Thursday, July 1, 2010


Yesterday was the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the patron saints of our little town, and the Agropolitani were doing it up right.

To an American Protestant, almost everything about Italian Catholicism is on the exponential part of the learning curve. The first time we were here little Amy was five, and we had quite a time explaining all the relics, the rituals, and the graphic imagery. For example, we were visiting the lower basilica of St. Francis’ church in Assisi. Amy had asked previously about the confessional booths that she had seen and we had tried to explain in five-year-old terms that when people had done something wrong they came to the confessional and told the priest what they had done and the priest would assign them a sort of punishment to do and then tell them that God still loved them even though they made mistakes.

I don’t know if you’ve encountered the Franciscan brothers before, but they are intense, and very serious about maintaining a reverent attitude in this sacred spot which contains the tomb of Francis, but has become, like so many of Catholicism’s most venerated places, a tourist attraction for thousands of people, including non-Catholics and nonbelievers. A Franciscan monk will gladly get right in your face and scream, “Silenzio!”

So of course we had warned Amy that she absolutely must be quiet in the church. And she was as good as we could have hoped, even when we moved past a confession booth where a dour-looking brother stood glaring out and challenging any of the heathen to cross him. Amy kept her eyes glued to him as we exited the church, even craning her neck to look behind her at this menacing presence. Finally on the steps of the basilica she could contain herself no longer. She tugged at my hand and announced, “Daddy, that man back there must have done something really wrong! Look, they put him in Time Out!” Oh well, she got the main idea.

Hard, too, for a Protestant to understand is the Italian attachment to their saints. Every day, of course, has two or three saints attached to it, and every little village has a patron saint, so there’s a feast of Saint So-and-so going on somewhere every day. And practically every child in Italy is named after some saint or other, so children here celebrate their birthdays, but they may also celebrate their Saint Day as well.

Then, of course, there are the close historical ties to early Christianity; the history of paleo-Christianity and early Imperial Rome are inextricably bound together. Think of having the head or foot or some other body part of a saint—perhaps even the whole corpse—right there in your church and as often as not prominently displayed. I recall Mark Twain’s reaction in Innocents Abroad when he says that after he saw the third skull of Saint John in Italy he began to be a bit skeptical.

I’m neither skeptical nor gullible, so I offer this to you for whatever you think it’s worth. Local legend has it that on one of his missionary trips, St. Paul stopped in Agropoli and preached to the unwashed. What I can say with absolute faith is that the basilica of Saints Peter and Paul up in the Centro of Agropoli is so achingly pretty and serene that it makes me want to believe. I don’t know why it is that the little jewels of churches in the small towns of Italy move me so much more deeply than the pompous grandiosity of a St. Peter’s.

The dramatic climax of the feast was a procession up the main corso of the town, through the medieval gates, and back to the mother church, with some of the pious escorting the images of the saints for all to behold and believe. But this is an Italian festa, so you may sure it included plenty of food and fun as well: a sort of combination carnival/flea market had been set up in the piazza and the adjoining piazzetta, beautiful arches of multicolored lights lined the corso, fireworks were set off at intervals all day long, from a stage on the corso Italian rock-and-roll blared over the crowd, which surely included every living soul in Agropoli plus many from the neighboring communities.

The highlight for the fat boy, of course, was seeing the huge variety of Italian carnival foods. Many were the same as you will find at the State Fair in Raleigh: candy, nuts, french fries, and every conceivable other kind of fried food. Why is it that celebration and fried food always seem to love each other? It was fun to see the stand selling Italian sausages just like back home but to realize these were, well...Italian sausages! And there was barbecue, North Carolinians, oh yes, good old slow-roasted barbecue at the Porchetta, the irresistable aroma of pork wafting over the crowds.

The piece de rĂ©sistance, introduced to us courtesy of Fernando, was a product called “O Muss”, and don’t even ask me to translate that, there are so many layers of dialect involved. What it is, though, is good old fashioned head cheese, the jowl of a pig cured and gelatinized, which the vendor sliced thin, chopped into bite-size portions, placed in a plastic container, speared with tiny plastic forks for the three of us, salted generously...and proceeded to douse with lemon juice squeezed straight from one of the huge local lemons. Was it a culinary revelation? No, it was interesting, but it was, after all, head cheese, a food of the poor in Italy as in the American South. An acquired taste, generously seasoned with nostalgia for a past that is quickly disappearing from the southern portions of both our countries. But I have to say the lemon juice was an inspiration. Maybe it could make even scrapple more palatable.

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