Carnevale Cometh

Alina Rigo
Photo credit: Alina Rigo

Soon the streets of Venice will overflow with a flood — not of water, as usual — but of tourists and food. For soon the rituals of Carnevale, or Mardi Gras (also called Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday ) will once more surge into popular culture. The official date of Mardi Gras in 2009 falls on February 24.

Mardi Gras, officially only one day on the liturgical calendar, is the term used by most people for a two-week period (or longer) of Carnival, or “carne vale”” Italian for “farewell to meat.” Based, of course, on ancient Greek and Roman fertility festivals, “Carnevale” was the last opportunity to gorge on meat and drink to excess before the rigorous Lenten restrictions took hold. In modern Greece, the ancient festival called “Apokria” (Farewell to Meat) has been assimilated into Catholic Lenten practices. Beginning two weeks before Ash Wednesday (and the beginning of Lent), families start off the holiday with a pig or lamb roast. Following that, for two weeks, there is all manner of celebrating, including in some villages people dressing in goatskin masks and ringing strings of sheep’s bells. All of this is reminiscent of the Dionysian roots of the festival.

Urlin states that the chief figure of Carnival in France, Spain, and Italy is grotesque figure that leads the debauchery and then is “killed” in a violent manner. Dating to the ancient Roman Saturn cult, this practice in England resulted in a figure called “More,” who was dressed in women’s clothes. Saturn was the god of seeds and plantations. [Note: Obviously a fertility rite of some sort.]

Miguel Martin
Photo credit: Miguel Martin

Carnevale, in Venice, was once a six-month extravaganza, whereas most Carnivals last from Sant’Antonio Abate in mid-January until Ash Wednesday. Masking dates back to ancient times, where mascas (a nocturnal apparition, as Carol Fields calls it) evoked the dead rising from their graves and fake battles were fought with oranges or flour or whatever is at hand, oftentimes evening personal scores against neighbors and enemies. The throwing of confetti has its origins in these customs, which still exist in parts of Italy. Ash Wednesday usually falls in February at some point, appropriately enough demonstrating its Roman origin. Because februata got its name from the Sabine word februo, to purify. And, during Roman times, February was a month of purification and renewal.

So what of the food? Everything from beans to pork and anything else on hand found its way into cooking pots and stomachs.

A bit further afield from Italy, in Trinidad and Tobago, revelers feast on spicy corn syrup with dumplings, doubles (curried chickpeas and potatoes in fried dough), phoulori (deep-fried chickpea dough with pepper sauce), and peleau (rice, chicken, and pigeon pea stew).

Stay tuned for more on the food of Carnevale …

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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