Monday, December 27, 2010

The cult of Maria bambina explained

We're in Umbria with the nonni this holiday season. In these parts it's tradition on the feast day of Santo Stefano (Dec. 26), regardless of how nasty the weather, to feast in the afternoon (we had a favorite meal, stuffed pigeon) and then to walk it off, pushing baby carriages to the upper square of a random hilltop town. Here, you usually stumble upon an elaborate presepe (Nativity scene) or even a presepe vivente (a Christmas pageant that continue until the feast of Epiphany). Our chosen destination yesterday evening was Corciano, a lovely little hilltown that ticks all the boxes: quaint, frigid, presepe, and more.

Usually, the presepe is situated in one part of the old town, in a quaintly derelict courtyard done up to look like a stable. In Corciano, all the lanes of the historic center were lined with life-sized presepe figures, including characters I don't remember from the gospels, like the town drunk sleeping one off on a stoop:

When I incredulously asked Xtina who that guy was, she informed me that I was missing the bigger picture. Artists had sculpted these figures, she responded. The implied message is that where I see a drunk, she sees artistic impression, a bit of logic I intend to use back on her some day (or evening).

Where we were both in agreement was the town's big Christmas art exhibit: a fascinating, if not totally creepy collection of 19th Century ceramic and wooden cherubs depicting, of course, the baby Jesus and, naturally, Maria bambina (the baby Mary).

I didn't really question all the limbless, taught cocoons that passed as the Christ child.

I did have to pause though at the young, crowned Christ child seated on his throne in resplendent white robes.

But even the Hasburgian Christ child couldn't compare to the Maria bambina figures, which looked like dolls that a young Diane Arbus might have collected.

If you're not familiar with Maria bambina (the exhibit refers to it as the "culto" or cult of Maria Bambina) story, here's the basics: the Maria bambina has had her devotees for close to a 1,000 years with the veneration of these statuettes becoming a bigger deal from the mid-18th Century. There are stories of the bambina curing infirm nuns and helping couples conceive. Pilgrims still make the journey to the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity in Milan to pray to the miraculous wax image of the infant Mary.

Back to the Corciano exhibit now... where you could see several depictions of Maria bambina, mostly on loan from collections based in Northern Italy and Germany. As such, the baby Mary is a well-fed blonde with an unfortunate haircut, blue eyes and a glazed look, not unlike a young Meg Whitman after a bad perm job. That got rained on.

Now you know the story of Maria bambina.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

OK, who brought the monkey?

It's not really Thanksgiving tradition to bring a monkey to the festivities, but I can recall over the years sitting down to the table with a primate or two. Heck, I've brought a few myself to the family feast as dates, and it always ended reasonably well. No food being tossed at the other guests. Rarely a high-pitched shriek mid-conversation. And the kids seemed to enjoy their company.

So when we got a call this week from Simo to ask if he could bring a guest – a well-behaved simian, Toto', he informed us – to what's become an annual Rome Thanksgiving meal, I figured, myeah, why not? Xtina and I have become expert zoo keepers these days with our little duo. What could go wrong?

Then I had second thoughts. What if Simo is not speaking metaphorically. What if it's an actual monkey. That kind of primate we've never had at a Thanksgiving meal. Not that I know of, anyhow.

How'd it turn out? Judge for yourself.

Right. Not the worst-behaved primate at the party. Toto', you're always welcome to join us at Thanksgiving.

For those who are wondering: Toto' is a 6-month-old capuchin monkey.

Btw... the turkey/stuffing combo once again rocked! The trick to tasty turkey, I'm convinced: pack it with as much pork product as you can find.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What do Italian children eat?

If you're thinking home-made pasta, meat balls and gelato, guess again. Here's a public-safety-message-meets-modern-art-installation that hangs in the entrance of the pediatric surgery ward at Bambino Gesu, the children's hospital here in Rome.

These items were all fished out of the throats of Italian children after very delicate surgery. You can see for yourself that there's enough coins here to buy a nice dinner for two. But there's also:
  • several crucifixes and charms
  • a rubber eraser
  • pencils
  • the ink part of a ballpoint pen
  • 1 metal pencil sharpener (the same child also ingested a button cell battery)
  • a light bulb
  • a monster fish hook (big enough to snag a sea bass, I'd guess)
  • a 2.5-inch wood screw
  • several clothes hooks
  • a pair (!) of keys, still on the key ring
  • a plastic lid (the size was roughly equivalent to the cap of a container of 35-mm film)
  • a hollow metallic cylinder that looked a lot like a bullet casing
Here's a close-up of the fish hook (you can also see the eraser, light bulb, and, at top center-right that odd looking bullet casing thing), or as close as I could get with my crappy Blackberry:

If anyone else has access to the pediatric surgery ward in their area, I'd love to compare notes.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Arrosto di maiale all'umbra

What's this? An ISB blog post? Call it a special occasion. I've charmed my mother-in-law into turning over her special pork roast recipe, a perfect autumn dish.

Here it is:

Pork roast
1 red onion
3 apples
1 garlic clove
apple cider vinegar
olive oil

1) Dice up the apples and onions and place in a frying pan with a spot of vinegar, garlic clove and olive oil. Fry into a mash.
2) Make a 2-3 inch incision in the roast and stuff well with the fried apple/onion mash. (Really stuff it well so this sweet center remains intact later when you carve the pork roast.)Like this pic? Was playing with a new app (for me), PicSay.

3) Place roast in a roast pan and brown it. After browning, cover roast with strips of prosciutto. Dump the rest of the mash in the pan (or keep it on the side if you don't want them to interfere with potatoes, etc). Soak roast with white wine, or vinegar. Leave under medium heat for 10-15 mins.
4) Place in oven at 180 C (360F) temp for 45 mins.

Buon appetito!