One of the cutest things I encountered in Italian class was a misunderstanding. Our teacher would say, “chiaro?” often. This went on for days until finally one of my classmates asked what does “chiaro” mean? She thought that it meant “honey” or some other term of affection and that our teacher was calling us this several times an hour! Our teacher was asking us if we understood what was being said! “Chiaro?” means “clear?” in Italian.
If you want to binge on watching videos about Italy, here are some I’ve found. Mostly on food. Mostly about Rome. I will not list all of them as there are too many, but a few that will give you some leads to follow.
Rick Stein is one of my favorite TV chef presenters. The thinking chef’s chef. Here in Corsica and Sardinia.
Floyd was a chef who had a good time, this time in Liguria.
If you want months worth of binge watching, Rick Steves provides! Rick Steves has eight hours of free TV shows on Italy alone! He also has free audio tours, apps, books, etc. He is much raunchier on his audio tours! If you want a private guide in your ear, he has those! If you just want to watch him give good advice, watch him here.
When in Rome? In ancient Rome, they used a rag on the end of a stick instead of toilet paper (one of the possible reasons for the phrase, “getting hold of the wrong end of the stick” — the other origin of the phrase may derive from 19th century printing press when the letters were placed in a stick and backwards — so if you got hold of the wrong end of the stick, you would not comprehend the sentence).
Modern Roman toilets look much as they do in other parts of the world, but the flush handle is usually a button on the wall. Another thing is that Roman toilets include a bidet (“bee-DAY” or “beh-day”). The bidet is basically a bathtub for your nether parts. It looks like a toilet bowl and to use it, you back down on it, wash yourself, and then dry yourself using a towel (hence why there is a towel rack nearby). The cultures that do use a bidet consider those that don’t, a bit baffling, as they wonder why one would only use paper to clean up a sticky situation?
In the middle east and Indian subcontinent, people use “the mechanical action of the left hand” instead of toilet paper. Many of these countries also have a “bidet shower” — a spray hose. In my apartment in Bangladesh, there was a spray hose near the toilet instead of toilet paper. The water pressure on the ones in my apartment had the force of a power wash, but I was told that it was to clean off my left hand, not for direct application. The bidet shower, or spray hose, is also used in Finland and Estonia, according to Wikipedia. The Japanese of old times used a stick to clean the backside but now they have electronic toilets with sprayed water and air, both warmed. Japanese toilets also can include a heated seat and “politeness” music.
The average American uses 50 pounds of toilet paper every year. Many countries do not use toilet paper. Many Catholic countries use water rather than paper, or a combination of the two. Also, considering how much paper and water flush toilets waste, perhaps the bidet shower is the way of the future? In terms of wasting resources getting rid of our waste, the city of Los Angeles spends four million dollars each year unclogging toilet paper from their sewers. In many countries, one can’t flush toilet paper down the toilet. In Peru, one puts the toilet paper in a trash can next to the toilet.
Can you tell that I’m writing a book about toilets? Due to the pandemic, toilet paper has been on our minds — a lot. I have actually been interested in toilets from a cultural viewpoint for quite a while, as toilet habits have been a bit different in many of the countries where I have lived. Going to the toilet is one of those things that people don’t talk about too much, but it is that one thing that we all do, and affects culture, from water usage, home construction, art, language, religion, and customs.
Back to the bidet. The bidet means “little horse” in French and refers to the straddling position one assumes when using it. The bidet was popularized in France in the 18th century, supposedly much used by the French prostitutes. The British considered the French to be hedonistic, and therefore their bidets to be hedonistic. Americans of those times followed British customs and this is, supposedly, why Americans do not use bidets. But, I know more and more who are installing Japanese toilets and bidet toilets in their homes. Like in the ad below, perhaps it will become a thing in the new American toilet. Freedom Toilets?
I know that it is the general convention that dishes, food, is best tasted at the source. I think that does some disservice to the diaspora and fusion food that has evolved over the millennia. That said, here is a list of food that I often crave. Actually, for many of the dishes, I prefer in their newer form. But, then again… some I prefer at the source.
Ceviche — I like the classic old fashioned version. The Peruvians love fusion. They are a fusion and so is their food. So now one can find “warm ceviche” and ceviche not made with fish.
Danish hotdog — I prefer them in Denmark. The actual hotdog is special, the ketchup is different, the dog is served with crunchy fried onions… New York pizza — also, one of those things. Some say that the New York pizza is like a Neopolitan pizza from Naples, Italy. We shall see… Hamburger — Some of the best I’ve had are in the United States. American beef and lack of gristle in the mix. Banh mi — I’ve had good ones outside of Vietnam. Pho — Also, good in the certain parts of the United States. Very bland in other places. Korean BBQ — If one sticks to the pork belly, then it’s fairly easy to get good Korean barbecue in many countries. I think that many people think that bulgogi should be made with a high grade of beef and grilled at the table. Traditionally, bulgogi was created to use bad cuts of meat that required marinating. Usually the slices are so thin that grilling at the table dries them out. Some places use good cuts of steak and then one can dip them in sesame seed oil and salt. This is a delicious way to eat barbecue. Chicken wings — Oddly, some of the best barbecue wings I’ve had were in a pizzeria in New Mexico. Dim sum — can be good in many places outside China.
Laksa — so far the best I’ve had, and even some of the mediocre, was in Singapore and Malaysia. What can I say?
