Tag Archives: italian

The Feast of the Seven Fishes (Italian)

The following was told to me by my informant.

Main piece:

“It’s called the feast of the seven fishes, it is an Italian tradition. A lot of my friends do it too, but there’s a lot of variations depending on what region you are from. Every Christmas Eve, we did this and it was led by my grandparents at their house in Pittsburgh. Basically, it’s a big fish feast, and you had to have 7 kinds of fishes. Usually there were mainstays, like calamari, bakala…it could switch around a bit, but there were always seven fish. We always made a special fried bread with mashed potatoes in it that we called rispelli. Then, the tradition came to our house, and I was more involved then, going to the fish market and helping cook starting in the morning. The entire family helped out, and we would have fun, and drink wine, then enjoy the dinner feast. Nobody’s sure what it symbolizes– Seven sacraments maybe? It’s an important number in the Bible. My dad’s family did it when he was little too. It felt special because we only ate that food at Christmas Eve, and when we were kids, we didn’t really like it. But by the time you grow up, you really like it and enjoy the food.”

Context: This was told to me when my informant came over to my house.

Background: My informant is Italian-American from the East Coast. She is from a big, close extended family who enjoys their Italian heritage. Her grandparents were immigrants from Calabria.

Thoughts:
I participate in this every year, too. I love this tradition, and I find it very true that the food really does not taste good but because you associate it with happy memories you learn to love it.

Culinta (Cullies) and Ginkles (Ginks)

  • Conext: The following informant, T, is a 56 yr. old married mother of three. She comes from a large Italian family. She explains to me the alternative names she and her entire extended family use for vagina (culinta/cullie) and penis (ginkle/ginks). The informant also sings me a song she created when her daughter was a toddler that incorporates a variant of the word culinta that is now sung throughout her family to female toddlers. The conversation took place in the informants kitchen as we looked at old family photos and remembered other folkspeech used among the family. 
  • Text:

T: “In my family growing up we would call vaginas culintas and penises ginkles and I don’t know where it came from. But it came from my dad’s side of the family, and they we’re Italian, and they would really call it a cullie or a ginks or a ginkle and we would just reference that…

And so when [my daughter] was little I made up this song about putting her pull-ups on in the kitchen and it would go… it goes like this…

‘Put the pulls on the cules and make the coffee in the kitchen’

And now that’s a family song. And all of the nieces, all of my nieces, sing that song to their kids.”

  • Analysis: Sex is a very tabboo subject in American society. The conversation of genitalia is also often censored. I believe this may be one of the reasons for the wide variety of vocabulary used to describe male and female genitalia. It does not shock me that my own family uses the words culinta and ginkle, because even though we’re aware of what body parts we’re referring to, it somehow makes the conversation feel appropriate to any audience. In addition, the words themselves sound more similar to Italian words, so they harken back to our ancestry. I plan on teaching the words culinta/cullie and ginkle/ginks to my children, as I’m not sure they could survive in our family without knowing the meaning of those words. Surprisingly to me, when the terms are used around non-family members, they often understand the meaning, but I would attribute this more to the context in which they are used. Perhaps from the other parts of the conversation, the person is able to pick up on the meaning of the words rather than inherently knowing the definitions. 

“The Ass That Lays Money”

Interviewer: Is there any fairy tales, legends or myths, you have learned from your Italian side of the family?

