WENDY VARDAMAN (wendyvardaman.com) is the author of Reliquary of Debt (LitFest Press 2015) and Obstructed View, co-editor of Local Ground(s)–Midwest Poeticsand Echolocations, Poets Map Madison, and founding co-editor of Cowfeather Press (cowfeatherpress.org). She is one of Madison, Wisconsin’s two Poets Laureate (2012-2015). Twitter: @wendylvardaman. Tumblr blog: live art(s) art live(s).
Tortelli di Zucca Mantovani
for Mantova, Italy, May 1, 2013
Atreus Caecilius cucurbitarum/Sic illas quasi filios Thyestae/In partes lacerat secatque mille.—Martial, 1st C. CE
Cross breeder, easy mixer, monoecious—male and female flower on the same stem:
bees travel 15 kilometers with their messages, circling zucca to pumpkin,
no botanical obstacle or cultural barrier to mating cucurbits
of every shape, size, texture, color, which—wild or not—will resist disease, pest, drought.
When Martial called Caecilius the Atreus of pumpkin, he might have meant melon, meant
Lagenaria siceraria —gourd, vessel, container that traveled 10,000
years ago, Africa to the Americas; did not mean zucca, mean Mantovan
Piacentina, Marina di Chioggia, Americana, Turbante, whose oldest
seeds, like all cultivated cucurbits, are rooted in Oaxaca, Mexico,
8000 year-old ayote turned askutasquash, pompion, pumpkin, zucca.
Madison’s pumpkins—large, round, bright orange—don’t look like zucca Mantovani, what we
might call squash—Hubbard, Acorn, Festival, Delicata—making gnocchi, risotto,
tortelli, not pie, and the colors of Mantovan pumpkins run terra cotta
and sinopia to olive tree leaf and rosemary green, to mottled wall of pocked
palazzo; record ground, record quake, earth connected to earth—fractured plaster split
inviting us through and in between, like lines on pumpkin, stretch marks of ripening.
To go to Mantova directly, you must travel via these cracks widening
in aging fresco through intonaco, arriccio, garden clay. At the Palazzo
Ducale, where Montegna first painted the family Gonzaga as real, not allegory,
angels lean into their elbows on heaven’s balcony, try to get a better view,
no way down from those illusionistic domes except by vine. In 1514
Isabella d’Este Gonzaga, said to have inspired tortelli di zucca, went to Rome,
to Villa Farnesina, where the first painted pumpkins from the Americas
appeared three years after her visit and two centuries before any botanical
illustration. Perhaps she brought their seeds, rare gift that bloomed in soil then in the walls’
festoons. I’ve made pumpkin ravioli for friends without knowing it’s the specialty
of Mantova but didn’t think México either. Could buy it Made in Italy
at the Monroe Street Trader Joe’s in Madison, where food from Europe sometimes means
urbanity, sometimes excess, but that’s not tortelli di zucca made at home
in spite of the fuss or fresh-rolled and sold at the corner pastificio. Come
Tutti i Santi Ognissanti, women of a certain age bring flowers and lumere to the dead
during passegiatta. Slow walk. Drip, drip of day after day turned centuries. Turned
later to tortelli di zucca, not thinking origin but salty & bitter, sweet
& sour, hoping to lure home the living and the dead, they set new roots, spread their leaves,
recipes passed mother to daughter for longer than any memory, like seeds.