Traditional Foodways: Dolci dei morti

Food is a central part of celebrating festa dei morti or All Souls’ Day in Southern Italy and Sicily. Granted, it’s a central part of most feste italiane, but something about the way sharing a meal brings a family together illuminates the true meaning of this holiday, which focuses on familial ties that bind us even in death.

Many of the traditional foods associated with this day are desserts, called dolci dei morti (“sweets of the dead”). These dolci predate the importation of American Halloween traditions, including trick-or-treating, but the commonality of sugary fun is definitely intriguing!

I can only speculate on why sweetness is so important to Italian and Sicilian celebrations of the dead: it could be because children play a prominent role in this feast, being seen as gifts from (or perhaps emanations of) the ancestors. Or maybe it’s so that the dead will be sweet to us, doing graces on our behalf! In any case, savor the sweetness of the day. Flavor, like scent and music, reveals something about the nature of spirits.

fave_dei_morti
Ossi dei morti (“bones of the dead”), AKA fave dei morti (“beans of the dead”). The connection between beans and the dead goes back to Antiquity, and may be older than that.

Ossi dei morti (Sicily)
Shown above, these cookies are made with the first almonds harvested in September. Their shape and color is meant to mimic a pile of bones.
Get the recipe here.

Pane dei morti (Lombardia)
More of a cookie than a bread in my opinion, but I’m not a chef. These also contain almonds, with amaretto cookies, chocolate, and figs for additional flavor.
Get the recipe here.

Pupi di zucchero (Sicily)
These figures are shaped out of marzipan to resemble humans in a tradition remarkably similar to the calaveras or sugar skulls used to celebrate Día de los Muertos in Mexico. The pupi di zucchero are both decorative and delicious, commonly given as gifts to children, and seem to represent the dead themselves. But unlike in Mexican folk art, the dead in Southern Italy and Sicily are depicted as they were in life, not as skeletons.

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