O’ Bell Magnà: Easter, liminality and the art of eating.

……ma pecche si fann n’sola piatt pe magnà in Inghilterra?

 How do you explain to an Italian mother the reasoning behind why in England or the UK we generally only have one plate, or one course for our main meal?  Just as complex is finding a way for her to understand that this main meal usually takes place in the evening rather than at Lunch time.  In both countries we take three meals a day, we share the concept of breakfast, which is usually a quick process in both countries.  We share the concept of an evening meal, which is normally a warm cooked plate to fill you up in preparation for the next day.  But there is nothing in England, save for the Sunday roast, which can compare to the importance of the Neapolitan lunch.  Lunch for an Englishman, or woman, is usually a brief, midday snack to be taken on the move, if taken at all….”Lunch is for wimps” a man once said.  Not in Naples, though.  Lunch here is a rite of passage, the journey being that which carves the day in-two.  Lunch is a liminal point then that divides the day.  Like the emergence of Jesus and the divisions of time, there is a BL and an AL which marks the Neapolitan day: Before Lunch and After Lunch.

 In Naples, lunch is not for wimps, but nor is it to be entered into lightly.  Pranzo, as it is called here, is almost an act of time itself, as it is usually taken in punto, or on the dot as we would say in English.  In Naples and other big towns people tend to eat later than in the countryside and hinterlands.  In Napoli lunch is taken between 1.30 and 2pm, and this will depend on each and every family as to exactly when it falls, but it is rarely taken late.  In our example it is taken at 2pm, and this is in punto, on a daily basis.  In Irpinia-that being the small region lying between Campania and Puglia, which does not actually yet possess regional status- the small villages take lunch around 12pm. 

 This polarity probably derives from urbanisation and the capitalisation of the big cities which follow the following hours of 9 to 5 or 8 to 4.  While in paese such as Irpinia they wake earlier, still adhering to some primordial, agricultural rhythm.  I could be wrong here, but nevertheless, there is a case for this because in Naples they say chi magnà a mezzojiurn e cafonn.  Basically whosoever eats at midday, or 12pm, is a cafone.  The word caffone here is important, because it can mean peasant, but it has a double meaning here (or doppio senso) and can also infer a country bumpkin styled idiot, who does not know his pranzo from his own behind upon which he is perennially seated etc etc.  This thus illustrates a further divide encapsulated by the lunch we scrutinize here: il pranzo also divides town and country as well as dividing the day.

Lunch time in Irpinia: not a soul in sight.

Punctuality is not a stereotype often awarded to the Italian south, but arrive late for lunch and you tempt the wrath of the entire family.  This is manifested in the most subtle of ways however.  The smiling,welcoming face of a Neapolitan family eagerly anticipating their meal effectively manages to conceal the disapproval underlying you making them wait for their lunch.  As hosts it is imperative that the guest is treated with the utmost respect, a maxim deriving from the ancient Greeks of Campania (or so Im told): insult a guest and you insult yourself.  So even when late you will probably not be aware of the disdain you have caused. 

But subtle are the objections and they tend to emerge in the proverbial, and hence we have il detto (lit. the saying): L’ospite è come il pesceDopo tre giorni, puzza!  The guest here is compared to a fish, wonderful if fresh and a real pleasure to be around, but after three days it festers and you soon realise when the guest has become what Napolitans call O’Palle, or a pain in the “proverbials”.  Like those proverbials, lunch itself has a correct place.   In the majority of houses il pranzo takes place at a set time, and as a consequence the whole day needs to be arranged around this pivotal moment.  Here using the example of Easter Sunday we can follow the events leading up to the days crescendo: the preparation of the last supper, the last supper itself and ultimately…the resurrection.

 6am-10am B.L:  Si Preparann’

 Comparing our divisions of the day to the historical emergence of man, there is little communal activity in the first hour of the day.  The focus here is on the hunter gatherers assembling their goods from various storage facilities for eventual communal consumption.  Rising early in the Neapolitan house is a must at this time of the year, however, because there is much to do.  Stone Age Man is personified here by i bimbi (or the kids), for even if they are in their 40’s will often sleep in till the late morning, especially after a night out at a pizzeria or birreria; they play not part in these early rites.  No, the key protagonist of this ungodly hour, on the holiest of days, is indeed the mama. 

