The Italians in My Garden

My father had more square feet of garden space on his property than he had of lawn. This was not an unusual sight when I was growing up in Blue Island, Illinois. Many Italian immigrants had huge, beautiful gardens overflowing with all manner of fruits and vegetables. Gardening was to my father what motorcycling and writing have become for me. Working in that yard was his pastime, his passion, his outlet. He tried to pass that along to me—not only his knowledge but his passion. Alas, only some of it stuck, mainly because yard work interferes with my motorcycling and travel hobby.

But as I said, some of it stuck. And now that my father has been gone for six years, my feeble attempts at keeping a garden are one way I stay spiritually connected to the old man. Yeah, sometimes when I’m toiling away on my rocky, weed-choked soil, I can hear my father admonishing me, half in Italian and half in English.

“Michele, che fai??? That’s not the way I showed you!”

“I know, Pop, I know.”

If he were still here, I’d get frustrated but now I only smile, glad to recall the sound of his voice, and I keep working, the sweat raining off of me in buckets.

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It took three years of trying before I was able to keep a fig tree alive by my house. My father kept sending me home with shoots from one of his large trees, which are not easy to keep alive in the midwest, and I kept losing them over the winter. Either my burial technique (a subject for another time) wasn’t quite right or the sapling hadn’t taken sufficiently to overwinter beneath the ground. But on that third year, my little tree survived and I practically broke my back door down running for the phone to tell the old man.

“Pop! Pop! The little sonofabitch is still alive!”

“Eh?”

“The fig tree! My little fig tree is alive! I did it!”

“No shit! See? I told you…”

And so the conversation went. The following month, while at my father’s house, he handed me another shoot, to start a second tree. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But for a good ten years or so, I had two fig trees growing in my back yard and they produced enough figs to be able to give some away (see my 2015 article, “The Ups and Downs of Growing Fig Trees in Northern Illinois“). Then two years ago, one of the trees perished due to a cracked base below the soil line. And last year, something happened to my second tree over the winter and it, too, perished. I felt terrible, not only because I would no longer have figs, but because my trees had begun as shoots from my father’s trees, which like him, are no more. I vowed to start over.

Last winter I began looking into fig varieties, hoping to come as close as possible to replicating the Italian dark fig variety that I got from my father. Without going into any details or the legality thereof, it is highly unlikely that my father’s trees came from an American nursery. But I digress. My brother-in-law advised me to check out a variety called the Chicago Hardy Fig. As I understand it, this is a hybrid developed from a Sicilian variety and bred for hardiness against the harsh winters of the Midwest. As luck would have it, the Chicago Hardy is now sold at local nurseries. This last fact amazes me, as most of the non-Italians I know have never even seen a fresh fig.

Well, like I implied earlier, yard work at my house takes a back seat to my motorcycling and writing endeavors, and it shows. Most of my seedlings did not survive long enough to get transplanted. But for a couple of Italian squash varieties, which I will get to in a moment, and my cucumbers, which can be started outdoors almost any time, I have no garden this year. Yeah, but I still managed to keep one promise to myself.

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On the afternoon of July 4, 2017, while walking the garden center at a local Home Depot, I spotted a handful of Chicago Hardy Fig trees that, along with all other trees and shrubs, were being offered at 50% off. The trees were quite small, but also very much alive and for six bucks apiece, I figured I could afford to take a chance on two of the healthiest specimens. Trees are generally installed in springtime, not July (thus the low price), but I decided to take a chance. And so with temps near 90 and the humidity making it feel warmer than that, I installed those two fig trees. Again my father’s words came to me.

“Michele, if you do it right, they’ll live. Don’t leave any air down by the roots, but give the roots good soil to grow in. Put some fertilizer and give them a drink every few days. You’ll see.”

“I will. Thanks, Pop.”

One day later, my little trees showed no signs of stress. That’s good, but we still have a long way to go. So we wait, cultivate as needed, and pray a little.

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I promised to tell you about the other Italians that made it into my garden this season. Besides cucumbers, which anybody can grow if you can just keep the rabbits away for a while, I have the ever-prolific zucchini and a newcomer to my yard this year, cucuzza.

