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ROME – Pope Francis today visits the southern Italian city of Matera, which was once famously defined as a “national shame” for the poverty and neglect in which residents lived.
While much of that has changed in recent decades, Matera is still reminded of its second-class status in multiple ways – for example, it remains the only provincial capital not served directly by the national railway system, a century and a half after the theoretical unification of Italy.
As the Materani say, “Our train is 152 years late.”
The most famous neighborhoods in the city are called I Sassi, “the stones,” because they’re literally carved out of rock. These dwellings have been inhabited since prehistoric times, and contemporary residents will tell you, despite the much-vaunted impact of modernization in other parts of the country, not much has changed.
Basilicata, the region of southern Italy in which Matera is located, was the setting for one of the country’s great literary classics: Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, “Christ Stopped at Eboli,” by Carlo Levi, an anti-fascist from Turin who was sentenced to exile in the area in 1935. The title comes from a common saying among residents, who believed that Christianity never really reached the Basilicata, and neither did the rule of law, democracy, or any of the other artifacts of civilization – they felt abandoned, ignored, and forgotten.
Matera is a perennial reminder for those who live in the affluent West that if you want to reach out to the peripheries, you don’t have to go to Timbuktu. For those with eyes to see, they’re right next door.
Of course, most Catholics around the world can’t just drop everything and travel to Matera in order to demonstrate their own solidarity with the peripheries.
If you want to participate vicariously in the pope’s outing today, however, there is something else you can do – and for Italians, it’s actually the best manifestation of concern of all, because it involves what you eat.
For your Sunday lunch today, you might consider making La Crapiata, the signature dish of Matera. It’s a hearty soup composed of legumes and grains, originally made in giant cast-iron pots suspended by tripods over an open fire, and utilizing ingredients contributed by poor farming families coming together to celebrate the harvest.
The origins of the name are debated. Some believe it comes from a Greek word meaning “legumes,” others that it derives from a term in the southern Italian dialect in Calabria that referred to the tripods upon which it was cooked, still others that it reflects the word capra, or “goat,” since by tradition a week after the crapiata a goat would be sacrificed for the next harvest feast.
The point is that crapiata is a dish of the poor, of the peripheries, and it also symbolizes the mutual solidarity among marginalized people. For bonus points, it’s not only vegetarian but actually vegan, since it doesn’t utilize any animal products.
Ideally, you’d take raw legumes and cereals and soak them for 24 hours before cooking. In the interests of time, however, this recipe presumes the use of pre-cooked and canned ingredients.
- 7 ounces of red beans
- 3.5 ounces of white beans
- 3.5 ounces of boiled wheat grains
- 3.5 ounces of boiled whole wheat grains
- 3.5 ounces of chickpeas
- 3.5 ounces of black-eyed peas
- 3.5 ounces of regular peas
- 3.5 ounces of lentils
- 1 carrot
- 1 celery stalk
- 1 chopped onion
- 2 handfuls of laurel (or basil, or oregano)
- 3 ounces of cherry tomatoes (halved)
- 5 ounces of boiled new potatoes (halved)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Put the beans and grains into a pot and cover with water or vegetable broth, adding salt, pepper, and laurel. Bring to a boil.
- Add the carrot, celery, onion, and potatoes. Allow to simmer, covered, for a half-hour, or until the fresh vegetables are tender.
- Add the tomatoes and continue to simmer for another 10-15 minutes.
- Taste and add seasoning if desired. Serve in bowls when ready.
Your crapiata should be served with a good red wine, and ideally accompanied by the famous pane di Matera, or “Matera bread.” Any good bread will do, provided it’s whole wheat and torn into chunks rather than carefully sliced.