Most of all, the food of other lands transports you to them.
Today is Boxing Day which is St. Stephen’s Day here in Italy. As we are on day three of red zone lockdown, I have time to reflect.
Moving to a new country has both its delights and irritations. Then, there are the things that I just hadn’t contemplated or expected.
Eating cookies for breakfast: that takes getting used to. They also eat croissants (un cornetto is a croissant) and pizza for breakfast. The breakfast pizza is a sandwich made with pizza bread which is like focaccia (the pizza can be many things here and is in many ways simply “bread”). Another thing is that mayonnaise for your sandwich for breakfast is okay, but most sandwiches are quite sparsely filled and have very little “lettuce, tomato,…” but instead the extremely popular bologna, mortadella, provides enough fat (there is a required amount of fat squares that must be visible) to butter the sandwich. Another thing is that you can get meatballs, ham with fresh mozzarella, sautéed broccoli greens, and almost anything in a sandwich. It just won’t be very tall.
Trash on the street: the trash dumpsters are communal and this means that there are trash dumpsters on every street. It’s all out there for everyone to see. Not hidden away in the bowels of the buildings or back alley.
Tupperware/food containers: I had not expected this to be so hard to find. I suppose it’s because Italians eat fresh food every day. Or at least they don’t cook up a storm on a Sunday and then neatly stack containers of food in the freezer. It’s not that Italians don’t have left overs. They do. They are extremely frugal. But, they just store it in some other way. I’m not sure what. On the other hand, I can easily find a pasta making board at the kitchen store.
Ham (proscuitto cotto): It’s so good here. And I’m not even talking about proscuitto and porchetta, and all those other lovely pork products. I just mean simple pink ham to go on my bread.
The freshness: fresh fruit is sold ripe here so it also goes bad a bit faster than in the U.S. Fruit is not stored in the fridge so it dries out or begins to molder. The clementines are lovely this time of year in Rome but I didn’t expect them to start going mushy on day five. One day I ate eight clementines to eat them all before they went bad. I could freeze the pulp but fresh juice is not as common here as in Peru. In Peru, one always new it was morning because of the sound of blenders whizzing all over Lima. In Peru, the method is to blitz the fruit and then sieve it. Here in Italy, the fruit, usually oranges, are pressed. The greens are really green and Italians love greens.
Preserved Fish: jarred tuna is in almost anything here — and on pizza. Anchovy: yes, on everything. Not gelato. But, the anchovy is good. Since Italian food is not that spicy, anchovy is the strong flavor. And it’s not that strong.
Prices: pizza is affordable ($4 for a personal pizza, no tipping so reasonable for lunch). Eating out/taking out is affordable (my pasta and a drink on Piazza Navona was 13 Euro). Christmas cards and stationery are pricey (4.5 Euro for a card). Taxis are not cheap as they run the meter from when they choose to take your ride, not when you get in the car. This makes it about 5 Euro per kilometer. But so worth it on these hard and ankle-mangling cobblestones. While the price of items in stores is higher than in the U.S., it is possible to shop at the many Chinese-run stores and buy the “made in China” straight from China. I went to one such store, loaded up my arms, and was shocked that it cost a total of 13 Euro. In contrast, my hot water kettle (it is fancy) cost 48 Euro.
English: I knew that most people would speak some English. They do. If not, they will probably find someone. But, it is possible to live in Rome without speaking Italian. Not as much fun, but possible.
Friendliness: I didn’t expect people to be so friendly. I never thought of Italians as friendly. Maybe it’s just in Rome? Maybe it’s because the shop owners and restaurant owners are so happy to see a customer after almost a year of COVID? Maybe it’s that unicorn called “customer service?” Maybe because I try to speak Italian? Or because I say “buongiorno” to everyone, even random people on the street… Whatever the reason, most people I interact with are friendly.
Colazione (breakfast): Breakfast is a cup of coffee with milk like a cappuccino. Maybe a croissant or a sandwich (triangular white sandwiches like the triples in Peru). Italians don’t really eat much for breakfast. They consider the milk in the coffee to be the “food.” But, later in the morning, they will have more coffee. Coffee is a small cup of coffee like an espresso. No coffee in Italy is ever the size of American coffees. Italians will have many coffees throughout the day, although milk in coffee is only for breakfast (so before 11 a.m.).
Around 10 or 11 a.m., Italians might have a small snack with their next coffee.
Pranzo (lunch): Lunch is generally eaten from noon to 2 p.m. but on a Sunday, lunch can be later.
Merenda (tea): At around 3 p.m., Italians (and certainly children) will have a snack. One could have a gelato… or some crackers and cheese.
Aperitivo (happy hour): after work, Italians may have a tapas/mezze style spread. Many judge the bar based on the selection of free nibbles. During the current COVID restrictions (restaurants close for in restaurant dining at 6 p.m.), many people are having aperitivo at 3 p.m. Why not?
Cena “che-na” (dinner): Dinner is generally at 8:30 p.m. or later. One had a snack earlier, thankfully.
Culture shock seems like an outdated phrase from the 1980s, but then again, I find that the 1980s are still around… for example, when I was traveling in Kenya in 2012, the radio stations all played Michael Jackson’s songs as if they had just come out. Now in 2020 in Italy, the down jacket is back from the 1980s. Not really back, as it never left as it is still the fashion to dress like Hans Solo in certain other Latin countries.
