pulcinellapasta

food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs


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ZEPPOLE – a Pulcinella favorite

detail from Zocchi's Veduta

detail from Zocchi’s Veduta

The detail is barely perceptible amongst the minutiae that Giuseppe Zocchi (ca. 1711-1767) crammed into an engraving of a festive scene enacted in the piazza fronting the Church of Santa Croce in Florence. In the left mid-ground are two figures astride an ass. Both wear hooked-nosed masks that recall one of Pulcinella’s defining physical characteristics: his prominent hooked nose. One, with a riding crop raised in his right hand, faces the ass’s rump. The second, facing forward, is too busy shoving an over-sized spoon into his mouth – another familiar characteristic of the perpetually hungry Pulcinella. Intent on food, he cannot be bothered about either his direction or that of his noble steed. Are these odd characters meant as a prompt to the viewer, a commentary on the havoc and ribaldry that attends festivals during which taboos are often dismissed and the propriety of traditional gender and class roles inverted? Perhaps.

If I equivocate on this point, I don’t on the next. Pulcinella is a fascinating figure in “opera buffa”- especially the comedy of ridicule that enticed so many Neapolitans to the theater during the 18th and 19th centuries. What are we to make of plays such as “Il ritorno di Pulcinella da Padova” and “Pulcinella marito, e non marito”? There are expert opinions on the subject. In 1911, Benedetto Croce argued that Pulcinella was not a single persona but a complex of characters that allowed spectators to find some aspect of themselves (or their plight of poverty) within him.* More recently (1992), Domenico Scafoglio situated Pulcinella squarely within the ambient of social transgression. It is an idea that I find appealing with respect to Giuseppe Zocchi’s engraving.* Still more recently (2002), Sebastian Werr has claimed, “Pulcinella appears more as a kind of reflective screen on to which the spectator projects not only his fears but also his desires, both recognizable and (in real life) the unrecognizable.”* Rather than ponder the psychoanalytics of this, I prefer to consider the ass-riding, spoon-shoveling, mask-wearing figure in Zocchi’s engraving as well as a couple of other Pulcinella figures gracing menus and eatery signs.

Pulcinella menu

It is an undeniable fact that Pulcinella plays the part of the fool in ‘opera buffa’. No less indisputable is his constant state of poverty and hunger. A line like “Ma jammo da magnà?” (Do we get to eat [now!]?) is a staple of Neapolitan popular theater. Even more wonderfully telling is Francesco Terracino’s play on a love duet in Donizetti’s tragic opera “Lucia di Lammermoor,” which premiered in Naples in 1835. In “I Corsair- Damigelle” the heartfelt duet between the parting lovers, Lucia and Edgardo, is transformed into Pulcinella’s passionate longing for ZEPPOLE, a sweet dough sometimes filled with a ricotta pastry cream that is deep fried in a manner similar to that of a doughnut or cream puff.

A cafe in Naples

A cafe in Naples

ZEPPOLE are eaten in various varieties throughout Italy but Naples claims ZEPPOLE were created there during the Middle Ages. Not unlike the funnel cakes devoured at county fairs across America, ZEPPOLE (also called “bigne”) were (and are) a featured confection at fairs, especially those associated with St. Joseph (March 19th). “Roma in bocca,” a cookbook dedicated to traditional Italian cuisine offers the following advice. “… another thing- be careful not to eat too many, for they are always so delicious!”

Zeppole or bigne de S. Giuseppe

Zeppole or bigne de S. Giuseppe

The inspired chef can find numerous recipes on-line.
http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2012/03/chocolate-zeppole-doughnuts-di-san-guiseppe-recipe.html

*Benedetto Croce, “Pulcinella e la relazioni della commedia dell’ arte con la commedia popolare romane in Saggi sulla letteratura italiana del seicento (Bari, 1911).

*Domenico Scafoglio and Anton Giulio Braggalia, Pulcinella (Milan, 1992).

*Sebastian Werr, “Neapolitan Elements and Comedy in Nineteenth-Century Opera buffe,” Cambridge Opera Journal, vol. 14 (2002), pages 297-311.

