Pasta Made With Love
THE DEFENDANT: Strega Nona, written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola
THE VERDICT: Banned or challenged in some US libraries.
THE CHARGES: Strega Nona is banned for witchcraft and supernatural elements.
THE REVIEW: Despite earlier versions incorrectly labeling the book as an old tale retold, Strega Nona is an original story written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola. DePaola lives in my home state, so his award-winning works were a staple of my childhood. However, Strega Nona‘s fame extends far beyond the Granite State. Strega Nona is widely considered to be one of the best children’s books of all time.
The book tells the story of Strega Nona (Italian for ‘Grandma Witch’). She’s your friendly neighborhood wise woman who serves her village via wart removal, headache cures, and helping people find love. Strega Nona even has a magic pasta pot that can magic up pasta at her command. One day, Strega Nona goes away and her hapless helper, Big Anthony, tries to make pasta. Unfortunately, he does not know how to turn the magic pasta pot off and it just keeps spitting out pasta until the now giant pasta threatens to destroy the village. Strega Nona arrives in the nick of time to save the village, stopping the magic pasta pot by blowing three kisses.
This book has the same charming folk quality as dePaola’s other works, from the art to the story itself. Strega Nona has much in common with other kindly grandmother witches in folktales and fairy tales the world over. Similarly, her pasta pot draws on a long-standing mythological motif. Many have lamented that the 19th century saw the decline of folk culture and the 20th century its death knell. However, it is stories like this, rooted in a rich cultural heritage, that prove folk culture to be alive and well. We are merely getting them from wonderfully illustrated children’s books instead of at Nona or Oma or Grandma’s knee.
THE DEFENSE: Strega Nona is a witch in the sense that she is a kindly, grandmother figure at the end of the village who despenses wisdom and potions. It’s unclear if she herself can do magic, or if she merely knows how to make potions and work the pasta pot. Given that her potions’ abilities seem limited to curing common ailments and sparking passion, they might not be magic at all, but merely folk medicine and aphrodesiacs.
Which brings us to the issue at hand: witchcraft. Here’s where things get complicated. Throughout the centuries ‘witch’ has meant anything from followers of indigenous religions to witch doctors of the folk medicine and/or shamanic variety to devil-worshippers to warty old women who eat children to those who practice magic or possess magical powers (whether learned, hereditary, or divinely endowed).
Many books have been banned for witchcraft or satanic/supernatural content, Strega Nona; Harry Potter; Lord of the Rings; many a paranormal thriller/romance; and any number of things banned, censored, or burned by the Catholic Church over the last millenia just to name a few. So where to begin?
I’m not going to rail against Christianity’s inaccurate stance on witchcraft. Given the legacy of Malleus Malleficarum, I know there’s no use. However, Strega Nona is clearly not a devil-worshipper. In fact, the book makes no mention of God, the devil, or even any indigenous religious practices. Perhaps Strega Nona’s wisdom comes from vestiges of pre-Christian traditions, perhaps she is a devout Catholic who happens to have home remedies for heachaches. Either way she is not evil and I sincerely doubt any child has been corrupted by her harmless homeopathy or pasta making.
The pasta pot is the only truly supernatural element. While Strega Nona and her pasta pot come from the mind of dePaola, the pot has roots in a long tradition of magical vessels. The magic pot, cauldron, or cup is very common in Celtic mythology and has been seen in everything from The Black Cauldron to the many stories featuring the Holy Grail. While this motif has roots in the indigenous religions and mythic cycles of Northern and Western Europe, it has been subsumed into Christian tradition. I am not aware of any Christians taking issue with the Holy Grail (unless another Granite Stater by the name of Dan Brown is involved), so I see no reason why Strega Nona’s pasta pot can’t be extended the same courtesy.
Besides, one could easily argue that Strega Nona discourages children from meddling with magic rather than encouraging them to seek supernatural short-cuts for their problems as some seem to fear. All of the trouble comes from Big Anthony trying his hand at magic when he does not know what he’s doing. His foolish meddling nearly destroys the town and Strega Nona punishes him accordingly for the trouble he’s caused by forcing him to eat all of the pasta. As this artist’s statement from the Lawrence Library points out, Strega Nona’s pasta pot is stopped by three kisses, thus love saves the day. How can anyone, regardless of their religious leanings, possibly take issue with that?