LC: Yes, I know one called the “ass that lays money very well”. So the story goes that there was a very poor woman who lived only with her young son. When she and her son began to starve and not be able to afford food she sent her son to her brother, the boys uncle, to look for help. The boy then traveled to his uncle’s farm where he was received with warmly. The boy tells his uncle of him and his mom’s troubles and the uncle tells him he would be happy to help. The uncle gives the boy an ass, a donkey, and explains that the ass lays money and all he has to do is put a cloth underneath it to catch the money and they will never need money again but the uncle warns the boy that he must tell anyone and take the ass straight home to his mother to keep it safe. The boy thanks his uncle and leaves to return home but he stops at an inn on the way. He tells the manager of the inn that he must have his ass in his room with him and that he wont leave him outside. The manager finds this very peculiar but allows it. Then once the boy is asleep, the curious manager goes to his room and looks through the keyhole to see what is going on, he then sees the ass laying money. The manager then decides he must get the ass so he replaces the ass with a similarly looking one while the boy sleeps. The boy then leaves with the wrong ass ion the morning but he soon realizes it doesn’t lay money and looks slightly different leading him to return to the inn to demand for his ass back. The manager tells him he didn’t steal the ass and that the boy should leave if he’s going to accuse him of being a thief. So the boy returns to his uncle and asks for help once more. The uncle then gives him a table cloth that magically prepares a meal when the words “make ready” are said. But the uncle warns him once more to go directly home and tell no one about the tablecloth. The boy then decides to stop at the same inn once again and tells the manager that he doesn’t need any food for the night which raises the manager’s suspicion once again. The manager then looks through the boy’s keyhole once again and watches him use the table cloth once again and decides he must have this too. So the manager waits for the boy to sleep once again before replacing the table cloth with an identical one. The next morning the boy leaves to return home, but when he stops for a meal on the way there he realizes he had been tricked once again and that this was not the same magical table cloth. The boy then goes back to his uncle’s farm and once again tells him what happened. The uncle is mad but he still gives the boy something else to reclaim his items. He gives him a magical wooden stick that beats everything in sight when the words “hit hit” are said and stops when someone says “stop”. He tells the boy to go back to the inn and use it. So the boy goes back and asks for a room. This time when the manager sneaks into his room the boy pretends to be asleep and then says “hit hit”. The stick then beats the manager so badly that he begs the boy to stop it and says he will give his ass and tablecloth back. So the boy stops it and leaves to go home with his items. When the boy gets home his mother is so happy and they celebrate by inviting their family over for a feast and that’s the end.

Interviewer: That is quite the tale, how did you learn it?

LC: My grandma on my Dad’s side of the family learned it from growing up in Italy and passed it down through our family and would tell it to me and my sister when we were little.

Interviewer: What meaning does this story have to you? Why do you like it?

LC: I guess it taught me that when someone steals, karma will end up getting them back. I just really like it because it was one of my grandma’s favorite stories and I always loved when she would tell me stories. 

Interviewer: Have you only heard about this story from your family? 

LC: Yes just my grandma mainly and sometimes my mom would tell me it. I think that’s because it’s a very Italian fairy tale and isn’t that popular in America. 

Context: The informant is a seventeen-year-old young woman from Dallas, Texas. Her father’s parents are from Italy while both of hers are from America. She learned this story through her Italian grandmother telling her it. I collected this performance from the informant in person at the informant’s home in Dallas, Texas.

Analysis: I thought this was a very interesting fairy tale that I had not heard before. I found it to be both entertaining and fascinating. I was fascinated by it because it had a lot of aspects of fairy tales I was familiar with even though it comes from an Italian culture that I am not familiar with. It had classic elements of the “hero” leaving home on a quest, being warned of what not to and still doing not, encountering a “trickster” and a glorious return that can be found in stories vast amounts of other fairy tales. I also enjoyed how my informant was able to connect with her Italian heritage through the form of storytelling. 

Annotation

For another version of this tale you can find it in:

Crane, Thomas Frederick. Italian Popular Tales. Singing Tree Press, 1968.

“The Clever Girl”

Interviewer: Do you have any other Italian folktales?

LC: Yes another one I really like was called “The Clever Girl”. It was about a girl who came from a very poor family that lived on a farm. When the girl was a baby she was kissed by a fairy who blessed her with wit and beauty. When the girl was older her father came to her after finding a golden mortar, or bowl, in the woods, he told the girl that he would take it to the king as a gift. The girl told him that wouldn’t be smart because she thought the king would be offended that he didn’t have the pestle to go with the mortar. The father still took the mortar to the kind and the king was offended like she had guessed. The father apologized and told the king that his daughter told him this would happen. The king responded by telling him if she was so clever she would have to figure out how to make him and his army one thousand shirts out of this little cloth and spindles made of fish bones in order to save them. The man disappointingly brought the materials and news home to his daughter who wasn’t scared and told her father to tell the king that she would once he made her a loom of fish bones. The father then went and reluctantly told the king who was actually delighted by the girl’s wit. The king if the girl came to his castle neither naked or dressed and neither or on a horse or by foot he would have a husband for her. So after getting the news from her father the girl dropped her hair and it reached her toes, she wrapped herself in it and went to see the king riding on the back of her father’s ram. The king was stunned by both her wit and beauty and decided to marry the girl himself. Then they lived happily ever after. 

Interviewer: How and when did you learn of this story?

LC: I learned this one from my grandma who’s from Italy, she told it to me a lot when I was little. 

Interviewer: Does this story have any special meaning to you?

LC: Yes, I really like this one because of the girl in it. My grandma used to always tell it to me and my sister because she said we reminded of her of the girl because we were witty and beautiful. It also let me see myself as the girl who gets to marry the king and live happily ever after which every little girl loves.

Interviewer: Did you only hear this story from your grandma? 

