In her next piece for #itchysilk, Semtex goes in like the proverbial charging bull on Italian stereotypes. Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola is the catalyst for her ire. Through the lens of this children’s book, Semtex highlights that, in many ways, Italian stereotypes still get a pass despite the current political climate wherein any little phrase directed toward race and ethnicity can be grounds for offense. Italians, however, remain fair game for hurtful mockery. The continued lack of concern for holding up these tired clichés as a truthful and honest representation of Italian culture is often perpetuated by Italian-Americans seeking to cash in on their “pizza and pasta heritage.”
The list of “contributions” to culture with regard to fanning the flames of Italian stereotyping is fairly boundless—yes, the freshly deceased Ray Liotta was a key contributor. But among the guiltiest culprits (especially because it’s geared toward such a young age group that’s so easily indoctrinated) is Strega Nona. Released in 1975, the award-winning children’s book quickly took hold within the American bedtime story landscape. The tale was written by Tomie dePaola, a Connecticut-born man whose Irish heritage seemed to win out over his Italian side in terms of which lineage he would prefer to sell down the river for cash. Even if the story was grafted from a German fable (recorded by the Brothers Grimm) called Sweet Porridge a.k.a. The Magic Porridge Pot.
“To further bastardize the ‘Italian’ story, Steenburgen was tapped by the SAG-AFTRA Foundation to do a filmed reading of the book in 2016, during which she chose to call the saga: Strega Noña—like we’re in fucking Spanish class (and yes, she says “noña” the entire time).”
In the original version, a little girl encounters a witchy woman in the forest who takes note of her abject poverty and decides to offer her a magic pot that obeys the command whenever someone tells it to cook, bursting forth with millet porridge. Sure, that’s nasty, but it’s sustaining. And thanks to the witch, the little girl and her mother are “cured” of poverty. For this was a time before modern capitalism, when being able to eat on the regular was enough of a sign of wealth to evade judgment. But even “back in the day,” getting one’s hands on such riches seemed to lead to inevitable excess. For the pot soon starts to generate way too much goddamn porridge and, for whatever reason, the girl doesn’t think to tell it to stop the same way she told it to start. Thus, the porridge spreads to all the other houses in the neighborhood, as though desiring to feed the world (like Bob Geldof wanted to) as opposed to just a highly select part of Germany. Finally, the twit thinks to say, “Stop, little pot” after there’s only one house left to converge upon. From that point, everyone who wants to go back to their part of town has to eat their share of porridge to do so.
A familiar tale indeed. One that gets stereotypically repurposed from an “Italian perspective” by dePaola via the use of pasta. And instead of Germany, our scene is set in “Calabria.” Though none of the illustrations really seem to get that across. The eponymous Strega Nona has a similar magic pot that spews forth pasta at her whim, or so it seems to her new apprentice, Big Anthony (who would be called Antonio if this were an Italian project in any way). Strega Nona’s specialties of making potions that will remove warts and help single women find men also don’t bode well for portraying Southern Italians as a very attractive or progressive people.
But why should dePaola concern himself with that? Having paternal grandparents from the Calabrian region seemed to be all the “legitimacy” he felt he needed in lieu of doing a bit more research, even when it came to the cursory. For a start, the title of the book doesn’t bother to spell “nona” correctly (even if the author is trying pass it off as the woman’s actual name), for any Italian worth their weight in basic language skills knows that the word for “grandma” is spelled “nonna.” And apparently, Mary Steenburgen wasn’t well-instructed on the pronunciation either, let alone the spelling. Because, to further bastardize the “Italian” story, Steenburgen was tapped by the SAG-AFTRA Foundation to do a filmed reading of the book in 2016, during which she chose to call the saga: “Strega Noña”—like we’re in fucking Spanish class (and yes, she says “noña” the entire time). She then notes that the book is written and illustrated by “Tomie de…Payola.” Or Tomie dePaola (pronounced “pow-lah” not “payola”).
“When she ‘does’ the voice of Strega Nona or Big Anthony, she uses that horrendous imitation that all Americans do, wherein they put an ‘a’ in between every word.”
