Fruits of earth, vines, and the work of human hands.
Part I: Roots. When I was a child (I was born during World War II) each September when I returned to school I inevitably received an assignment to write about what I had done during the summer. As the grandson of Italian immigrants and the son of a blue collar bricklayer, I did not have much to describe save for two weeks at the Jersey shore and a list of the twenty books or so books I had read (I left sports to my three brothers) and that I had dabbled in arts and crafts at the local public playground program in urban, ethnic, Catholic South Philadelphia (home of the cheese steak). I’m certainly far beyond receiving assignments about my summer experiences but I thought I might give you an idea of my summer 2014 situation.
Monday, June 9, I flew with my mother from Philadelphia to Rome from where we were driven by relatives to the Ciferni ancestral village (Casoli di Atri in the Province of Teramo in the Abruzzo region of Italy – go to goggle images for a look). Few Americans save Italo-Americans of Abruzzese ancestry know about this region that begins east of Rome and extends through the highest Apennine Mountain in the boot (Il Gran Sasso – again go to goggle images) to the magnificent beaches of the Adriatic. There are few tourist buses here, no great museums or textbook architecture though there are little treasures everywhere: the robust strength of Romanesque abbeys built by Benedictine monks from Montecassino who ministered in these mountains for centuries, weathered cathedrals and parish churches and in them frescoes, sculptures and panel paintings of simplicity and strength.
I grew up thinking that Abruzzese immigrants peopled many parts of the USA, only to learn that the Abruzzese have reportedly been the smallest group of poverty stricken nineteenth and twentieth century southern Italian emigrants who came by the hundreds of thousands to our shores (men, women and children from Naples, Sicily, Bari and Calabria). The Abruzzo (and its breakoff region, Molise – google maps) is sparsely populated because it is almost all mountains (now national parks) that descend to a line of hills that roll down to magnificent beaches and that’s where you’ll find the stranieri – be they northern Europeans seeking sun and warmth or Americani returning to their roots.
I have had the good fortune to be in touch with these roots since 1965 when I arrived in Rome to begin my theological studies at the Jesuit Gregorian University. A day after my arrival in the Eternal City I was on a train through the mountains to Pescara and then on a train that ran north along the Adriatic to Roseto degli Abruzzi (google images) where my relatives were waiting for me. With the sea to my back and looking up to the hills I had the deepest sense of having been here before. My grandfather (Domenico Ciferni – Dominic is my baptismal name; Andrew my name in the Norbertine Order) left the Abruzzo during World War I. In South Philadelphia he met and eloped with Olga Pecoraio who had emigrated there as a teenage girl with all her family from the village of Montepagano across the nearby Vomano River and up the opposite hill from Casoli di Atri. My father Emidio, named, as was the custom, after his paternal grandfather, was born in 1917. His sister Gelsomina, named after her paternal grandmother, was born in 1919 and soon after this little family returned to Casoli for two years. I’ve never learned why. Domenico (called by the diminutive “Mimi”) returned to Philadlephia not oinly with his wife and children but also with his younger brother Giuseppe. Five years later Giuseppe died at the age of 27 to be followed by my grandfather who died in 1930 at the age of forty, leaving a 33 year old widow with two teenage children.
The widow Olga never remarried. To support her family she worked in a tailor shop sewing button holes by hand. Emidio (called “Bucky” by his friends) and Gelsomina (called “Jessie” by hers) were taken out of school after the eighth grade so that they could help support their little family of three. But over the decades Olga never ceased to stay in contact by mail with her husband’s relatives in Casoli. When I, her first grandson, was born I was named after her husband and photos of me and then later of my brothers went across the sea to Casoli year after year. When this Dominic (aka Andrew) stepped off the train that September day of September 1965, his waiting relatives had in hand photos of Mimi’s 23 year old grandson. And I have come home to these roots time and again over the last 49 years. In 2003 I introduced to the paese my brother Amadeo (Sonny) who bought and renovated a house about 100 yards down the street from the house where our grandparents, father and aunt lived in their two-year return to this place where la famiglia Ciferni can be traced back to 1810.
