You decide to take a break after writing all morning. When you step outside, instead of your ho-hum suburban neighborhood, you find yourself in one of the most beautiful villages in southern France.
Breathe that bracing air! What a gorgeous, deep blue cloudless sky! Love the quaint cobblestone streets, ivy climbing up ancient brick walls, morning glories spilling out of flower boxes. And crusty baguettes in bicycle baskets!
Mmmmm — what’s that heavenly aroma? Following your nose, you spy a charming boulangerie just around the corner. Your prayers have been answered! Give us this day our daily bread — and we would not object in the least if you’d like to throw in a few French pastries. Mais, oui!
Thanks to the inimitable Barbara Crooker, we can visit the boulangerie of our dreams at this very moment. You have to love a country where food is an art form and bakers are revered, where the universal language of deliciousness brings people closer together. There is no finer way to feed the soul than to savor each bite with passion and gratitude.
Since I welcomed the new year with two Barbara Crooker poems, it’s only fitting that I share another of her gems for my final Poetry Friday post of 2015. I can’t think of a more life affirming way to bookend this tumultuous year.
“Making Strufoli” is included in Barbara’s most recent book, Selected Poems (Futurecycle Press, 2015), a striking collection of work first published in various chapbooks and periodicals. As Janet McCann points out in her insightful Foreword, Barbara writes about ordinary life through the lens of an extraordinary sensibility.
Though I have never made or eaten strufoli, I could certainly identify with the love-hate relationship we sometimes have with our parents and the mixed feelings which inevitably arise at year’s end, when everything comes to bear and so much is expected of us. Cooking can certainly be a form of meditation, a chance to feed our hungers for validation and understanding just as much as our need for physical sustenance.
(a traditional Italian sweet)
In the weeks before my father’s death, I make strufoli for him,
not knowing he will enter the hospital Christmas Eve,
not knowing he will never leave that high and narrow bed.
There are piles of presents yet to be wrapped red or green,
stacks of glossy cards to write, my work abandoned until the new year,
and I’m at the counter, kneading dough, heating olive oil until it spits.
A small blue flame of resentment burns. I’m in the last half
of my life. The poems I haven’t written are waiting
outside the snowy window. But I’m in the kitchen, rolling
dough into fat snakes, then thin pencils. With the sharpest
knife, I cut them into one inch bits—a slice for the prom dress
he refused to buy, the perfect one, in shell-pink satin;
a chop for the college education he didn’t save for—She’s just a girl, She’ll get married, Who does she think she is?— a stab
for the slap when I tried to learn Italian from his mother,
my grandmother, whose recipe this is. The small pieces hiss
in the bubbling grease. They change into balls of gold. I drain
them on layers of paper towels. I don’t know I will never make
them again, never mix in the roasted almonds, pour warm honey
over the whole pile, sprinkle Hundreds of Thousands, those tiny
colored candies, over the top. I only know the way my shoulders
ache, the weariness as I do the great juggle—family, house, and
work—trying to keep all the balls in the air. And when his stubborn
breathing finally stops, when his heart gives out at last,
I only remember love as something simple and sweet,
a kiss of honey on the tongue. I take this strufoli that no one
else will eat, and spread it on the snow for the starlings and the crows.
From the slicing and hissing of resentment to balls of gold, quite an emotional transformation!
I’m wondering why I never encountered strufoli before reading Barbara’s poem. My former neighbor told me about the “fried dough” she made every Christmas but I don’t recall her calling it ‘strufoli’, only that her family love loved it, and the holidays wouldn’t be the same without it. Are there any Italian grandmothers out there who’d like to adopt me? 🙂
So, strufoli (sometimes spelled with two “f”s), also known as Italian Honey Balls or “the croquembouche of southern Italy,” originated in Naples by way of the Greeks. Marble-size bits of dough are deep fried in oil, drenched in honey, then decorated with colorful hundreds-of-thousands/sprinkles/nonpareils. Candied fruit, nuts and lemon or orange rind are sometimes added. Strufoli are typically mounded into a pyramid or shaped into a wreath, making a beautiful, festive centerpiece for the holiday table. This sweet indulgence, also part of Easter celebrations, symbolizes abundance and good luck. Some think the honey keeps families “stuck” together.
