Il Cantastoria (part two)

Every few  months or so I am awoken at dawn by huge booming cannons  and barking dogs which signal that today is special;  a day of  celebration.  There are festivals based on Saints, commemorations,  historical remembrances, and even  strikes.  A day not designated exceptional is a sad day indeed.   When my father visited me he always said, “So today is a holiday?  It must be Tuesday!”

The basic form of celebrations has remained the same, although certain activities seem to have disappeared forever now.  One of these was the “Palo della Cuccagna“* which gave the young bloods of the town a chance to show off their climbing prowess.  A telephone-like pole was erected in the piazza with a bounty of cheeses, prosciutto, salami and such, tied  to a bicycle wheel perched at the top.  As if a smooth, 40-foot  telephone pole might not be insurmountable enough, it was then greased with lard.    Squads of four young men, jockeying impatiently  for the challenge,  armed themselves with a circular  strip of fabric to wrap around themselves and the pole.  They would scale it in sequence, each man on the bottom climbing up and over the next three.  Slipping down the pole and each other,  bruises and bumps and uncontrollable laughter would ensue.   The first squad to reach the top  would triumph and take home the prize.   Hilarity for all was insured.

"Off Her Pedestal"mixed media, 30 x 22 inches
“Off Her Pedestal”
mixed media, 30 x 22 inches

A traditional parade through the town center will take place during the festa.  Fixtures in this parade, in the phalanx of the powerful, are the mayor, the town council, and the clergy.   Having grown up with the Miss American pageants on TV, I always find it amusing when I see them all sporting wide banners from shoulder to hip, even though I know that this was the origin of the regalia  used in those spectacles.  Each V.I.P.  is quite proud to wear his banner, and I expect to eventually see, in these days of hyperbole, more and more of these in each parade.  Will there be a second and third brigade of silk sashes stating “schoolteacher,”  “baker,”  “or “dedicated housewife?”  I imagine a bannered “group of Shame,”  with “pedophile” or “litterer” scrawled on the sashes…

Picture Romeo and Juliet and their famous balcony.   It used to be that there were small musical bands which could be hired by an “innamorato“** to woo his beloved.  (One assumes that  women were not traditionally the protagonists here but one could be wrong!)  If the wedding date had been established, the young man would enlist the help of this band to serenade his future wife from the street below her balcony.  It was a joyous occasion  for the “vicini“*** when they heard a quavering voice in crescendo  out in the street, and I imagine the bride-to-be and her family endured the event with a mix of emotional embarrassment and merriment as he sang his song to her.   Too bad they didn’t have movie cameras to make videos back then; these scenes could have been the highlight of the wedding  film!

wedding guys 1

wedding guys2
“Waiting on the Cake”
mixed media, 30 x 22 inches

Every town has its religious processions, pagan and Catholic, quirky or boringly traditional.  These processions are still around, although they happen less often now.   Every few months people will gather for the purpose of escorting some important relic or statue of a local saint, getting it “out for air” and at the same time reminding the people where their loyalties should lie.  I will never forget my first experience with a procession, when, living along the main street, I heard a growing low buzz of human voices murmuring something, (a prayer?)  over and over again, a shuffling swarm of  sedated bees.   People living along the route where the slowly trudging crowd will pass should prepare.  Owners of houses will hang their nicest bed coverings from the railings, or adorn their clotheslines with ornate fabrics to honor the occasion. Some families possess a complicated  banner with the local  saint and symbols embroidered in traditional colors which makes its  appearance often and proudly.   Behold (and beware!)  the balcony which is festooned with a line of grungy underwear instead of a nice bedspread, thus shirking its unwritten civic duty…

*”The Pole of Plenty”

** enamored one

***neighbors

Advertisements

An Easter recipe

It has been a while since I wrote anything about cooking, so I thought I would honor my wonderful mother-in-law by relating one of her favorites.  Her repertoire was not huge, but the things she made were invariably excellent.  This dish is a crowd-pleaser, and it really makes a splash as it is presented because it is so eye-catching.

I will call it the Alianelli Meat and Frittata Roll.

Bernalda View, oil on canvas

Using very thinly sliced beef or pork, lay out the slices on a large piece of plastic wrap and pound them into one very large and flat slice.  A meat tenderizing mallet will work well for this.  Make sure that your flat shape, when rolled up, will fit in one of your large pans.    You can make two short ones instead of one  big one, and they will fit better.  Keep in mind that the slices should not have a diameter wider than two to three inches, or they will fall apart as you cut them.  Salt and pepper the meat, and dot it generously with butter.  Set aside.

Create a number of quickly-made thin frittate, which are beaten egg mixed with a generous addition of freshly-grated Parmigiano Reggiano, or Grana Padano.   “Generous” means about one part cheese to two parts egg.   Make enough to entirely cover the meat.  Be careful  because these are very thin, they are easily torn, but they will be rolled up in the meat so it really isn’t so important that they be perfect.

At this point you can add very thinly-sliced prosciutto cotto or crudo, depending on your taste, laying it on top of the frittata.  Again, cover the entire large “slice” of meat.

Now carefully roll the whole thing up very tightly, using the plastic wrap to help you, and hey, don’t roll the plastic up in the meat roll!   Fold in the ends.  Get out your cooking twine to bind it together so that during cooking it will behave.  Using twine is another chapter, but I trust you will be able to handle it!   Fry the roll in generous olive oil in which you have briefly added a couple of garlic cloves, removed before they brown.  When the roll is thoroughly browned, and you are fairly sure it will have cooked through inside, add a cup or so of white wine to the pan to create a tasty reduction to spoon over the slices.