In a way, the down jackets remind me of the “pizza bianca” or “white pizza” that is a common food here in Rome. It’s a bit shocking that the pizza is square, sold by weight, and can still be pizza — even if it has no sauce or cheese. Yes, it really can still be pizza. In a way, in its purest form if one reads the etymology of the word, pizza.
More shockers another time. I need to go get a pizza and put some cheese and ham on it, and call it a sandwich.
During this pandemic, time has slowed down, and yet, it seems to take a long time to get anything done. In Italy, as recently as two hundred years ago, time was also different, not due to a pandemic, but because time was told differently. The day started not at midnight, but at sunset. As I wait for my time to move to Italy, I am sharing another segment of the book I wrote about what I wish I knew about food in Italy. This is from the chapter called, “Saucy,” ostensibly about spaghetti sauce… and yet, the chapter covers so much more, including the three musketeers, and Elvis.
One of the gripes about Italian food outside of Italy, is that there is no such dish called, “Spaghetti with Meatballs.” Despite the role that this dish plays in the American iconography of Disney’s Lady and the Tramp. The famous scene with the spaghetti and meatballs shows that by 1955, when the film was released, this dish was already iconic to American Italian cuisine. (A fun note: The model for Tramp was actually a female dog.) Also, there is no dish called, “Spaghetti Bolognese.” The sauce served with spaghetti is called a “ragu” in Italian. Ragu is a sauce. Bolognese sauce comes from the city of Bologna, in the north of Italy. Thicker sauces like Bolognese usually accompany thicker types of pasta like lasagna pasta. Meatballs, called polpetta in Italian, are never served with pasta.
Ragu comes from the French word, “ragout” which means a stew. The French ragout comes from the verb “ragouter” which means “to revive the taste.” In the nineteenth century, Alexandre Dumas wrote in his culinary dictionary that ragout made French cuisine “shine.” This is the same Alexandre Dumas who wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. The Count of Monte Cristo is actually based almost entirely on the life of his grandfather, Marquis Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie who fathered General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie with his black slave, Marie-Cessette Dumas. To read about this, read The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. It is a swashbuckling tale if ever there was one.
Alexandre Dumas fils (son), the son of Alexandre Dumas pere (father), was a playwright and wrote the tragic Camille, possibly one of the most tragic romances I’ve watched on stage. This play became the basis for Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata. La traviata means “fallen woman” in Italian. Both Alexandre Dumas, father and son, were born out of wedlock and illegitimacy is a common issue throughout the son’s writings.
Giuseppe Verdi’s birth was registered as “born yesterday” on October 11, 1813, in the church register. At that time, the day began at sunset, not at midnight, so Verdi celebrated his birthday on October 9. He was born in a village in municipality of Busseto, in the province of Parma, in the region of Emilia-Romagna, in northern Italy. Supposedly VERDI was used as an acronym for Vittorio Emanuele, Re D’Italia, which means Victor Emmanuel, king of Italy who was the first king of Italy, to signify the Italian unification movement. Verdi got involved in politics and was a staunch supporter of Italian unification. It took almost fifty years for Italy to become unified.
Verdi also wrote Aida, possibly the most baroque over-the-top-operas of all time. Verdi wrote Aida upon request by Ismail the Magnificent, Viceroy of Egypt and Sudan, to celebrate opening of the Khedivial (Royal) Opera House in Cairo, not to celebrate the Suez Canal as some sources will state. Aida had its world premiere in 1871. Aida is the love story of an enslaved Ethiopian princess and an Egyptian military commander. The story is set in the ancient capital of Egypt, Memphis. The glory days of Memphis were 5,000 years ago. The name Memphis is the Ancient Greek version of the Ancient Egyptian name meaning “enduring and beautiful.” The ruins of ancient Memphis are just south of the pyramid of Giza in Cairo.
The trumpets blaring and drums thumping in the famous choral march in Aida is one of the most recognizable tunes in our collective hearing. Ordinary people cannot belt out the chorus from Aida, but most think they can do a fair version of “O Sole Mio.” “O Sole Mio” was written in 1898 with lyrics by Giovanni Capurro and music by Eduardo di Capua and Alfredo Mazzucchi. “O Sole Mio” means “my sunshine” in the Neapolitan dialect which uses “O” instead of “Il” from the standard Italian as the preposition. This catchy tune was so popular and well-known that, at the 1920 Olympics, when the orchestra had not received the music for the Italian national anthem, they played “O Sole Mio” instead. That shows hows catchy a tune it is.
In 1958, a young enlisted man from Memphis, Tennessee, Elvis Presley, heard this song when he was stationed in Europe. After he returned to the United States, he requested that a version be written especially for him. This became his best-selling single, “It’s Now or Never,” one of my favorite songs. I always thought this song was about “carpe diem” as in the Latin term meaning “seize the day,” but it’s about seize the guy, before he falls out of love with you. The original phrase carpe diem by the Roman poet Horace in 23 BCE, was “carpe diem quam minimum credula postero,” which translates to “pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one.” Basically, to live today to the fullest. Which Elvis certainly did. Of the song versions, I even like the disco version by Al Martino, an Italian-American who played a singer in “The Godfather.” “O Sole Mio” is sung in the canzone napoletana tradition. No, not calzone. That’s a pizza pocket.