Barbara was kind enough to dig up her grandmother’s recipe just for us and shared these words about her poem and making strufoli:
My memory of making them is somewhat dim, but I believe my grandmother taught my mother, and she taught me. As my parents aged, my mother wasn’t up for doing this any more (frying is quite a production, including clean-up), so I’d make it to have on hand when they came for their Christmas visit.
My dad was a difficult man, who grew up conflicted in an immigrant family, and who distanced himself from his culture. Around the time I was in college, he reconnected with family and heritage, so I’m grateful to have had those years of visits and those stories. He also grew up in a culture that didn’t value women; he couldn’t understand why being a wife and a mother wasn’t enough. And yet he was proud of my writing, and I think his love of gardening and love of food have been a great legacy, and an important part of my life. He’s been gone around twenty years; Mom’s been gone seven, and I miss them both, especially around the holidays.
ANNUNCIATA (EMMA) CUCCARO POTI’S STRUFOLI RECIPE
2-1/2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 tablespoon confectionary sugar
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup margarine
1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
2 cups olive oil (regular, not EVOO)
1 cup honey (hers calls for 1-1/2 cups, but I found that to be too much)
1/3 cup multi-colored candies (if you can find them)
On a floured pastry board, heap the flour in a mound and make a well in the center, into which put the salt, sugar, eggs, egg yolks, oleo, and lemon peel. Mix, then knead by hand.
Lightly roll 1/4” thick, then cut into strips 1/4” wide. Roll with the palm of your hand to form shapes the size of a pencil (think Play-Doh “snakes”). Cut into 1/4” pieces.
Fry in hot oil 3-5 minutes until lightly browned. Drain and dry on paper towels. Heat honey on low for 15 minutes. Pour into a large bowl, add fried pastry bits, whole almonds, toss, and let soak for five minutes (this part is mine). Scrape into a mound, and decorate with candy sprinkles. Have lots of Wet Wipes handy if giving to small children!
Check out this struffoli-making video from the Academia Barilla to see kneading, rolling, cutting and frying techniques:
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The clever and delightful Diane Mayr is hosting the Roundup at Random Noodling. Click through to check out out the full menu of poetic goodness on this week’s menu. Only 6 more days till Christmas!!
This post is also being linked to Beth Fish Read’s Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to share their food related posts. Put on your Santa caps and holiday aprons, and come join the fun!
the house settles back into itself,
wrapped up in silence, a robe
around its shoulders. Nothing
is roasting in the oven or cooling
on the countertops. No presents
are waiting to be wrapped, no cards
fill the mouth of the mailbox.
All is calm, all is bright, sunlight
glinting off snow. No eggnog, no yule
log, no letters to be licked
and stamped. No more butter
cookies, no more fudge, just miles
to go on the treadmill, another round
plate added to the weight machine.
All our good intentions pave the road.
We stride out into the new year,
resolute to become firm, to define
our muscles, to tighten our borders.
The thin tinsel of the new moon
hangs in the dark sky, a comma
dividing the sentence between
last year’s troubles and this year’s
hopes. The calendar ruffles her pages,
a deck of shiny cards, deals out
a fresh new hand.
~ from Small Rain (Purple Flag Press, 2014)
* * *
Happy New Year!
It’s nice to be back after a relaxing holiday break, and I can’t think of a better way to welcome 2015 than with two lovely poems by the inimitable Barbara Crooker.
As a longtime fan, I’ve shared more of her poems here than of those by any other poet. And with good reason: time and again, I am stunned by the lyrical beauty and emotional resonance of her work, its reassuring accessibility and seamless architecture.
