I was in Nepal at a yoga ashram getting my teacher certification with Yogi Vikashananda. It was an intensive month of cramming so much knowledge into my head. In fact, it took years to assimilate what I learned. We worked so hard and ate a purely vegan diet with no nuts or fat. Fruit for breakfast. Vegetables and Rice for lunch and dinner. If we were lucky, we got one chapati to go with dinner. Not even twenty minutes after each meal, hunger hit and my stomach was grinding again. I really love my food and the hunger was enough to make me irritable!
I started craving things I don’t normally crave. Coffee was forbidden, so I grew to cherish my cup of fennel tea every morning…but. if only I could get a hold of some sugar or honey. I would douse my fennel tea with so much sugar and honey, why not both?, that I’d be happily drinking syrup.
The cook, Lakshmi, prepared a certain amount of food per day. If people straggled in to the ashram, that certain amount of food, normally shared by 10 people, had to be shared by 15. I got to where I selfishly resented anyone stumbling into the ashram! I was rapidly shedding weight and I wasn’t even looking to lose it.
Given that I was so hungry, it might surprise you that there was one food item I consistently left untouched on my plate: bitter gourd! It was a staple, never failing to appear on my plate, though I’d rather starve than eat it! The first time I saw it, it looked so benign, like a few pieces of sauteed zucchini. I ate it and it was as if my mouth were filled with bile. I am a fast learner and that was enough to swear me off the stuff forever.
Nothing went unnoticed by Yogi Vikashananda. “Fran-ji, why do you not eat your bitter gourd?”
I refused to answer. His question, innocent enough, kicked up a thousand dust particles from my past! My mother made me eat Sicilian cucuzza, which was not a far cry from the Indian bitter gourd in taste. I found myself seething in anger. Why did he care if I ate my bitter gourd or not? Seriously, what was it to him? I’d rather starve than eat it and that was a statement onto itself….an unspoken statement.
“You, of all people, MUST eat your bitter gourd! Yes, you must. It is good for your dosha!”
When I was little, I developed a technique to make my ears buzz. I learned to create a pressure in my ear drums and the buzzing blocked out sounds. It is hard to explain how I did it, but I just tried it and I can still do it! I used to do it when my mother got very close to my face and said, “You have to eat your cucuzza!” And then she would tell my sisters, “OK, no one leaves the dinner table until Franny eats her cucuzza.” Four instant enemies made, just like that! Her actions were so cruel, but at least I didn’t have to hear the words. I simply buzzed them out. What I couldn’t buzz out were the dirty looks and the under-the-table kicks from my sisters. They were all being kept prisoner because of me.
Unfortunately for me, given the hot Indiana summers, cucuzza grew as if it were on steroids. The plant, which grew as a vine, loved the soil, the thunderstorms and heavy rain, the humidity, and the heat of Indiana summers. I could see the nightmarish gigantic clubs hanging from vines when I looked out my bedroom window. Mom made cucuzza soup and fried cucuzza. My little-girl palate could not handle the bitterness, though most Sicilians would not categorize it as bitter in taste. I gagged it down, tears streaming down my face, so my sisters could be free of the dinner table. My mom would ask me to not be so theatrical! “Cucuzza‘s good for you. It will make you grow strong!”
I never grew to like it. NEVER. It always made me gag. My dad just happily ate one bowl of cucuzza soup after another, exclaiming how “sweet” it was. To this day, I may be the only human being alive to detect a bitter taste in cucuzza. One day, Aunt Lily, who had just moved in with us after her husband died, probably sick of hearing me gag, stood up to my mother and said, “Basta! She hates cucuzza. Can’t you see it’s making her sick??” And then she turned to me and took my bowl, “Here, I will eat it, beddra!” Like her brother, my aunty loved cucuzza soup and couldn’t eat enough of it.
I hate to write this next part down, but I found out later, when my mother was very ill, towards the end of her life, that she herself hated cucuzza! I know, readers, I am still shocked, too! How dare she? One day, out of the blue, she asked me, “Fra, do you still hate cucuzza?”
“You know, ma, I eat almost everything now, but I still can’t eat cucuzza.”
“Yeah, I never liked it either!”
What? Going back in my mind, I realized I never ever saw my mother eat a bowl of cucuzza soup. Of course, I was busy drowning in my own misery. How could I have made note of this detail back then?
She was too ill for me to rant, so I just swallowed this bitter pill. I have forgiven many things, but to force me to eat cucuzza when secretly she, too, disliked it, falls into the category of almost unforgivable.
When I got control of my emotions, I asked her, “Why, Ma? Why’d you make me eat it?”
“It was good for you! Cucuzza reminds us that life isn’t always sweet. Listen, Fra, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger! If all you ate was sugar, you would rot out. But, eat your bitter greens and cucuzza and your blood is reinforced. You can handle anything. It was for your own good that I made you eat it!”
Though I grew up in Indiana, I grew up eating like a Sicilian. Much to my mom and dad’s delight, their garden produced the most bitter of greens: arugula, dandelion greens, Belgian endive, curly endive, radicchio, chicory greens (ciccoria), escarole, frisee, puntarelle, and mustard greens. Back then, a little girl with a sensitive palate, I suffered greatly at each and every meal. Today, I think back on mom’s beautiful bowls filled with colorful greens and I crave these salads. I now love these bitter greens and grow them in my summer and fall garden.
I learned that in Sicilian dream interpretation, dreaming of bitter greens or cucuzza represents abundance, good health, longevity, and fertility! I think I relate more to the Jewish tradition and interpretation in which bitter herbs are eaten at Passover as a reminder of the harshness of servitude.
Just to be fair (and remember, I do like bitter greens now), bitter foods are high in anti-oxidants. They are sources of Vitamin B, C, and E, folic acid, zinc, fiber, and magnesium. One serving contains twice the potassium of a banana. Bitter greens, bitter gourds, and bitter squashes lower blood sugar, fight cancer and combat vitro-viral activity (HIV infections and herpes). In Ayurveda medicine, the bitter quality in foods helps to detoxify and tone the organs, especially the liver. It is said to be great for treating inflammatory conditions such as hypertension, psoriasis and digestive problems.
I still, however, to this day, dislike Sicilian cucuzza.