The Neapolitan style of singing was taken abroad at the end of the nineteenth century by singers like Enrico Caruso, the famous opera singer. He was from Naples, and when he need a song for encores at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, he would sing songs from his hometown.
There are many Neapolitan languages, “napulitano” in Neapolitan, which originated in the Kingdom of Naples. Most of these languages, dialects, cover the southern half of the Italian peninsula, with around five million speakers. Like standard Italian, it is a Romance language, from the Vulgar Latin adverb romanice, “in Roman.” Vulgar meant everyday, vernacular, language, not foul language. There were three forms of Latin. The Romance languages arose in Europe between the third and eighth centuries.
For language nerds who don’t speak Latin, look up Romance languages on Wikipedia to see side by side comparisons of the same sentence in the various forms of Romance languages. For the nerds, did you know that Dr. Seuss invented the word nerd?
In preparation for my move to Italy, I wrote a book about food in Italy. In the book, I wrote a short history of Italy. The history of Italy as a country is short because Italy only became a nation in 1861. But, the history of the Italian peninsula is long, so here is my version of it, thanks to Wikipedia.
First, the name, Italy. Theories abound, but the one I like is that the name, Italia, comes from the Oscan, an extinct Indo-European language from the area of the ankle of Italy, for “land of calves” because that area of Italy is the “calf,” to boot. Another theory is that Italy is named after a king named Italos, this spelling is based on Ancient Greek. Italos was king of the Oenotrians, a pastoral tribe in southern Italy. The myth says that Italos was the grandson of Odysseus. Yes, that guy. The King of Ithaca, the hero of Homer’s tale of Odysseus, and the guy who took ten years to get home, interrupted not by traffic but by the Trojan War. Odysseus is famous for his “nostos” which is the theme of “homecoming” in Ancient Greek literature. This demonstrates how rare it was for Greek men to return home after going off to sea. The island of Ithaca is a real island located off the west coast of Greece, across the water from Italy. Italos, the king of the Oenotrians, is mentioned in the fourth century BCE (so 2,400 years ago) by Aristotle. My favorite part of this namedrop by Aristotle, is that King Italos, not only converted his people from being pastoral to agricultural, but he was the first to “institute their system of common meals.” Since this is a book about Italian food, that’s a factoid that I wish I could learn more about, but Aristotle isn’t answering my emails.
Second, some metrics about Italy today. Italy is the fifth most visited country in the world (behind China, the United States, Spain, and France in first place), with 60 million inhabitants, and 61 million tourists each year.
After the time of Odysseus, around 50,000 years ago, there were some homo sapiens living in modern day Rome and Verona. These homo sapiens were Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, Neanderthals. Modern genetics has discovered that the Neanderthals did not die out but were amalgamated into modern human beings merging with the conquering Homo sapienssapiens, us. Neanderthals get a bad rap, but that is because history is written by the victor. In this case, the victor was Homo sapienssapiens. Neanderthals were shorter and broader in body type and supposedly those with red hair have more Neanderthal in them than the rest of us. Homo sapiens arose in Italy around 48,000 years ago. Fast forward to Otzi the Iceman. He was found in the Alps on the border with Austria and Italy. He was a copper age hunter who lived around 3,400–3,100 BCE (imagine the candles on that cake!).
Otzi was part of the first Indo-European migration to Italy from mainland Europe. About five hundred years later, during the bronze age, a second migration happened and these people became the famous “Beaker Culture” in areas of modern day Tuscany, Sardinia, and Sicily. Around 2,000 BCE, a third wave happened. These people, the Apenninian culture and the Terremare cultures moved in to the Po Valley in modern day Emilia-Romagna, in northern Italy. These people, named for the “black earth” of their settlement mounds, began to raise beans, grapes, wheat, and flax. A fourth wave of immigrants arrived around 1,000 BCE and moved in to northern and central Italy. These people were called “Proto-villanovans” by archeologists. Elsewhere, on the island of Sardinia, a native culture based around megaliths called, “nuraghe,” developed. The only reason I mention this in a book on food in Italy, is that it shows how local culture is a point of pride, and this includes food. It’s all local. Local pride before it became fashionable.
In this quick trip through Italian history, we have now almost reached the Roman Empire. By 800 BCE, in the central part of the Italian peninsula, the Etruscans were flourishing. Their origin and much about them are a mystery, but they likely emerged from the Villanovan culture. Mitochondrial DNA shows that the modern day Tuscans, descendants of the Etruscans, originated from central Europe. The Etruscan language was not Indo-European and most of their writing is undeciphered to this day. The Etruscan kingdom engaged in territorial wars, mainly with its major contender, Magna Graecia, to the south.
The story of Magna Graecia, great Greece, is also the story of Italy. Magna Graecia was the Roman term for the southern coastal parts of Italy and the island of Sicily. This area was a colony of Greece. These areas were Hellenistic, from Hellas, the name for Ancient Greece, in culture. Some of the best preserved Greek temples and remains are in Italy. The Roman Empire borrowed, stole, or bought, most of their art and culture from Greece. For an interesting example, listen to the “You’re Dead to Me” podcast about the original Olympics. It’s not what you thought you knew.
