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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A Nice Little Burger Run

Miss Scarlett and Me

This burger run was nearly called on account of rain. It had been an on again, off again thing all week long, as the weather forecast flipped from partly sunny to a 30% chance of rain to a 70% chance of rain and then back to a 30% chance before settling on “mostly cloudy with rain toward evening” by the time today actually arrived. That was good enough for my friend Ann and me, who had been itching to go riding together since last November. As circumstances had it, Saturday had been the far better day, weather-wise, but Sunday was our only mutually available day for riding. It isn’t always easy when riding companions live over 100 miles apart, but then I’ve never been intimidated by distances. And so we watched the weather forecast evolve daily until today, when our story begins.

Kenosha, Wisconsin has proven to be roughly equidistant between Ann’s home and my own. When the days are shorter, as is the case in early spring and late fall, we sometimes arrange to meet and begin our riding from there. Today we met up at 11:00 AM in a large parking lot just off Interstate 94, beneath an endless canopy of steel gray clouds. The ambient temperature was 52 degrees and climbing. We would have felt much warmer at that temperature had the sun been shining, but as is the case with most things in life, one must play the hand that has been dealt. We had been dealt a cold start to our morning and the promise of rain before suppertime, so we planned a short run centered around lunch and a walk. Not being strangers to riding, Ann and I both arrived dressed in layers for warmth and adjustability. Within minutes, we were on the bike—my full dresser Victory Vision Tour, affectionately named Miss Scarlett—and headed for the unlikely destination of Burlington, Wisconsin, home of one Fred’s World’s Best Burgers, also known as Fred’s Parkview.

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I have to admit, having married a girl from Kenosha, I’ve been visiting and traveling this region for decades. Over the course of all those years, I’d always known where Burlington was, but never knew much about this community, nor had I ever felt compelled to go there. Until now. Boasting the “World’s Best Burgers,” this establishment known as Fred’s sits on the northeast corner of Milwaukee Avenue and North Pine Street in downtown Burlington. The founder and owner of Fred’s is a woodworker by the name of Fred Mabson, who used his craft to create a unique atmosphere in which to enjoy this family-friendly eating and drinking establishment. As soon as we stepped through the doors, Ann and I were surrounded by tastefully finished knotty pine and a lot of smiling faces. Their corner location is rather large on the inside, with a fair number of dining tables filling two rooms. We had arrived shortly after noon and, in addition to some seats at the bar, there was exactly one table open, which we immediately grabbed for our own.

As Ann and I approached from the outside, and having never been there before, I had assumed Fred’s was a corner bar that served a pretty good burger. But once inside, I saw a higher percentage of tables filled than of bar stools. I also saw families—you know, the kind with kids—as well as friends, all eating, drinking, talking, laughing and otherwise having themselves quite a time on an early Sunday afternoon. In short, Fred’s is the kind of place where one can feel good just by stepping inside. And then there’s the food.

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As you might expect, Fred’s menu focuses on their burgers, but looking beyond that for a moment, this little place has got a pretty extensive menu! We opted to keep it simple, with a couple of cheeseburgers. Ann got the quarter-pound version, while I opted for the half-pound burger. Our toppings differed, but our experiences were quite similar. What comes to the table is a fresh, hand-made burger, cooked to your liking, served on a fresh, buttered and grilled bun and topped with equally fresh ingredients. The homemade fries are curly cut; the homemade chips are ribbon cut. It’s all very tasty and it would take a number of visits in order for me to try everything that I’d like to try off of that menu. So you see, there’s an awful lot going on inside that corner establishment in downtown Burlington.

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As is usually the case, Ann and I wanted to take a walk after we had finished our lunch. In many instances, this has involved riding to another location, usually a park or state forest destination, where we could walk off our meal and enjoy the scenery. On this particular trip, all we had to do was cross the street a few times in order to visit three riverfront parks. First, we walked through Echo Veterans Memorial Park on Echo Lake. Then we crossed over to Riverside Park, which runs along the Fox River for quite a while. Before we had gone too far, we crossed a footbridge into Wehmhoff Jucker Park, on the opposite bank of the Fox, before heading back to the parking lot where we had left Miss Scarlett.