 There is much to prepare as the meal is as we have already established akin to that very moment when Jesus himself will break bread and pour the sacrament.  The Napolitan pranzo at Easter thus commences with the ritual preparation of dough for making bread.  This bread is called tortonno, small rolls or baps which are filled with even smaller pieces of salami and pecorino cheese, and some varieties called casatiello include a hard boiled egg which is placed into the fresh dough before being baked.  This egg obviously represents the combination of Easter, the birth of Spring and many other ideological paradigms rolled into its small spherical form, but for the purposes of our discussion it also personifies the birth of il pranzo itself.

 Lamb is the usual joint of choice for this day and this will be cooked early on.  The joint is generally joined by a plate of verdure or seasonal vegetables, such as spinaci or asparagi cooked in virgin olive oil or sotto olio.  This forms the secondo piatto.  For the first plate, or primo piatto, this is the customary bowl of pasta.  Anyone in the world knows that an Italian table would not be complete without a bowl of pasta.  Some families will hand roll and prepare their own, if time allows, especially those in Irpinian villages.

 Many families during these hours will go to church for the mass, a rite which should be a given for any good catholic family.  Times have changed, however, and many now place more emphasis on the lunch itself rather than the religious background to the meal.  Nevertheless, it is imperative to fare auguri to each other, by saying buona pasqua (Happy Easter) for at this point i bimbi have probably arisen from their slumber.  To not fare auguri is to make a brutta figura, or a bad impression, this can be avoided by also getting stuck into the days chores.  Depending on the individual family, i bimbi, who have by now morphed from Neanderthal into Iron Age society organised towards the days task, will assist mama and babbo with the preparation of the sacrament.  The hour is nearly here.

 10am-2pm B.L:  Si salutarann’ e si vestirann

 By this point our Roman Empire is in full swing and now is the time for respects to be paid to various family members, which if living in other countries or other parts of the region or even the Italian peninsula, will cause a fila, or queue, to gather around the telephone.  Everyone greets everyone else with the customary religious salutations.  This may take some time and the younger bimbi may profit from this by playing with their giocatoli or small toys, while the older bimbi head straight for the shower to delay the necessary conversation with the nonni or zii (grandparents and Aunties and Uncles) that they possibly havent seen since the last festa.  The pasta, if hand-rolled, will be ready and the sauce to accompany it will be begining to gel and reduce.

 If members of the family are due to visit today then this is hopefully the period when they will start to arrive.  Any later than this and they will be met by the smiling faces we described earlier which hide the festering pesce.  One dish which is key to the day and by now will be airing in the cucina is the Pastiera.  This is a special tart made especially for Easter and is filled with ricotta cheese dried fruit, which is usually orange that has an extremely gorgeous smell.  The table will be laid: a bowl for il primo piatto, which is pasta, a plate underneath it for il secondo the lamb that has by now been cooked the compulsory knife, fork and spoon, and two glasses, one for wine and one for water.  There is the eternal hope here though that Jesù will not turn the former in to the latter, for it is important to make a toast and salute to a buona pasqua.  By now the family will be in place, for family are central to this feast.  The stage is set and the games may now begin.

The pastiera in full glory

2pm: L’ora ro’ magnà

The liminality of this hour is quite clear.  Firstly, many such meals throughout the region will not last a mere hour, but even longer.  There is usually more than one course and even once these have been devoured there are the regular accompaniments of fruit, desert and a digestivo, which here is a limoncello or amaretto that perfectly matches the fruitiness of the pastiera.  Secondly, we could see the liminality of this hour marked by the fact that we have a before and after lunch distinction, but nothing to mark the hour itself.  Does it inhabit some kind of ‘high noon’ time capsule, where the sun forever beats down on our wayward cowboy, down on his luck, about to draw his colt .45?  This is after all the mezzogiorno, the word used to describe the South: a land in a state of eternal midday.  Il pranzo here thus inhabits a period full of light and heat and with such a combination it is little wonder that we even bother to eat at all.  But, Im jumping ahead of the mark here and have missed a key aspect of this meal. 