One of the most successful Greek colonies was “New City,” Neopolis, modern day Naples. Neopolis was the first Greek colony absorbed into the Roman Republic, in 327 BCE. The last of the Greek colonies to fall to Rome was Sicily, capitulating in 241 BCE, during the first Punic War. The Punic Wars were fought between the two mighty naval empires of the third century BCE Mediterranean, Carthage and Rome. Syracuse, on the coast of Sicily, held out for another twenty years, and to this day, there are still Greek speakers in parts of southern Italy. Syracuse was an independent state and allies with Rome, until 214 BCE, on the death of the king. Political intrigue, perhaps involving Hannibal (yes, him, the guy with the elephants walking across the Alps), caused the Carthaginians to cede at the Siege of Syracuse. The Syracusans lost despite the might of the brain of mathematician and scientist Archimedes on their side. He even invented a weapon for this battle, the Claw of Archimedes. Another weapon used during the Siege of Syracuse was the sambuca. When I read this, I got quite excited thinking that they had used the anise flavored liqueur in the battle. But, they did not. The sambuca that they are referring to is a “siege engine” as in a type of “siege boat.” This weapon got its name because it resembled a harp, a sambuca. More on the drink later. I wonder where it got its name. Maybe because Bacchus, the god of drink and merriment, played a harp?
The Greeks who settled in Italy came from the Mani (mania in Ancient Greek) Peninsula, and claimed to be descended from the Spartans. Thinking back to Odysseus and how rare it was for men to return from sea, the Spartans had a similar safeguard system. Spartans were not allowed to go to war until they had produced a boy child, which tells you of their return rate. The Maniot Greeks were famous for their military prowess and bloody vendettas, some of which continue to this day. Another group of Maniot Greeks moved to the island of Corsica in the seventeenth century CE under the protection of the Kingdom of Genoa. Whenever I hear the word, Corsica, I’m reminded of my favorite movie, Zorro the Gay Blade, when he is showing off and says how they will, “defeat the feetless, buy corsets from Corsica…”
Before there was a Roman Empire, there was a Roman Kingdom. The founding of Rome is a great story. Can’t rival the greatest story ever told (because then, it would be), but it’s still fantastic. The story starts in the myths of time with Latinus, son of Odysseus, he who took so long to get back to his home, and Circe, a Greek enchantress who was good with herbs. Latinus had a son, Aeneas, who became the first king of Alba Longa, modern day Tuscany. Aeneas was a Trojan hero whose mother was Aphrodite, Venus in Roman mythology. Fourteen kings later, we get to two brothers, Numitor and Amulius. The other more famous Roman brothers come next. The short of it is that Numitor was supposed to inherit the throne but Amulius prevented him, and to make sure that Numitor couldn’t gain it back, he killed Numitor’s son and forced his daughter, Rhea Silvia, to become a Vestal Virgin.
A Vestal Virgin was a virgin priestess who served in the temple of Vestus. They were betrothed as girls to serve for 30 years. They served ten year terms as student, servant, and teacher. There were only two or four Vestal Virgins at once so it was a select group. They were responsible for keeping the fire burning at the temple of Vesta. Vesta was the goddess of the hearth, the home. Vestal Virgins were the keepers of the hearth for all Romans and they had duties beyond keeping the fire alive, including public ceremonies. They also had the ability to pardon a condemned man, or free a slave, due to their pureness. They prayed for the moral health of Rome. They were entrusted with precious documents, including the wills of Caesar and Mark Anthony. During the chief festival of the goddess of the hearth, in June, was the only time the Vestal Virgins would make their own “mola salsa.” Mola salsa was a holy paste of flour and salt. This paste was offered to the holy hearth, daubed between the horns of sacrificial animals, and sprinkled on the forehead. The Latin verb “immolare” means to sacrifice. From there, comes “mola” and that is where we get the word, “immolate” — the ultimate sacrifice, in modern English.
The Vestal Virgins were celibate until they retired. Then a prestigious marriage was arranged for them. A Vestal Virgin was a good catch as she had a pension and was considered a good luck charm. People think that if a Vestal Virgin broke her vow of celibacy, she was buried alive, but it was worse than that. Burying alive was illegal. Instead, they would lock her up underground with a few days worth of food and water. Result was death. The men who had sex with Vestal Virgins were beaten to death. So when Amulius had Numitor’s daughter, Rhea Silvia, made into a Vestal Virgin, he did so thinking that she would not produce heirs to the throne.
Enter Mars, the God, stage left.
Mars was the god of war. He was based on Ares, the Greek god of war, brother of Athena. The sacred animals of Mars were the wolf, the woodpecker, and the bear. Roman Mars was different from Greek Ares, who was mostly about destruction. Mars was also the god of agriculture and he was the father of the people. The word “paternal” comes from the Latin pater. In particular Roman fashion, he was the god of war as good for you. Mars was seen as a god of war as a means to achieve peace. Sound familiar? Like today, we have peacekeeping troops, a phrase that seems like an oxymoron. Mars is also the root of the word “martial” as in martial law. The month of March is named after Mars as that is the month when planting begins. He is sometimes associated with October which is when the war season begins, after the harvest. Every year, a harvest and a war.
The Pantheon, originally temple to Mars was built in an area originally outside Rome, in the Field of Mars, but today it is in the historic center. The Pantheon was converted to a Catholic Church in the seventh century. It stands on the Piazza della Rotonda. The temple to Mars was built in the area around the Pantheon. It was meant to be a private temple for Marcus Agrippa, Roman statesman. Pantheon means a “sacred to the gods.” In 31 BCE, at the Battle of Actium, Marcus Agrippa helped Octavian, later Emperor Augustus, win against Marc Antony and Queen Cleopatra, of Egypt. Cleo actually visited Rome several times. Marcus Agrippa was responsible for helping Emperor Augustus build the Rome that he said, “He had found the city of brick but left it of marble.”
