Last week, our class of 27 (plus one tutor) piled into a charter bus to depart for our first study trip. The destination was Emilia Romagna, the region south east of our home in Piedmont, known for Prosciutto di Parma, the infamous Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and lambrusco.
Before departing, I was sufficiently warned about Emilia Romagna being an intensely heavy pork-eating region. It’s my estimate to say that 95 percent of their traditional and most often eaten dishes contain pig in some shape or form.
“I’m a vegetarian,” I told Charles, our diligent trip coordinator, at the informational meeting before we left.
Our conversation continued with a dialogue similar to the first minute of this:
“I’ll request vegetarian meals for you. Not a problem,” Charles concluded. “…but there will be tons of big plates of pork being passed around all the time, so if you want some, totally just grab it.”
I sighed, was grateful for the accommodations, and made a mental note to stick fruit in my purse.
The first day we visited Antica Corte Pallavicina, an estate with a working farm, hotel, restaurant, and gorgeous aging cellar.
“The oldest cellar in all of Italy,” one of the owners, a Spigaroli brother, told us.
“Italians tend to embellish,” Charles whispered.
The Spigarolis use traditions passed down four generations to raise their fowl, pig, and cow, grow their vegetables, and cure thousands of ~2 pound rounds of meat from the upper hind leg of a pig – aged 24-62 months – to make Culatello Zibello. The pride taken to create these products and maintain the elegant space was quite apparent and impressive.
After a tour and presentation, the chef laid out a simple tasting lunch of the culatello, prosciutto, lard, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, focaccia, and wine.
“Julie!” Charles called, echoing through the stone cellar walls.
I looked up from flipping through my digital camera.
“Here’s your salad.”
It wouldn’t be the last time that a few dozen pairs of eyes turned to look at me, green V glowing on my chest.
Now would be a good time to mention that I did not come from a family of vegetarians. In fact, some of the memories from my childhood in which I take most pride revolve around parties we hosted when my dad, grandfather, uncles, and neighbors roasted a whole pig on a spit, or pushed ground meat into sausage casings before hanging them in the smoker my grandfather built on top of an old grill. What does fact that I still identify with these experiences tell me?
It became a bit clearer later that week, when we arrived mid-morning in Campagnola Emilia. The bus pulled up in front of a large, white, temporary tent popped in a residential neighborhood of the very small town. Filing inside the heated flaps stuffed with long wooden tables and plastic chairs, which could easily fit 500+ people, we laid eyes on our lesson for the day: a pale pink pig, cut precisely in half from head to hole, exposing flesh, ribs, organs, fur, tail, hooves. The butcher stood smiling behind it/him/her, wearing a big smile and a one-shouldered apron with a cartoon pig and the words “Il Cicciolo D’Oro”, which I think translates to “The Golden Cracklings.”
Thinking this butchering lesson would be a short one, I took it upon myself to go for a walk, strolling a few blocks, attracting not-so-friendly stares from the nonas on bikes as they took stock on the blonde pork-shy stranger. After 20 minutes of wandering (did I mention the town is small?), I headed back to the tents ready for the ancient grain lesson that was also on our agenda for the day. Pushing through the entrance, I found my classmates elbow-deep in what was once an in tact pig, snapping photos, wielding knives, and smiling ear-to-ear. The general feeling was one of pure excitement.
I learned that our visit to the tent was not simply to pick up pork pointers, but one hosted by the Cicciolo d’Oro Association, a group of men and women charged with the responsibility of keeping the tradition of making cicciolo (pronounced cheech-o-low) alive. Cicciolo is pork fat fried in pork fat (I’m not kidding), hence the golden cracklings. Twice a year the association holds a festival, and one was to be held the weekend of our visit. The festivals typically draw crowds of around 2,000 Europeans keen to imbibe on cicciolo and other pork products. There was a lot of work to be done.
Somewhere between wiping down the plastic chairs with Erico (one of the association members) and rolling pasta dough with the ladies, I really began to enjoy myself. It’s a good thing too, because we spent 13 hours in this tent, piling in the bus only after a day’s worth of butchering, crackling, liquor tasting, and a three course dinner, joined by the mayor. The dinner ended with speeches of thanks from my classmates. We were truly smitten by the people of Campagnola Emilia, and were sent off with kisses and waves and huge smiles.
I didn’t put a single piece of pork in my mouth that day. In fact, this was my lunch:
(For the record: I was offered dough fried in olive oil by sweet woman whose daughter and son were vegetarian and vegan (the irony!) though I graciously refused; getting special accommodations in a restaurant is one thing, but asking for them under a pork festival tent is another).
Despite the lack of tasting, this managed to be one of my most memorable days on our trip, and I quickly recognized why: Our hosts reminded me of the people my parents and their family grew up with, and Campagnola Emilia reminded me of Steelton, the town where my parents were raised, and to where my dad still occasionally drives for the good sausage when we’re having a party.
Surprisingly my green V went unnoticed (or at least unrecognized) here, as it wasn’t so much about what I was putting in my mouth as it was what I was doing
– with my hands: cleaning chairs, giving hugs, making pasta
– with my ears: listening to the careful instructions of women sharing their pasta making knowledge, the pops of joy-filled laughter filling the tent
– with my eyes: admiring my beautiful classmates and our hosts, taking in the new faces that came in and out of the tent to observe and help.
It’s the conviviality that I enjoyed so much, and remembering my childhood when this was evoked so strongly and often with the prompting of well-known and loved food (which happened also to be pork).
There is another side to this psychoanalysis of my vegetarian identity that presented itself a few days later, though I’m hesitant to talk about it in the same post, as not to paint over the story I just told…
…but unable to completely descend from my soapbox, I will mention that there are many, many realities we need to face about meat production and consumption. If the pig was raised fairly and traditionally by farmer X down the street from the pop-up tent (it may have been; no one asked) and consumed once a week and/or only on special occasions like the festival (it most certainly won’t be), the environmental impact would be less, personal health better, and welfare of the animal protected. Yet this is not the reality in Campagnola Emilia, or in the majority of towns all over the world; therein lies the problem.
Yet it is not my aim to stand in judegment of any one person or groups’ food choices, and I try to approach every situation (meat-filled or not) with an open mind. Just because I don’t eat meat doesn’t mean you can’t, though I urge and cheer for educated consumerism. Change is the only constant and even traditions need to be flexible, susceptible to soft revisions (or large ones) influenced by sometimes harsh realities and the knowledge we continually gain through science, progress, and open-mindedness.