Sunday, March 6, 2011

Martedi Grasso, Mardi Gras, Carnevale: It Began in Italy

A Carnevale princess on a street strewn with cordiandoli (paper confetti)
Mobile, Alabama, the town founded by Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville in 1702, was the capital of French Louisiana from 1702-1711. In 1703, the settlers celebrated the first Mardi Gras in the U.S. The symbolic colors of Purple (justice), Green (faith) and Gold (power) became official in 1872. But, it was the Italians who started it all.

For adolescent Mobilians in the mid-twentieth century, Mardi Gras was all about the parades. The shining satin costumes worn by revellers atop mule-drawn floats reflected the flickering lights of the torches carried by the white jacketed muledrivers. Paper confetti and serpentine flew threw the air, landing in our hair, our mouths and the gutters. As children jostled for position among the crowds lining the street, straining for the beat of the marching band and avoiding their mothers' seaching hands, they thought only to go home with a good haul of the Moonpies and glittering cheap necklaces thrown by the masked men or women who rode the floats.
Carnevale in Piazza del Duomo in Milan

Mardi Gras (aka Martedi Grasso, Fat Tuesday), the culmination of Carnevale, was first devised by the Romans, although it is Carnevale in Venice and Viareggio that are famous worldwide. The word Carnevale translates as "go away meat," because during Lent practicing Christians did not eat meat. Much earlier in history, the Roman Saturnalia celebrations began with a parade of floats resembling ships – the carrum navalis. Instead of the colorful costumes we see today, the riders were, in fact, naked men and women dancing with erotic abandon. (And we thought that was a Brazilian idea). Eventually, the more sedate Carnevale celebrations spread to the Catholic countries of Europe and then on to the new world.

These days, Carnevale in Italy, apart from Venice, revolves mostly around children in costumes and food. The King’s Cake may be traditional fare in Mobile and New Orleans, but it is frappe, crespelle, sfingi, castagnole, cenci, nodi, chiacchere, bugie, galani, frittole, berlingaccio, sanguinaccio and tortelli that mark carnival season here.
Carnevale pastries

Children attend parties dressed like princesses or cowboys, while their parents ogle the pastry offerings that appear in the windows of le pasticcerie (bakeries) and clog the aisles of supermarkets. The diets that began on January 1 are forgotten these few weeks before Lent -- no one can resist the crunchy, flaky, sweet delight of a plate of frappe dusted with powdered sugar, and it’s absolutely impossible to eat only one.

In Umbria, Todi produces Carnevalandia, a lively festival packed with costumed children and their smiling parents, and a medieval banquet to localize it all. Other Umbrian towns celebrate with medieval-style flag throwers or Carnevale parties in the piazzas or schools. Costumes are for sale in local shops and i ristoranti decorate their entrances.

The Devil at EMI supermarket
At the supermarket, checkout ladies wear Carnevale hats and pretend to overlook the multiple packages of frappe sailing across their scanners on the way to my grocery bags and our own personal Pastry Saturnalia. And then, too soon, the frappe will be gone and Carnevale will be over until next year.
copyright Sharri Whiting 2011

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