A hundred or so years later, after a fire, Emperor Hadrian built another temple on the original temple built by Marcus Agrippa. Yes, he, Hadrian, who built that wall in the wilds of the Roman Empire at the far reach of “Provincia Britannia” on the border of modern day England and Scotland. Hadrian’s wall was probably, not only as legend says to hold out the Caledonians, modern Scots, but because it was cheaper to build a wall than to maintain an army at the border. To this day, the inscription on the Pantheon states, “M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIVM·FECIT,” which means “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, Consul for the third time, built this.” Hadrian kept this inscription instead of writing his own.
The history of Rome, before the Pantheon, continues with Rhea Silvia, the Vestal Virgin, and Mars, god of war. One day, back in those misty days of time, when Rhea Silvia, Vestal Virgin and daughter of Numitor, he-who-should-have-been-king, went to a grove near the temple to gather water. While at this grove, she saw something. It was the god, Mars. He attempted to rape her but she managed to flee to a nearby cave. Mars chased her into the cave and impregnated her. Some accounts of this myth say that Rhea Silvia claimed that she saw a woodpecker and a wolf, both symbols of Mars, and therefore it was Mars who impregnated her. Her tale is told in the Aeneid, by Ovid, and by Livy. Livy, the Roman historian, seems to be the only one who doubted the paternity of her children. Despite Livy’s opinion, most images show Mars seducing Rhea Silvia.
Rhea Silvia became pregnant with twins, Remus and Romulus, the founders of Rome. So not only figuratively, but also literally, Mars was the father of the Romans. Apparently the goddess Vesta was unhappy about this turn of events so she caused the fire in her temple to go out. One of the sacred duties of a Vestal Virgin is to maintain the light in the temple. Interestingly, in Italian, and in Spanish, the term for “to give birth” is “to give to the light.” Makes me wonder if there is a connection to this pre-Latin myth.
When bad King Amulius heard of the birth of his twin nephews, potential heirs to the throne, he ordered them to be killed. According to the myth, a servant took pity on the baby boys and set them on the banks of the River Tiber. There, the river god, Tiberinus, saved them and took them to a she-wolf, a “lupa” in Latin, who had recently lost her own pups, to suckle. A “lupa” is also the Latin word for a prostitute. Even then, women had a rough time. Some say that Tiberinus married Rhea Silvia while other stories say she thew herself in the Tiber. I think they might mean the same thing.
The location of the wolf’s cave was unknown until 2007 when an archeologist announced that she had found it under the house of Emperor Augustus, located on the Palatine hill. This would be fitting as Emperor Augustus considered calling himself Romulus as befitting a founder of a new Rome.
Later, Romulus and Remus were raised by a shepherd, Faustulus and his wife, Acca Larentia. In some versions of the story, Larentia was not a wife but a courtesan, or “she-wolf” who gave money to help the city of Rome, after giving her services to Romans.
Romulus and Remus grew up to be fine young men. As with many young men, they became involved in the hot topic of the day. The topic was a dispute about Numitor and King Amulius. In the scuffle, Remus was captured and taken to the court at Alba Longa. Both his grandfather and his granduncle suspected his true identity. Can you imagine that meeting? Meanwhile, Romulus was gathering forces to free his brother. During this struggle, Romulus also learned of his royal identity. Eventually, Romulus, Remus, and Numitor deposed the unlawful king, Amulius, and set Numitor back on his rightful throne. Speaking of thrones, the toilets in ancient Rome were communal and instead of toilet paper, they used a rag on the end of a stick. This gives us the expression, “To get a hold of the wrong end of the stick.” Yuck.
The young men, Romulus and Remus, fresh from setting their grandfather back on his throne, set out to found a city of their own. If you are a mythical being, I guess this fits in one’s goals for life.
What do you want to do when you grow up, little Romy?
Found a city.
Oh, right, go to the city.
No, found a city.
Eat your peas. We’ll talk later, you megalomaniac.
Romulus and Remus arrived in the area along the Tiber River where there were seven hills (still there today) and had to pick which hill to use for their kingdom. Romulus preferred the Palatine hill above the “Lupercal” cave where he and Remus had suckled at the she-wolf’s teats. Remus preferred the look of the Aventine hill, which had the advantage of placement and could be easily fortified. Thus ensued a serious discussion as location, location, location, is at the heart of real estate, and certainly, a kingdom. As neither could convince the other of the merits of their chosen hillock, they asked for advice from higher powers. No, not their dad. He was a shepherd. No, nor their father. He was a rapist.
But in a way, they did ask him. They sought out augury. The art of augury is the art of looking for auspicious signs from birds, guided by the divinity of the gods. The practice of augury went way back and was an old and trusted method by the time of Romulus and Remus. The twins decided to see who would see the most auspicious sign. They sat on the ground, about a foot from each other, and waited. Remus was the first to see some birds when he spotted six birds. But, Romulus saw twelve, and proclaimed himself the winner. Maybe Romulus was just a better birdwatcher than Remus. Maybe he was a typical older brother (“I was born two minutes before you!”). The brothers continued their dispute and Remus was killed, possibly by his brother.