LC: Mainly yes, but she also taught it to my mom so she could also tell it to me and my sister. 

Context: The informant is a seventeen-year-old young woman from Dallas, Texas. Her father’s parents are from Italy while both of hers are from America. She learned through her Italian grandmother telling her it. I collected this performance from the informant in person at the informant’s home in Dallas.

Analysis: I enjoyed this story because of the characteristics of the story and are embodied by the main character. I also enjoyed hearing it from my informant because it was something she felt near to both because how it was shared with her and the personal connection she felt to the girl in the story through her families folklore.

Annotation

Another version of this tale can be found in:

Crane, Thomas Frederick. Italian Popular Tales. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1885. 

 

“Al povero mancano tante cose, all’avaro tutte”

Main piece: Proverb

“Al povero mancano tante cose, all’avaro tutte”

Translation:

“the poor man is lacking many things, the greedy man all”

Background Information:

Informant is Italian and lived a portion of his life in Milan, Italy. He learned it through spending time with his father, he would tell him this when he asked for money. To my informant, it means that a greedy man will never be satisfied and truly happy. But it is also humorous to him that when he would ask his father for money as a kid that this was his joking response.

Context: This is an Italian proverb that my informant learned from his father while living in Italy. It is a proverb that warns against being greedy. It translates directly to English while still keeping its intended meaning. I received this proverb from my informant in person in his dorm. 

Analysis: I enjoyed learning this proverb from my informant for a few reasons. One is that it is something he learned while actually living in Italy as a kid and another is that I find it heartening that his father taught him this lesson about greed by using this proverb in a funny yet meaningful way. This another example of how proverbs are an important part of Italian folklore. 

 

Bad Luck Toasts (Italian Folk Belief)

Context/Background: Subject is of Italian Descent and has heard superstitions around making toasts from her Grandfather and other family members. It was stated that one should never toast with anything but alcohol or it is bad luck. What is emphasized the most is the dire resentment towards toasting with water because it is worse than toasting with anything else.

Informant:

“So, it’s bad luck to toast with anything that’s not… alcohol… because… if it’s not alcohol, first… it doesn’t mean anything because it’s not a toast. But, it’s especially bad luck to toast with water… because it like… signifies death… or something? Like, I think it comes from Greek Mythology where it has to do with like the underworld. I don’t really know though; But, it was always just a thing that it was bad luck to toast with water, so you never toast with water! And you shouldn’t toast with something that isn’t alcohol, but it doesn’t really matter as much.”

KA: And where did you hear this from?

“So it’s an Italian thing I think, um, but they have it in like other cultures. I don’t think it’s that specific to Italy, but my grandfather family was from Italy and it was a lot of brothers and sisters and I spent a lot of time with [them].”

Introduction: The informant was introduced by their Italian grandfather and extended family.

Analysis/Interpretation: It’s notable that one would consider water to signify death, as indicated by the interviewee when in many regions, it popularly serves as a symbol of life. I think this serves an interesting dynamic in the idea of “toasting” overall since it indicates a sense of dismissal of a vital life sign in many cultures.

Italian Family tradition

I asked Mae her earliest memories of traveling to Chicago to visit her extended family, she responded:

“My great- great grandma moved to the U.S. directly from Italy so obviously they had a really Italian family and they ended up living in south side Chicago. She owned chickens, and every Sunday she would go into her coop, ring a chickens neck, clean it kill it, and make pasta Bolognese using the meat.”

I then asked, “When did you first learn the recipe or heard about the story?”:

“I must have first made the Bolognese sauce in 4th grade. I know I didn’t hear the story until later because I remember in 9th grade for an art class I did an art painting about my family and I painted a chicken head on the front”

 

Background: Mae is a 19 year old girl raised in Westwood, CA and currently living in Los Angeles, CA. Her parents are originally from Chicago and Little Rock, and she lived in Princeton, NJ briefly as a young girl.

Context:Mae shared this story with me while we were cleaning the dishes in our apartment.

Analysis: It is incredibly easy to overlook elements of someone’s culture that affect their folkloric practices simply by never asking questions. Mae is one of my closest friends, and I had no idea that her grandma immigrated from Italy or lived in south side Chicago. Understanding where someone comes from culturally and geographically creates the opportunity to really understand more about their identity. Hearing this story about Mae’s grandmother I felt like I was seeing a new side of her and gaining a clearer understanding of the origins to her stories she tells every day. I was reminded of recipes I have learned from my family members that have truly become a part of my own identity and my family’s identity like my mom’s banana bread and my grandmother’s scalloped potatoes.

