaning forward, she murmured into my left ear, “I dare you to pull Miss Scarlett up to that bike rack so I can get a picture of you there.” Naturally, I did what any other red-blooded Italian American man would have done after having received such a dare from a beautiful woman sitting on the back of his motorcycle. I sighed audibly, gunned the bike’s big V-twin engine for emphasis, and then rode in a sweeping circle around the parking lot and up to the bike rack, much to the delight of my conspiring passenger, who hopped off and took the photo as promised.

The purpose of this stop was not so much to reminisce as to finalize our route, set up Ann’s video equipment, and take advantage of the restrooms that we knew were available at the center. We did also venture onto the viewing deck out back and managed to take the selfie that appears at the very beginning of this article. While that photo does display the beautiful blue sky above, it really doesn’t do justice to the beautiful scenery that lay behind us, from the deck rail all the way out to the horizon. Such is the natural beauty of the Kettle Moraine.

16593983853_1dd7937408_oOur next stop was a quick memory maker on our way back down a portion of WI 67 near the shores of Long Lake. On our way up, I had pointed out a place to Ann where a few years earlier—June 1, 2014, to be exact—my son and I had stopped on our way home from a weekend of watching AMA Superbike races at Road America to grab a selfie with the lake behind us. On our way back, as Long Lake came into view, Ann suggested stopping in the same spot FFEE5F27-896C-4B0B-B9D2-3F0382AF329Dto grab a quick photo that I could send to my son, who is currently living in Portland, Oregon, having recently completed his studies at the Portland Actors Conservatory. Having enjoyed Ann’s last suggestion so much, I pulled into the exact same spot and paused while she hopped off the bike, snapped her photos, and hopped back on. This is one of many things I love about my friend Ann. While I am astounded that more than three years later, I was able to stop in nearly the exact same spot that selfie was taken in 2014, I am equally astounded that Ann saw the value in doing so. Plus she set up that shot in seconds and quite frankly, but for the ugly gent in the saddle, I think she took an excellent photo.

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Our last stop was of sentimental value to me alone. There is this little State Forest Headquarters facility that I have stopped at from time to time on my way home from the bike races over the years. The first time was in 2005, traveling alone with my new 2005 Honda ST1300. I’m sure I stopped there with my silver 2007 ST1300 as well, but I have no photographic evidence. On more than one occasion, I have dragged my son to this nondescript place and he still wonders why I like to stop there. It’s hard to explain. There is nothing special about it, but this place is special to me. I wanted Ann to see it and while she understood John’s puzzlement about the place, she also understood how this rather nondescript parking lot in the middle of a state forest could hold meaning for me.

From there we stopped only once more. on our way back from the Northern Unit, we pulled up in front of the Don Ramon Mexican Restaurant in downtown Mayville. Ann had a build-your-own combination and I had tacos al pastor. Both were good and the service was not only warm and friendly, but also lightning fast.

From there we headed back to Ann’s place where, after an unscheduled (but apparently necessary) nap on her living room couch, I bid my dear friend and her son goodbye and headed home to Illinois. The holiday weekend traffic was understandably heavier than usual, especially south of the border, but it never really slowed down. Although I no longer had Ann sitting behind me, I had some terrific memories of our day together to keep me company during my journey home.

Our next trip will be the first of the autumn season. It may be another day trip or perhaps something more epic, depending on my employment situation, but wherever we end up going, I am pretty sure of two things: it will be awesome for us and you will likely be able to read about it here. Thanks for hanging with me.