Accidental Style Icon: Strega Nona
If you put all of that pasta on your plate, you are going to have to finish it.
From Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola
When you are a child, there are few things alluring as magic. It is a thing that you cannot see, but you are very confident exists. Because how could so much of what enters your field of view when you are very young function without the help of supernatural forces? When you don’t have the language to describe what happens when your teeth fall out of your mouth there has to be another explanation. Strega Nona, perhaps the most recognizable book in the oeuvre of the recently deceased author-cum-illustrator Tomie dePaola, explores these early childhood parables of magic and wisdom through the joy of eating pasta.
Strega Nona is a grandmother and she is also a witch. She lives in the an Italian village called Calabria, and spends most of her days making pasta and scolding a boy named Big Anthony. She is the epitome of the perfect Italian grandmother: no one goes hungry in her world. She wears a little bonnet, a long purple skirt, a green and white apron, and a fuchsia undershirt. Strega Nona’s whole aesthetic is that of someone who doesn’t have time to spend picking out a nice little dress to wear in the morning. She is ever the utilitarian; she knows what she needs to wear to do her job of making pasta, curing headaches, and finding husbands for the village girls.
It could be that in children’s books there don't need to be costume changes. When you are trying to get a point across to a young person, you don’t need to have elaborate changes in scenery and dress. Even if that was dePaola’s plan all along, it feels significant that Strega Nona wears the same, weird little outfit in every frame. She comes across like a very stable and practical old lady; she has all of her ducks in a row. The only slight adjustment she ever makes to her look is that she wears a big taupe cloak when she goes off to visit her friend Strega Amelia on the other side of the mountain. When I read this line I imagined this mystical woman plodding doggedly cliffside. I imagined her taking a break to readjust her bonnet or her cloak, and making time to have a snack that probably involved wine (good for the heart). She gets back from her journey and her cloak disappears. She scolds Big Anthony for trying to make pasta out of her magical pasta pot, thus filling the village with noodles and freaking everyone out.
Strega Nona is a modest old lady who really captures what I figure is probably a very specific form of Italian sensibility. I’m not even a little bit Italian and therefore love to put Italians on a pedestal. They have everything I care about over there: all of the best foods, a slower way of life, and good outfits. Strega Nona gets at that very sensibility almost instantly. It’s a book for children that is about the joys of taking it slow, and remembering that you have to eat everything you put on your plate or else. It is also a book about joy and magic, and how the most quotidian parts of human life are often the most special. A meal of comfort food can be magic—so can a warm taupe cloak that protects you from the harsh elements you encounter when walking across a mountain to visit one of your grandma colleagues. If only Strega Nona’s magic worked in our everyday lives, and that all you had to do to have the perfect dinner was to tighten the apron you wear everyday and chant, “Bubble, bubble, pasta pot,” then blow three kisses. If only.