So this summer from June 10 to 27 nipote Domenico is back in Casoli with his mother Emilia “Millie” (her Pasquini-La Morgia family story is rooted in the same region but from another province and in Italy that makes a difference!) is for another day. On Saturday June 14 she celebrated her 95th birthday with flowers from friends and relatives; in Mass celebrated and preached in Italian by her son Andrew Dominic in the Chiesa di Santa Marina where Cifernis have been baptized, wed, and from where they have been buried for at least two centuries, and in the first of what will be a series of pranzoni featuring gastronomic delights as specific to this province of Teramo as are the dialects of these hill towns: scripelle (paper thin crepes sprinkled with pecorino cheese and pepper and rolled up like Cuban cigars then drenched in homemade chicken soup (Google scripelle); and mazzarelle (not to be confused with mozzarella), julienned slivers of lamb hearts, liver, lungs and prosciutto tightly wrapped in leaves of wilted romaine lettuce and held together by tight bands of the lamb’s small intestines – if you were raised on it you’d love it! Google mazzarelle teramane).
I’m writing this the day after Millie’s birthday – Sunday, June 15, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity – and I am off to preside and preach again in Italian in the church of the grandfather I never knew. I will preach about the truth that, because we come from a God who is all family, all relationship, all connection across all time and space, we are all connected. Some of us have this privileged blessing of knowing our roots and being in touch with them in a way that gives us a sense of connectedness with every creature of God past, present and to come.
PART II: Eating local. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.
Yesterday Aurelio, a distant cousin, and his wife Lolita drove la mia mama Millie and me to the shrine of San Gabriele about an hour’s drive from here (Casoli di Atri) by way of twisting roads that wind over hill and dale and come ever closer to Il Gran Sasso, the highest mountain in Italy’s Apennine Range.
San Gabriele (Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows, 1838 – 1862) was a Passionist seminarian who died in the monastery of that order here in the Abruzzo. He is a major patron saint in the area and the church originally built over his tomb is now overshadowed by an enormous contemporary one that holds his body in its crypt. This shrine draws pilgrims from all over the world and on Sundays its sprawling parking lot is covered with buses and cars.
Our visit was on a weekday and we saw few pilgrims and could take advantage of the quiet to pray and “lift our eyes to the mountains” (Ps 121, 1). By noon we were ready to head back to Casoli. It was, of course, almost time to eat the main meal of the day, il pranzo. Aurelio knew just where to do that – at Agriturismo Gran Sasso. Agriturismo (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agritourism) plays a large role in Italy’s tourist industry (cf. http://www.agriturismo.it/en/). And why not? Though some agriturismo establishments sell themselves as spas or simple bed and breakfast accommodations or simple country eating places, what they all have in common is that the food and drink they serve is local — no soft drinks, no outside the terroir wines with fancy labels, no processed food, no fruits or vegetables out of season, no bread not baked that day, and no meat not purchased from a local contadino.
Agriturismo Gran Sasso sits by a large stocked fishing pond off the old road to San Gabriele. It has no website and doesn’t need one. Friends introduce you to it. Local workers eat there frequently during the week in the small indoor space off the kitchen and they bring their families there on Sundays to eat under the broad white tent near the water. In the same small indoor eating space the children of the owners/cooks are coloring their school books while their mothers tell you what’s on for the day (here is no menu) and take your order while through swinging pine doors la nonna [grandmother] can be seen doing the cooking. Our fare of the day began with an antipasto of local cured meats, pecorino cheeses (some of them battered and fried), sundried tomatoes, zucchini and funghi in olive oil and small bits of lamb in a light tomato sauce – accompanied by bread and the fatto in casa vino bianco. Choices for the primo course were spaghetti alla chittara col sugo or tagliatelli con funghi or tortellini in brood, rigatoni alla matriciana or tortellini in brood (go to google images). For the secondo, grilled baby lamb chops with fried potatoes and a green salad. By the time we had started our antipasto the little dining room had filled with local men (not a woman among them) eating, drinking and engaged in loud conversation. Many of them were still there as we left after having finished off with an espresso and a digestivo of limoncello – we declined dolci but were given a little box of chocolate cookies to take home. For four adults, 70 euros ($ 98.20) plus a 5 euro ($6.80) mancia. Then home for major siesta!