I know, I know, what’s a cucuzza. My parents, along with many of the other old Italians, used to regularly grow these things in their gardens. In simplest terms, cucuzza is a type of gourd that is grown and prepared like a squash. The plant is a climbing vine. The fruits can grow as long as softball bats. The outer skin is not edible. The flesh is light in color and quite mild. When cooked it tends to hold its shape and texture well. You can saute it, bake it, grill it, etc.

In all candor, I do not have any experience growing these things and since I wasn’t much for vegetables in my younger years, I haven’t had much experience eating them, either. A couple of years ago, I grilled a cucuzza that my brother-in-law had grown and it turned out okay. This year, if all goes well, I will have quite a few with which to experiment. This could be good or bad as just one cucuzza is enough to feed several people. I’ve got four to six vines growing out there. Pray for me.

Gardening has been and will always be a love/hate thing for me. I derive much satisfaction from eating foods that I grew myself. Furthermore, gardening is one of several ways in which I honor my father. At the same time, I detest every minute I give up working in that yard that could have been spent plying great roads on a pleasant, sunny day—the very same type of day that is ideal for yard work. But you see, some people say that having balance in life is not about either/or; it’s about and. I guess that’s why I devote at least some of my time and energy to my garden, even if I am not fanatical about it.

Anybody got any good cucuzza recipes? Just asking. Thanks for hanging with me.

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Woodstock Lunch Run

Rain

It had been a spur-of-the-moment thing. There had been rain in the forecast for July 3 for most of the week leading up to that day, so I made no plans for any outdoor activities other than to hang close to home, maybe mow my weeds and do a little bit of grilling out if the weather permitted. But as of July 2, the rain chances predicted for the 3rd had diminished. So I reached out to my friend Ann and we began tossing around ideas for a short lunch run. As Ann and I sometimes do, we figured on meeting near the Illinois/Wisconsin border and then taking my bike out for a run to Woodstock, Illinois.

You can imagine my surprise when with no rain expected for the day, I noticed my motorcycle and I getting wet beneath a band of dark gray clouds somewhere between O’Hare International Airport and Kenosha. I made a mental note to thank my favorite meteorologist and pressed on, figuring that any rain I encountered would be short-lived. Even though Mother Nature continued to spit on me after I met up with Ann, a quick check of the updated local forecast revealed that dry conditions would prevail in less than half an hour. So we lingered a bit and then headed west.

Me n Ann

I am pleased to report that the revised forecast remained true. The gloomy, drippy, gray clouds dissipated as they moved on and gave way to brilliant blue skies and friendly, white, fluffy clouds. With my favorite pillion rider behind me, we motored down Green Bay Road to Illinois 173 and headed west, past the Chain O’Lakes area and into McHenry County. We turned south on Greenwood Road and picked up Illinois 120 into Woodstock. The pavement dried out as we rolled along, music pouring forth from the bike’s sound system. I couldn’t help but smile.

 

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Once in Woodstock we stopped for gas and then headed toward the town square. We enjoyed lunch at D.C. Cobb’s, a delightful restaurant and bar located right on the town square. The staff is friendly, the prices are reasonable and the food is good. Come hungry, though, as the portions are fairly large.

Until this day, my only exposure to the city of Woodstock had been while passing through on Illinois 47, to or from Wisconsin. Let me tell you, I had been missing out. The McHenry Couty Seat since 1843 (then called Centerville), Woodstock has a beautiful and historic downtown area featuring a classic town square and two registered landmarks. One is the majestic Woodstock Opera House, which is still used as an entertainment venue today. The other is the Old McHenry County Courthouse, which is now home to various commercial tenants.

Woodstock is also well-known as the location where the movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, was filmed. I can’t tell you exactly how Woodstock, Illinois was chosen to play the part of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, but I can tell you that Woodstock is still playing that up to this day (see http://www.woodstockgroundhog.org/).  Ann and I enjoyed visiting a few of the more memorable locations that were used in this movie.

By mid-afternoon, we were headed back to our original meeting point. By that time the day had grown more beautiful than ever and part of me had wished it didn’t have to end so soon. We said our goodbyes and then headed for our respective homes.

