Category Archives: Carnevale

Fat Tuesday

The Carnevale of Venezia, or the Carnival of Venice, began this year on the last Saturday of January and soon, on Tuesday, it will draw to a close. Tuesday brings Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras in French––Fat Tuesday. There are certain cities that we think of as central to Carnival: certainly Venice, Rio de Janeiro, and New Orleans. But Carnival is a celebration that is known far and wide, especially through Europe and Latin America.

My family is not a Carnival people––it’s just not a tradition my grandparents brought with them from their Italian villages. But Carnival is important. It is the last great indulgence before the arrival of Lent, forty days marked by somberness and penitence––and, in times past, a time of strict dietary restrictions. Carnival season, in fact, takes its name from the Latin carne levamen–– “Good-bye to the flesh.” Traditionally, the supply of meat would be finished during Carnevale until spring, and so it truly was a goodbye to the flesh, and a farewell to the provisions of winter. The traditional symbol of Carnevale in Italy is a plump man wearing a necklace of sausages about his neck. It is in stark contrast to the traditional symbol of Lent: a gaunt old woman, all skin and bones.

I love the costumes and the masks of a traditional Venetian Carnevale. It is a celebration of excess and the costumes, elaborate as they are, encourage this. Who knows who is behind each of those masks? Carnevale in Italy has its connections to celebrations of the new year, which, for the early Romans, was the First of March. The costumes and the masks come out of this tradition, for they were part of the Roman New Year celebration. The old year was dying, the new one being born. Out of that chaos came a festival of excess, and masks provided anonymity. The Romans eventually moved the start of the year to January 1, but old habits die hard: The costumes and the masks then and now give us license to be whomever we wish, at least for a little while.

In England and in the United States, Shrove Tuesday means one thing: Pancakes for supper. The meal is an easy way of using up all the eggs, milk, and sugar that remained in the larder before the 40 fasting days of Lent commenced. In Germany, the tradition for the Tuesday before Lent calls for doughnuts, and the night there is known as Fasnacht or Faschnacht. The idea is the same: using up all the remaining lard, sugar, and butter before Lent begins. But whether it is pancakes or doughnuts, there is something special about eating breakfast for dinner, or about eating homemade doughnuts after dinner. It’s a little something, nothing dramatic, just something that marks the day, something celebratory, reminding us of the importance of enjoying what we have. Once Ash Wednesday arrives, Lent will, for forty days, remind us of the brevity of things. The reality is we are very fortunate and we should do our best to remember the gifts we’ve been given… like this, another Mardi Gras, another Fasnacht, another Shrove Tuesday. And as they say in New Orleans, Laissez les bon temps rouler!


Image: “Festa delle Marie,” by a German photographer who goes by the name fotogoocom, was taken at the Carnevale of Venezia in 2015. Used with gratitude through Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons.


Carnival, Carnevale: Carne Levamen

One Perfect Valencia

Carnival, or Carnevale in Italian, has been going on for some time now in Venice and in other places where it is widely celebrated. Think South America and New Orleans and the like. Some of the krewes that put on parades this time of year in New Orleans, for instance, have been at it since Christmastime ended. But here we are now at the height of things, for the celebrations of Carnevale are about to reach their climax: Tuesday will bring Mardi Gras, and come Wednesday, it’s a whole different scene as Ash Wednesday brings a cloak of a different sort upon us.

Carnevale is the last great indulgence before Lent’s arrival, enrobed in purple and somberness. There are no set dates for the beginning of the Carnevale season. In Italy, there are places where it begins as soon as Epiphany is done, and others where it begins with the sausages and salame of January’s Feast of Sant’Antonio Abate. Carnevale is, after all, the annual using up of the provisions of winter. Traditionally, the supply of meat would be finished during Carnevale until spring, and this is the origin of the festival’s name, for Carnevale means “good-bye to the flesh” (carne levamen in Latin). Nowadays most observers pass on meat on Fridays for the Lenten season, but it once was a time when no meat at all was eaten, for the full forty days, and so Lent truly was a good-bye to the flesh.

Carnevale has its connections to celebrations of the new year, which, for the early Romans, was the First of March. The Romans were the ones who eventually moved the start of the year to January 1, but old habits die hard, and many new year traditions, including the wearing of masks, carried over across the ages. The old year was dying, the new one being born. Masks provided anonymity in a festival of excess, and costumes and masks are still a big part of Carnevale celebrations, especially in Venice, where they can be incredibly elaborate.