G.D. Tiepolo, A company of Pulcinellas, circa 1770

G.D. Tiepolo, A company of Pulcinellas, circa 1770


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Dates (phoenix dactylifera) & “Pasqua Ebraica” (Jewish Easter)

“The righteous shall flourish like a date palm…” (Psalm 92: 13)

“On the walls all around the [great] Temple [of Jerusalem], he (King Solomon) carved cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers.” (1 Kings 6:29)

1883 excavations in Naro, Tunisia revealed a 6th century mosaic of a date palm. Hammam Lif Synagogue

1883 excavations in Naro, Tunisia revealed a 6th century mosaic of a date palm. Hammam Lif Synagogue

As the quotes from Psalm 92 and I Kings 6 – as well as the more than 30 other biblical references to the sacred tree and its fruit – suggests, the date palm was laden with symbolism. In fact, the date palm was incorporated into religious practices and iconography across a wide swath of Near Eastern cultures. Thus, 1 Kings 6 is not the only text associating the date with sacred structures. The ancient Sumerian text “Inanna and Sukaletuda” celebrates the palm, which is said to grow “forever,” while the dates it produces are observed “heaped up next to pure grain [found] in the temples of the great gods.” Still, it is with ancient Israel that the date palm can justifiably be said to have the strongest symbolism. The Romans, who enjoyed dates stuffed with chopped nuts and dipped in honey, saw the date palm as a symbol for Israel. It appears as such on the Sestertius known as “Judaea Captured” that was minted in 71 C.E. On the coin’s reverse a mourning Jew is depicted seated beneath a date palm beside which stands the victorious Emperor Vespasian. Here, as in a similar coin minted a couple of years later during the reign of Titus, the tree represents a land and its people. Given the association it is curious that in the “Fasti” Ovid compared Rome’s mythical founders Romulus and Remus to two palm trees, one grand and vigorous, the other not.

IUDAEA CAPTA Sestertius, minted 71 C.E.

IUDAEA CAPTA Sestertius, minted 71 C.E.

While both the Greek and Roman physicians Hippocrates (ca. 460-360 B.C.E.) and Galen (130-200 C.E.) appreciated dates for their medicinal value and Augustus Caesar is said to have preferred dates from Judaea over all others, the inhabitants of the Land of Israel valued the date palm for more than the health benefits and delectable nature of its fruit. Palm fronds were woven into baskets and mats, palm wood was used to make doors, fences and roofs, and the pit, or stone, was a source of fuel. But perhaps most importantly, the tree that the Akkadians poetically dubbed the “tree of riches” and the “tree of abundance” was related to a variety of Jewish religious celebrations, including Succoth (Leviticus 23: 34 and 23:40) and Chanukkah (II Maccabees 10:6-7). At this time of year dates find a place at the Passover table in the form of the condiment Haroset.

Haroset comes in various forms, each a reflection of a specific place and its vegetation. Haroset recipes from Surinam include coconut but not dates and my mother-in-law’s cherished Haroset is a blend of apples, almonds and spices. Persian, Yemenite, Egyptian and many Italian versions – from the seafaring cities of Venice, Padua, and Ancona – include dates. Combined with nuts, honey, figs, raisins, prunes and sometimes pomegranate that is then laced with cinnamon, cumin, pepper, cloves, cardamom, dates are a reminder of the trade ties that connected cultures across the Mediterranean. But at Passover dates – or rather Haroset – is intended to remind those gathered around the table of the mortar used in the pyramids that were built with forced Jewish labor. As Joyce Goldstein puts it in her cookbook “Cucina Ebraica,” Haroset is “a sweet symbol of a bitter memory.”

Newly harvested dates, Morocco

Newly harvested dates, Morocco

In his cookbook of 1571, Bartolomeo Scappi offers both advice concerning and recipes that include dates. “To be good, dates should be fresh and of a delicate, sweet flavor, because after six months they go bad.” Like the fifteenth-century master cook Martino of Como, Scappi offered a recipe for a date torte that sounds remarkably like Haroset!

Paraphrased here it is, feel free to try it for Passover or Palm Sunday supper:

Thoroughly grind “into a mortar” 6 ounces of almonds that have been softened by soaking in water for 8 hours*, plus 6 ounces of pinenuts (also softened), 4 ounces of dates, 4 of pistachios and 3 ounces of muscatel grapes. Add to the mix 3 ounces of breadcrumbs that have been softened by soaking in goat’s milk. Force through a strainer then add 2 pounds of sugar and mix well. Cook over a low coal fire, stirring constantly. When the mixture is thick and smooth add cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, some butter and rosewater. Remove from heat, stir in 6 fresh eggs and 6 ounces of ewe’s curd. Serve either hot or cold.
* Maestro Martino suggested soaking the almonds in “some good fatty fish broth and a little rose water”

a choice of dates awaits shoppers in Moroccan markets

a choice of dates awaits shoppers in Moroccan markets