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It's Just a Bean!
Phaseolus vulgaris, to you, you peasant, and you might also say “just” about a strawberry, a chestnut, a truffle, a squid and any other food that crops up (touché!) at the many sagre in Italy held throughout the year. These are local festivals held in countless villages and towns, often dedicated to a local food. Townsfolk put on traditional costumes, dance and sing, and then, depending on location and time of year, binge on olive oil, wine, pasta, chestnuts, cheese, onions, eggplant, bread, pumpkin, more wine, etc. The list is much longer than that. (I remind you that "just a..." should really be "still a...", much like "a kiss" and "a sigh" in the song As Time Goes By. Unbelievably, some people sing it wrong!)
There are various ways of looking at the sagra (plural: sagre). First, it's a great way to try local specialties and see some authentic (or, at least, revitalized) tradition. The very best sagre do a good job at appealing to tourists (increasingly important these days) and presenting their traditional foodstuffs in as authentic a fashion as possible. I suppose you have to be careful, though. I have no doubt that there are festivals that are not all that old and have been hammered together just to make money; thus, if you find a sagra that brags that it goes all the way back to, well not the 12th century, but, say, 2006, and where the specialty is individually wrapped cheese slices, keep looking. Although it is common to find sagre that have lapsed for many years, it is also common to find them being revived. That is a good sign and bespeaks healthy resistance to mindless acceptance of globalization.
Second, you can view them historically and socially. The word sagra is, indeed, related to “sacred”; in Greek and Roman times the festivals were originally religious rituals to give thanks, among other things, for a good harvest. In ancient times, the sagre were performed in temples, and even today there is often participation by local churches and clergy; indeed, many sagre are timed to coincide with the feast day of the patron saint of a particular place. On another level, some sociologists speak of the sense of social aggregation and cohesion that a sagra represents for smaller communities. I am too much of a city-slicker to be able to judge, but I take seriously such claims as “festivals can function as a safety valve for communities...sustain a society's equilibrium and secure solidarity among its members...[and] ensure social unity in spite of social conflicts and competing social norms and values.”1 I take this to mean that an occasional food fight breaks out.
If, however, you're just in it for the food, there is a lot to choose from. In the Campania region alone (of which Naples is the capital) I stopped counting at about 70 sagre. Among them: Eboli has a sagra called “Brace lenta” (slow grill) featuring traditional meats; Avellino a hazelnut sagra; chestnuts in Caserta and Benevento; eggplant at Preazzano di Vico Equense; mushrooms in San Giuseppe Vesuviano; and, strangely, beer in Pompeii. I mentioned “beans” because I walked in on preparations for the great bean sagra in Controne, a delightful little town on the southwestern corner of the Alburni massif in the Cilento area south of Salerno. The sagra, itself, is at the end of November. Not surprisingly, the preparations entail harvesting beans and then eating some; the costumes and sociological/historical stuff come later. I happened upon a young woman in the fields rejoicing and bringing in the sheaves. I reminded her that beans come in pods not sheaves and if she had ever seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers she would know that one must be very careful around pods. She looked into my heart and said, "Yes, but a bean is still a bean."
1. Referenced in Celebrating Community and Cuisine: Tradition and Change in the Sagre Festival in Italy
by Di Maria Teresa Fiumerodo, 2008ProQuest LLC, UMI Microfilm 3302578.
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