By Samara Ferris
The explosion of gastronomy could be written into books and books about the distribution of wealth, and it has.
It is the crass fact that neither the fine arts nor gastronomy can develop without a minimum
threshold of prosperity; somebody has to be rich enough to pay the painters and the pastry
cooks; nor is a country living at the margin of bare survival much interested in the quality of
what it eats; it will settle for quantity. If the arts flourished in Renaissance Italy, it was because
there was enough wealth to permit some citizens to abandon material production and devote
themselves to artistic production; if the kitchen flourished in Renaissance Italy it was because
there was enough wealth to fill the pantry.(1)
The Italians have world-over been revered for their adept abilities, complex flavors, and indulgent creations in the kitchen. Like the implications of different types of tea and rice in China, certain foods have economic and social meanings in Italy as well. To afford the luxury of exquisite food, elaborate banquets, and selective quality, there must be enough wealth to allow it. Known for its cuisine par excellence, Italy is a nation famous for its cooking that resided and swelled within the bourgeois, explaining why most of Italy’s well-known dishes are inexpensive to prepare and do not require rare ingredients as French recipes may, such as foie gras and Château Latour Grand Vin. A significant school of art could not have existed with the wealth and ability to cook lying only in the hands of a few patrons. Italy’s cuisine instead existed and exists mainly within its middle class, allowing it to produce a solid school of culinary artistry as well as intricate and well-defined regional styles of cooking:
…When, as in the Renaissance, there is a well-to-do middle class numerous enough to patronize
not only a few selected geniuses, but a large body of artists, and to patronize not only a small
clique of master cooks but a whole population of ordinary cooks, both art and cooking can expand dimensions which assure their survival.(2)
The allowance of the economy shaped Italy’s cuisine and helped its middle class burgeon along with it. With the abundance and restrictions of an economy also swings the growth and suffocation of its art. The economy of plenty will have a greater school of art and entertainment as its wealthy craves and can afford leisure. As the type of food one ate still explained one’s social stance in Italy, the middle-class foods eventually became so popularized that it became the status quo and the wealthy, middle class, and even the poor (where wealth would also trickle down into) enjoyed its comfort and simplicity, called “cucina casalinga” in Italian, meaning “home-cooking.”
Pasqua. Easter, in Italian. In Italy, the origins of Easter seem much more prevalent than in the US, where pink sugar-coated puffed chicks smirk behind shrink-wrap in supermarkets, and children dye eggs in pastel shades to commemorate something they may not be sure of. In Italy, it is not uncommon to see crosses made from folded palms everywhere on Palm Sunday. In John 12:13 in the Bible, it says that the people of Emmaus, “took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord.” In the Bible, the people threw cloth and palm leaves on the ground for Jesus to walk upon, cushioning and welcoming his arrival. In order to preserve the religious origins of this holiday and to celebrate Jesus, palm fronds are commonplace at Easter in Italy. The Italians commonly celebrate Easter with ceremonial specificity, symbolism, and allusions. They keep the religious origins of the holiday alive (even the nonreligious may join in on many religious customs) although they still join in on the enjoyment of chocolate eggs and surprises.
Pasqua is an enormous celebration in Italy, rivaling that of Buon Natale, “good birthday,” or Christmas. Italians celebrate Pasqua as a friend and/or family-centered lunch, similar to the American traditions. The feast for this holiday is usually very large, celebrating religion, friends, family, the Spring Equinox, and also the end of lent. For the many who participated in the 40-day long fast, this holiday offers the opportunity to experience gastronomical overindulgence with sweets, pastries, wine, and meat. In celebration of the Spring Equinox, a plethora of fresh, young vegetables are also served, often alongside young, soft cheeses. Asparagus, peas, and artichokes are some of the most prized vegetables for Pasqua as they reach their peak in flavor and tenderness around the time of the celebration. The traditional main meat of the lunch is lamb, appropriately. The Italians eat lamb in sacrificial remembrance of Jesus Christ.(3) They symbolically ingest the lamb, sanctifying their bodies and remembering the sacrifice that Jesus made. As the people eat the lamb, they celebrate the end of their sacrifice (lent) while simultaneously engaging in a symbolic sacrificial event of eating Jesus. This type of sanctification through symbolic cannibalism mirrors the practices of the Eucharist in church. Italians are famous for being staunchly Catholic, for celebrating mass (sometimes at impressive times such as 6:00am), and for taking the Eucharist with grave seriousness and frequency. Pasqua then, is the culmination of all Eucharist: the most popular, certainly the happiest, and the most critical.
Sacrifice almost certainly involves fire.(4) Fire purifies, symbolically eliminates the old to make fertile ground for the new. What would the biggest celebration of the Eucharist be if there was no fire? In Florence, on Pasqua morning, a fire is lit with the flints kept at the Holy Sepulcher since 1785.(5) This Holy Fire is paraded throughout the city until it reaches the Bishop of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. The Bishop uses the fire to light a dove-shaped rocket which initiates a whirlpool of fireworks, poppers, and colorful spinning wheels. After the explosions, Easter mass is held. The origin of this custom took place when the crusaders finally took over Jerusalem in 1099. The first brave man to climb the wall to Jerusalem was rewarded with flint from the Holy Sepulcher. He entrusted it to a church that lit a fire with it every Holy Saturday and paraded it throughout the streets, lighting a candle or torch at each door with the Holy Fire. As the city grew larger, this custom was replaced by fireworks exploding over the city that were lit by the Holy Fire for all to see.
