Words, Episode 1: mangia-cake

My parents grew up in a small village in the hills of Calabria, Italy. My Mom used to tell stories about her childhood, which involved getting up insanely early to hike out to work the fields with her father and older brother and sister. They would carry their lunch with them, which often involved only water, bread, tomatoes, and a little olive oil.

As a child, I was impressed, and also bewildered. How could such a meagre diet allow them to grow up relatively healthy? It was only many years later, when I visited rural Italy, that I understood. The peasant bread they bake by hand is heavy and hearty, and I finally understood how one could make a satisfying meal out of just bread and a bit of something.

When I came home for lunch as an elementary-school student, my Mom would sometimes make me tomato sandwiches, with oregano and olive oil. I now have beautiful nostalgia remembering this, as recently as yesterday when I made a snack of tomato sandwiches (with olive oil and my Mother-in-law’s home-grown oregano) for my daughter Kajsa and I.

Which brings us to the word of the day, mangia-cake. During the most recent wave of immigration from Italy to North America in the post-WWI years, Italian immigrants accustomed to the hearty bread from back home were shocked at the soft, insubstantial bread eaten by most Canadians. It seemed more cake than bread, and so mangia-cake (literally, cake-eater) became a term of derision for the fools who would base their nutrition on cake.

Nowadays I often hear people using the term much more neutrally, simply to mean a person who is not of Italian heritage. Usage ever evolves.

(This post first appeared at my other (now deleted) blog, and was transferred to this blog on 25 January 2021.)