At that point, I began to notice that the cloud cover had gradually grown darker toward the west. That suppertime rain threat should still have been hours away, but something told me it was time to carry Ann back to her car, and quickly. After all, I had promised her a day free from rain or snow. Although it never rained on us as we sped back toward Kenosha, the sky did spit on us a few times. So once I had gotten Ann back to her car, we quickly said our goodbyes before she headed north and I high-tailed it back to Illinois.

It had been a glass-half-full kind of day. Sure, I could have moaned about how short our burger run had been, or about how Mother Nature had robbed Ann and me of another hour or two of walking/riding time. Nah. Given that it was only April 2, we were lucky to have gotten the bike out at al. Besides that, we had discovered a really neat lunch stop that I’m sure we will revisit someday. And so rather than moan or complain, Ann and I will enjoy the memories of another great little run, all while planning our next one.

Life is good. Thanks for hanging with me.

She Likes Watching Birds

Leia Walking

Our family pooch is a German Shepherador Retriever mix named Leia, although I also refer to her as the black princess. She’s sort of a self-contradicting mixed breed, as Labrador Retrievers love the water and German Shepherds do not. Leia takes an interest in bodies of water, while firmly planted on dry ground, yet she despises going out in the rain and literally screams when being bathed.

Leia loves going for daily walks with me. When I come home from work, she bounces around the house, hooting, crying and vocalizing in general until I am ready to go and produce a leash. Once the leash is secured, we head off on a walk that usually takes us around four, six, or nine blocks. On long walks, we take the nine block route and add on a side trip to a local dog park, for a grand total of 2.75 miles, but during the cold months, when days are shorter, we have generally kept it down to circumnavigating six blocks.

While we are out walking, like any healthy dog, Leia loves to sniff where other dogs have recently been. As such, we religiously stop at area trees, mailbox posts, street lamps, and fire hydrants, for these are the social media of the dog world. Indeed, the way she keeps her nose to the ground as we peruse the parkways of southern Plainfield, one would think there is surely a bit of bloodhound in the mix. but it’s all good and truth be told, we both enjoy our walks, most days.

Doves

With the approach of spring, we began to see more and more animal life while we were out and about. Squirrels, rabbits, birds, and other people with dogs all became more prevalent and the days have grown longer. We have also encountered dogs without their people, but save the inconsiderate, careless, and sometimes just plain stupid members of our community as a topic for some other time. Now Leia has always shown an interest in the animals around us. I have occasionally had to correct her for trying to yank me right off my feet in her effort to give chase to a rabbit with me in tow. One time I watched her try to leap into a maple tree after a robin that had just flown up there. I must admit, I admired her enthusiasm, but she was tethered to me at the time and I really had no desire to follow my dog up into a maple tree that day.

Duck Duck Goose

Now lately, my young gal has taken an interest in larger birds, if only because they are substantial enough to distract her while she is tracking the urinary trail of a previous canine contributor to the social media content that lines the broad parkways of Feeney Drive. We pass several retention ponds and a culvert or two during our normal walks and lately, these small-scale wetlands have been frequented by ducks and geese. So far, the geese have been  Leia’s favorite, perhaps because they seem large enough to be potential playmates. They also don’t act terribly afraid. They sometimes hang out by the sidewalk above one of the retention ponds and simply walk down to the water, slowly, once we are within a quarter block of them.

Hawk

We have also seen numerous hawks and even a few crows—or perhaps ravens; I’m never sure. Now these are of little interest to Leia. They are never very close and if they are ever on the ground they are not there for long. In all candor, the only time I have ever seen a hawk on the ground, it was in the process of killing and eating a small mammal or another bird. Those few times I have witnessed that, Leia was not with me. maybe that’s for the best. I can only assume the crows hang around to clean up after the hawks.

DucksMore Ducks

Lately, the ducks—Mallards actually—have given us the most viewing pleasure. They are more active than the geese, at least when Leia is around. We have witnessed water landings as well as sudden take-offs, the latter of which really got Leia’s attention one evening.

 


I would be lying if I said I didn’t get something out of these excursions as well. The truth is I do so on several levels. Besides the obvious benefits of daily exercise, I also use these opportunities to bond with my dog. In addition, there is something to be said for communing with nature, wherever you happen to find it. I usually take these walks during my first hour after returning from work. You might say that this is just one more way for me to destress toward the end of the day. However one chooses to look at it, I do believe I benefit from my daily walks with Leia.

Thanks for hanging with me!