My grandpa came to America from Teggiano, a small town just South of Naples in Italy when he was just a boy, around 12 years old. He eventually married my grandma who was a Polish immigrant. They lived in the Canarsie borough of Brooklyn, alongside other Italian and Jewish immigrants. They were fortunate enough to have a house with a nice size backyard where they kept chickens, a huge fig tree (possibly one brought from Italy), grapes and of course vegetables. My grandma instilled a strong love of gardening in most of her seven children. My dad and all his sisters still keep vegetable gardens at home where they always grow what I consider the Italian must haves – basil, tomatoes, peppers, and squash. Part of my love of gardening came from my grandma Mary, whom I was named after. She passed on shortly before I was born and my parents adopted me.
My actual biological DNA is mostly French/German and tiny bit British and Dutch. Even though my parents tried to bring some of that culture into my life, I feel little connection to any of those places. As an adoptee, finding a connection to your roots can be a struggle. My mom is Puerto Rican and Mexican/Indigenous while my dad is Polish/Italian – both are first generation Americans but I was brought up as pretty traditional American. As my mom always told me though, I’m all of the things jumbled together. Claiming my parents’ cultural heritage as my shared experience, I at times feel like an impostor – that I HAVE to state that I was adopted. Statements like “My mom is Mexican, but I’m white because I was adopted.” and “My dad is Italian, but I’m not because I was adopted.” Honestly, sometimes it’s exhausting and I’m left feeling lonely and so disconnected from everyone. I feel my deepest connections though to the Mexican and Italian culture. Although I didn’t grow up particularly immersed in either of these cultures like my parents, they were always there in the background. Homemade chorizo, capirotada, a love of dancing, and all things corn from my mom’s side. A deep love of garlic, spaghetti, feasting, and hand gestures from my dad’s side. Both sides come with a lot of passion, deep traditions, and a love of life.
One vegetable that that is part of the cultural heritage is the cucuzza. My grandma used to grow it in her backyard when my dad was a kid. I will never know for sure why my grandma grew cucuzza, but I guess that it was for my grandfather to make him feel at home in a new country. Maybe one of her Italian neighbors gave her some seed. It doesn’t really matter though so much now. That information has been lost in our family along with the culinary tradition of how to prepare the cucuzza. This charming squash is still in the hearts of my dad and his sister. My Aunt Jo loves to grow beautiful vegetables and enter them into the local and state fairs. She always saves seed and passes them along to my dad and her other friends. A few years ago, she handed my dad an envelope of cucuzza seed she’d saved and convinced my dad to try growing some. It was more seed than he needed, so he gave me some and told me that my grandma used to grow it. Well how could I not try it then?
Cucuzza, or snake gourd, has been cultivated throughout the Mediterranean region and has a long culinary history in southern Italy and Sicily. The cucuzza (Lagernaria siceraria) is an Italian calabash type squash and a member of the Cucurbit family. Botanically, it’s a type of gourd, though it’s most commonly used similar to summer squash. In Italy, it also goes by Zucca, suzza melon, cucuzzi, and Googootz (pronounced goo-GOOTZ) in slang. There is a well-known Sicilian proverb – “however you cook it, it’s still just a squash”. It’s so much better than zucchini though! It has a really nice firm texture that holds up to cooking well, stores longer, and is easier to harvest. The cucuzza grows long (over 12 feet) but should be picked young when they are around 12 to 18 inches long. They have pale green skin and white flesh. As they mature, their skin hardens and they can be stored similar to a winter squash. They do need to be trellised and are avid climbers and can make a gorgeous green “fence”.
As Lane of the Culinary Breeding Network recently said, the Italian side always takes over everything. I feel that this is very true in my life – it’s the culture I feel the most connected to. After traveling in Italy twice, how could one not fall in love with it all - the food, the way of life? Everyone in the countryside there has a garden. Each dish is so regional and deeply steeped in tradition. This past year, we grew out a couple beds of cucuzza on the farm. Each time I walked by the walls of climbing tendrils, with glowing white flowers that open at night (and are pollinated by moths), I felt transported with a sense of connection to something ancient. We organized a Zoom cooking class for our CSA members with Zisolhouse, a small farm in Sicily that Brian and I actually visited in 2019 thanks to a recommendation from Lane. It’s in the Southeast corner of Sicily just a little south of Noto. The little organic family farm was created in the 70’s and planted out in citrus and olives. It was abandoned for a generation, but Fabio and his partner Annarelle have brought it back from the grips of wild blackberries. It’s now a REAL agriturismo where one can stay, learn about citrus and wild oranges, olive oil, and enjoy a real Sicilian meal. Each member who paid for the class received all the ingredients for the recipe from our farm, which was for a very traditional stew that included some of the smaller, younger tendrils of the plants called “tenerumi” in Italian. I bought the class for my dad for his birthday and he loved it! He loved it so much that he made the dish like 4 times in a row. It was a great way for us to connect as a family to his mother, who I never had the chance to meet, around food. He also talked with his Vietnamese neighbor about the cucuzza and he learned how they grow a similar squash they call bầu rắn. They shared their recipes for this squash.
Food is the one things we all need. I truly believe that as Anim Steel says “Food can be a vehicle for social change. It brings people together in a way that very few other activities can." As I connect to my community through farming, growing some of the crops that my grandparents grew in their homeland can make that connection more deeply rooted and authentic. My generation seems to be searching deeply for those forgotten traditions that our ancestors left behind to “fit in” to Western culture. Even though at times I can feel like an impostor claiming any ties to Italian culture, it is how I want to relate to the world and my community. I want to slow down, enjoy what grows regionally, cook seasonal meals, and embrace the vegetables that were passed up for convenience of transport. The cucuzza will now be a part of our farm’s story and a link to our families roots.
Intrigued? Want to grow some yourself? Adaptive seeds based in Oregon has them cause they are such a cool plant!
Thanks for reading - Farmer Mary