Erri De Luca was born in Naples in 1950. He is a columnist for Il Manifesto and a novelist whose work has been translated into seven languages. He lives outside of Rome.
De Luca’s International bestsellerr God’s Mountain demonstrates how important family is to one’s development and highlights the important role food plays in Neapolitans’ interpersonal relationships and social interaction. In God’s Mountain De Luca uses food to create a sense of place and manages to reveal intimate details about the people and their culture.
All the food mentioned in God’s Mountain can be found locally; pulled out of the sea (tender octopus), baked down the street (by Dirty Gigino) or prepared in one’s home kitchen. This intimate relationship with food, and by extension, the people who prepare the food, is reflective of the respect Neapolitans have for family and community. “It’s important to be two, a man and a woman, in this city. He who’s alone is less than one,” the unnamed thirteen year old narrator says. De Luca demonstrates how relationships are forged, developed and nurtured through the sharing of food. It is therefore possible, as the story progresses, to trace the development of the narrator’s relationship with Maria by noting how their familiarity increasing from meal to meal.
In one of the young lovers earliest meetings the narrator is hungry yet he refuses to accept some of Maria’s bread and butter. “I stand in front of her and my stomach feels empty. I’m hungry for bread, to take a bite out of her slice of bread and butter. She offers me some. I say no.” (26) This refusal of food, even when hungry, indicates a lack of familiarity and lack of intimacy in their new relationship.
In contrast, the Christmas meal displays a real intimacy between the two. It occurs right after they have made love for the first time; “We serve the capon with potatoes, sitting close to each other, side by side. We eat with our hands, bumping our elbows into each other, then we look and laugh at each other in the dark.” (116) “We put a blanket over our shoulders and eat the almond cookies….“ Next time I’m going to make a pie,” she says.” (117) The young lovers are more familiar with each other at this point and the sharing of a meal that they’ve both prepared reflects the level of comfort they draw from one another. With this meal there is not only an intimacy but also the promise of tomorrow, a next time, and probably a lifetime.
Early on in the text we learn that the food signifies one’s level of poverty. The narrator writes in his diary, “At snack time some kids used to take cakes out of their bags. To us poor kids, the janitor would hand out bread with quince jam” (7). The narrator knows he is different based on food. The narrator also chooses to leave school at the age of thirteen due to the fact that his income is needed at home. He has the opportunity to offer financial help in a household where his aging father cares for him and his dying mother. Food is such a basic necessity that it is the only thing we ever see the narrator regularly spend his money on. The sharing of a meal then, this hard-earned necessity, is more than just a friendly gesture; it is an invitation to intimacy, to a place in a person’s life or story.
Food is a necessity and though it is to be enjoyed, anything more than what is absolutely necessary or immediately available is considered a luxury. That is why when “The old man, the landlord brings pastries, a luxury to Maria’s family,” as a way to buy the girl, coax her back to his bed, and leaves “ the pastries behind,” the family chooses to indulge in this rare treat. (74) Eating pastries is a luxury Maria’s family doesn’t refuse though the pastry bearer himself is vile.
When the narrator starts drinking coffee, instead of coffee substitute, it is a sign that he has matured, as is his leaving money for food. The narrator says, “I was only sharing an affectionate thought about coffee that I’ve only just gotten to know and that I like a lot, black with no sugar. I leave money on the table to buy what’s missing from the kitchen.” (143) Maria’s wine drinking is therefore a similar sign of maturity as she drinks wine to replace her menstrual blood, “ She says that her blood is running but it’s not a cut, it’s a change that women go through. She drank the wine to get her blood back.” Her wine drinking as well as the high heels she later wears mark her as a woman.
Food is therefore important in the development of interpersonal relationships, family and community. Neapolitan’s remain connect to their past, their heritage, and their culture through food and De Luca allows us into the kitchens. Family life, friendships and relationships unfold around the kitchen table so that the kitchen table becomes the heart of Neapolitan culture. The narrator’s father speaks to him concerning the important issue of his mother’s health at the table, the young couple gets fatherly advice from Don Ciccio and the narrator often swaps stories and experiences with Rafaniello over lunch.
The stories behind the food reveal a great deal about the people and their culture. The capon, a castrated rooster, is an Italian delicacy. Maria’s maccheroni frittata dish is made with left over pasta
suggesting poverty. The pizza margherita the narrator’s father request is named for Queen Margherita of Savoy who visited Naples to escape the cholera epidemic in 1899. The ingredients represent the colors of the Italian flag and reaches more than a century into the country’s past. Through food we get a glimpse of the culture of Naples.
Erri Deluca will read at Chapman University’s Leatherby Library on April 4, 2011 as part of the annual Fowles Center Reading Series http://www.chapman.edu/fowles/