Mae’s Food Blog

Prosciutto, Symbol of Abundance Amidst Poverty

Elena Ferrante’s series of four Neapolitan novels have been reviewed with great admiration since the first was published in 2012. Finally, I’ve begun reading them, and have now finished the first two, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name.
I’m enjoying this wonderful author and her writing, and I hope to post more about the books when I have read all four of them. For now, I want to describe how the author uses an ordinary food item, prosciutto, as a way to offer insights about the two main characters of the books: Elena Greco, the narrator, called Lenuccia or Lenù and her lifelong friend Raffaella Cerullo, called Lina, or Lila.

In the first two books, Elena and Lina are growing up in poverty in a working class neighborhood in Naples. Both had been born in the spring of 1944, both were bright and promising, but they chose or to some extent were forced into very different lives. During the second book, they are between 16 and 22 years old. Lina had dropped out of school before high school. She had been married at age 16, at the end of the first book. Meanwhile Elena, despite her brilliance, was struggling as a high school and university student because of her parents’ lack of support or understanding.

In the following paragraphs, Elena describes a visit to Lina at the well-furnished modern apartment where Lina lived with her husband, a small-time shopkeeper:

“She made me a sandwich with prosciutto, cheese, salami— anything I wanted. Such abundance was never seen at my parents’ house: how good the smell of the fresh bread was, and the taste of the fillings, especially the prosciutto, bright red edged with white. I ate greedily and Lila made me coffee. ….

“Maybe the wealth we wanted as children is this, I thought: not strongboxes full of diamonds and gold coins but a bathtub, to immerse yourself like this every day, to eat bread, salami, prosciutto, to have a lot of space even in the bathroom, to have a telephone, a pantry and icebox full of food, a photograph in a silver frame on the sideboard that shows you in your wedding dress— to have this entire house, with the kitchen, the bedroom, the dining room, the two balconies, and the little room where I am studying… .” Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name: Neapolitan Novels, Book Two (Kindle Locations 729-744).

Soon afterwards, Lina’s husband Stefano opens a grocery store where she is to work. Prosciutto continues to illuminate her relative wealth, along with her carelessness of the importance of her good fortune and her resentment of her husband. During the grand opening of the expanded grocery store:

“She went on to slice prosciutto and stuff sandwiches, handing them out free to anyone, along with a glass of wine. And this last move was so successful that the store had scarcely opened when it was jammed with customers; she and Carmela were besieged, and Stefano, who was elegantly dressed, had to help them deal with the situation as he was, without an apron, so that his good clothes got all greasy.” (Kindle Locations 1600-1602).

I’m fascinated by the way that prosciutto becomes a symbol of many things that are happening in this compelling book. The comfort of food — just a sandwich, but filled with good meat — contrasts to the deprivations of the working class neighborhood and the coldness of Elena’s parents. Her view of what it means to have enough to eat highlights the challenge of her struggle to get an education, as well as highlighting the choices of her friend to skip an education and marry a good provider despite his flaws. The complexity increases. Later, as Lina becomes more and more embittered, Elena (also called Lenù) quotes these words from her friend:

“When we opened this place, Stefano showed me how to cheat on the weight; and at first I shouted you’re a thief, that’s how you make money, and then I couldn’t resist, I showed him that I had learned and immediately found my own ways to cheat and I showed him, and I was constantly thinking up new ones: I’ll cheat you all, I cheat you on the weight and a thousand other things, I cheat the neighborhood, don’t trust me, Lenù, don’t trust what I say and do.” (Kindle Locations 2001-2004).

And finally, Lina leaves her husband. Elena, home from her studies, finds Lina (also called Lila) living in a slum and working in a sausage factory:

I emerged among women in blue smocks who worked with the meat, caps on their heads: the machines produced a clanking sound and a mush of soft, ground, mixed matter. But Lila wasn’t there. And I didn’t see her where they were stuffing skins with the rosy pink paste mixed with bits of fat, or where, with sharp knives, they skinned, gutted, cut, using the blades with a dangerous frenzy. I found her in the storerooms. She came out of a refrigerator along with a sort of white breath. With the help of a short man, she was carrying a reddish block of frozen meat on her back. She placed it on a cart, she started to go back into the cold. I immediately saw that one hand was bandaged.” (Kindle Locations 6469-6474).

I enjoyed seeing the way the author depicts two women facing their choices in life and attempting to control their fates. These food scenes make up just one small detail in a vastly complex book, but I think they offer a way to understand how the author crafts her fascinating and “gripping novels about the rich and complex lives of women — as mothers, daughters, wives, writers” as the New York Times describes them.

Jacob Meyer de Haan: Still Life with Ham (1889), Norton Simon Museum