There is also a great tradition of mock battles throughout Italy for Carnevale, with the most famous in the city of Ivrea, where trainloads of blood oranges from Sicily are brought in each year as weaponry. It is said that of all the tons of oranges the people of Ivrea buy each year for Carnevale, not a single one is eaten or squeezed for juice. Instead, they are used as missiles in battles across the city over the course of three days of Carnevale. It is a battle based on historical events––a 12th century revolt against two tyrannical rulers who had imposed taxes on marriage and on the milling of grain. The revolt began on the wedding night of a local miller’s daughter, Violetta, by Violetta herself, and it carried on for three days before freedom was won.

During these three days of Carnevale, the windows of the entire city of Ivrea are boarded up to protect against the onslaught of oranges. The battles are fierce, oranges flying through the air, aimed at anyone who is not wearing a special red cap of neutrality. People emerge with bruises and black eyes, but the fun is undeniable. The city is said to smell wonderful, as the perfume of countless oranges wafts through the air.

If it seems excessive, well… it is. But this is the point of Carnevale. It is no time to be frugal, not with meat, nor oranges, nor celebration, nor emotion.

Today’s chapter of the Convivio Book of Days is influenced heavily by one I wrote on the 15th of February, 2014. Carnevale is, sadly, not a big deal where I live, and I’ve been so wrapped up in the busy-ness of the days that its upcoming culmination almost escaped me entirely. (Lesson learned: Don’t be so busy.) Tonight, we are going to my family’s for Sunday dinner, and Mom has already told me she’s sending us home with pancake batter that she’s made for us. Perfect timing: Pancakes are traditional for that last dinner before Lent’s arrival and folks all over the world eat pancakes for Shrove Tuesday supper. Pancakes for supper? Perhaps it’s a Mardi Gras celebration for the more “home sweet home” set. All I know is our Shrove Tuesday dinner is already in the works, and this makes me happy.

Today’s image also goes back to the 2014 post. The photograph, “One Perfect Valencia,” is provided courtesy of Convivio friend Paula Marie Gourley. She photographed the orange in a California orange grove. There is an ages-old battle amongst orange lovers, too: California oranges tend to be bigger and thicker skinned than those of their Florida brethren, but Florida oranges, subject to our rainier climate while they grow, are definitely juicier. I imagine the oranges of Sicily are similar to California ones, since it too is a drier climate. But I imagine the people of Ivrea would be REALLY impressed by the amazing splatter properties of a Florida orange.


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Pancake Maker

To begin with: my apologies. We lost a good friend and mentor in late January, Arthur Jaffe, it was difficult to get back on two feet once that happened. Arthur was a great guy: the type of person we all want to emulate, the type of person who reminds us that it is important to appreciate each day, and that, after all, is what this blog is all about. He was a subscriber to the blog and a believer in it and in me and was looking forward to seeing the Convivio Book of Days as a real book someday, for he was a man who loved books and left a real legacy of them.

And so I missed writing to you about St. Valentine and about St. Agatha and who knows what else. But I was at the Finnish bakery in Lantana the other day, the place packed with tall Finns speaking a tongue I do not understand, and on the top of the cases was something I had never seen there before: round pastries that were bursting with whipped cream. I asked the Finnish woman behind the counter about them. “We make them every February,” she said. “They are filled with almond paste and whipped cream. You should have one.”

She said they were not affiliated with any particular holiday (“No, we just make them every February”), but it was a day or two later, in realizing I had forgotten about St. Agatha’s Day, that I realized the Finns at the bakery were probably tuning into a tradition perhaps long forgotten, for the shape and the filling happens to be exactly like that of the pastries that the nuns of Catania in Sicily make for St. Agatha’s Day, which was on the 5th of February. The story is gruesome (in her martyrdom in the third century, St. Agatha’s breasts were severed) but the pastries are delicious (meant, as they are, to evoke what was lost by the saint) and people have been unapologetic about these things through the ages. Why wouldn’t we bake something like this in February?

I also missed writing to you about Carnevale, and now, today, it is Mardi Gras, its festive conclusion. It is known in some places as Shrove Tuesday, and tradition would have us eat pancakes for supper tonight. Pancakes for supper? Yes, please. That alone is cause for celebration. The idea is it is a supper designed to use up the last of the eggs, the last of the butter, the last of all that was restricted in earlier days as we enter the somber season of lent, which begins tomorrow with Ash Wednesday. It was a matter of necessity as much as of observance in those times, for by this time of year, the stocks of food from the harvest were probably quite depleted. If folks were to make it through to the first harvests of spring and summer, a little restraint now was an important thing.

But that is tomorrow. Tonight, we celebrate. Tonight, we have pancakes for supper, and we remember the importance to love each day.


Image: De Pannenkoekenbakster (The Pancake Maker) by Jan Miense Molenaer. Oil on canvas, 1645 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


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