On April 21, 753 BCE, Romulus founded Rome. The Palatine hill overlooks the forum, which was a shopping center that grew up after the settlement on the Palatine. Romulus set up the new city on his hill of choice and went on to rule Rome, named after him, happily ever after. Oh wait. After the Rape of the Sabines. In every way reprehensible, the rape that is mentioned in the Rape of the Sabines is a translation of “rapture” or “abduct.” Not an excuse, but sadly the way of much of history. Even today, girls, fourteen year olds, even younger, are kidnapped parts of the world like central Asia. They are kidnapped until they agree to marry the kidnapper. In the case of the Sabines, Romulus, after setting up his new kingdom, with his buddies, realized that he needed women to found a dynasty. Hence the plundering of women from neighboring areas, like the Sabines, which are misty foothills northeast of Rome.
No one really knows if the myth of Romulus and Remus is true. The earliest version of the story is recorded in the third century BCE. From the mists of myth to 509 BCE. In 509 BCE, the Romans threw out their king and established an oligarchic republic. Thus continued another period of constant warfare between the peoples of the Mediterranean, except for some unity under Magna Graecia. You might be wondering why a quick romp through Italian history seems to be focusing on Rome, but this is because the Romans conquered much of the Italian peninsula, and as you may recall, much beyond, including France, land of the Gauls. The Gauls were tribes of peoples who lived in modern day France, southern England, and mainland Europe. The Gauls imported wine from the mediterranean, so it’s not surprising that Gaul became the nation of France, famous for their love of wine.
At the beginning of the second century BCE, there were great names that you recall from history class, and the movies, like Tiberius, Spartacus, Pompey, and Caesar. Caesar is so famous that it seems hardly worth mentioning him. But, in a book about food (yes, that’s what this book is about), he’s worth a mention for various reasons. He reformed the calendar that we still use today. So when making a reservation at a restaurant, we are still in touch with Caesar.
Then, there’s that salad. The salad was actually named after an Italian immigrant named Caesar Cardini. Cardini invented the salad in his eponymous restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico, on July 4, 1924, when a sudden rush of guests meant that he had run out of ingredients. To add flourish to this simple dish of lettuce, eggs, croutons, and parmesan, he presented it at the table and tossed it live in front of the guests. Julia Child mentioned eating this salad when she was a child. Cardini’s daughter stated in the 1970s that the original recipe was to use whole lettuce leaves to lift the coddled eggs to the mouth. I wonder if they serve caesar salad in Rome.
Gaius Julius Caesar was born into a patrician, upper class, Alban family in Rome. Romans had three names, a first, a family, and a “cognomen” which means “together with” which is a nickname. Caesar was the nickname. According to Pliny the Elder, Caesar as a nickname came from an ancestor who had been born via caesarian. Caesar was not born via caesarian. Caesar is derived from the Latin for “to cut.” There were three other interpretations of the source of Caesar and Caesar seems to have preferred the version from “caesai” which stems from the Moorish language. “Caesai” referred to when Caesar killed an elephant in the Punic Wars, which Caesar commemorated by having coins minted with the design of an elephant. The other two meanings of his name are that he had a thick head of hair or that he had bright gray eyes.
When Caesar was 16, his father died, making Caesar the head of his family. He was chosen as a “Flamen Dialis,” high priest, at the temple of Jupiter, also called Jove. So when people say, “By Jove” they are actually cussing. The god who was most powerful was actually Janus. New year’s celebrations grew out of the celebration of Janus. The god Janus had two faces as he was the god of new beginnings, doorways, time, and change. He was the most important god in the pantheon of gods. A prayer to him was begun before any other prayers. So really, it should be, “By Janus!”
In his job as a Flamen Dialis, Caesar had many benefits, including becoming an ex officio, which means by way of another position, a member of the senate. Being a Flamen Dialis entailed many privileges and many rules. The ones that relate to food were:
He might not touch flour, nor leaven, nor leavened bread,
He was forbidden either to touch or to name a dog, a she-goat, ivy, beans, or raw flesh.
It was unlawful to place a box containing sacrificial cakes in contact with the bedstead.
He was not allowed to be present at a table without food so that he never appeared wanting.
What I find interesting about these house rules is that they show how different a world he lived in. The purpose of the rules were to keep him focused on his job as a priest and to not allow any distractions or temptations. Bread, beans, raw flesh, cake, food… all temptations.
Then, politics, and history, intervened. Due to political maneuvering, Caesar was removed from his position as a priest. This was fortuitous as it allowed him to become a warrior, as priests were not allowed to take up arms. What follows next is Caesar’s rise to power, including governorships, and much political fighting. In one of the many wars he got involved in, he even met Cleopatra, who was in a civil war in Egypt, which she ruled. While Caesar was winning battles, the Senate in Rome was conferring him with more and more accolades and honors.
When Caesar returned to Rome, a massive celebration of games, “bread and circuses,” was thrown in his honor. Even then, the populace complained of the extravagance, rioting in the streets. The rioting only ended when Caesar had two rioters sacrificed at the temple in the Field of Mars. Over his career, Caesar had been in the position of elected dictator several times, but one month before his death, he became dictator for life. He was assassinated on the Ides of March, March 15, 44 BCE.
