Thursday, January 20, 2011

Of plague and panini

Dear Readers,

Today is the feast day of San Sebastiano, and around Florence all the Misericordias have garlanded their portals and are handing out free little dinner rolls to all comers, in honor of the occasion.

For those of you who don't know, the Misericordia is the centuries-old Catholic-affiliated confraternity that now mostly serves as the Italian ambulance corps and provides supplementary healthcare at supposedly Christian-friendly prices--and San Sebastiano is their patron saint. This being Italy, everybody who's anybody has a patron saint (for example, even Berlusconi has a patron saint: the little-known Saint Pustule, protector of despicable cretins and Viagra-fed pig-fodder). Saint Sebastian, like so many of his zealous colleagues, met a gruesome death: he was martyred by being tied to a post and riddled with imperial arrows, then left for the buzzards to feast upon. He was rescued and healed by a groupie, and then--in a surprising lack of judgement--mouthed-off to the emperor, after which he was summarily, and understandably, clubbed to death. (If you ask me, most of these saints were as tenacious as pit bulls and as dumb as peat moss). Considered the protector against bubonic plague (though I guess he was on sabbatical around 1348-1350) and sundry other epidemics, it's easy to see why the Misericordia adopted him as their mascot.

When I rode past their outpost on my street this morning and saw the sign advertising pane benedetto I thought, "Here we go again--no room in the communal freezer until Easter." You see, dear Readers, my mother-in-law--that serial hoarder and ├╝ber-Catholic--also loves to stockpile the panini of San Sebastiano. And the reason is obvious: they have been blessed, and by the proper authorities, too (priests are her rock stars). For her, caressing the Eucharist with her tongue, or stuffing two-dozen of these blessed rolls into her freezer (to savor in her private moments) is like leaving a concert with Mick Jaggers' sweaty t-shirt clutched to her delirious breast. To put it bluntly, she gets off on renegade men who know how to whip their audience into a frenzy of adoration. Of course, she also believes that if she crams enough of the pane benedetto down her gullet she'll make it to the promised land that much quicker, perhaps even ahead of everybody else (we all know how much Italians love to jump lines).

So, religiously, every January 20th, she slaps her platypus feet against the asphalt and crosses the street to the Misericordia, where they welcome her with open arms and two large sacks of celestial panini. They know a fanatical groupie when they see one.

Here it is, my mother-in-law's holy Happy Meal

Each little paper bag holds a plastic-wrapped roll akin to something you might scorn at Denny's, and a bonus santino depicting Sebastian in his signature pose, about to be perforated with the arrows of destiny, his rock-stardom assured for all eternity.

Call me irascible, petulant, bilious, choleric and snarky (and I am all of those things, and more)--but I have a question for Sebastiano's roadies: why oh why in the heavenly realm of bread that is Italy are these little flour-and-water benedictions as hard and brittle as a martyr's toenails?

Can somebody please answer that?




  1. My friend Dave in Ireland came up with this brilliant response, which he Facebooked to me. I simply had to repeat it here:

    " disappoint me!!!! Surely having lived in Italy all this time you don't need to ask why those little paninis are brittle.....Catholic faith is ALL about pain and denial of life's pleasures. If those little loaves were fresh ...and crusty with lovely soft bread inside then to eat one would involve enjoyment and pleasure and would of course be sinful.....we couldn't have that, especially to honour St. Sebastian who having endured one marathon torture and martydom, contrived to repeat the process so as to endure even more pain.

    Pain and self-denial of life's pleasures is like a free pass to heaven. Clearly your crafty MIL is on the fast-track to beatification and canonisation while you my dear are destined to roast for all eternity in the flames of hell... if I was you I'd start munching those paninis...."

    Thanks, Dave!!!!!!!

  2. Your analogy reminded me of the time I saw the pope-mobile in St. Peter's square being trailed by a mob of screaming nuns, making me think precisely of groupies chasing a rock star.

  3. @Michelle:

    Only I guess the nuns didn't tear off their habits and throw their bras at His Holiness. At least, I would hope not.


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