I have to credit my friend Johnny Boy, A.K.A. John Racioppo for reminding me of our July 4th adventures on 77 Street. The memories are there once they are jogged from my head. Thanks John!
We would prepare for the Fourth of July months before that day came. As far back as April and May we would be seeking our sources for the fireworks we needed to celebrate the 4th. Someone always knew someone who was selling a stash of cherry bombs and ash cans, M-80’s, Roman candles and whistlers. Fire crackers, bottle rockets, silver jets, all part of the arsenal we needed to make some noise on Independence day.
I could remember going to a friend of a friends house and walking into his bedroom as he pulled the covers off his bed, displaying a huge array of fireworks covering his bed. Where the heck did he sleep?? We had cash, money we saved for months, and as we picked among the colorful array of pyrotechnics our vendor would place them in a brown paper shopping bag.
The walk home was always unnerving, two kids walking home with unmentionables. But we had a story prepared in case the G-Men staked us out and stopped us. Some kid from another neighborhood on a red bicycle sold us these fireworks. Honestly.
Hiding them from my mother was the biggest challenge. My mother knew about everything. And if I brought these fireworks in the house, for sure, she would find them. Don’t ask me how, she just had that 6th sense about things and eventually things I shouldn’t have would just disappear. So I let my friend Mike stash them until July 4th. My mother lost her calling and should have been a member of the FBI. I could never get anything past her. She just always knew.
When we got to Mike’s house we slipped into his bedroom and took out our treasures and set them out on the floor to admire what we had. Oh man, can’t wait for the 4th. But who could wait? We always took a few packs of fire crackers and went out to give them a try. A sound you heard around the neighborhood, letting everyone know that the day was coming.
A piece of rope, that would stay lit if you kept blowing on it, or a “punk”, it looked like a stick of insencethat would have a glowing spark at the end to light the fireworks with, would be our ignitors of choice. Matches were just too cumbersome. Now we had everything.
On the Fourth of July our block was like a war zone. The elderly would prepare for the day by closing themselves into the back rooms of their houses to avoid the bombardment. Neighbors who enjoyed quite evenings would pack up and leave for the day, visiting relatives in Long Island or Jersey to get away from the “shock and awe”. If you drove anywhere in our neighborhood you had to keep your windows closed. You never knew what might come flying through. And as bad as our block was with 20 or more kids all exploding their fireworks, up the street about two blocks away on 17th avenue the real heavy stuff would go off. Those revelers, mostly “wise guys”, would close off the avenue with piles of fireworks going off in the middle of the street. I swear they would just dump tons of everything they had in the Avenue intersection and pour on the gasoline and light it. We would see flashes of light and continuous explosions and sparks flying everywhere. It was awesome! For some reason, the cops stayed away from 77 street and 17th Avenue.
We had creative ways of exploding our cherry bombs, ash cans and M-80’s. The corner sewer was a favorite spot to light one and throw it down there. The echo of the explosion could be heard for blocks. A metal garbage can was also a container of choice. They would sound just that much louder. My parents had a metal milk box by our side steps. We blew that up. It was like each kid had to out do the other by finding more creative ways to blow up their fireworks. Sticking a firecracker down an ant hole was also a favorite. Exploding a cherry bomb inside a turned over coffee can made it fly up in the air. If one cherry bomb lifted the can, what would two or three do to it. We had to get a new coffee can. We used to make something called “a genii”. That was when we opened up and unrolled the paper from a single firecracker and empty out the gun powder onto the side walk. We would do that to a dozen or so firecrackers and then take a fuse and put it on the pile of gun powder and light it. It would go up in a puff of smoke, like a genii!
And then, one of the older kids had enough money to actually buy a “brick” or a “mat” as we used to call then. Mats had about 80 packs of firecrackers in them, they were sold that way as a wholesale lot. And we were going to light the whole thing up at one time. We waited all day for this! It was to be the highlight of the evening. We waited for it to get dark for better effect. We then took an empty metal garbage can and placed it in the middle of the street. We roughly broke up the mat and placed it in the garbage can, poured a can of lighter fluid on it and threw in a match and RAN! The explosions lasted for about 3 minutes, a constant barrage of firecrackers going off. You could see the mushroom of smoke rising from the garbage can. It was the most awesome sight of the evening.
Some neighbors actually stayed out on their second floor porch to watch the activities from afar. Every now and then a silver jet rocket would go astray and you would see them scramble for cover. We loved it! Some adults would come out to set off the larger rockets. The night sky lit up with the colorful sparks.
By the end of the evening our street looked like a ticker tape parade just went through there. Pieces of paper from exploded fireworks just covered the streets and sidewalks. If it were a still evening you could see a haze of smoke hovering around the street lights and the smell of sulfur filled the air. We were spent. We blew up everything we had. And no one, this year, got hurt. At least on our block.
Families returned from their day trips. The neighbors opened their windows to cool their houses once again. Cats were let out and the neighborhood dogs came out from under the beds. It was an exciting 4th of July.
The next day was a good excuse to open the hydrants to wash away the papers and debris from the night before. And that meant another day of fun and games on 77 Street, Brooklyn.
Zeppole was as much summer food as was ice cream, snow cones and Italian ices. Every street fair you went to had a stand that sold fresh made zeppoles. Most of the pizzerias in the neighborhood sold zeppoles but they never tasted as good as the ones you got from the street festivals. All warm and crispy and covered in powdered sugar. We would buy a bag full and share them with each other. Back then, white powder on your lips and nose meant you were eating zeppoles.
Zeppoles are really easy to make and can be enjoyed anytime. Occasionally when we made them at home we made the batter a little thicker and would place an anchovy in the middle before frying them. These were the savory zeppoles and did not take powdered sugar. Either savory or sweet, zeppole were always a treat. Putting the cooked zeppoles in brown paper lunch bags and shaking them with powdered sugar will remind you of being back at the street fair.
- 1 cup warm water
- 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 cups all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Vegetable oil for deep frying
- Confectioners’ sugar
Sprinkle the yeast and sugar over the water in a small bowl. Stir until the yeast dissolves.
In a large mixing bowl, combine flour and salt. Add the yeast mixture and stir until well blended. Cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place for 1 1/2 hours.
Pour about 2 inches of oil into a deep heavy saucepan or deep fryer. Heat oil until the temperature reaches 375 degrees, or a drop of the dough sizzles and turns brown in 1 minute.
Drop the dough by tablespoons into the hot oil. Do not crowd. Cook the zeppole until golden brown and puffed, about 2 minutes, turning once during the cooking time.
Remove the zeppole with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Repeat with the remaining dough.
Put the zeppole in a paper bag, add the confectioners’ sugar, and shake them until well coated. Serve immediately. Don’t forget to share!