Category Archives: Book of Days Calendar

Don’t Blush: Here’s your February Book of Days

Type the Italian word minne into Google Translator and ask it to translate to English and you may get what I got: minne––the same word, repeated. Google did not see fit to translate such a word. But we’re all adults here, so I will translate for you: Minne is the Italian equivalent of, well… any number of English slang words for breasts: boobs, tatas, you can take your pick from a very long list. This all brings us to one of the oddest days in the seasonal round: St. Agatha’s Day, when Sicilian bakeries prepare a once-a-year sweet delicacy known as minne de virgine––Virgin’s Breasts––pastries that were invented by the nuns of Catania for us to savor with our espresso.

Saint Agatha, or Sant’Agata in Italian, lived in Catania in Sicily in the third century; she is sacred to those places, especially to Catania. The pastries are made from sponge cake with a mound of sweet ricotta cream on top, covered in marzipan and dotted, in the proper place, with a cherry. You may blush as you eat them, but the pastries come from the story of Agatha’s martyrdom for her faith: The Roman governor of Catania became enthralled with Agata’s beauty. Agata, however, one of the secret upstart Christians in town, had taken a vow of chastity to protect her virginity. The Roman governor would have none of it, though, and continued his advances. Agata continued to reject him to protect her faith… and for this she was sentenced to death by the governor. He had her killed in a gruesome manner that it pains me to describe for you. Yet I fear I must… for it’s the only reason these delicious minne de virgine make any sense: he had Agata’s breasts severed before roasting her above a bed of live coals. I told you it was gruesome.

Sant’Agata is now patroness of Catania. She is invoked for protection from breast disease as well as from volcanic eruptions. It was the nuns of Catania who began baking the confections that we enjoy each Fifth of February, something they’ve been doing for centuries. It’s part of what makes Catholicism so incredibly fascinating, especially in Italy. Marzipan pastries in the shape of breasts made by Catanese nuns? This is probably a big part of what makes Protestants so nervous around us Catholics, even to this day. We are a somewhat dramatic people.

The celebration in Catania has been going on for a few days now, but it all culminates tonight with processions through the city of large carriages and spectacular candelore––enormous towers with lit candles depicting scenes from St. Agatha’s life. The candelore are paraded and danced through the streets of Catania to shouts of “Evviva Sant’Agata!” by men in full costume, the towers hoisted upon their shoulders. (Again, not for the faint of heart.)

I love when there are literary connexions to the foods we eat, and my Italian professoressa, Myriam Swennen Ruthenberg, should she be reading this, might be thinking now of a famous scene in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel Il Gatopardo (The Leopard, in its English translation) in which Don Fabrizio looks over a vast table of Sicilian desserts that include these minne de vergine, the breasts of St. Agatha. He asks for some and receives them and he beholds them on his plate. He thinks of the famous paintings of St. Agatha presenting her own severed breasts on a plate. He asks, “Why ever didn’t the Holy Office forbid these puddings when it had the chance?”

And so today I hope you can find at an Italian bakery some minne de virgine. You don’t need to blush when you order them; just point, perhaps whisper the word “minne,” pay and go. And if you can’t find them, I have at least one something special for you today. It’s our monthly gift to you, somewhat belated this time around: The Convivio Book of Days Calendar, this time for February. It’s a fine companion to the blog, a PDF that you can print on standard US Letter size paper. You’ll find also a bevy of new items in our Book of Days Catalog for Valentine’s Day that we can ship to you pronto. We ship via US Priority Mail so most orders arrive in two or three days, and we offer free shipping if your order totals $50 or more (it’s a flat domestic shipping rate of $8.50 if your order is less, which is also not so bad).

 

The title photograph of minne de vergine in Catania is by Stefano Mortellaro, 2005 [Creative Commons] via Wikimedia Commons. The photograph of the statue of Sant’Agata comes to us thanks to Luisa Mangano-Johnson, a new friend of mine. She, too, is from Catania. We met last Saturday at the “Italy in Transit” symposium at Florida Atlantic University, where I got to speak about my family, the film “Moonstruck,” and the connexions between the two and my creative work (including the Convivio Book of Days). Grazie mille, Luisa!

