Matt Cutugno is no stranger to writing. He has a rich history of eleven plays to his credit. Each has been performed in theaters that crisscross the country from New York to Los Angeles. His short stories have been featured in anthologies, his essays published in literary journals, and his articles have appeared in newspapers in New York and China. THE WINTER BARBEQUE is his first book and it tells a story that is both poignant and on point to the Baby Boom generation and their parents. THE WINTER BARBEQUE is an end-of-life recollection told through the eyes of the author’s father - a member of the Greatest Generation, the generation that gave their lives and their futures in defense of America during World War II. As the clock ticks on Matt “Tug” Cutugno’s final hours, we are privileged to be part of his consciousness and his memories in this elegantly told story.
It’s a winter’s day, perhaps the last day of an old man’s existence.
Matt “Tug” Cutugno has lived a good life, that of a hard working family man. He has earned the right to a happy ending; he wants a pat on the back for a job well done. But just where is his reward?
Tug’s wife and children are gone and his dreams of a future are now memories of his past – the war; getting married and raising a family; his days as a working man.
His present is filled by winter barbeques of grilled kielbasa for breakfast, grilled chicken for lunch and grilled zucchini and hot dogs for dinner.
As he sits on his lawn chair in the snow-covered backyard of the home that he built himself, a menagerie of wonderful people visits this extraordinary everyman who is not searching for himself, but who is seeking the meaning of what he accomplished in this life.
And with each visit from his wife, his children, his friends and neighbors, his war time buddies, the story of this brave and unsentimental man unfolds so that the past and present merge into something that can be called the truth of an entire generation of men who fought in World War II.
“The Winter Barbeque is an extraordinary and vivid memoir about the best that there is in a father. The author's honest and sympathetic style makes this an enormously rewarding work."
-- D.S Lliteras, author of Thieves of Golgotha and The Master of Secrets
“The Winter Barbeque is an exceptional work - a bittersweet journey of years, traversed in hours, while melting the boundaries between memory and reality.”
-- M.L. Martin, Editor-in-Chief, The Hilltop Observer
For a special taste of a specially prepared meal cooked on a little hibachi in the snow, we include “the first hour” of THE WINTER BARBEQUE to whet your appetite for more.
THE WINTER BARBEQUE
Copyright © 2010 by Matt Cutugno
All Rights Reserved
the first hour
It is the winter of my content. Who said that? Doesn’t
matter, things are said. It is winter where I am, and I am content.
It’s a nice day. I’m outside the back door, in an area
protected from the wind by the L shape of my place. I’m sitting in a plastic
summer folding chair, placed on the freshly fallen snow.
Above me is a cold, clear, bright sunny sky, perfect weather
for a barbeque.
People think it’s easy to barbeque, but people think
many things are easy. Winter barbeque is not easy at all. There is important
preparation, and equally important execution. Much can go wrong if full
attention is not paid to seeming details.
This morning I will grill kielbasa. Before that
though, I’m going to enjoy the winter sun. Life is good, though I am old.
This may be my last winter, or not. Thankfully, I am assured by the presence
of family and friends.
I have my small black hibachi, plenty of charcoals,
and the chimney starter that I use to fire them up. The rest is a tale better
left unsaid, less it be told by idiots.
This is a good, quiet morning hour, a time of
contemplation and reflection. The kielbasa is already set on a small table
nearby. It’s getting acclimated to the winter air before it is cooked.
The cold fresh air preps it for the searing flames.
Should I start up the barbeque? Well, there are
steps to take. I have to lift the top off the small round hibachi and clean
the entire thing from last time’s use. I have to go back inside and get three
exactly three sheets of old newspaper and matches in order to light my chimney
starter. I’ll also need a plate for the kielbasa and two small forks because
by the time I’m finished grilling, my younger brother Ralph will be here.
That old man can smell kielbasa barbequed in the
basement of a house while he’s in the attic of another house down the street.
There is no hurry. Philosophically speaking, why
start anything since it will then be done? It’s a world view.
So I go inside my house and get what I need and I
return out the back door. I cut open the kielbasa package. The meat comes in
a u-shaped piece that is formed like a small horse collar. I laugh at that
because kielbasa is pork and not horse.
If it was horse I would eat it nonetheless because
I can hear the doctor now: “Matt, these test results
show that you have a congestive heart.”
“Really doc?” I wisecrack, “Is that good?”
“No, it’s bad, it’s killing you. You can’t go on
eating anything and everything you want.”
“Doctor, I’m on the internet every day. I access
several online medical sites. I know what will kill me and what won’t.”
“These tests don’t lie Matt, don’t you believe
I am patient with the man, since patience is a
I say to him, “Test results are meaningless, my
medical friend. Have you ever heard of white coat syndrome?”
