Friday, September 10, 2010

The Bitter Berry / Il Mirtillo Rosso

“Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead.”
-- David Sedaris, “Jesus Shaves”

So last night I was sitting in my apartment, eating yet another bowl of pasta e fagioli (what was I thinking, making such a big pot?!), and drinking the last of the Lambrusco I picked up in Mantova. (Man… when I drink Lambrusco here I can’t believe I ever liked the $5 stuff at Trader Joe’s. I mean, yeah, it’s cheap and it’s festive, but it’s so sweet, you can’t really drink it with food. The real Lambrusco is crisp, maybe a little bit sweeter than most reds, but definitely not sweet sweet. But I digress.)

So I’m sitting there having dinner, and I turn on the TV. And what happens to be on? The Simpsons! So I watch an episode of the Simpsons in Italian. One I haven’t seen in English, by the way, so I actually have to pay attention to the dialogue. And I’m pretty pleased that I can follow pretty easily. But…it’s so weird. Surreal, actually, to be watching it in another language. The episode starts with Homer voting in the Obama-McCain election. It proceeds through a parody of the Transformers movie, a parody of Mad Men and a Halloween romp, and ends with a Thanksgiving turkey—in Pilgrim costume, no less—bursting onto the scene. When Bart talks about eating a turkey dinner, the bird retaliates by chasing and gobbling the children.

And I’m sitting there wondering exactly how this reads to Italian kids watching the show. Certainly they are familiar with American pop culture—movies and TV shows and music—and from those they must get some familiarity with American holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving. By a strange coincidence, our lessons that day had included some discussion of holidays. Ostensibly, it was for us to learn about Italian culture, but of course we all ended up discussing our own traditions.

Yesterday’s class was just me and two of the monks (they, too, are like parsley). (I know it probably seems a little weird that I keep going on about all the monks at my school. It’s just that their presence in my secular-humanist world is such a novelty. Plus all the ones I’ve met so far are pretty cool dudes.) Our teacher asked me to describe Thanksgiving, provided I used its Italian name, il giorno del ringraziamento. When did we celebrate it, she asked? Fourth Thursday in November. And this is the holiday where we eat turkey, right? Yes. And what else? Well, we eat the turkey with a sauce made from…wait a second… I looked up “cranberry” in my dictionary and found mirtillo, which is actually a blueberry. Huh? “The dictionary did not translate it correctly,” I said. “The dictionary says blueberry, but this is not correct. Blueberries are blue and sweet. The fruit we eat at Thanksgiving is red and bitter.” I said it was a type of berry, but this is another thorny bit of vocabulary. In Italian, berries are frutti di bosco, that is, woodland fruits. Cranberries don’t grow in the woods, they grown in a marsh. The teacher asked me if I maybe meant red currants. No, no… The Russian monk tried to help. He had eaten this fruit sauce, he said, when his best friend at his old monastery, an American, had cooked a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for the brothers. How they found cranberries in Vladivostok is a mystery, though.

It was the Ukrainian who finally came to the rescue. In his Italian-Russian dictionary, he found an entry for cranberries: mirtilli della palude, literally, bog blueberries. But even though we now had a name for them, we had only this perplexing description of a woodland fruit that grows in a swamp, is red and bitter, was cooked with sugar until it becomes like gelatin, and then is served with roast turkey. It sounds kind of dreadful, actually, doesn’t it? My mother describes her first American Thanksgiving as utterly perplexing—meat served with a fruit sauce? How bizarre! (Now she loves it, though, and makes the world's best cranberry sauce, in my humble opinion.) The concept is somewhat less foreign to Northern Italians familiar with mostarda, a fruit conserve that is served with boiled meats. In fact, when I first mentioned the cranberry sauce, my teacher said, with an understanding nod, “Like mostarda?” When we talked about Italians eating lentils on New Year’s Day, I had a similarly difficult time explaining the analogous American tradition of eating black-eyed peas (“they are called peas, but they are actually beans, and they are white with a black spot”), because no one knew what those were, beyond the name of the music group.

From traditional food the discussion moved on to traditional drinks, and there, we all understood each other perfectly: beer is good, but wine is better. Nunc est bibendum.