It is extremely important that the family, and for many families this is quite literally the whole family in a throw-the-kitchen-sink-at-the-table style of gathering, are placed around the table.  The first dishes are in place, the glasses are filled, the toasts and auguri are made and then we tuck in to the meal itself.  This is the moment when Jesù first broke bread and passed around a cup of wine, this an occasion to be embraced by all.  And then it happens.  A silence.  Breaking this indefinable measure of time a hand is raised, the index fingers flexes on the spongy appendage, a screen lights up and a tune begins to play.  Our silence, our familial gathering, our need to be together is undone by a rectangular box.  così parlò bellavista has begun.

This film may be substituted for any other film that Neapolitans hold close to their hearts, especially those that involve the great Totò, but this film perfectly personifies Neapolitan life.  Set in the 1980’s it recounts the story of a family whose daughter is about to become pregnant to her fidanzato, her boyfriend to whom she is not yet married.  Bellavista here is the father and the protagonist through which we follow a snapshot of Neapolitan life.  This is the perfect film to be watched whilst a tavola.  The irony here is that while the emphasis is on the film and the meal it is not actually possible to leave the table while these rites take place.  The family are gathered, but not for emotionally charged discussions on Berlusconi’s libido, the Napoli game vs Udinese nor the weather, but to watch the film.  The liminality of this hour is at its apex during this moment.  Time itself stands still.  Not a word is spoken.  Eyes are focused.  Bodies pause between movements, and these themselves are arbitrary extensions of the mechanism of the feed.  All is a secondary motion to the film.  This film could replaced by any other close to a Neapolitan heart, but a film itself, quite literally any film is imperative, for it serves as the very backdrop to the meal itself.  It is the canvas upon which our last supper is conceived.

 4pm-6pm A.L: L’ora di buio

 The Medieval period was a Dark Ages for many.  The meal finished, the wine consumed, we find ourselves during the after lunch period.  This is a difficult furtive stage when movement is slow but the destination is clear.  We make our moves tentatively to the sofa and bedrooms.  The pisolino calls…….

8pm A.L: The resurrection

Surfacing from our slumber the resurrection is upon us.  It is time to rise again from the tomb of our own appetites.  There are leftovers galore and bread and wine.  Rejoice, rejoice, il pranzo has risen, for now it is dinner time!

 Thus trying to explain to a Neapolitan mother why we pile our food onto one plate in the UK is met with jaw-dropping stupefaction: “neanche n’o pocche pasta?”, not even a little bit of pasta?  The pranzo is the focus of the Neapolitan day, carving it into, there is a before lunch and an after lunch.  Anything in between is just eating.

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About giacomomuratore

Giacomo Muratore, or "Jimmy the Brickie" blogs on his Pensieri da Campania. These include his reflections, observations, comments and general remarks on being an Englishman in Campania, Southern Italy. With a background in Archaeology and Classics these 'pensieri' range from social and political comment to reflections on the history, values and cultural mores of a city that forever delights, infuriates and never ceases to amaze.
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4 Responses to O’ Bell Magnà: Easter, liminality and the art of eating.

  1. dario says:

    Mate, mate.. Sometimes I still got surprised by the way you understand Italian society much better than most Italians!

    • Nun e’ verr uaglio, agg’ vist quache cose e’ bbast….ij songh sulamente n’straniero! Aspiett’ ca vien tra n’pocco un’atta entry n’stu blog sul o’pasquett! Salutammi a tutt’ a’ quant, e ce verrim ambress….

  2. That is an absolutely stunning picture of your deserted village. What a wonderful place to be!

    • Grazie assaje Status, e quasi come quel villaggio che ho visto su il tuo blog! Vedi, Campania e Liguria sono ugale, e’ forse anche in il senso di mangà!

      Cheers Status-see Liguria and Campania have much in common!

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