Caesar’s greatest contributions were done in a short five year period between when he crossed the Rubicon and was assassinated. The phrase “cross the Rubicon” is used to mean that the “die are cast” or that there is no going back. The previous Roman calendar was based on the moon but Caesar’s calendar, the Julian calendar, was based on the sun as was the Egyptian, and included a leap year. My guess is that he picked up the idea from his time with Cleo. The Julian calendar was more accurate than the previous calendar and it was in use from 45 BCE to 1582 CE, when Pope Gregory XIII changed it to the modern calendar that we use, the Gregorian calendar. The Gregorian chant is from earlier, but Charlemagne, coronated in 800 CE, was a bit of a crusader and forced people to Christianity. The Gregorian chant was one of his weapons as he forced people to use it. Charlemagne’s name, Carolus, is the root of the word “king” in many of the slavic languages.
More next time on the history of the Italian peninsula.
That’s how it’s feeling in Italian class. The classic “Mambo Italiano” sung by Rosemary Clooney (whose nephew has a house on Lake Como in Italy), was written deliberately in incorrect Italian, so it is no help when trying to learn Italian. As I noted in my last posting about Italian for beginners, much of Italian seems to be the opposite of Spanish and English, while much is the same. I’m not sure why, but I was sort of pleased to learn that in Italian one does not “mount” one’s bicycle as one does in Spanish. One “goes on” a bike in Italian. But, then I realize that Italian has eight (8) ways to say “the” and I’m less pleased.
In order to try and study, I make flash cards by taking snapshots of my study notes, like the one shown here. This was a day when we steered our teacher into restaurant lingo as part of our cultural education. The Italians have a word for “spaghetti dinner” — una spaghettata — but it means a casual meal of pasta (keeping in mind that pasta can be a separate course). As opposed to a more formal meal. The idea is that a spaghettata is while there will only be a pasta course, there will be lots of it. Also, apparently, one should not take a bottle of wine to a dinner as wine is the host’s responsibility. As a guest, one should take flowers, or chocolate, or cake.
I also learned that restaurants will not split the bill (check in American English). You have to figure it out on your own. Apparently, they don’t do doggy bags either — as most portion sizes are small in Italy so you probably won’t have left overs.
But, it’s not just that! The paw paw is also a native American fruit. Native to the eastern United States and related to the custard apple, soursop, and cherimoya, the American papaw (or paw paw, pawpaw, or paw-paw) is a fruit that looks like a mango but is slightly custardy. It supposedly tastes like a banana-mango-pineapple. The paw paw was also called the prairie banana.
Apparently, the paw paw is the largest native American fruit (0ther than gourds which are classed as vegetables). There are efforts to harvest the paw paw has no known pests. But, the fruit ripens quickly to fermentation so it is best used for jam and in other prepared foods.
Ohio botanist William B. Werthner noted that:
“The fruit … has a tangy wild-wood flavor peculiarly its own. It is sweet, yet rather cloying to the taste and a wee bit puckery.”
I am not a very adventurous eater, but, for the sake of my fruit-ologist friend, I was willing to try it. It didn’t taste like much.
Once I get to Italy, I wonder what fruits will be new to me? I certainly didn’t expect to find a new fruit in the United States, so I hope I will be equally surprised.
One of the things I find most useful in my kitchen are scissors. I’m not alone in this. In Rome, there is a type of pizza that is cut with scissors. In Korean food, scissors are used to cut the meat after it’s been grilled. In the photo, the mini scissors are used to cut open condiment packs (photo taken in Argentina).
Then, there’s the fork. Have you ever wondered why some forks have that slightly wider tine on one side? The answer is that the one tine is wider depending on if the fork is for a right handed or left handed person. If both the outer tines are wider than the inner tines, then the fork is for everyone, both righties and lefties. There are over fifty different types of forks, but that is the subject of another book. I have plans to write a book about forks and kitchen tools. A friend begged me to call it, Fork U.
While forks had been used since ancient Egypt for ceremonial purposes, the personal dining fork was first used in Constantinople in 400 CE (This particular fork is in a private collection in Washington, DC). The fork fashion spread to the middle east and the courts would use small two-pronged gold forks instead of their fingers. In the eleventh century, one such gold fork was part of the dowry of a Byzantine princess sent to marry a Venetian doge, a chief magistrate, Domenico Selvo. When a bishop saw her eating using this fork, she was admonished and told that she was insulting God by not using her fingers. The fork disappeared from the dining table for three hundred years!
By the 1400s forks had returned to the dinner table in Italy. The fork probably gained traction in Italy due to the popularity of eating pasta, which is much easier with a fork. By 1400 CE, it was common in Italy to present a diner with his own spoon and fork.
Famously, the fork was introduced to the French court by the queen, an Italian princess, Catherine de’ Medici. Caterina de’ Medici was the daughter of Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence. She took silver forks with her to France in 1533 as part of her dowry. The French did not take to the fork immediately.
The fork did not gain popularity in the rest of Europe until much later. British travelers in the seventeenth century would deride the fork as an effeminate Italian custom. It was not until 1633, when Charles I, King of England declared the fork “decent.” The original dining forks had two prongs. The two prongs were not enough to eat peas and other round foods, so over the next several centuries, the fork gained two more prongs. The word “fork” comes from Latin “furca.” The fork reached North America during the revolutionary war, most likely via Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, both who had enjoyed the good life in France.