May 282012

A recent video about Rita Bordone, a popular Perugian fruit and vegetable vendor, has set off a chorus of people upset that she is closing her little shop in Via dei Priori to retire to the countryside where she has her gardens. I had the opportunity to talk with Mrs. Bordone recently and was shocked to hear about her youth (she is 73 years old).

Far from the healthy mix of foods in the so-called Mediterranean diet, the menu at Rita’s house when she was a girl was monotonous and insufficient. Her father was a sharecropper for one of the parasitic local elite landowners, and despite a rich piece of land, the children were always hungry. The primary reason was not too many children, but rather too heavy obblighi, or dues. Every month Rita’s family had to provide the baron with so many eggs, so many chickens, and a portion of whatever harvest was happening.

“We had lots of chickens, but I never ate eggs. We had to give most of them to the padrone, and the rest my mother sold in town to get money to buy sugar, salt, and soap.” Rita was pained describing her father weaving dried raspberry canes into the fig trees’ branches to keep the children from eating the fruit. “The figs were for the padrone,” she explained.

fruit and vegetable dealer PerugiaUmbria vaunts its past as a regione contadina, a farmer region. This is a serious misrepresentation of its past. Those who worked the land were not happy, independent yeoman but rather malnutritioned, exploited sharecroppers: Umbria was then a regione mezzadra. For whatever reason, Italians (and foreign enthusiasts of Italian food) prefer to forget or to remain ignorant of this past of inequity. I would argue that this is a mistake. Just as Umbrians should remember their past, Americans who envision some sort of Jeffersonian agrarian republic should remember that Jefferson was a slave-owning member of a landed, hereditary elite.  ZN

See Nicola Palumbo’s video here (only in Italian).

(Rita Bordone in her shop. Photo credit: Jess Paholsky)

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