It had been an awesome day for something Ann and I threw together at the last minute. But I have come to realize that some of the most awesome rides I’ve taken started out exactly that way. Thanks for hanging with me.

My First Crack at Pineapple Grilled Pork Tenderloin

It had been a race against time since before I started. This two-plus-pound pork tenderloin had been calling to me from the fridge all day. I wanted to marinate and grill that beautiful thing, but the weather forecast had said it would begin raining sometime after 7:00 PM. I reasoned that if I began preparations as soon as I came through the door, I might be able to pull it off. Game on!

But how should I prepare the thing? That was the question. The pork tenderloin is a versatile cut of meat that lends itself to rubs, marinades, and other treatments. My personal favorite is a Mediterranean-style marinade that I learned from my mother. I’ve also done bacon-wrapped, Asian-style barbecue, bourbon-marinated, and more, but I wanted to try something different. I spent part of my lunch hour perusing recipes online. I seldom follow recipes, but I often get good ideas from them. In this particular case, I needed ideas that required little in the way of time or unusual ingredients.

I struck pay dirt with a Sweet Pineapple Soy Grilled Pork Tenderloin recipe from Slap Yo Daddy BBQ, a competitive barbecue team headed by TLC’s BBQ Pitmasters Head Cook Harry Soo. The recipe was simple enough, even though I would not be following it precisely, and I figured with a name like Slap Yo Daddy, it couldn’t miss.

The basic marinade combines brown sugar, soy sauce, pineapple juice, and Chinese five spice powder. I augmented this with a few drops of sesame oil, which seemed to work well. A word of caution to the uninitiated, sesame oil is an excellent seasoning but is also very strong mojo. Use it sparingly or you will swear you are still smelling it for weeks afterward. You mix up your marinade, pour it into a gallon freezer bag, and then after removing any silver skin, you toss the tenderloin in and let it marinate for an hour or two.

The recipe says to reserve some pineapple juice for basting, which I did. That’s fine, but I’d like to try reserving a portion of the full-on marinade next time and basting the meat with that instead.

After removing and discarding the excess marinade (never baste with marinade that has had raw meat sitting in it), the recipe says to sprinkle a light coat of Slap Yo Daddy Rub on the meat. I didn’t have any, so I used my current favorite rub, Mike’s All Purpose Seasoning,  which worked just fine. At this point I usually sear my tenderloin and then move to indirect heat and smoking. This recipe called for the reverse order, which I followed. I’m not sure which order I will follow next time; there are worthy arguments for either.

Once the pork came off, it was time to grill some fresh (as in not canned) pineapple slices. This was my first attempt at grilling a fruit, so I basically followed the recipe, brushing some oil onto the pineapple slices and then treating them with a bit of brown sugar and cinnamon before tossing them on the grill. As you may be able to tell from the photo above, I turned the slices a couple of times in order to achieve the classic criss-cross grill lines. I probably could have cooked them a little longer, but this being my first time, I was afraid of overcooking the fruit.

Mangia

At that point it was all over but the tasting—and let me tell you, it tasted good! My wife contributed some French-cut green beans to complement the sweetness of the pineapple and pork. This worked out very well. I will surely tweak things a little next time, but pineapple grilled pork tenderloin is definitely a dish I will be preparing again.

Rain

In case you are wondering, yes, I got everything done before the rain arrived. I had to let the grill cool a bit before covering it, so I enjoyed supper first. Then I went back outside and put everything away. Interestingly enough, the skies opened up within one minute of my going back inside after cleaning and covering the grill. Apparently somebody up there likes me.

Thanks for hanging with me.

 

 

MGD on LinkedIn: Disarm, Diffuse, Resolve: Making People Skills Count in a Digital World

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As the entirety of my career to date has been spent with small corporations, either as an employee or a consultant, my articles may be most relevant to owners and employees of small, growth-oriented companies. In this article, I dissect a valuable people skill that, for today, is still difficult at best for AI to emulate: helping the distraught customer.
Disarm, Diffuse, Resolve: Making People Skills Count in a Digital World | LinkedIn

A Father’s Day Contemplation

Pop1957

This photo of my father was taken in Blue Island, Illinois roughly four years before I was born. Ermelindo D’Aversa was born in 1922 in Montella, a small town in the mountains of southern Italy. My mother, Teresa Iuliano, had been born there, too, in the same year. My mother came to the United States as a young teenager. She married the man who would become my father in 1948, during a lengthy visit with family in Italy. Teresa then went home to America, as scheduled, and Ermelindo followed later, after he obtained the necessary funding and approvals.

