Zucchini and the Contadini;
an apochryphal tale?
A Holy Trinity of Italian vegetables exists, in the popular imagination at least, as zucchini, tomatoes and eggplant, a membership I challenge on the grounds that zucchini are not quite as popular with all Italians as people think.
Zucchini are certainly popular with restaurateurs as they are cheap and generally available year-round– a good filler on antipasti plates, with pasta, as contorno and in minestra, leaving the gullible diner with a false impression of its esteem. My chief objection to zucchini is they are exceedingly bland and soggy, even frying doesn’t much improve them and that’s saying something, as even a kitchen sponge might be palatable if dipped in batter and fried. I know that to some Italians, this is blasphemy, but no less true, it’s just that few of us will fess-up to it.
And beware the well-meaning, beneficent vegetable gardener with a bumper crop of the stuff. The specter of our green-thumbed neighbour beaming as he carried the bounty of his giant squash from door to door haunts me still. If you have such a well-meaning, but misguided gardener on your block my advice to you is post a notice of ‘Wet Paint’ on the front porch, secure your back gate, if you don’t have one, get one fast, then hang the ominous ‘Beware of Dog Sign,’ and for goodness sake, lock your car doors! Or you will find they have sprouted, like triffids on your front seat.
My culinary disdain for zucchini does not however, extend to cooking and consuming their blossoms, which I think is the only reason to grow this squash, an attitude which often leaves me on the margins of established ‘Italian Food Culture’ and ‘Popular Opinion’.
So it was with glee that I found the affirmation I sought for my iconoclast position in an anecdote my friend related from her region of Ciociaria in Lazio, which was told to her by her mother, a woman whose veracity in such matters is irreproachable, her talent as a raconteur renown, never sacrificing a good story for the sake of the truth.
The infamous incident took place during the time before the mechanization of farm labour when the Ciociari, tall, strong men from this ancient Samnite settlement, roamed the hills and valleys of nearby Abruzzo sickles in hand, to work as itinerate contadini during the harvest season. And it was just such a season which found Primo and his paesani harvesting the durum wheat from a prosperous farmer’s field.
Typically, the crew worked for subsistence wages, room and board, the quality of which varied from farm to farm, depending upon the hosts’ largesse and means. This particular farm family was well-provided; they had sheep for cheese and meat, chickens for eggs, chubby rabbits for cacciatore, a succulent hog for salumi, as well as an olive grove for oil, a vineyard for wine and a kitchen garden besides their cash crop of wheat. The farmer, his wife and four children were hale, plump and rosy-cheeked, in contrast to the gaunt physiques and sunburnt, leathery countenance of their hired help, who sizing-up the situation anticipated a board of good provender.
Primo and his crew began at sunrise scything the wheat when the air was fresh and cool, but by mid-morning they were exhausted, bathed in sweat and reposing shirtless in the shade of an oak. That is where the farmer, eager to check their progress and his wife bearing their merenda, found them. The farmer was still in his blood-spattered apron after a morning spent slaughtering a ewe and a few rabbits. The contadini could barely disguise their thirst and hunger while the farmer prattled on about the good dry weather they were having, their work’s progress and the salsiccce and salumi he would make from his fat hog in December.
Finally, after what seemed a starving eternity, the good wife opened her basket and doled-out the eagerly awaited repast. Each of the five famished men received their bowl with a nod of the head and a “grazie” to the wife, and wary of making a ‘brutta figura’ before their host and employer, waited until each paesan had their share before lifting their spoons to dig-in.
As difficult as it was to hide their thirst and hunger from their hosts, it was even harder to conceal their disappointment over the meal which consisted of a stew of zucchini, tomatoes, and onions, drizzled with last year’s olive oil, accompanied by a wedge of stale bread and a meagre sliver of pecorino; at least the wine was good, a young white, slightly fruity and cool, the color of fresh straw.
As they handed their empty bowls back to the wife, repeating their thanks, they gave each other a side-long glance of chagrin. After the pair were out of ear-shot, the farmer’s declaration that he’d better get on with skinning the rabbits for dinner, barely audible over the distance, the men fell to commiserating: “ Per la miseria!” cried Battista, “I got better food in the army, at least they didn’t think hard-working men live on mushy vegetables and stale bread, the army and the contadini work on their stomachs”.