That quiets him in a hurry and I leave his wretched
Now I’m cleaning the hibachi. I take the top by the
wooden handle and bang it against the large rock at the beginning of my
vegetable garden. I do the same with the small and larger circular metal
grills. Both of them are old, having seen many barbeques and it takes some
banging to clean them of rust and calcified burnt food.
If those grills could talk.
Then I take the body of the hibachi and tip it and
the lumpy ashen charcoals from the previous barbeque spill out and into a
plastic refuse bag I have at the ready.
Thus the hibachi is prepared for a new cook out.
Then I move over to my chimney starter. It’s
waiting silently on the table outside the back door, like a good watchdog. I
take it by its wooden handle affixed along the side, and I turn it upside down.
Then I take exactly three sheets of newspaper,
crumple them though not too tightly and I place them in the chamber at the base
of the starter.
Tell me if I’m going too fast. I flip the chimney
right side up, and set it expertly on the hard cold ground. I have stick
matches, which are the only kind of matches to use for any match occasion. I
like the small, red cardboard box they come in. I take one out and strike it
against the side of the box where the striking surface is, and I like the way
Now I bend down and place the lighted match into one
of the numerous slots along the rounded edge of the chimney’s base, and this
way I light up the dry crumpled paper.
Did I mention that I have already placed charcoals
into the top of the chimney? If I haven’t, forgive me, I’m an old man.
Now is a good time.
I sit back down on my summer chair, with the chimney
starter set in front of me. If you notice, no lighter fluid is used to start
up the charcoals. It’s an all-natural process. At first when the three sheets
of newspaper ignite, there are small yellow flames coming through the slots at
the base. Then white smoke curls from the top. Slowly the coals ignite,
warming up red hot.
That’s the beauty part.
Meanwhile I can cut the kielbasa. You want smaller
pieces, and you want to cut each cylindrical piece in half widthwise. Thus the
most complete grilling coverage of the meat’s carnivorous surface.
I look down into the chimney, just as a gust of cold
winter air blows by. I can see the coals redden in response, like they are
I lean back and gaze into the winter sky. There’s
one seagull, he’s floating and gliding, coming down closer. I’m not a
scientist, and don’t know if seagulls have exceptional senses of smell. As a
layman I guess they do because this one bird is focused.
He knows something is up.
The hibachi fire is ready. I pick up the chimney
starter by the handle. I lift the top, larger, grill off the hibachi, pour in
the hot coals until they settle and spread on the lower, smaller grill, then I
place the larger grill back on. Momentarily, I can lay the pieces of kielbasa
on top of that.
I don’t use the lid of the hibachi. Others do when
barbequing, I’ve seen it on TV. I pity them. I don’t hide my barbequing from
the world. I keep the lid off so I can see the pieces of meat as they cook, so
I can freely poke and turn them over when they need it. I would heartily
recommend this hands-on approach to anyone interested in fine dining.
All the kielbasa is on the grill, I hear the pieces
I look down at my right hand. I’m holding the
kitchen utensil I use to pick up and flip the meat. I forget the name of the
tool, but at the part that you hold, it’s like scissors looped for my fingers
to fit, but at the top the two ends are flattened so you can pick things up.
The reason I stare at the tool now is because my
Marie used it so well for so many years. It reminds me of her.
For lack of its proper name, let’s call the tool a
I’m thinking of my wife, and all of a sudden, there
she is, having come out the back door and into the yard.
“Hey Dad,” is all she says.
“My Marie, how are you today?” I ask.
“I’m fine,” she says and smiles and gets closer to
“Now you watch,” I caution. “This thing can kick up
a hot spark that can leap off the grill onto an article of clothing, and
ignite. Then I would have to roll you around in the snow to put you out.”
“Matt,” she says and waves her hand and we share a
“Remember this?” I ask and hold up the kitchen tool
and show her. I’m hoping she’ll say the name of it.
“Meatballs,” she says and I nod because she used the
picker-upper to take meatballs from the large pot full of meatballs and
Marie could make meatballs. So juicy and flavorful.
She was a good cook before she forgot the nuances.
That’s another story.
“Meatballs,” I echo. I turn my attention to the
grill, and I flip a couple pieces of kielbasa over. When I look back my Marie
is no longer there. Who knows where she’s off to? Just as well, she does not
What a sight I must make, a man in a summer chair, next to a
hibachi set in the new snow, hot smoke rising into the cold sky, the bright
sun, the grilled kielbasa.
It could make a man believe.
I’ve believed in the Lord at times in my life. During the
war was one time. When I was fighting Hitler’s air force I believed in God
then. The average life span of a gunner in a B-17 was nine minutes of combat.
