by Michelangelo Pascali
Everybody knows Italian cuisine, but few are aware that several traditional dishes hold a symbolic meaning. Guestblogger Michelangelo Pascali uncovers the metaphorical value of some Neapolitan recipes.
Neapolitan culture shows a dense symbology that accompanies the preparation and consumption of certain dishes, mostly for propitiatory purposes, during heartfelt ritual holidays. These very ancient holidays, some of which were later converted to Christian holidays, are linked to the passage of time and to the seasons of life.
The symbolic meaning of ritual food can sometimes refer to the cyclic nature of life, or to some exceptional social circumstances.
One of the most well-known “devotional courses” is certainly the white and crunchy torrone, which is eaten during the festivities for the Dead, between the end of October and the beginning of November. The almonds on the inside represent the bones of the departed which are to be absorbed in an vaguely cannibal perspective (as with Mexican sugar skeletons). The so-called torrone dei morti (“torrone of the Dead”) can also traditionally be squared-shaped, its white paste covered with dark chocolate to mimick the outline of a tavùto (“casket”).
The rhombus-shaped decorations on the pastiera, an Easter cake, together with the wheat forming its base, are meant to evoke the plowed fields and the coming of the mild season, more favorable for life.
The rebirth of springtime, after the “death” of winter, finds another representation in the casatiello, the traditional Easter Monday savory pie, that has to be left to rise for an entire night from dusk till dawn. Its ring-like shape is a reminder of the circular nature of time, as seen by the ancient agricultural, earthbound society (and therefore quite distant, in many ways, from the linear message of Christian religion); the inside cheese and sausages once again represent the dead, buried in the ground. But the real peculiarity, here, is the emerging of some eggs from the pie, protected by a “cross” made of crust: a bizarre element, which would have no reason to be there were it not an allegory of birth — in fact, the eggs are placed that way to suggest a movement that goes “from the underground to the surface“, or “from the Earth to the Sky“.
In the Neapolitan Christmas Eve menu, “mandatory courses are still called ‘devotions’, just like in ancient Greek sacred banquets”, and “the obligation of lean days is turned into its very opposite” (M. Niola, Il sacrificio del capitone, in Repubblica, 15/12/2013).
The traditional Christmas dinner is carried out along the lines of ancient funerary dinners (with the unavoidable presence of dried fruit and seafood), and it also has the function of consuming the leftovers before the arrival of a new year, as for example in the menestra maretata (‘married soup’).
But the main protagonist is the capitone, the huge female eel. This fish has a peculiar reproduction cycle (on the account of its migratory habits) and is symbolically linked to the Ouroboros. The capitone‘s affinity with the snake, an animal associated with the concept of time in many cultures, is coupled with its being a water animal, therefore providing a link to the most vital element.
The capitone is first bred and raised within the family, only to be killed by the family members themselves (in a ritual that even allows for the animal to “escape”, if it manages to do so): an explicit ritual sacrifice carried out inside the community.
While still alive, the capitone is cut into pieces and thrown in boiling oil to be fried, as each segment still frantically writhes and squirms: in this preparation, it is as if the infinite moving cycle was broken apart and then absorbed. The snake as a metaphor of Evil seems to be a more recent symbology, juxtaposed to the ancient one.
Then there are the struffoli, spherical pastries covered in honey — a precious ingredient, so much so that the body of Baby Jesus is said to be a “honey-dripping rock” — candied fruit and diavulilli (multi-colored confetti); we suppose that in their aspect they might symbolize a connection with the stars. These pastries are indeed offered to the guests during Christmas season, an important cosmological moment: Macrobius called the winter solstice “the door of the Gods“, as under the Capricorn it becomes possible for men to communicate with divinities. It is the moment in which many Solar deities were born, like the Persian god Mitra, the Irish demigod Cú Chulainn, or the Greek Apollo — a pre-Christian protector of Naples, whose temple was found where the Cathedral now is. And the Saint patron Januarius, whose blood is collected right inside the Cathedral, is symbolically close to Apollo himself.
Of course the Church established the commemoration of Christ’s birth in the proximity of the solstice, whereas it was first set on January 6: the Earth reaches its maximum distance from the Sunon the 21st of December, and begins to get closer to it after three days.
The sfogliatella riccia, on the other hand, is an allusion to the shape of the female reproductive organ, the ‘valley of fire’ (this is the translation of its Neapolitan common nickname, which has a Greek etymology). It is said to date back to the time when orgiastic rites were performed in Naples, where they were widespread for over a millennium and a half after the coming of the Christian Era, carried out in several peculiar places such as the caves of the Chiatamone. This pastry was perhaps invented to provide high energetic intake to the orgy participants.
Lastly, an exquistely mundane motivation is behind the pairing of chiacchiere and sanguinaccio.
Chiacchiere look like tongues, or like those strings of paper where, in paintings and bas-relief, the words of the speaking characters were inscribed; and their name literally means “chit-chat”. The sanguinaccio is a sort of chocolate black pudding which was originally prepared with pig’s blood (but not any more).
During the Carnival, the only real profane holiday that is left, the association between these two desserts sounds like a code of silence: it warns and cautions not to contaminate with ordinary logic the subversive charge of this secular rite, which is completely egalitarian (Carnival masks hide our individual identity, making us both unrecognizable and also indistinguishable from each other).
What happens during Carnival must stay confined within the realm of Carnival — on penalty of “tongues being drowned in blood“.