Remove the roll, let it cool down, and carefully remove the twine.  With your sharpest knife begin slicing it into half-inch slices.  They are almost psychedelic in their swirling bright yellow and dark brown spirals!  Lay them out on a platter and spoon the sauce over.  These can be zapped in the microwave right before serving to reheat them, or held in a warm oven.

Buon appetito, and Buona Pasqua!

"Food Bandits" mixed media on paper

Fostering a tradition

My children, who will shortly have both feet planted firmly in adulthood, always had to make do with my accounts of celebrating various festivities in the United States.  They never had the chance, until recently, to experience an American Halloween, or Thanksgiving, or a Fourth of July  stateside.   It isn’t easy carrying on a tradition in isolation, but I did my best,  and I am confident that  my attempts to instill American memories in absentia will be fondly remembered.

As Halloween neared every year, I would begin seeking out a pumpkin to carve.  Most pumpkins in Italy are the type which are flattish and have loads of thick flesh, and are therefore  difficult to carve.  But at my special request,  the greengrocer would eventually procure me a round one, maybe two, on which  the boys and I could practice our creativity.  Messes were made.  Candy was furtively purchased.

With approaching dusk, we would prepare, letting the boys dress up as they saw fit; a cowboy, or a ninja, or some hybrid version of a soldier.  I used  a small bungalow which served as my studio, about forty yards from the house,  and I would position myself there with a bowl of candy while my husband stayed at the main house with his bowl.  Lights were turned off, and the jack-o-lanterns glowed as the boys rushed breathlessly back and forth in the dark, gradually filling their bags with candy and treats.  The doorbell must be rung each time!  What a surprise to find mom or dad again every time  the door opened, and my boys were nothing if not sporting about the absurdity of this little farce.  After all, there was candy!   Of course this artificial creation of Halloween filled me with a kind of desperate nostalgia, because during these years I simply did not know if they would ever have the genuine experiences which, for me, had been such a memorable and integral part of my childhood.  And they were growing up fast.

There was general consternation among our friends because back in those years, most were not  familiar with Halloween.   In the  early nineties, when the idea was beginning to catch on, the few kids who dared to ring buzzers and ask at condominiums and apartments around town were often met with scowls and outright hostility.  Children would have to be careful that their requests of “dolcetto o scherzetto” weren’t met with a shower of profanity, a swinging broom,  or even pebbles thrown from a balcony!  Kids were often chased away by angry old-timers, scandalized by the encroachment, yet again,  of America on their sound Italian traditions.

This is changing rapidly today, as Halloween is celebrated with great gusto.  The population of the town is divided unevenly between the many who love an excuse to party for any reason, and the few who resent “commercial holidays which exist only to make money” being foisted upon them by stores.  The tremendous rise in Chinese imports may also have played a role in the speed at which Halloween was introduced.  And of course there is America, ever present,  always ready to offer another “americanismo” for no good reason.   St. Valentine’s day has been borrowed, repackaged by American culture, and re proposed complete with cards, heart-shaped chocolate boxes, and petulant girlfriends expecting to score something shiny.   If I could express my point of view simply, I would say that their  resentment is equaled by my own at having  had “my”  traditional holiday  hijacked for these very same, highly commercial,  reasons.  I cannot easily accept the idea that the festivity was somehow forced upon an innocent culture.    Now, the festivities of  Halloween play a bigger role every year in Italy, with themed parties, invitation-only balls,  and children ringing doorbells.   It has been adopted in record time, and yes, sales are good.    Fewer die-hard traditionalists object every year to its observance.  Jack-o-lanterns shine from windows and the balconies of apartment blocks.

It is a strange feeling, as an isolated American, seeing the adoption and growth  of a traditional holiday,  as it morphs into something similar yet different, tailored and modified to fit another culture.  I suppose Thanksgiving is safe from being franchised, as I don’t think the Italians could justify celebrating the survival of Protestants in the New World, although the Cristoforo Colombo connection is always a possibility.   Hundreds of thousands of immigrants to  the United States must have a special feeling in their hearts about it I am sure.    Every year I have prepared my best version of turkey and dressing, pumpkin pie and whipped cream.    It is amusing to me that there are friends in Bernalda  who insist I make them up a plate of this Thanksgiving food every year because they love the unusual flavors.  At Halloween, I have been consulted about pumpkin carving and the best methodology for covering the most territory during the evening.  My sons swore that gaining entrance to one large condominium could make or break the night’s haul.

I think my boys have absorbed these traditions seamlessly, and they happily participate now as if they had been living as Americans  all along.     I suppose I can say that having done my best to instill these family traditions in my kids, it will be up to them now to carry on, wherever they may decide to live.   I foresee them bringing the Befana to Christmas, celebrating their saints’ name days, and  observing  April 25, the liberation of Italy from the fascists,  as an important date for both their cultures.  Along with Halloween, Thanksgiving, Saint Patrick’s Day, Easter’s various manifestations, all are important to a solid understanding of our cultural traditions.  Hopefully strong roots make  for a sturdier tree.

“Out of the Cage”  mixed media on paper, 2000