Hello and welcome back to RENDERED: food history, delivered as a monthly illustrated essay. I research, write and illustrate each essay myself, and share what I learn with you.
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I was inspired to research this piece by an episode of the Two Fat Ladies, a short-lived British cooking program that I have enjoyed and rewatched multiple times over the past twenty-plus years. In this episode, a (slightly inebriated) Jennifer introduces her next dish to her co-host Clarissa, and to us at home:
"I'm making an amusing pudding, from that wonderful book by Filippo Marinetti. It's called: Frrrragolamammella! Which means: strawberry breasts." "Oh!" "And I find it very suitable on Saint Agatha's day, which is on February the fifth, because the poor saint had her breasts cut off in a terrible martyrdom." "Why?" "Oh, one of those nasty emperors, you know, didn't like Christians."
Their conversation continues: "He was a Fascist, wasn't he?" "Who?" "Marinetti." "Oh yes, almost bound to be. I wonder if he was vegetarian, as well!"
I was curious about these cheeky strawberry breasts (which seem fitting for Valentine’s Day) and so I decided to dive in—only to find that the story behind them goes much deeper than the whimsical creativity of an eccentric Fascist.
A luscious strawberry: the kind that many of us are accustomed to seeing in the summertime. They are a false fruit: the fruits (or ovaries) are actually the seeds, like the seeds of a sunflower. The edible berry is just the flower's swollen base.
How did we get its name? "Straw," as in "strewn about," is a reference to the fact that strawberry plants send out runners to spread the plant. "Berry" originates from an Indo-European word meaning "to shine"--likely a reference to the alluring glow of bright, ripe berries on the vine.
Strawberries are widely considered to be aphrodisiacal, perhaps because of their deep red color or their heart shape. According to myth, strawberries were created by Aphrodite: when her lover Adonis was killed by Ares in a fit of jealous rage, her tears mixed with Adonis's blood, transforming them into strawberries.
In 1932, Filippo Marinetti published La cucina futurista (The Futurist Cookbook). Futurist "cuisine" was seen as the fuel of the human machine. It encouraged eroticism, materialism, fantasy, experimentation, joy, and absurdity. Its goal echoed that of the Futurist movement in general: eliminate ties to traditionalism and convention, and genuflect before technology and modernity. For example, Marinetti wished to eliminate pasta from the Italian diet: it was a food drenched in nostalgia, making the body soft, slow, and dull.
Futurist food was to employ all the senses (like taste, touch and smell simultaneously), unique lighting, and fancy gadgets. Nutrition was to be gained from pills, leaving food itself open to creative freedom. Being free from dietary (and flavor) considerations, food could take on a more aesthetic role.
The book (available online here and here) contains instructions for reverse dinner parties, atypical wedding feasts, unheard-of juxtapositions of ingredients, food sculptures, and absolutely nothing resembling traditional cuisine. Examples include "Diabolical Roses" (Red roses, battered and deep-fried) and "Simultanous Ice-Cream" (Vanilla dairy cream and little squares of raw onion frozen together).
The Futurist Cookbook also clearly links the pleasure of food with the sensual; it goes beyond the erotic admiration of the female form, but a desire to experience it corporally: visually, via taste and touch, and finally by digestion. We see this clearly in his recipe for "Strawberry Breasts":
A pink plate, with two erectile female breasts made of Campari pink ricotta and candied strawberry nipples. More fresh strawberries under the ricotta cover to bite into an ideal multiplication of imaginary breasts. (p. 225)
Strawberries--the most innocuous of ovarian fruits--fashioned into breasts, the original maternal source of nourishment. And two isn't enough: one is encouraged to imagine many more.
As knives and forks were banned from the Futurist table, one had to use their hands to tear into these food creations, destroying them with hands, teeth, stomach, and intestines.
Digestion is the body's own efficient mechanical process, systematically transforming all that one feeds in--an expression of the raw, emotionless brutality that Futurism embraced. And because the ideal Futurist was a man, it was necessary to dominate, digest, and devour the feminine.
One notable aspect of Futurism is the misogynistic regard of women. In its first iteration, Futurism saw women as distractions, dangerous to the cause. The phrase disprezzo della donna (contempt for women) was a favorite of Marinetti's early on. That which was feminine was weak, sentimental, and regressive. He wanted to do away with the "conventional" woman who focused on casa, cucina, chiesa (house, kitchen, church). Women represented the ball and chain of tradition which reined men in to the repressive family sphere, a force that drained a man's creativity.
That said, Marinetti clearly held some respect for his more modern-minded female contemporaries--he showed support by fostering careers of women artists and poets, and encouraging their pursuits. He surrounded himself with women who were thoroughly unconventional and liberated, eventually marrying one of his Futurist collaborators in 1923, Benedetta Cappa, who loudly advocated for futurismo al femminile. Overall though, there were not many women who participated in the Futurist movement.
