Sinners, Saints, Soup
Several weeks ago, on December 16, San Gennaro’s blood failed to liquefy. These trifling events have heretofore never concerned me. Amulets and holy water, benedictions and revelations always seemed to me an egregious affront to the more logical, scientific worldview I used to hold dear. Yet in the short period I have lived in Naples and its provinces, this otherworld of saints and sinners has gradually chipped away at my cognitive abilities causing me to check saint days on the calendar before planning dinner parties and to fret about whether or not someone has cast upon me the malocchio or evil eye.
Which all brings me back to good old Saint Januarius. His blood, collected after he was martyred in Pozzuoli in 305 A.D., is stored in a very special glass vial at the Duomo of Naples. Three times a year thousands of Neapolitans gather to see his blood liquefy. A priest holds the holy vial in front of the masses gathered at the cathedral, tilts the vial and then announces whether the blood has rapturously transformed from a solid to liquid state.
This may all seem akin to medieval alchemy and/ or desperate searches for the spontaneous appearance of the Madonna in our morning toast. In fact when I moved to Naples, I was convinced this whole thing was an elaborate hoax. Many outsiders still maintain that over one thousand years ago some overly zealous holy men put a secret powdered agent into the blood that causes it to liquefy when shaken.
The Catholic Church has also never officially recognized the miracle of San Gennaro’s blood liquefication. All of this aside, don’t joke about San Gennaro’s blood in Napoli. In the past, when his blood has failed to liquefy, the city of Naples has experienced: a volcanic eruption in 1631; the Second World War; a cholera outbreak in 1973, and a massive earthquake in 1980. In other words Saint Rino doesn’t dick around.
I didn’t go to the Duomo to watch the liquefication ritual this December. I watched it on television while dunking rococo into my morning coffee like any self-respecting lazy person. The priest swished the vial around a bit, nothing changed. Worshipers plaintively stared ahead silently beseeching San Gennaro to perform his miracle.
For a moment the whole bit made me think of Starina, the aging drag queen at the Birdcage who refused to perform her nightly act in a fit of histrionics. Maybe somebody needed to get Saint Gennaro a Pirin tablet. After all Starina and Saint Rino have been known to wear similar headgear.
When the priest declared with an about face that the blood would not liquefy that day, I then scientifically deduced that my failure to appear in person at the Duomo may have inadvertently caused this rare event. Yes, Gennaro must have been losing his shit over a middling catholic, 33 year old American woman’s truancy. Perhaps a more accurate guess is that he is losing his shit over Donald Trump and his Kabal of yokels charged with maintaining world order. God help us all.
A little over a week later, I reported for Christmas duty in the mountains of Agerola. In short order, I discovered that we had no electricity. Christmas passed in a blur as we hopped around town trying to avoid our frigid house and Giuseppe’s asshole brother all the while delivering panettone and prosecco to no less the 87 members of Giuseppe’s closest extended family. Finally the electricity returned, only for us to discover for the third time in as many months that our septic tank was full, thanks to Giuseppe’s aforementioned asshole brother.
So after we pumped shit for several hours and analyzed the output of Giuseppe’s brother’s asshole, I thought….finally we can enjoy the holy week as God and San Gennaro (and Starina!) intended, which for me meant stuffing my face with panettone whilst freebasing prosecco/ episodes of Jane the Virgin. That is when our tank ran out of propane with which to heat said house. I sighed dramatically telling myself I really did have the patience of Job… maybe I should be martyred and sainted.
Later that day we went to the pharmacy. Truth be told, I was in need of some Pirin tablets myself . While there, we discovered the entire town clamoring for prophylactic antibiotics, because apparently there had been a Type C Bacterial Meningitis outbreak in Agerola immediately following Christmas Day!
Maybe all of these simultaneous calamities really were a coincidence. But then I briefly thought of Occam's razor: suppose there exist two explanations for an occurrence. In this case, the simpler one is usually better………In other words San Gennaro is pissssssssssed…… and I had better get the hell out of dodge. Peppe and I jumped into his battered BMW convertible and hightailed it to Napoli.
Perhaps San Gennaro was now pleased. Perhaps he didn’t care. I stopped by the Duomo (in person this time) just to be sure. I prayed, dunked my hand in some holy water and made the sign of the cross. Then I was back in our apartment in Naples where I was able to finally freebase panettone and prosecco. Oh, and I also made soup. Here’s to hoping Vesuvio doesn’t explode this year.
Serves 8 as primo or secondo
Minestra Maritata gave rise to what Americans call “Italian Wedding Soup.” This soup is not in fact served at weddings. Maritata means married in Italian and refers to the married flavors of rich meat broth and bitter wintergreens. This dish is typical of Napoli’s characteristic coquina povera (poor man’s cuisine) and is often served on the Christmas Day. I served it a week late because as mentioned, I had no electricity for the Christmas holiday. You will notice that I add little meatballs or polpettine. In Naples this is uncommon, however in Agerola it is preferred. Serve as you wish.
2 chicken thighs
½ lb. cross cut beef shank
½ lb. fresh Italian sausage
1 celery rib
1 onion peeled and sliced in half
1 tablespoon salt
½ lb. ground beef
1 slice white bread
½ cup whole milk
½ cup grated Parmesan
2 minced garlic cloves
1 tablespoon minced parsley
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoons salt
Brodo and sausage/ beef contents
1 lb. escarole, cleaned and separated into individuals leaves
1 Parmesan rind
Peasant bread, sliced
Place chicken thighs, beef shank and sausage in a large stockpot and fill with water
Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce heat to low and skim off foam
Add carrot, celery, onion and salt to stockpot
Simmer for 2 hours
While brodo is simmering prepare polpettine
Soak bread slice in milk and mash together to form a pulp
Crack egg into small bowl and beat lightly with a fork
Add bread pulp, egg, Parmesan, garlic, parsley, pepper flakes, and pepper to ground beef and mix with hands to incorporate ingredients
Form meat into balls of ½” circumference and set aside
After 2 hours of simmering, drain brodo over large bowl
Reserve the chicken thighs for other use
Flake beef off shank and slice sausages in half
Strain brodo back into stockpot
Add escarole and parmesan rind
Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to simmer
Simmer escarole for 30 minutes
Add polpettine, beef and sausage to escarole and simmer for additional 15 minutes
Ladle minestra into wide shallow bowls, top with additional Parmesan and serve immediately with grilled bread.