Feasts Natalae

Background: A.S. is a 22-year-old student at USC studying Occupational Therapy. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, and both of her parents are professors at USC. The informant’s mother told this story to the informant multiple times, especially when describing her childhood or her favorite holiday. This was her mother’s favorite time of the year, because it was the one time that she could be all together with her family and celebrate, even though they were Jewish and the tradition revolved around a Christian holiday.

Main piece: “My mom was born in Rome but grew up in New Jersey. Her mother was Italian and she was also Jewish…which is interesting since there aren’t too many Italian Jews. Anyways, she still celebrated Christmas because her father was raised Catholic. So my grandmother would prepare a traditional Italian meal for Christmas in the house when they lived in New Jersey. It wasn’t like other Christmas dinners in the states…it was like specifically Italian. So they would have a bunch of courses, seven I think, because of the seven sacraments or something, and almost all of them included some sort of fish plate, but no meat. I think my mom told me it was called um.. oh it was called Feasts Natalae. It was traditional in Italy to have the dinner on Christmas eve but it was still called Christmas dinner I think. Each course was fish because it’s like a kind of fasting…they just don’t eat meat. My mom said this was a really special time for her because she knew her family would be together. And it wasn’t even about the holiday or religion or anything, it was about being with her family.”

Performance Context: I interviewed the informant while we were both together, sitting on a couch, in the house where she lives on west 28th Street in Los Angeles. Feasts Natalae would typically be practiced on Christmas Eve, and is a prominent tradition in Italy. This tradition would be practiced by Anna’s mom’s family every year.

My Thoughts: I think that this story is representative of the fact that each culture and each family has a different way of celebrating Christmas, both culturally and religiously. Each nationality and each individual family has a way of making the holiday special for them. There are a lots of Christmas traditions around the world that aren’t officially coming from the church, but are still important to families and have to do with Christmas.

Gesture: “Delicious”

Main Piece: “So, when an Italian loves something he or she’s eating, they…um…express satisfaction by taking their index finger [laughs] and putting it at their cheek and going like this [motions twisting of index finger on cheek and puckering lips]. And that’s supposed to show how much they think what they’re eating is delicious.”

Background: The informant noticed this gesture among family and friends eating a meal. She enjoys this gesture because it’s so unfamiliar in comparison to an American gesture of satisfaction. Instead of rubbing our bellies or smacking our lips, the informant notes, “it is mistifying why we would point to our cheeks, but also makes sense since we eat with our mouths.” This gesture is recognized as a huge compliment to whoever made the meal and is also a way of connecting with the other members of the table eating the meal.

Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table outside.

My Thoughts: I am somewhat familiar with the importance and value of cooking and sharing a meal in Italy; preparing the dishe(s), inviting the guests, and sharing the meal are all important components of the gathering. The informant’s comparison of an American gesture of satisfaction versus an Italian’s, touches upon the subtlty of Italian expression. Rather than a loud (perhaps rude) smacking of the lips or shameless rubbing of the stomach, the Italian gesture is more subdued. The complimentary aspect of the gesture places value on the meal and the company one shares the meal with. The gesture was informally inherited by the informant in a social context. Although she only uses it when surrounded by people who understand it or use it themselves, she remembers it as a significant piece of folklore.

Gesture: Evil Eye

Main Piece: “In Italy, my experiences of..um…bad things happening to me meant that I watched what people did when they wanted to ward off the evil eye. A common gesture is to make this sign [index and pinky finger are raised with other fingers tucked in. Hand “pokes”or “stabs” the air].”

Background: The informant learned this gesture by watching people perform it. The informant grew up in Rome and it seemed important to the informant because Italians are typically a Catholic/Christian population, so it seemed pagan to her that the devil would be warded off by a hand gesture. The informant sees this gesture as a different way of approaching ill fortune in the absence of religion. She noticed, growing up, that Italians are very expressive with their hands, so this gesture was significant.

Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table outside.

My Thoughts: I find it interesting that the informant’s interpretation of this gesture was to “ward off” the evil eye. I’ve heard of the evil eye in a different context (in Israel) and it is used quite differently. In Israel, the evil eye is an object, usually a glass medallion which resembles the eye, hung in a common space (such as a home or a car) to ward off evil. The informant interprets the evil eye as what should be warded off. I find the gesture interesting as well. Its symbol and movement appear threatening, as the fingers point in the opposite direction of the individual with his/her fingers pointing outwards and moving in an abrupt, sudden way. It seems that, for this group, the way to ward off threat is to be threatening themselves. The gesture was something that was picked up by the informant. Rather than an oral medium of passing down folklore, the informant adopted the gesture in a social context of learning.