Fire is a symbol here for new beginnings. It represents the siege of Jerusalem (an opportunity to start anew), the coming of the Spring Equinox (evidenced in all the egg and rabbit motifs during this holiday, which trace back to pagan festivals of fertility), the sacrifice of Jesus (the dinner sacrificial lamb), and the consecration of one’s self (through eating of the lamb as a symbol for the Eucharist). Healthy for a cohesive society and a vigorous economy, holidays do more than provide social outlets and food: they mimic historical events, they encourage feasting to redistribute wealth, and they fortify nationalism and culture (benefiting the government as well as its people) by unearthing and employing old traditions that celebrate unity and forgiveness (symbolized by fire and the Spring Equinox). Like the Chinese New Year, the Italian Pasqua has pastries, elaborate meals, fireworks and, representing the redistribution of wealth, gift-giving to the old and the young especially. The Chinese give their children money and the Italians give their children chocolate eggs filled with coins or toys. Elaborate gifts may also be given to family or friends inside a chocolate egg such as jewelry.
Worth mentioning here again are Margaret Visser’s words on holidays in The Rituals of Dinner: “The prototypical beginning of every feast is…a sacrifice, (142). This still holds true for the Italians in Pasqua. The forty days leading up to the feast are the days of lent where people abstain from certain foods, thoroughly examine themselves, pray, confess and repent for sins. In China, in the week leading up to the feast of Chinese New Year, people clean out their houses, sift through old things, organize fridges and even undergo personal cleansing. Secular or religious, celebrations almost always have similar formulas: a feast preceded by a sacrifice, fire or light and gift-giving to evoke old customs of offerings. The reason why so many celebrations have these same commonalities is simple: they all aspire to bring about the same changes and strengthen the same things. The specific traditions of festivals began in small regions or towns. The town’s traditions either grew and spread with its population or dwindled and died with most of its culture to make way for another dominating culture’s customs. These festivals were necessary then and they are necessary now.
In Ancient times, without the technology to connect us all within a country or region, what was there to unite us in the same way? Culture. Culture is most loud and social at celebrations where it thrives, becomes strong and teaches people of their regional traditions. These people will remember these customs and will practice them with their children and so on as long as the society shares these customs every year in a social festival. These customs unite people. They make people feel a sense of social connectedness, a social awareness that provides acceptance, warmth, family and (even if for one night) friends. Being involved in traditions that span a millennia or more make people feel a sense of humility and cohesion with a group. A nation will particularly push a holiday and create much “hype” in order to keep up the excitement leading up to this holiday because it benefits the nation. A holiday creates a strong sense of unity, which if shared with an entire country, can be translated into nationalism.
Think of the 4th of July. Everyone is in happy spirits, they forget their disappointment or struggles with the US Government, and they eat all-American food and drink all-American beer with images of the US flag on shirts, hanging on fences, on cars, in front of driveways, above doorways. The nation becomes stronger with the unity of its people, a well-known fact to dictators whose empires crumbled because there was no centralized government and no commonality among its conquered people (take the Romans for example or the French in Africa or the British in America). Government also loves holidays because it boosts a nation’s economy. People spend hard-earned (or not) money lavishly while companies and artisans produce extra goods in order to meet the demands of consumers. People spend more, more taxes are collected, more people are producing and our economy benefits from splurging on itself. A redistribution of wealth also occurs on holidays, where more fortunate people give to the underprivileged, the old and the young, and wealthy people spend superlative amounts on gifts, food and entertainment, which again benefits the government through taxes and by more money flowing into its producers, whether that be an artisan class or corporations (which give impressive amounts of money to the government in taxes and bargains through lobbyists). Holidays are as much a celebration for the people as for the government. But the truth of who mainly propagates it is another story, belonging to the surreptitious conversations between corporate bulls and money-minded politicians.
Bread and Pasta
One might be tempted to suggest that the chief distinction between [bread and pasta] is that
bread contains yeast, or some other raising ingredient, and pasta does not; but there are types
of bread which contain no yeast, and types of pasta which do…In general it is nutritionally, if not gastronomically, true that bread and pasta are the same food; and since Italy eats a great deal
of pasta, it would be logical for it to eat very little bread. Let us concede that the Italian is not
logical; he eats a great deal of bread all the same.(6)
The Italian may not be logical, but to say the least, he is gastronomical. One could say that if each country chose something in which to develop a proficiency, unified Italy renounced the art of war (or at least expanding the Italian empire) and instead dove into the art of cooking for comfort. How the Japanese engage in traditional tea ceremony, how the Indians prepare for a wedding, how the Balinese commemorate an infant child’s first steps, is how the old-world (and a select some from the new world crop) Italians treat cooking and eating. Food is a social and regional binding agent and a harbor for traditions and culture. If celebrations are a necessary ingredient to the advent of human society and food is the backbone of celebrations, then food is certainly the glue of society, the thing we use to celebrate as well as something to celebrate on its own. The culture of food and all of its customs, specificities (eating lobster with a lobster fork or having the French cookie Madeleine in the shape of a particular sea shell), and elaborate presentations (some bordering on ostentatious) are simultaneously shaped by society and shaping society in a constant flux of economics, demand, seasonality, modernity and trend. But, however rustic and heirloom or conveniently shrink-wrapped and sodium benzoate-preserved food culture becomes, it nevertheless remains omnipresent and necessary to every culture, and Italy is loudly no exception.
