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Arance Dolci: Fruit, Fairytale and Cultural Identity

“Metaphors are what we live by,” says 2012-2013 University Scholar Cristina Mazzoni, “… taste metaphors shape and guide us in our understanding of the world around us and within us.” (Photo: Sally McCay)

You can tell something about who Cristina Mazzoni is – and who she is not – by the way she peels an orange, an art that she will demonstrate at her upcoming University Scholars seminar. For now, as she settles into a corner of her office on a frigid day, her hands creating a nest for a cup of hot tea, the Italian professor and chair of Romance Languages and Linguistics explains how she’s been fortunate to indulge (already using a metaphor frequently associated with food) in melding her personal, pedagogical and scholarly interests in cooking and Italian food culture as they relate to literature.

She makes it sound like pure play, but her colleague Gayle Nunley, associate provost for faculty affairs and internationalization and associate professor of Spanish, addressing Mazzoni’s selection as University Scholar, is quick to note that she has been extremely successful and productive at UVM, publishing numerous books at some of the finest university presses. “The honor,” Nunley says, “recognizes her stature in the scholarly community as well as her embodiment of the teacher-scholar model that UVM prides itself on.”

Mazzoni will deliver her talk, “How to Pick, Peel, and Eat Oranges Like an Italian: Recipes for Reading,” on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 4 to 5 pm. in Waterman’s Memorial Lounge. Born in a small town near Rome, she likens her graceful approach to revealing an orange’s juicy flesh to the way she cooks and to the way she teaches her students to approach a work of literature – or the cinema or art for that matter. As themes simmer throughout Italian culture, ancient and new, Mazzoni follows where they take her. Her recipes, she makes clear, in both the kitchen and the classroom, are not carefully codified instructions that lead to uniform outcomes.

“I see a connection between instructions on how to cook and the ways I teach my students how to read something,” she says. “I’m associating the act of reading that I do as a literary critic with subjects that are not necessarily traditional literature. Just as when somebody asks me for a recipe – I don’t have it written down, I just say, ‘Oh, you know, you take a little of this, a little of that.’”

One suspects the fruit peeling may be the most precise, least passionate of Mazzoni’s pursuits.

Magical associations

Bringing her varied cultural interests into the classroom – from her early fascination with mystic women writers to her view of food as a prism through which societies can be observed -- makes her naturally more enthusiastic, Mazzoni says. And it’s clearly infectious. Second-year anthropology major Melissa Guzikowski, who is currently taking her third course with Mazzoni, calls her amazing. “She is the reason I decided to pursue Italian studies,” says Guzikowski, “minoring in Italian and studying abroad in Italy.”

This semester Mazzoni is teaching Italian fairytales, including The Three Oranges, which she’ll bring into her talk. “In fairytales,” she says, “often there is an association between food and women,” noting that it’s not well understood in English that Rapunzel actually gets her name from an herb grown in Germany. The Italian version, Mazzoni explains, translates to Parsley Girl and draws on a belief that if a pregnant woman craves a food she must have it or else, when she touches a spot on her body, her child will have a birthmark resembling the desired food. In Italian lore, a brownish birthmark, Mazzoni says, suggests that your mother really wanted a cappuccino.

Despite the Italians’ appreciation for the necessity of coffee, Mazzoni says, “It is with oranges that the question of identity comes up again and again -- who am I, and who is the other? I think part of that is that oranges have always been an exotic fruit. So it’s not that they are the solution to all western society’s intellectual questions, but they do happen to be a catalyst because of what they’ve represented in terms of identity.” This is true in terms of class – during the Renaissance it was nobility who had access to such fruits – and also in terms of ethnicity, particularly for Sicilians.

In Sicily, “the land of oranges,” their fairytale refers to them as golden. “In other fairytales,” says Mazzoni, “oranges represent women – in fact, the protagonist opens up the orange and a woman comes out. In the Sicilian stories, the oranges are gold, and they are precious in and of themselves.”

A taste of love

Once Mazzoni began her self-described obsession with oranges she says she started noticing them everywhere. A favorite – one she says she missed when she wrote her book on women mystics, The Women in God’s Kitchen – is a letter from Saint Catherine of Siena to the pope about how she had candied oranges before sending them to him, explaining that just as she had sweetened oranges by boiling away the bitterness in water, so should he purify his soul with the water of grace so it will become sweet like the oranges.

Why would someone who identifies as a humble woman, even if sainted, offer such advice to a pope? “Because her power and knowledge and wisdom came from God and not from herself,” Mazzoni explains. “Catherine felt able, in fact, she felt obligated to criticize the pope when he was not doing the right thing.”

Returning to her book on mystics in preparation for this interview, Mazzoni says she rediscovered some ideas that are important in thinking about the orange narratives into which she is delving. In that book she counters the notion that early holy women were necessarily fasting to the point of death. “There (was) also a strong emphasis on food as something positive – communion with others, communion with God,” she says, adding that the Bible is filled with comparisons of God’s love to honey, figs and dates.

But just as metaphors for sweetness abound, Mazzoni notes in some Renaissance texts love is not sweet but bitter, their Italian translations being quite close: amore and amaro.

Whoever you are, however you peel an orange, whether love leaves you embittered or sweet, these terms describing the state of our hearts appear to be part of a universal vernacular. Taste, Mazzoni says, is considered the lowest of the human senses, well beneath sight and hearing. “Smell and taste are more animalistic,” she says. “Distinguishing between sweet and bitter is an experience that’s very primal to us and it makes sense that we should use it as a metaphor to try to understand something that is more than sensual. And it makes sense that language helps us do that.”

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