I kid you not, those are statistics. I don’t know who
compiled such statistics and how they could actually measure that, but still.
Even if it was just a scare tactic, it made me believe.
During the war, I decided to err on the side of there being
a God. After the war, as the kids were growing up, I still believed then. We
would all go to church and there was this one priest Father Daniel, who gave a
good sermon, and he had really great hair, and he was always friendly to my
aged mother and spoke to her in her native tongue.
Then the kids grew up, and the priest got transferred.
It’s not like I then disbelieved, I forgot to believe.
I believe in a good barbeque. The kielbasa is ready and I
take if off the grill, and place it on a piece of aluminum foil on a plate. I
set the plate next to me. The meat steams in the cold air, the good smell
surrounded by snow.
What a great picture that would make.
The seagull is back, he swoops into my view. He has spotted
my barbeque, and he can smell the delicious pieces of kielbasa sitting on the
plate. His senses must be driving him wild.
It reminds me of the time one Thanksgiving, after our big
meal, when me and my son Matt tied a long thin rope to the turkey carcass. We
secured the rope at its other end, and left the carcass out in the back yard.
In moments hungry sea gulls appeared. One would float down, then pounce and
grab the bones. The dumb bird would fly off and the taut rope would pull the
turkey from its grasp and back to the ground. Another ravenous gull would try,
with the same result.
We laughed quite a bit, the whole family did, it was a riot.
Talk about holiday fun! It was revenge for humans, and
anyone who has been defecated on by a bird can appreciate the jest.
Speaking of birds, I like bats, wooden ones. I like slimmer
types that are more like clubs. I always keep a bat around. I have one in the
back seat of my car, and another in the trunk. I have a bat just inside the
front door of my place, and I keep one in the kitchen leaned in the corner. It
goes without saying that I have one in my bedroom. I tell my Marie our bedroom
is the last line of defense.
Now I can sense that this seagull knows that I have a bat
outside too, leaning against some cinder blocks near the garden. If the bird
comes down to get some of my barbeque, it will wish it had not bothered.
Momentarily, the gull flies off, presumably convinced of the fruitlessness of
I grab my fork with the red plastic handle, and I jab a
piece of kielbasa. I take a bite of it, then another bite, then another and I
eat the whole piece. It is tasty. I jab again and take another piece and I
finish this one in two bites rather than the three bites it took me to finish
the first piece.
Then I sit, taking in the cold sun, swinging the empty fork
in the air, like I’m conducting some sympathy of nature, a barbeque in E minor.
I eat a third piece of kielbasa, and I’m getting full. I
have one more piece, it too is good. Then I stand up and walk out into the
yard a bit, just to stretch the old legs, a passeggiata as my dear Mother called it.
I burp. It’s a kind of long, rolling, modulating burp that
feels good to get out.
In the garden I notice the snow has melted some, I can see
the brown dirt. I see the little humps of earth where my tomato plants will
again be once planting season comes.
I look up into the sky and feel blessed, because it’s a nice
day, and I’m healthy as a mule. I’m stuffed with barbeque, and I know someone
or other will be visiting soon to help pass the time.
Just as I’m thinking that, I hear someone approach. It’s my
only daughter, and she comes around the house to the hibachi area. Her thick
wild hair is blowing out of a scarf. She is wearing a large black coat and
she’s a somewhat round person so she looks like a brown bear.
Her name is Christine.
“Hi Dad,” she says and holds her hand up and waves in a way
that makes her look even more bear-like.
“How’s my girl?” I say.
She doesn’t answer my perfectly simple question. Instead
she says, “You shouldn’t be eating kielbasa at eleven o’clock in the morning.”
“What is the best time to eat that stuff?”
“How about never?”
“No, it’s good for you.”
I love my daughter, but she’s stubborn. I am patient.
“The doctor said he has seldom seen a man my age look the
way I do.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“Thanks for letting me know,” I say humorously.
So then my number one-and-only girl takes the rest of the
kielbasa and goes inside. She’ll clean up the kitchen, and bathroom, mop the
floors, go out and do some shopping for me. She is a great daughter, and
visits with regularity.
On the downside, she can be grouchy.
I think an overlooked form of prejudice in our society is
against the very old. If you live long enough, you are forgotten about and
marginalized long before you actually die. You have outlived your usefulness
to yourself and to others. Most folks just don’t want to know you, and they
surely don’t want you around.
Getting back to my daughter, other than crankiness, she is a
good, generous soul.
So I’m standing there in the snow thinking about going
inside and having one last piece of kielbasa. All of a sudden I see something
out in the woods.
My house is the solitary one for a short stretch on one side
on this road, and I only have one neighbor on the other side.