The Futurist Cookbook contains just one female contributor, Marisa Mori. Her recipe for Mammelle italiche al sole (Italian breasts in the sun) reads as follows:
Italian breasts in the sun (formula of the futurist painter Marisa Mori)
Two half spheres are formed filled with candied almond paste. In the center of each one rests a fresh strawberry. Then the zabaglione and areas of whipped cream are poured into the tray.
You can sprinkle it all with strong pepper and garnish with red chillies. (p. 231)
In Mori's recipe, like Marinetti's, the breasts are presented in an alluring manner, served up on a platter. However, her recipe goes a bit deeper.
The zabaglione (custard) and cream form waves, which can be understood to be the waves of the sea. Subverting the traditional misogyny served up in Futurist writings, these aren't uncountable, disembodied breasts—they seem to be connected to a woman who is swimming topless. They are free and exposed, shining in the light of the Italian sun.
They are also sprinkled with hot pepper and garnished all around with chilli peppers. Sweet and inviting to taste, they will burn all the way down. These breasts will kick back at every turn, disrupting the digestive machine. In other words, Mori isn't giving you sweet, docile, or inocuous breasts: they are subversive and resistant, harkening back to the story of Saint Agatha, which Mori certainly knew and understood.
As a young woman, Saint Agatha chose to lead a life of religious devotion. However, her beauty caught the eye of the proconsul Quintianus, who attempted to win her affection. She refused his advances and would not abandon her faith. In an effort to change her mind, Quintianus imprisoned her for a month, subjecting her to escalating levels of abuse, no doubt as a warning to other women who would dare refuse the advances of a powerful man. In a final act of cruelty, he ordered that her breasts be excised, and that she be put to death. Saint Agatha was martyred on the fifth of February, 251AD, at the age of twenty. Artistic representations often depict her, eyes trained above, holding a salver with her breasts laid upon it, illuminated by a heavenly light. She is the patron saint of the city of Catania, on the eastern coast of Sicily.
Today, the feast of Saint Agatha is commemmorated from the third to the fifth of February, with large religious processions, and breast-shaped pastries called Minni di Sant Aita (in local dialect), or Minne di Sant'Agata. These are small cakes filled with pastry cream or sweet ricotta cheese, then covered in white icing and topped with a candied cherry.
It seems that this cake has origins that stretch beyond Saint Agatha, back to traditions which venerated Isis and Demeter, which had previously existed in Sicily. The Catholic tradition likely co-opted and eclipsed the existing breast-cake tradition, which continues to this day in honor of Saint Agatha. Today, she is celebrated as the martyr of Sicily who had unshakeable faith and devotion.
But really, was she not also a woman who dared to choose her own path, committing the sin of shunning the companionship of a powerful man, who paid the price for daring to believe she had the right to choose her own destiny?
Marisa Mori was a woman who lived unconventionally: a distant descendant of the sculptor Bernini, she received special dispensation from the Pope to marry her first cousin in 1920, and had a son in 1922. She began studying art in the mid-1920's, and was introduced to Marinetti and the Futurists in 1931.
Futurism presented her an exciting prospect: the freedom to push boundaries of artistic expression, and to be inventive with color, rhythm, and charged with energy. Mori saw Futurism as a movement where she could be seen as an artist and thinker, not chained to the traditional roles of wife and mother, which she held ambivalent, even disillusioned feelings about.
Mori did not shy away from the feminine figure in her art--no, she explicitly laid it bare in her work created during the 1930's. Male domination was intolerable, and life as a wife and mother was repressive and unfulfilling. Her work features fusions of woman and machine ("aero-aesthetics") as an alternative vision of what a woman could be, existing outside of the passive female/machine-man dichotomy.
The above piece was inspired by Marisa Mori's L'ebbrezza fisica della maternità (Physical Rapture of Motherhood, 1936). The original piece is a stark portrayal of her body as a metaphor for motherhood. Machine-like forms envelop her nude body, which is disintegrating into geometric shapes; it's as if motherhood has ravaged her body and eviscerated her selfhood. Her piece breaks with traditional Futurist conventions, both in visual imagery and theme; she presents this intensely to her viewer, which at the time, was more likely to be a man.
In the end, Futurism was a movement that lost steam: it didn't succeed in its goal of revolutionizing Italian culture. This movement desired swift and decisive mass cultural evolution, which didn't happen. Marinetti's utopian vision of a modern Italy fell in line with Mussolini's Fascism, in that they both centered on the creation of a great Italian nation. And that nation centered around the powerful, brutal masculine.
Mori left the Futurist movement once Mussolini passed the anti-Semitic race laws. She was disturbed by the Futurists' continued loyalty to Fascism, and the alliance of Mussolini's Italy with Hitler's Germany.
But during the years of the gender-based repression under Fascism, it was one outlet where women like Marisa Mori could be empowered to envision their own destinies, be it through painting, or even a recipe for strawberry-tipped breasts.
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