Tag Archives: cousin john

Finding love in the back of a car

24 Jul

I don’t look forward to summers the way I used to. Not since August 2013.

That’s when Cousin John delivered this case of Manhattan Special to me. He’d packed it in the trunk of his car before he and Cousin Susie, his wife of 40-plus years, left their home on Long Island and made their annual summer drive to Maine. John always made a point of bringing something meaningful along on his visits and knew that, to me, a major stash of Manhattan Special surely qualified as that.

The sweet espresso soda has been one of my favorite indulgences since I was five and swiped my first little glass bottle of the stuff from my parents’ candy store in Brooklyn. It tastes exactly the same today as it did then. And is still manufactured in Brooklyn, just as it’s been since 1895. By the same family no less.

But they don’t sell Manhattan Special in Maine. Worse, nobody here has even heard of the stuff, let alone tasted it. In the winter of 2012, I went so far as to prepare (and report on right here) a homemade batch of the soft drink. This desperate attempt did not go unnoticed by my cousin, as the case of real Manhattan Special arrived shortly afterward.

John’s delivery in the summer of 2013 was much more than a thoughtful gift from an appreciative (and, let’s face it, lobster-loving) houseguest: It was an extraordinary kindness, rooted in history, tradition and, most important of all, love.

Which didn’t surprise me in the slightest.

John and I are as close as any cousins I know, and have been since I was in my late teens and he in his latter twenties. Of the many things I regret about moving away from my home and family in New York, 20-odd years ago now, a close proximity to this particular family member ranks high. For many years anticipating John’s and Susie’s weeklong summer visits went a good ways toward making the harsh Maine winters seem a little more bearable.

But he hasn’t been back since. And I fear he won’t again.

My cousin hasn’t been well. He goes in and out of hospitals and doctors offices and testing facilities the way most of us run errands to the grocery store or the ATM. He’s even taken up with mystics and healers hoping that they might have the answers that traditional medicine does not.

Even when John is feeling well he isn’t feeling well enough to break the chains of his afflictions. The idea of traveling, to Maine or anyplace else where his known healthcare providers are not within immediate reach, has become, to his mind, just another risk that requires prudent avoidance.

And so we’ve learned to talk more on the phone and grab a quick lunch or dinner when I’m in New York. We reminisce about how we have missed our summer tradition, and John assures me that the next year will be different, and I tell him that that would be just sweller than swell, hoping that each next year will be different from the last one but not hoping so much as to be too disappointed when it isn’t.

Driving my own case of soda from New York to Maine just doesn’t cut it.

And it will never, ever feel as good.

The family stew

30 Sep

I’d like you all to meet two of my favorite people in the whole world. The handsome one (on the right) is my aunt Laura. The not-so-pretty one with the glasses? That’s my cousin John, her son.

Laura (aka “Queen of Doughnuts“) can make me laugh without ever speaking, and when she does speak her words are what “proper” people often refer to as “colorful.” She is also one of my go-to consigliere in matters of traditional family recipes, and so Laura and I have talked a lot on the phone through the years, often while working in our kitchens.

I love my aunt a whole lot.

John makes me laugh too. His language (like mine, I’ll admit) is a lot like his mother’s. So are his kitchen skills. My cousin and I have always been close. As younger men we engaged in dangerous activities together, doing (let’s face it, John) idiotic things that could have gotten us hurt or shuttled to a place upstate where they don’t know from an aglio e olio. Even though we have grown older and more mellow, my cousin and I continue to seek each other out. This makes me happy.

Because I love him a whole lot too.

I haven’t actually seen my aunt or my cousin since early in the summer, and yet they have been with me in my kitchen a lot these past couple of weeks. The “googootz” in my garden (best you click here for an explanation) have been plentiful this season; I have been cooking with them a lot. Nobody digs the ‘gootz more that these two do. I can’t lay eyes on one of the odd-looking Sicilian squash without thinking of Laura and John. Just isn’t possible. Believe me, I’ve been at this a long time.

If it weren’t for them, in fact, our family’s oldest stew might long ago have been forgotten. They’re the only two people I know who will not allow a single summer to pass without preparing at least a couple pots full of giambottaGiambotta is an Italian vegetable stew but when using googootz (all right, the squash’s actual name is cucuzza) my family has always added chicken. I don’t know why that is. Neither do any of them. I’ve asked.

Anyhow, I posted the recipe for my giambotta some time ago now, but since these two relations of mine have been so much on my mind of late, I decided to allow them to share theirs. Googootz are not very easy to find (here’s a link to the cucuzza plantation in Louisiana where most of those you’ll find in the U.S. come from). If you can’t get your hands on a googootz, I suppose a couple large zucchini will work just fine. They just won’t be nearly as much fun.

Here’s a taste of the stew, by the way.

And here are my handsome relatives again, just about to cook up a new batch.

I wish that I were with them. But am guessing that maybe I am.

Laura & John’s Giambotta

1 chicken breast quartered
1 medium onion (vidalia) sliced
3-4 garlic cloves, lightly crushed
4-5 carrots, sliced in good-sized chunks
2 celery stalks & their leaves, sliced
1-2 potatoes, chunked
1-2 googootz (squash)
Water or chicken broth to cover
Salt, pepper, oregano, basil, hot pepper flakes to taste
A diced fresh tomato or two if you like

Cut squash into 4″-6″ lengths, then peel, seed and cut into chunks
Brown chicken in olive oil, then add onions and cook until tender
Add squash, carrots, celery, potatoes, garlic
Cover with water or broth (add more during cooking, if needed), bring to boil, then lower to a simmer and add salt, pepper, herbs
Cook partially covered for 30-40 minutes
Check water level during cooking (it should be not quite a soup, more like a stew in consistency)

A word from John: This recipe is good for 2 hungry eaters. But giambotta is even better the next day, and so I always up the ingredients and make extra.

A word from Laura: Shut up and eat already, would you please!