The June 24 Festa di San Giovanni -- the Feast of St. John the Baptist -- is a holiday celebrated by Italians in numerous cities since pre-Medieval Times. In some cities today, the celebration can last two to three days, with markets, and festivities each day. On the evening of June 23 bonfires are lit, nascent green walnuts are gathered from the trees, and the evening dew is collected in barrels and from the grass since it is believed to be imbued with magical powers. Tied to the Summer Solstice, this feast of a Catholic saint retains numerous pagan underpinnings. The bonfires are a reminder of those lit on the shores of Genoa to welcome St. John's relics to the city in 1098. In ancient days, the harvest of black walnuts while the husk is still tender and green to make a liqueur called Nocino was done by young virgins who climbed the trees, knocking down the nuts and then spreading them across the fields to absorb the evening's magic dew. Quartered the next day, then infused in a bath of alcohol and spices for six months, the green nuts produce a wonderful, rich, dark liqueur. Luckily for me, my son and daughter-in-law have a huge walnut tree in their front yard, and I get to make Nocino from the nuts my grandtwins collect for "Nonnie."
Pagan practices and Catholic traditions meld in this holiday. The night of the 23rd, also tied to the Divine Feminine, is an auspicious night for healers. The water collected from the dew is symbolic of St. John's baptismal waters. The streghe -- the healers, the white witches -- would collect the potent evening dew, adding herbs and other ingredients to make new batches of potions and ointments, leaving these mixtures outside overnight to soak up the energy of the moon. Some of this precious water was infused with flower petals overnight in the belief that washing one's face with the mixture on the morning of the 24th brought good luck and renewed beauty and protection from malocchio -- the evil eye.
Italian proverbs say that anything can happen and everything can be remedied on this night, especially love. St. John's Eve was a time for divination of love by young men and women, who would drop molten lead into cold water and then interpret the hardened shapes left behind. In the alternative, should no lead be available, and you'd like to try this for yourself, you could separate an egg white from its yolk, drop it into a glass of water and leave it on your windowsill overnight on June 23. Bubbles floating at the top the next morning are a sign that you will find a mate who is comely, wealthy and simpatico, or "nice." An image of a church is a good omen, but not one indicating you will get married within the year. No images in the water? Better luck next St. John's Eve.
I love the way the Italians have incorporated the pagan and the Catholic rituals to make unique rituals all their own, and have featured some in my other novels, including the traditional method for determining whether someone has been cursed with the evil eye. The Festa di San Giovanni and the search for the Divine Feminine play a crucial role in my work in progress, a novel titled now as The Goddess of Eden. Anything and everything does happen on this auspicious evening to my protagonist, Lia, as the festival bonfires trigger her to relive a childhood tragedy that changed the trajectory of her life.
Aglio olio is one of the quickest -- and most simply delicious -- Italian dishes to prepare. All you need is fresh garlic (the aglio) and olive oil (the olio) plus salt, black pepper, red pepper if you wish, and some pasta. Any variety of pasta will work.
For our book club dinner, I used: 6 cloves of garlic: four minced, two crushed in a garlic press; 3 Tablespoons pomace olive oill;* 1/2 lb durum semolina spaghetti, imported from Italy; salt, black pepper to taste; premium, full-bodied olive oil for finishing the dish (I use Frantoia or Olio Verde, imported from Italy.); red pepper flakes to taste -- optional; Parmesan cheese -- optional.
DIRECTIONS: Sautée the minced and crushed garlic in the 3 Tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan on medium-low heat until the garlic is just turning from golden to brown. Remove from the flame and set aside.
Boil the pasta in heavily salted water for about 7-8 minutes for spaghetti (exact time will differ if you're using rigatoni or a thicker pasta that requires more cooking time). Rule of thumb is to use water as salty as the sea and to undercook the pasta two minutes less than the directions advise. I like to finish cooking pasta in the sauce, whether a simple aglio olio or a marinara, adding to the pan some of the water in which I slightly under-boiled my pasta.
Meanwhile, drizzle high quality olive oil in the bottom of your serving dish to coat it -- about 2 Tablespoons should do the trick.
When the pasta has a bit more tooth to it than when it would be fully al dente, scoop the pasta from the boiling water with a sieve or a straining ladle and add it to the pan with the sauteed garlic. Return the pan to heat on a low flame and stir the pasta to coat with the garlic and oil. Add about 1/2 cup of the salted water in which you boiled the pasta and simmer on low until the water is absorbed.
Transfer the cooked pasta into the serving bowl, adjust salt to taste, add the black pepper and red pepper flakes if desired, and toss to combine. At this point feel free to drizzle on a bit more premium olive oil if the pasta looks too "dry."
Serves four to five as a first course. Buon appetito!
* pomace olive oil is sold online and in some grocery stores/Italian markets. Pomace is perfect for cooking, and is easier on the budget than the robust premium olive oil you'd use to punch up the flavor of salad or pasta
"This book should be required reading in any Italian-American History class, as well as anyone wishing to study the female’s role in the Italian family. This book, while not an exercise in journalism, could also prove beneficial to students of the craft as Ms. Tintori’s prior training in the field served her well while untangling her great-aunt’s mystery."
"Unto the Daughters proves that all stories of our ancestors deserve to be told, the good, the bad and the ugly…and perhaps that is Francesca Costa’s legacy to us all."
You can read Longo's entire review here.
If you are an educator using Unto the Daughters in your curriculum, I would love to know. I have visited several classrooms both in person and via Skype. Grazie tanto.
Scholastic Magazine brought the 1090 Cherry Mine disaster to the attention of middle grade students in the United States with a full-color cover story in its November, 2019, issue. Highlighting the prevalence of child labor in 1909, Scholastic painted the grim picture of children's daily lives early in the last century via the story of the United State's worst coal mine disaster. School was not an option for children born into poor families, nor from immigrant families who crossed the ocean to work in U.S. coal mines. Every nickel and dime earned by these young boys was desperately needed for daily survival. So parents falsified ages on job applications while mine company bosses looked the other way, and children sat for hours in complete darkness -- tasked with the boring duty of waiting to open and close tunnel doors to permit mule teams to pull full coal cars to the elevator shaft and then rush the empties back to the miners to refill.
Among the major legal changes resulting from the Cherry Mine disaster was the adoption of stricter national child labor laws.
Seven months after the disaster, the St. Paul Coal Company, which operated the mine at Cherry, pled guilty to nine counts of child labor law violations -- and was fined a total of $630.
If you are a teacher who discussed the Cherry Mine disaster with your students as a result of Scholastic's feature coverage, I would love to hear the children's feedback.