Stefana, our kitchen Nonna, kneads the glossy dough with her strong hands. In broken Italian, I ask what she is making. Pane dei morti, she responds in thick dialect. Morti translates as dead in Italian. Why would she be making bread of the dead? Thinking that my basic Italian skills must be failing me, I ask her to repeat. She does, explaining that the bread is for a festa, a holiday, the Feast of All Souls. Miscommunication is common between us, and she laughs heartily, relating that her sister was so superstitious she wouldn’t eat the bread because she believed it to be bad luck. We laugh and I eye the bread suspiciously.
Italian culture oozes tradition. My time as an apprentice in an Emilia-Romagnian kitchen allowed me to participate in culinary and cultural traditions on daily basis, from the shaping of tortelli to the braiding of Piacenza harvested garlic. On the second of November, the Feast of All Souls (also known as Day of the Dead) is celebrated to remember and honour the departed. Church bells ring out all over the villages and towns of Italy while families visit graveyards, bringing offerings of flowers, candles and baked goods and stories are shared with children of their ancestors. The children of the village I lived were not afraid, but happy that throughout the night, their deceased ancestors filled their shoes with candy and toys.
Offerings of food demonstrate love to the living and to the dead. Nonna Stefana took great care in making enough pane dei morti for the whole family, kneading and allowing the almond dough to rise for two days before expertly forming it. Special meals are prepared for this holiday and in some households an extra place is set at the table for familial spirits because some believe the dead can be present among the living on All Souls Day. To commemorate the occasion, bakeries create spooky desserts such as Bones of the Dead, bone-shaped cinnamon spice cookies, and Beans of the Dead, fava bean–shaped almond cookies.
As an outsider, I was fortunate to experience the Day of the Dead in a tiny Italian village. I was not with my own family on this occasion, but shared in the communal sense of joy and tradition of All Souls Day. Did I dare eat Nonna Stefana’s pane dei morti? Certainly, and I lived to tell the tale.