Bread and pasta. Comfort. These words are synonymous. In Italy the food culture is alive in almost every kitchen. The average rural mother is (still today) practically a professional regional chef. Since food worked its way upwards in this society, existing first in the everyday household and then later penetrating the higher strata of wealthy men and socialites, then it makes sense that Italy’s most well-known food and most common food would be food of the home, “cucina casalinga”—comfort food. Bread and pasta in Italy are rivals as well as family. In Sicily, Sicilians actually prefer bread to pasta, unlike the Tuscans who drape long ribbons of soft noodle with locally-pressed rich buttercup-yellow olive oil. The art of bread-making and pasta-making is no simple task. Like the Chinese and their tedious care and exactness in picking, drying and preparing tea leaves, the Italians take meticulous care finding the right olive oil, the particular type of flour, the perfect shape for their bread or pasta. Each seems to be an all-day event, which in itself is like a holiday. To sacrifice the time to cook from scratch, to put in the care to make the lightest loaf, the softest ribbon of papparadelle and then to delight in the indescribable taste that flutters and melts on one’s tongue is arguably the rituals of celebration in and of itself. And does not the gastronomically fluent Italian treat it as so?
The heart of bread and pasta is of the same flesh: wheat. Durum, semolina, wheat, white, buckwheat…there are many words for grain, each promulgating its history and regional home with its texture, color, lightness, starchiness and flavor. Despite their differences, grains are all of the same household. It is a diverse household of heartiness, strength, simplicity, endurance and variability. Grains are easy to grow, easy to maintain, are filling and healthy, last seemingly forever dried or as flour, are honestly clean in flavor, and are used to make many things from pizza dough to caraway loaves to fluffy focaccia to robust meatballs to spongy cake to dense cookies to crunchy almond biscotti.
Grains seem to be the food of life, at least in Italy. Grains require little money and little vigilance to grow and once mature, they are profitable because they have a long shelf-life, are versatile and are effortlessly sold to make profits. Grains grow locally and so bread and pasta support regional farmers and regional crops. They are necessary economically. They become necessary to society as well…
Italy is well-known as a religious country. A country of well-to-do (and some famously corrupt as well as some feverishly pious) Catholics. An image of the homey, stocky Catholic grandmother in her floral apron comes to mind stirring her pot of aromatic tomato sauce, striking children’s hands that wander surreptitiously into the dinner bread or cooling basil marinara. Rosary beads hang on the walls of the kitchen, adorning painted profiles of Mary with her head cocked to side in a slight bow and a blue shawl draped delicately over her head. Grains are prominent in the Bible, found in Ezekiel describing the ingredients of ancient sprouted bread.(7) The history of grains push back far into ancient history where they supported Israelites and became a part of tradition (in Passover when the Jews thwarted the Romans from killing their first-born male by leaving their houses [and marking their doors with blood] before the daily bread could rise). In the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as having fed 5000 people (not including women and children) with only two fish and seven loaves of bread. Christianity, the love of God and of Jesus, and spirituality are all called the “bread of life” in social context and in the Bible. It is interesting to note that unified Italy has always been Christian and unified Italy’s staples have always been grains (not tomatoes, as many think, which Italians actually rejected for near a hundred years. Tomatoes actually come from Mexico, taken to Spain and other parts of Europe by Hernán Cortés, conqueror of native Aztecs.)
It may be a coincidence, since the Italians cannot control the topography of their countryside and what native plants grow in abundance there and since Christianity began in the Levant. Whether culture or nature, grains are undeniably the backbone of Italian cooking as Catholicism is and was the backbone to the Italians spirit. People create food. And if people create food, certainly we create it in our image.
1 Root, Waverley. The Best of Italian Cooking. Italy: Grosset & Dunlap, 1974, 8.
2 See preceding reference.
3 “Easter ‘Pasqua’ Lunch,” DeLallo, http://www.delallo.com/articles/easter-pasqua-lunch.
4 Girard, René, Violence and the Sacred. USA: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.
5 Scoppio del Carro Festical,” Fire Cart Easter Sunday Tradition in Florence.
6 Root, Waverley. The Best of Italian Cooking. Italy: Grosset & Dunlap, 1974, 16.
7 Ezekiel 4:9, The King James Revised Version, The Bible.
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