An emblem of abundance, the pig is one of the symbols of Carnival eating traditions. The sixteenth-century writer Giulio Cesare Croce described Carnival compared abundance to the ‘Triumph of the Pig’. For Vincenzo Tanara, who also lived in the sixteenth century writer, pork was a symbol of ‘voluttà’, intense pleasure.
Also typical of Carnival were pastas and pastries: gnocchi, maccheroni, lasagne, tagliatelle, pappardelle, polenta, ravioli with or without their pasta envelope, struffoli, crostelle, levatelli, crostate, or jam tarts.
The popular imagination associates eating pork and pasta with banqueting, waste, the fullness of intense, sensual pleasure—and indigestion. The immoderate feasting of Carnival is counterpoised by Lent, a period of fasting and privation. The prescriptions of the Church itself establish on which days it is possible to eat meat, Shrovetide, and on which days it is not, days of abstinence. Vegetables are associated mainly with the days of abstinence, hence with Lent, and thus have something of a marginal role in the gastronomy of Carnival. Recipe collections and culinary treatises reflect the role and the influence of the Church’s prescriptions in the differentiation of ways eating.
Popular literature is full of images of abundance: the Land of Plenty and Cockaigne are just two worlds of fun and enjoyment. These are imaginary places, gastronomic Utopias; they may have political connotations, but they are, at the same time, fully fledged culinary workshops. Cockaigne is a place in which everything you could wish for is available, a place of well-being and merrymaking, where all sorts of surprises are in store. In the Decameron, by the fourteenth-century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, a certain Maso describes to the simpleton Calandrino ‘the Territory of a Countrey, called Bengodi’, where ‘the Vines were bound about with Sawcidges, a Goose was sold for a penny, and the Goslings freely given in to boote. There was also an high mountaine wholly made of Parmezane, grated Cheese, whereon dwelt people, who did nothing else but make Mocharones and Ravivolies, boyling them with broth of Capons.’.
Yet reading about these fantastic cities of banquets we come across not only unlikely events and improbable landscapes, but also realistic instructions about the preparation of gnocchi (no potatoes in the mixture), maccheroni, and ravioli (with or without their envelope). Each is cooked in meat stock and the ravioli are sometimes fried and sprinkled with sugar.
In eighteenth-century Naples, Cockaigne was reconstructed during the Carnival period. To the sound of cannon shot, the rabble would sack a wooden building, on each floor of which were shops choc-a-bloc with food of every type, roughly grabbing and eating and carrying away anything they could get their greedy hands on.
At Putignano, in Puglia, the ringing of the bell to announce the end of the Carnival feast is the signal to eat enormous dishes of pasta dressed with pork sauce, meatballs, and grated cheese. The sauce left over in the dish is then soaked up with farinella, made with baked chickpea and barley flour. Early twentieth-century publications about regional folk traditions report that, during the last day of Carnival, in Abruzzo and Basilicata they used to eat seven times, consuming the last dish of pasta just before midnight. In Caserta, the idea of climbing a mountain to eat pasta is evoked in the local oven-baked pasta al forno. At San Nicola da Crissa, in Calabria, they wait until the last day of Carnival to eat: maccheroni with pork sauce, frittole, fritters, and sanguinaccio, sweet blood sausage. At Malito, in Calabria, they conserve the ancient custom of eating meatballs made of eggs, soaked bread, grated pecorino, pepper, parsley, salt, fresh soppressata, pork lung sausage and pork (reminiscent of the pasta-less ravioli cited above) boiled in chicken and beef stock.
Carnival cakes deserve a mention apart. Different local dialect names are used to describe similar delicacies. Noteworthy is the farinella of Putignano, sprinkled with sugar. Others include cicerchiata at Francavilla a Mare, in Abruzzo; pignolata, with julep (a name of Arab origin used to refer to sugared water) in Calabria; grostoli in Friuli, frappe in the Marche; cenci in Tuscany; castagnole at Palmi, in Calabria; and chiacchiere just about everywhere, though in Turin they are sometimes filled with jam and called bugie.
Giuseppe Fumarola is a student of the anthropology of foodways
Adapted by John Irving