Category Archives: St. Agatha’s Day

Hearts, & Your February Book of Days

The 8th of February and here, finally, comes your Convivio Book of Days calendar for the month! It is, as usual, a PDF document, printable on standard US Letter size paper. Half the red letter days of the month have already passed, I’m afraid, and what’s next is Valentine’s Day… and just so you know, we have so many delightfully odd Valentine gift ideas for you in our Convivio Book of Days Catalog. If you see something you like, order today or this weekend and you’ll have it in time for the big day. We ship via US Priority Mail, which takes two days to most destinations in the States. Spend $50 and we’ll even pay your shipping on domestic orders.

All that being said, you have my apologies for the belatedness. It’s been busy as all get out, mostly with things at work––markets, workshops, gallery concerts––and admittedly all things of my own doing. As a result, not only is the month’s calendar late, but I’ve also missed writing to you about St. Blaise’s Day, when throats are blessed, and St. Agatha’s Day, when we eat cream filled pastries that make us blush a bit, for they are meant to evoke a certain aspect of the female anatomy and it is hard to see them and to eat them, remembering that it was the chaste nuns of Sicily who first began making these delicacies centuries ago. And I missed writing to you about the Year of the Pig, this new year in the Chinese Lunar New Year cycle, although last night we celebrated––my mom and sister and Seth and me––at the beckoning of Joy, of Joy Noodles in West Palm Beach. We had her New Year dumplings and I had a pork soup that was Joy’s grandmother’s recipe, and we finished our meal with custard buns made of rice flour that looked like round little pigs. All this and yet February is not one of my favorite months. I have a lot to learn, I think, if I am to come to love it again. I keep busy busy busy and yet in the back of my mind I remember things like the 7th was the night two years ago that Seth and I sat in a box at the Kravis Center with friends listening to Rachmaninoff and Berlioz, even though my thoughts were elsewhere, with my dad in his hospital room. It was the night I first thought that maybe he would not make it through this ordeal. And today, the 8th, I will have to keep thoughts at bay that remind me that this is the night two years ago that I last spoke to him; the night we all kissed him goodnight and told him we loved him, and who knew then that that would be our last time to say these things?

I look back and I’m glad we did say them. We are not, by and large, a family that does. We are mostly loud (not me, so much… but these are my people) and a bit rough around the edges and not terribly emotional, at least not in obvious ways. We express our emotions through the kitchen and the table and we yell across the house at each other, just in conversation, and we often sound mad even when we are not. I would most likely never tell my family that I am thinking the things I think––keeping track in my mind of where I was on this date or another in Dad’s journey––but they’ll read it here, of course, and they, I imagine, will understand. I don’t need to tell them these things face to face. They know I ponder things a lot and turn thoughts over in my head and that I don’t talk much. Still, they love me as I am. They understand me, and I understand them. We are a terribly loyal bunch. We all miss Dad a lot. And we all continue doing what we do as best we can. This is what this time of year brings for me, and for them, too, I know, and perhaps for some of you, as well, for your own reasons––for the people that you miss, too. Which is all amazingly ok. We always have been and always will be well.

The cut and sewn paper hearts illustrating this month’s Convivio Book of Days calendar are by Merike Van Zanten.

 

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!

 

Decadent Desserts (and Your February Book of Days)

Sweethearts

For you today, a belated gift: Your Convivio Book of Days Calendar for February. Perhaps someone more generous will give you another gift today: minne de virgine, a delectable Italian pastry made especially for this day, St. Agatha’s Day. Then again, should your friends be susceptible to fits of embarrassment, you may want to just go find them for yourself. The pastries, made from sponge cake with a mound of sweet ricotta cream on top, then covered in marzipan and dotted with a cherry, are meant to evoke a certain part of the female anatomy. They are the “breasts of the virgin,” the breasts of Sant’Agata, a specialty of Sicily and especially of Catania, where Agata lived in the third century.

The pastries come from the story of her martyrdom for her faith: The Roman governor of Catania became enthralled with the beauty of Agata. 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 died. The Roman governor had her killed in a gruesome death 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 (for obvious reasons) as well as from volcanic eruptions (again… well, use your imagination, as this may perhaps be a combination of both elements of her martyrdom).

Eventually, it was the nuns of Catania who began baking the confections that we enjoy each Fifth of February. 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 Catholics. 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.)

My Italian professor, 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?”

Our image today is inspired by the cover star of our Convivio Book of Days Calendar for February: It is the 150th anniversary this year of the Conversation Heart––a famous American candy, to be sure: sweet, simple, decidedly non-dramatic. A confection, one might safely guess, not invented by the chaste nuns of Catania.