In 1949, this man flew to the United States, arriving as he described it, “$200 in debt and with nothing but the clothes on my back and the suitcase in my hand.” While growing up in Italy, he had completed the then-required five years of formal education, but spoke little to no English, other than what he might have picked up while assigned to a company of British soldiers after the end of World War II. His role, as they moved from village to village across Italy, was to inform the frightened citizens that the war was over and that these English soldiers were not going to kill them. Go ahead, try to imagine what that job must have been like.

Prior to the war, my dad had been a policeman, a member of the Carabinieri. When the war broke out, he immediately became what can best be described in our understanding as military police. He spent most of his time patrolling an island where political prisoners, at least those who were not killed outright, were sent. The residents of that island could pretty much come and go as they pleased, but they were confined to that island.

My dad did not talk about the war much, not until the final years of his life, which is when I learned most of what I am sharing here. He had nothing good to say about war and he absolutely despised any movies or television shows that glamorized war, but it wasn’t until near the very end of his life that he spoke to me about why. In terms of all the carnage and destruction, he summed it up saying, “You can’t come back from that and be the same young, innocent man you were before you went.” He was in his late eighties and dying when we finally had these conversations. Until then, he had just kept it all inside.

Pop+Son

My father was not a highly educated man, but he made the most of what he had been given. He had a very keen sense of right and wrong, which he considered fundamental and irrefutable. Indeed, he would laugh out loud at arguments that actions that were wrong yesterday could somehow be okay now. “Two and two cannot become five,” he would offer, shaking his head in amusement. He also possessed a very strong sense of respect for age and experience, even before he became the oldest… and even if the elder person were wrong. Once during a heated discussion about his own father, who had been very strict in raising his seven children, my father assured me, “Back then, if our father said two and two are six, we said yes!” Then I was the one shaking my head.

In 1992 I became a father myself. Not understanding what I was getting myself into, I did it again in 1993. Even then I think I understood that I could never be the same father to my children that my father had been to me, no more than my dad could have copied his father. It just doesn’t work that way. Still, I wish I could have done better. And when I look back at how much my father accomplished with so little, I feel downright ashamed.

  • Despite never having achieved a higher role than that of a non-union laborer, he put his three children through parochial grade schools, me through a Catholic high school, and darned near paid for all three of us to complete at least four years of college.
  • I’m guessing that he never made more than $30,000 a year, if that much, yet at his passing, following twenty years of retirement, one-third (my share) of his savings was still far more than my wife’s and my savings at the time, despite our dual incomes (and we couldn’t maintain the level of savings we had taken on).
  • Despite having been far less educated and far less articulate than me, he demanded more from his wife and children than I ever could—and he got it, period.

Yeah, so in view of all that and more, I tend to get a little down on myself as a dad. I’ve always been softer on my kids, more lenient, more willing to let them go see what they can accomplish rather than attach values to their desires. But I’ve also always been more of a free spender, a pleasure seeker, more willing to have fun today than put away for tomorrow. And my children, who are now adults themselves, have both examples to consider.

In the end, we reap what we sow. While there can be no doubt that I am my father’s son, I have clearly taken things in a different direction than he would have. That’s on me and while I may have some regrets, I make no apologies for the choices I have made. Those choices were mine to make.

And I’ll go you one better. I am grateful to my father for having made those choices possible for me, good or bad. I am proud of my parents, proud of my Italian heritage. And as a dad myself, I am proud of my children. Despite our own shortcomings, somehow my wife and I have given them a decent foundation upon which to build. The chapters they will write going forward hold many possibilities. Wait and see.