 

St. Macaroon, and Your January Book of Days

EIGHTH DAY of CHRISTMAS:
St. Macarius’s Day

We enter the more contemplative period of the Twelve Days and today, for this Eighth Day of Christmas, we remember St. Macarius, who, truth be told, was not much fun in his older years. He was an extreme ascetic who lived the life of a hermit in the desert and ate only raw vegetables and maybe, on a special day, a bit of bread dipped in oil. But earlier on in life, St. Macarius was a confectioner in his native Alexandria. Macarius the confectioner is remembered more fondly than Macarius the ascetic; he is a patron saint of cooks, confectioners, and pastry chefs, some of whom call him St. Macaroon, as Macarius does not exactly roll easily off the tongue. And so today, perhaps enjoy something a little sweet––a bit of that boozy Christmas fruitcake, maybe, or something more attuned to Alexandria––dates stuffed with nuts and rolled in sugar seem like something St. Macaroon might have made in his shop centuries ago.

We also have for you today our monthly gift to you, the first one in the new year: it’s your Convivio Book of Days Calendar for January 2018. We found ourselves one day last week at the historic House of Refuge on Gilbert’s Bar at Stuart, Florida. The United States Lifesaving Service, which eventually became part of the Coast Guard, built Houses of Refuge about every 26 miles on the wild, untamed Atlantic coast of Florida, places designed as shelter for rescued shipwreck survivors. This was in the late 1800s; ours was built in 1876. The building is lovely and the coast it sits on is rocky, which is not what most folks think of when they think of the South Florida coast. The limestone outcroppings emerge from the sand like rocky cliffs, waves crashing up against them. It’s easy to see why so many ships wrecked along the coast. The house, warm, a place of obvious refuge, is decorated for Christmas now, with the kind of decorations we like best. Like the garland of oranges and cinnamon and nuts and cranberries in the kitchen. It graces your January Book of Days, reminding you, hopefully, of the warm pleasures found in simple things. For me, that often involves the kitchen… which brings us back around again to the Eighth Day of Christmas and to St. Macaroon, patron saint of cooks. May these warm feelings of hearth and home be yours, too, all through this day and the new month and new year.

 

Frosted Window Panes, or Your December Book of Days

Welcome to December, the opposite side of the year from June. Ever since the solstice in June, Midsummer here in the Northern Hemisphere, the nights have been growing longer and darker… and soon, on the 21st of this month, we reach Midwinter. A new solstice, when the pattern will change, when sunlight begins to return in the form of lengthening days. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. For now, these first three weeks of December, nights continue to grow longer. We counter this with increasing light in our celebrations: Advent, Santa Lucia, Hanukkah, Yule, Christmas, Kwanzaa… all of these ceremonies call down the light, bring it closer to us and to those we love: Darkest night, deepest joy.

It’s a full month to be sure. To help you keep track, here is our gift to you: your Convivio Book of Days calendar for December. It is, as usual, a printable PDF, a document you can print on standard US Letter size paper, a nice companion to the blog. Our cover star this month is some of that light called down from the darkness: lights through a frosty window pane, from inside our cozy Lake Worth home last Christmas. (Yes, even here in Lake Worth, “where summer spends winter,” it can sometimes get a bit frosty this time of year.)

I’ll be writing about most or all of these red letter days in December, though maybe this year I’ll group some together during the Twelve Days of Christmas that begin once Christmas Day has passed. This way you’re not getting an email notice from me every one of those Twelve Days. Not sure yet. I do worry sometimes about sending you too much mail and the last thing I want is to be a bother. Best to keep the vibration on a higher level, and perhaps that means more consolidation, more editing. Less verbiage. We shall see what we shall see. Meanwhile, while I ponder that and figure that out, a good start of this month to you. May it be filled with many good things for us all.