“Just so”, agreed Renzo, “and remember how much the cheap bastard thought we should have cut by sunset!”
“Cut!” spat Fulvio, “I’ll cut his throat, let him know how my poor stomach feels.”
“Aah! fa’una patata!” contributed Pazzo, who was always saying cryptic things.
Primo, who was the acknowledged leader and peace-maker, soothed the anger of his compatriots, reasoning that it was only their first day, and the farmer was already busy slaughtering for the autumn store, surely things would improve by dinner, just imagine the rabbit cacciatore!
Unfortunately, that dinnertime the cacciatore failed to make its way from the men’s imaginations to their stomachs, and although they could smell it from their shed, all they could taste was the zucchini and a few beans swimming in a thin, greasy broth. This went on for two more days, the men’s work suffered and the farmer grumbled. Primo’s crew was suffering debolezza, feeling weak, irritable and a little murderous.
By Saturday night, after their last bitter bite of the ubiquitous zucchini, Fulvio could stand it no longer, he leapt from his chair, flung his bowl at the door, and pounding his fists on the table bellowed, “ Porca vacca! What does she think; we’re old men with no teeth in our heads to chew something filling and decent? I’ll show her teeth – get a bite of that big fat ass of hers!”.
The others were too weak and despondent to rejoin with anything more than a nod of assent.
The next day was a Sunday, when the pious farmer and his family answered the distant call to worship of the village church bells. Before departing, he dropped off a cold plate of fried zucchini and potatoes in oil and the rind end of some hard cheese to the contadini, explaining that the family would be gone all day as they were visiting relatives after mass. Suddenly, Primo’s gaunt face lit-up, his sunken eyes sparkled, and his slack, pallid lips formed a firm rosy grin. His paesani thought hunger had finally driven him mad, they’d seen such things happen in times of famine and it frightened them that they might lose their stalwart leader. But it wasn’t the madness of hunger that had wrought this transformation, but the inspiration with which opportunity endows the prepared mind! And Primo’s mind was well-prepared, having searched ceaselessly since Friday for a solution to their problem.
When all that remained of the family’s wagon was a puff of dust in the distance, the men set to work in the zucchini patch. They went along each row very carefully, nudging the freshly sharpened tips of their scythes into the soil near the base of each cursed plant, seeking the sweet spot that yielded a slight crunch and the blessed release of the severed root from the stalk. They worked quickly and with a quiet joy like the penitent feels when relieved of their sin’s heavy burden; oh sweet deliverance was finally theirs and they thanked their savior. All that remained was to carefully smooth the disturbed soil and replace the straw mulch, then they rewarded themselves with a trip to the spring-fed brook that ran below the back field, where they could wash and catch a few brook trout to grill over a small fire and drink their cool, fresh wine.
The next morning found the farmer and his family in their beloved zucchini patch, staring in disbelief at the yellowed leaves, drooping stalks, collapsed blossoms and shriveled fruit of each plant. The contadini, barely hiding their glee behind grimaces which threatened at any moment to break-out into satisfied smirks, commiserated with the farmer. What could have afflicted their zucchini so swiftly and completely? They’d never seen anything like it before, Primo shook his head in disgust, “ It’s root rot” he intoned with the gravity of an undertaker.
“That’s right”, affirmed Battista.
“Yep, we seen it in the last two farms we worked, just to the north of here, it must be making its way south along the valley” observed Fulvio.
“The only cure is to dig it all up and burn it... and you won’t ever be able to grow zucchini here again!” added Pazzo, who once or twice a year experienced a moment of brilliance.
So, the farmer did as Pazzo prescribed, the contadini dug-up the zucchini patch and burned its remains. The pyre held a peculiar fascination for the men, as from the barn the farmer observed them removing their hats and incanting something in their local dialect very like a prayer, their heaving shoulders, it seemed to him, betraying silent sobs. “Huh, the superstitions of the heathen Ciociari,” he thought, shaking his head, “what a strange people they are and look how they love their zucchini!”