MGD on LinkedIn: Talk Is Cheap but Silence Is Costly: A Soup Label Marketing Catechism

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Here is a link to my latest business article written for the LinkedIn network:

Talk Is Cheap but Silence Is Costly: A Soup Label Marketing Catechism

Call me old-fashioned—or just old, you won’t be the first—but I still subscribe to the classic definition of marketing as a process by which we identify unfulfilled customer needs, wants, or requirements and then strive to develop and deliver… (read more)

Rendezvous Run Day 4: End of the Road


And then there were two. Last night after a long day on the road, while we were eating a very late supper and enjoying a few cold beers, our friend Eddie suggested that he might opt to get up early and head for home, leaving my son John and me to take our time and enjoy riding together. John and I were both fine with that suggestion and I was pretty sure the following morning would play out exactly that way. I was quite right. 

When Eddie’s text came in the early hours, confirming that he was indeed on his way, I rolled over and let John know. The kid looked so tired, as if he had still been riding all night, so I suggested we sleep a bit longer. John seemed to like that idea, so we killed our respective cell phone alarms and fell back asleep. I woke up a while later and began my morning ritual— shaving, etc.—periodically checking on my son, who continued to sleep. Only after I emerged from a long, hot shower did my son once again show signs of life. 

“Hey, Pop.”

“Yes, Son?”

“I guess I really needed that sleep!”

” I know.”

We didn’t even make it downstairs in time for the hotel’s complimentary breakfast, but we didn’t care. We ate granola bars and leftovers from the night before right in our room, while we talked and laughed about all manner of things. 

We picked up more sunblock and looked, unsuccessfully, for a set of headlamp bulbs for my bike. Then we hit the road heading east from Lincoln, knowing in advance that with such a late start, I might or might not be able to continue home after John stopped in Rock Island, his final destination for the day. 


Once again there were no touristy stops today, but we hit the jackpot once again when John chose The Corn Crib, in Shelby, Iowa as our lunch stop. Nothing fancy, just a mom-and-pop restaurant with home-style food and a convenience store inside and a BP fuel center outside. Try the hot beef sandwich. You will thank me. 


There is an unwritten (until now) rule of motorcycle touring that whenever two or more bikes are traveling together, the group must pace itself for the least experienced rider, the slowest bike/operator, and the smallest gas tank. My son has ridden more miles than a lot of people who have been riding for many more years, so while I would not call John an expert in proficient motorcycling, inexperience is not a concern. His 750cc motorcycle, however, is on the small side by today’s standards, especially for touring. I had to laugh the other night when John informed me that when fully loaded, his bike is not capable of speeding on the interstate highways of Wyoming. And while my ocean liner of a bike can run between 175 and 225 miles on a tank of gas, John’s gas tank is generally good for 100–130 miles. What does all this mean? We really didn’t exceed today’s 65–75 mph speed limits by very much and we stopped for gas every 100 miles or so. 

We picked up some rush hour congestion when we passed through Des Moines. Traffic was heavy, but moving. Then a little ways east of Des Moines, not the middle of nowhere, but definitely out of the city proper, everything came to a grinding halt. After spending miles and miles in stop-and-go traffic, mostly stopped, with the hot sun beating on us and substantial engine heat rising up from between our respective legs, we came upon an accident clean-up scene involving at least one well-smooshed car and some broken glass and bits of automotive debris strewn across one lane. After that it was smooth sailing, but time-wise, my chances of getting all the way home before dark had been reduced to zero.


And so the Rendezvous Run concluded in Rock Island this evening. I got myself a decent single room near the airport in Moline, sent John off to be with his best friends, who had been anticipating his arrival all week (and with whom he will be living while working for the Mississippi Bend Players this summer), picked up some food and drink to enjoy in my room, cleaned and covered my bike for the night, and settled in to share my day with you.

A few closing thoughts… Some road trips are about the destination(s), others about the journey. In the case of some road trips, the opportunity to travel a specific road can indeed be the destination. The Rendezvous Run wasn’t about destinations, although we truly enjoyed many of our stops along the way, nor was it about spectacular motorcycle roads, though we did manage to take in some very pleasant scenery and even a bit of wildlife. I set up the Rendezvous Run to do one thing. All I wanted to do was meet up (i.e. to rendezvous) with my son John as he rode across the western US from Portland and then ride with him to his destination, Rock Island, Illinois. Based on that sole objective, I’d say we were successful, even though I have not yet gotten home myself. 

It’s been a great run. Thanks for coming along!