Because of this, I notice everything around me, I’m like a
Something or someone is out in the woods. The first thought
I have is that it’s a man in army green, dashing through the tree-line.
Silly thought I know, it is probably a deer. So I sit back
down in my summer chair in the snow and keep my eyes peeled.
It is then that old man Darby comes out of the woods and
walks up to my hibachi site, natural as can be.
“Hey Tug,” he says in the grunting kind of way he speaks.
“Tug” is what they called me way back when and his guy knows that.
“Darby, you bum, still wearing your army coat. It’s in
“It may be but look at me!”
“If you got it, flaunt it.”
“So what’s your excuse?”
We share a laugh and I look him up and down. He’s not a bad
specimen for an old man. Of course you understand he’s ten years younger than
me. Those are crucial years in a life span.
To be 75 again.
Darby has most of his hair, though it is whiter than white.
He has the wooly collar of his jacket turned all the way up, and his hands are
still in his pockets. He lives somewhere around here, though I’m not sure
I do know that he served in the Korean War. Which, for the
record, was not a war but a police action.
I was in a War.
“So what are you doing here?” I offer.
“Just paying a neighborly visit.”
“Wanna sit? I only have this one chair, but you can sit on
“Don’t need to sit, I’ll sit when I’m dead.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll sleep when you’re dead, that’s the expression, if
someone asks you if you need some rest, you say I’ll sleep when I’m dead, not
I’ll sit when I’m dead.”
“You can sit when you’re dead.”
“Only if you die in a chair.”
“Want some kielbasa?”
“I came by to tell you that I have my eye on your place.
I’d like to buy it, when you’re ready to sell of course. I know all the care
you and your brother took in building this place, real craftsmanship.”
He mentions my brother, Ralph. It’s true he assisted in the
construction of the house, but he was more of a helper than the craftsman. All
the design concepts are mine.
“Not for sale, Darby.”
“I mean when you pass.”
“I’m not passing.”
“My friend, just because, in past times, everyone passed,
that does not mean that at some point in the near future, people can’t stop
“I have my eye on your place.”
“I’m not passing.”
“I’m sure you’re not.”
“Neither am I then.”
“I have to go inside, my daughter is here.”
“I had a dream about the Korean War last night. Do you
dream about World War II?”
“War was the defining moment of our lives.”
“I don’t know about ‘defining moment.’ Think about our
wedding days, the birth of children, and other noteworthy events.”
“I had six children, but only one war.”
“You had six? God bless. You only had one wife though.”
“Actually had three, and thirteen grandchildren total.”
“It’s a baseball team, with reserves.”
I hate old men who brag about the issue of their loins. I
“I should be going inside, Christine is waiting.”
I reach down, with some grunting effort, and pick up the lid
of the hibachi and put it back on top. I can see that the coals are all ashen
white, celebrating a job well done. It takes me some moments to straighten up,
my back creaks as I do.
When I look around, Darby is gone. Just like him to stop by
without calling, then leave without saying goodbye.
I have learned this in life: The past can be important, but
old men are usually unreliable.
So I make my way inside. To get to my kitchen, I first go
through the sun room, the one my Marie calls the Florida room because when we
visited Orlando the place we stayed in had a room like that. Then I shuffle
through my workshop where I keep my tools, my 13-inch TV that I used to play
Nitendo on, my PC computer, and other things.
Then I bound up the steps into the kitchen.
My daughter is not there. “Christine?” I call out. She has
left. I can see she cleaned up, and when I open the fridge I note that she did
some shopping for me. She did her usual thorough job.
I’m wondering why she didn’t say goodbye, then it occurs to
me that she doesn’t like the plastic containers of pee that I leave around.
You see, I have a problem going,
sometimes I can’t go at all and others times suddenly I have to go like an
Aqueduct race horse.
So I keep plastic containers handy, the kind you
usually use for leftovers. I conveniently pee in the containers.
My daughter doesn’t like me leaving them out. They offend
her. And she will not empty them for me. It would be a big help if she would
empty them, maybe wash them for reuse, but she won’t.
I’m talking like six large containers of pee, tops.
So the long and the short is she left today without saying
Now I fix myself a cup of coffee and sit in the kitchen. I
can look out the window at the backyard, such a nice day out there. From this
vantage point, even as I sip, I am able to keep on eye on my valuables outside,
like the hibachi, and some metal and plastic pails I have, and my crab traps,
which I don’t use in the winter.
I take a sip of java. It’s good, hot and black. I have
another sip, then another. Coffee is a fine drink, it sharpens the mind,
distills the senses into one focused sense.
The window in front of me rattles some, as the wind outside
has picked up. Weather is very changing this time of year.
Still, I am content.
Matt Cutugno's profile at Stay Thirsty Publishing