The 50+ poems in Small Rain explore the cycle of the seasons: Corvid (Winter), Passerine (Spring), Tangerine (Summer), and Amaryllis (Fall). Each beautifully crafted gem brims with Barbara’s keen observations of the natural world. Intimate glimpses of bird, flower, tree and sky elucidate the heartening aspects of wonder and reverence in the presence of loss, regret, and aging. I especially appreciate the gentle reminders to stop, look, and love our world despite what we are doing to it, and to strengthen our resolve to embrace joy.
I thought of my own mother when I read “Dianthus.” She showed me my first Sweet Williams, and I’ve liked them every since. Enjoy today’s poignant bouquet. May the fragrance of sweet remembrances and renewal grace your days this new year.
My mother comes back as a dianthus,
only this time, she’s happy, smelling like cloves,
fringed and candy-striped with a ring of deep rose
that bleeds into the outer petals. She dances
in the wind without her walker, nods pinkly
to the bluebells. She breathes easily, untethered
to oxygen’s snaking vines. Lacking bones,
there’s nothing left to crumble; she’s supple,
stem and leaf. No meals to plan, shop for, prepare;
everything she needs is at her feet, more rich and moist
than a chocolate cake. How much simpler
it would have been to be a flower in the first place,
with nothing to do but sit in the sun and shine.
~first published in Louisiana Literature
* * *
Barbara on “Dianthus”:
Someone (Mom was a little foggy towards the end) brought her a pot of Sweet Williams when she was in the nursing home (it was probably one of her hospice visitors), and she wanted me to take them home and enjoy them. With some trepidation, I planted them outside, and the fact that they’ve come back every summer for the past six years makes me feel (irrationally) like this is keeping her alive, which, of course, she is, in my heart.
About the first poem:
‘After the Holidays’ was written some years ago, but I think I feel the same way every New Year — I love the holidays, but by January first, enough is enough, and I also love getting back to clean living and a healthier lifestyle, plus I love putting my house back in order. It’s all good.
♥ Thank you, Barbara, for granting me permission to post your poems. I’m looking forward to reading and sharing something from Selected Poems too!
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The always warm and welcoming Tabatha Yeatts is hosting the Roundup at The Opposite of Indifference. Check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere this week and have a good weekend!
Do you remember the last Barbara Crooker poem I shared, where her ailing mother refused to eat her food, but demanded marshmallow Peeps?
This craving for sweets seems to be common among the elderly. A good friend of ours with an incurable lung disease would always pick at her dinner, but had no trouble at all polishing off a big piece of coconut pie. I could always make her smile just by saying,”crème brûleé.”
When I saw my mother in Hawai’i last month, I noted her diminished appetite and drastic weight loss. She did enjoy my Christmas cookies, though, along with chocolate truffles, bread pudding, cranberry muffins, apple and lemon meringue pie, Chantilly cake. No coaxing needed when it came to dessert.
“The house light turns everything golden, and even though we know what’s coming, the next act, we start to believe we can stay here forever in the amber spotlight, that night’s black velvet curtain will never fall.” (“Vaudeville” by Barbara Crooker)
As I try to navigate the failing health of my parents and the dread of impending loss, Barbara’s poems have come to the rescue again and again — offering comfort, hope, and affirmation. Gold focuses on the life-altering experience of losing one’s mother; Barbara recounts her mother’s long illness, her death, and the aftermath of coping with grief.
These deeply felt, finely wrought lyric-narrative poems are sad but never maudlin or depressing, personal yet universal, with stirring emotional truths that pierce the heart.
I love how she shines an incandescent light on the fragility and strength of the mother-daughter relationship, inviting us into those tender moments of grace where she is child-turned-caregiver, the child yet asking, “How can she be gone?”
If you’re already a fan of Barbara’s work, you’ll bask once again in her radiant images and the beautiful cadences of every line. Autumn sets the stage for this eloquent elegiac rumination echoing Frost’s, “Nothing gold can stay.”
The collection also includes poems about Ireland, aging and the body, the difficulties and joys of love in long-term marriages, the loss of friends, and several ekphrastic poems on paintings by Gorky, Manet, Matisse, O’Keeffe and others.