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BREAKFAST IN NAPLES IN 1901

In an article in the Century Magazine on Breakfast in Naples, Mary Scott Uda writes: “In the short and simple annals of the poor in Naples there is no getting up and lighting the fire to cook the family breakfast. The wayfarer arriving on an early train or a reveler returning from some gay ball at dawn sees the first movement of the immense wheel of human appetite in the shape of a dismal looking creature muffled in a ragged overcoat, and shuffling sluggishly from door of the opening bassi, or ground floor shops and tenements. He carries a long handled iron pan half filled with smoldering charcoal whereon simmers a quaint copper pot full of a mixture that purports to be coffee. This compound which he duly administers to his clientele is the sober Neapolitan eye opener.

Well sweetened and well warmed, it costs only one cent and is the beverage of early risers, of hackmen returning from the night’s chill station, of watchmen making their last weary rounds, of workmen shaking off the lethargy of insufficient sleep, of women half poisoned by the night’s rest in houses devoid of ventilation.

Very soon the air becomes vocal with the characteristic calls of the breakfast venders. ‘Hot and big as apples’ shout the sellers of peeled chestnuts. These are boiled in huge caldrons in a reddish broth of their own making, which is further seasoned with laurel leaves and caraway seed. A cents worth of the steaming kernels, each of which is as big as a large English walnut, is a nourishing diet that warms the fingers and comforts the stomachs of troops of children on their way to school, or rather to cooperative crèches, or nurseries, where one poor woman for a cent a day each takes care of the babies of a score of others, who must leave them behind to earn a day’s living.

The big roasted chestnuts of Italy are a luxury, and are not disdained by the better class as well who often buy them from the ambulating venders by letting down baskets from bedroom windows.

Groups of delicate anaemic factory girls surround the sellers of ricotta, a sort of milk curd temptingly displayed on bits of green vine or fig leaf. Meantime, dignified cows pass by with measured tread and slow, shaking their heavy bells, followed by their beguiled offspring whose business is to make them give down their milk at the opportune moment, and to let the milkman take it. Nothing can be funnier than this struggle between the legitimate owner, the calf, and the wily subtractor of the lacteal treasure. Although tied to his mother’s horns by a strong rope long enough to reach and even lick her bag but not to get any satisfaction out of it, his bovine wit is often sharp enough to give the slip to the noose and allude the vigilance of the keeper, occupied, perhaps, for the moment in quarrelling with some saucy maid servant over the quantity of milk to be paid for.

The scene which ensues is worthy of the cinematograph. As a sequel, calfy’s tail is nearly pulled off, but he has spoiled the oppressor’s game for one day anyhow. No precepts of civilization have thus far been able to triumph over the persistent determination of the average Neapolitan to have his milk first-hand, and first-hand under active scrutiny. Although there is a nominal price of ten cents a quart of milk, it is never measured, except by the eye and by the nimble fingers of the milkman. He knows just how many deft grips of the hand will draw a cents worth of milk, and the purchaser knows at a glance the exact relative proportion between the liquid and the foam artfully raised to the surface. Nevertheless, squabbles are frequent and everybody regularly protests that it is too little, whereupon the milkman regularly milks another drop into the glass, and everybody is satisfied.

While all this is going on, troops of thievish goats on the lookout for chance plunder invade the streets, rubbing their shaggy hides against the passersby who are not quick enough or obliging enough to get out of the way. The goats are on the way to be milked at the doors of the rich. The goatherd leaves his flock in the street or courtyard and mounts the staircase, followed by the goat to be milked, who knows his customers as well as anyone, up to the very door where the animal is sure to find a nice lunch of lettuce or broccoli leaves or a handful of orange peel of which goats are extremely fond.

It is an article of faith here that milk, in some mysterious way, partakes of the frame of mind, so to speak, of the creature giving it, and the goats daily tidbit is a way of securing ‘contented milk’.

The recent discoveries of science relative to the transmission of tuberculosis to human beings from cow’s milk, and the fact that goats are absolutely exempt from the disease, have largely increased the use of these animals and the consequent discomfort of the Neapolitan streets. The docile creatures are widely used instead of the bottle for nursing babies. They readily learn to stand patiently over the basket cradle where the child lies and sucks the living stream without need of patent stoppers.

All this early breakfast activity is for the benefit of the favored few sick or delicate women, exhausted watchers, and children. The mass of the Neapolitan population do not break their fast until near noon. The stern conditions of life, which in crowded countries inexorably restrict the indulgence of appetite, counsel them to consume the strength gained by sleep before using that which comes from food.

About 11 o’clock, the spectacle presented by the breakfast venders in the populous quarters is picturesque in the extreme. I know of no other town where the purchasing power of a penny is so notable, and the sum of satisfaction received is so great.

On the street corners, in the squares, everywhere where they ought and ought not to be, innumerable friggitrici or frying-women preside over huge deep skillets of boiling lard. Here for one cent you can buy, hot and crisp from the pan and so dry as scarcely to stain a kid glove, five different kinds of fritters from potato croquettes to doughnuts from stuffed rice balls to trifles light as air. There are artichokes gilded - that is rolled in beaten egg, and cracker crumbs; puff paste stuffed with fresh cheese; crullers and wafers; golden squash flowers considered both healthful and nutritious, polpette, or meat rolls, such as we would call fried hash-meat turnovers; in short a bewildering array of delicately browned and savory things most tempting to those who have not observed the black and seething mass of lard they are fried in. The dainty housekeeper seldom succeeds as well in giving her fritters the pale gold or russet brown of perfect cooking.

On fast or abstinence days, these same public fryers provide fish in endless variety, fried religiously in oil instead of lard. These viands, however, are for the capricious appetite of shop girls, students, and artisans who require an esthetic element, so to speak, in their food. For solid hunger there are great kettles full of rich highly seasoned sauce of ragout, or tomato stew, in which float stray bits of meat. Here the laboring men most do congregate, and for two cents they receive half a loaf of bread cut open and steeped in the sauce with one or two bits of meat to suggest a banquet. Other buyers stop at the steaming tripe stands, where the fluted fantastic entrails of oxen and swine are sold. The grotesque shapes, and dull leaden color of the merchandise, are more than enough to repel a fastidious stomach, but in Naples this kind of fare is highly prized. It is served as a stew poured over sliced bread and sprinkled with salt from the nether end of a cows horn.

Another indescribable mess is the famous sanguinaccio, or pigs blood mixed with chocolate and whipped to a cream. This is, however, an aristocratic dish, and appears on the street only at Christmas time. For street buyers who cannot afford to invest a cent in their daily breakfast, and, alas! there are many such, there are kettles of boiled potatoes with a pinch of salt for two times less than half a cent, and no bread required. During the summer season there are huge caldrons of hot field corn - sweet corn being unknown - set on low supports and wheeled hither and thither by the stentorian voiced venders to the cry ‘Here is your spring chickens, five for a cent.’

The famous pizzerie of Naples, some of which boast a hundred years of existence, are devoted exclusively to the manufacture and sale of a sort of rustic pie, or shortcake, made out of risen dough sharply beaten till quite thin, and seasoned on top with a great deal of lard tomatoes and grated cheese, or on fast days with olive oil, fresh anchovies, and a touch of garlic."

The Ocala Evening Star, July 02, 1901