All at once, some cliché tarantella-esque music is cued as Steenburgen dives in for a cringeworthy reading. Sadly, however, she probably reads it better than most parents did to their children at the height of Strega Nona fever. Or so we think, until it becomes clear that she’s obviously trying to present this whole thing with some kind of makeshift The Godfather-inspired accent. And that’s just when she’s reading the part of the narrator. When she “does” the voice of Strega Nona or Big Anthony, she uses that horrendous imitation that all Americans do, wherein they put an “a” in between every word. Still, Steenburgen is somehow more bearable to hear than Lady Gaga in House of Gucci. That doesn’t mean she can be counted on to say “grazie” correctly, going for the Buca di Beppo pronunciation via “grahts-ee” instead of “grahts-yeh.”
Playing up the so-called “pasta-obsessed” nature of the nationality, Strega Nona informs Big Anthony of a lone major rule: “The one thing you must never do is touch the pasta pot. It is very valuable and I don’t let anyone touch it.” Big Anthony doesn’t seem to mind the terms until he sees Strega Nona through the window one night. And she’s singing an offensive little ditty made all the more so by Steenburgen pulling out an accordion to “bring it to life” while she sings, “Bubble, bubble pasta pot/Boil me some pasta/Nice and hot/I’m hungry and it’s time to sup/Boil me some pasta to fill me up.” And no, not even Lady Gaga—with all her declarations of being a proud “Italian-American”—would touch those lyrics. Nor the ones that Strega Nona uses to get the pot to stop cooking, which Big Anthony also overhears. But what he doesn’t see is the fact that Strega Nona additionally blows the pot three kisses, as though to iterate that Italians are overly affectionate not just in general but particularly with their food (a “typecast” also used to the nation’s detriment when a French TV show chose to mock the COVID outbreak there in March of 2020 with a sketch that suggested the contagion could be spread through food). Moreover, that they’re incapable of keeping their mouths shut (engaging in endless pettegolezzo) as Big Anthony proceeds to run to the town square and blab to everyone about this magic pot.
No one believes him, naturally. Which is almost surprising since it would be in dePaola’s stereotyping wheelhouse to portray Southern Italians as gullible dullards with pasta for brains. Luckily for Big Anthony, however, Strega Nona is due to visit her other witch friend, leaving him in charge. And, although she specifically reminds him not to touch the pasta pot, it’s clearly the first thing he plans to do so as to vindicate his reputation.
Serving spoonfuls of pasta to the townspeople, which they appear to lick off said spoons like ice cream, nobody seems to question the fact that there’s no sauce on the pasta. Which kind of makes the pot the opposite of “magical” in an Italian’s eyes, as no one wants some dry-ass spaghetti served to them, no matter how hard-up they are. In cases like that, sauce such as puttanesca gets invented—but never, absolutely never, is plain “white” pasta acceptable. Just another flagrant example of how Italian-Americans and the Americans that look to them for guidance on “being Italian” only causes an ouroboros of vexing caricaturizations.
By the time slow-witted Big Anthony fathoms that the pot isn’t going to stop spouting disgusting pasta that one would probably find at Olive Garden (and here’s where someone nefarious says to themselves, “I love Olive Garden”), it’s too late. The strands have become an uncontrollable mass overtaking the town, much like Italian stereotypes overtaking the entire globe. And the only food that could be more cliché to illustrate “life in Italy” is pizza. So “at least” dePaola opted for a different carb to offer some slight “deviation” from the norm.
Returning just in time to save the day, Strega Nona is subsequently rendered like some kind of honorary capo. For dePaola puts the following mafioso words in her mouth to serve as a jocular “moral of the story” (that is, after the town expresses a strong urge to lynch Big Anthony): “‘Now wait,’ said Strega Nona. ‘The punishment must fit the crime.’” In other words, he must eat his way through the town. Because all Calabrians can eat, right? Especially pasta. That’s all they do, isn’t it? When they’re not busy working for ‘Ndrangheta?
If Strega Nona weren’t already offensive in and of itself, Steenburgen’s retelling of it is certainly enough to cinch the deal. And it’s a raw one for Italians, who still remain among the sole ethnicities that people have “a pass” for openly mocking and stereotyping without a second thought.