Why I Hate Strega Nona

The last page of Strega Nona, a children's book

[Photographs: Sho Spaeth]

The world is coming to an end. But imagine for a moment that doom arrives not with swarms of locusts or a disease like the one that's ravaging the globe. Imagine, instead, that the apocalypse arrives as an avalanche of pasta, and the world it threatens to subsume isn't our own, but a town in Calabria, from a long time ago.

A deluge of pasta, of course, is the climax of Strega Nona, the classic children's book about a magical pasta pot by Tomie dePaola, the author, illustrator, and artist who died on March 30th at the age of 85. But one of the curious things about the book, beloved by generations of children and their parents alike, is that few readers seem to find a world-ending tide of cooked macaroni to be menacing at all. On the contrary, most seem to find comfort or pleasure in the idea, greeting the pages upon which the noodles burst forth from Strega Nona's house and threaten the Calabrian town with an exclamation similar to the one my three-year-old daughter has shouted every night for close to a year: "Look at all that pasta!"

And look I do, each and every night, as I read the book to my child. Perhaps it's because I came to Strega Nona late in life, but I find the many line drawings of pasta disturbing, even though they're rendered in the same crude hand as images I otherwise find charming: of the benign witch Strega Nona, of the hapless protagonist Big Anthony, of the bulbous stars and crescent moon and the wonderful peacock that sits in the air as if its flying were arrested by the reader's attention; of the strangely large bunny rabbit, or of the compromised priest and the equally compromised clutch of nuns, and even of the man who calls for Big Anthony's lynching as punishment. And I wonder each night what the book is teaching my child.

I don't like Strega Nona, I suppose I should say, and my issue with it, while pedagogical, has mostly to do with that mountain of pasta. Well, not the pasta itself, nor the mountain it becomes, nor even the idea that a surplus of a basic foodstuff we rely on regularly, more regularly still in this current crisis, is supposed to be the harbinger of the end of this cozy Calabrian world.

My issue is that the pasta is unsauced. And everyone, including my kid, including adults who used to read the book as children, seems to love it.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it goes something like this:

In a small Calabrian town, the townspeople turn to an elderly lady for the treatment of common ailments (headaches), ennui (loneliness), and minor cosmetic surgeries (the removal of warts), and the efficacy of her cures, combined with their unorthodox nature, have earned her the name Strega Nona, which means "Grandma Witch." The narrator observes these cures have won her the custom of the town priest and the nuns of the local convent, who, despite their faith, trust in Strega Nona's abilities because "she really did have the magic touch."

Trouble begins when Strega Nona decides she needs some help around her little home, and the protagonist—introduced as "Big Anthony, who didn't pay attention"—offers his services. One night, Big Anthony hears Strega Nona singing a haunting tune, and as he eavesdrops through an open window, he sees the witch prepare their dinner using an object that will prove to be his doom: an enchanted pasta pot. Strega Nona calls Big Anthony in to eat, which compels him to stop eavesdropping, which in turn means he fails to see Strega Nona blow three kisses at the magic pot, a necessary coda that turns the pot's power off.

Big Anthony runs to town the next day and describes to any who'll listen the wonder he's witnessed—a pot that cooks pasta all by itself! The townspeople mock Big Anthony—"'You'd better go and confess to the priest, Big Anthony,' they said. 'Such a lie!'"—and the narrator notes this makes Big Anthony angry "and that wasn't a very good thing to be." Big Anthony then swears his revenge. "'I'll show them!' he said to himself. 'Someday I will get the pasta pot and make it cook! And then they'll be sorry.'"

Big Anthony gets his chance when Strega Nona decides to visit a witch in a neighboring town. As soon as she leaves, he recites the enchantment word for word, the pot produces pasta, and he returns to the town square to crow his achievement: "Pasta for all at Strega Nona's house!" Everyone in the town comes running and, soon enough, the illustrations show, a large and happy crowd forms outside the little house, plates laden with whorls of undressed pasta, crude three-tined forks betwirled with more of the same, and Big Anthony at the center of it all, pulling piles and piles of cooked but unsauced pasta out of the magical pasta pot.

a close of of a page of Strega Nona, a children's book

After everyone in town has had their fill, Big Anthony turns to the crowd to receive their congratulations, but because he fails to deliver the pot its three requisite kisses, the pasta continues to flow, spilling out and onto the floor of Strega Nona's house. Big Anthony tries and fails to turn the pot off, and soon the pasta threatens to engulf not just the house, but the entire town. The townspeople flee, shouting over their shoulders to Big Anthony, "Do something!" Lacking the key, Big Anthony turns from hapless to helpless, and so the townspeople resort to erecting makeshift barricades. When it becomes clear that all is lost, the priest and the nuns begin praying.

Strega Nona returns just in time, sings her enchanted song, and offers the pot from afar its required three kisses, at which point the avalanche of pasta ceases its menacing flow and puddles like a told-off dog. The townspeople rejoice, but then quickly turn on Big Anthony, and a man grabs a length of wet noodle and cries, "String him up!"

Strega Nona intervenes yet again and declares, "The punishment must fit the crime." She hands Big Anthony a fork and instructs him to start eating, as she wants him to devour the avalanche of pasta because "I want to sleep in my little bed tonight." The narrator concludes: "And he did—poor Big Anthony."

It's a long story, as this summary suggests, particularly when judged against the other books my daughter and I read at night—The Giving Tree, say, or Dragons Love Tacos. Its length is undoubtedly part of its appeal for her, and on some nights, I find myself on her side: Neither of us enjoy the nightly argument, exacerbated by the restlessness forced upon us by this isolating virus, over whether it is, in fact, bedtime—dawdling is fine. But on others, as I turn the pages in time with the story I can mostly recite from memory, I wonder about the many oddities it contains—the mountain of unsauced pasta, yes, but also Anthony's pointless epithet, the cruelty of his punishment, the existence of another, presumably younger witch in another Calabrian town—and how they scramble any search for meaning in the text.

It's a fool's errand to quibble with the lessons contained in folktales; more foolish still is to try to manufacture meaning from a children's book, like Strega Nona, that borrows a folktale's frame. Folklorists have a system of classification called the Aarne–Thompson–Uther (ATU) Index, and it's essentially a catalogue of specific motifs—"Persecuted Heroine," number 510, is one example, and should be familiar to anyone who knows the story of Cinderella, a subclassification numbered 510A. Strega Nona takes its organizing idea—the magic pasta pot—from ATU type 565, or "The Magic Mill," and if there is a theme to the stories that share this classification, it's that an individual's greed leads not just to their death and general disaster, but also to irrevocable alterations of a shared world—a common ending to these types of stories is someone on a ship asks the mill to grind out some salt but is unable to turn it off; the ship sinks, the asker dies, and the seas are salty until the end of time.

That theme is at odds with the benign events contained in Strega Nona; if anything, dePaola's story is more in line with "Sweet Porridge," a variant of ATU type 565 recorded by the Brothers Grimm, where in a land of privation and want, a little girl is given a magic porridge pot that satisfies her family's hunger. When the girl's mother uses the pot and it produces porridge in unimaginable quantities, it's due to ignorance, not greed, and despite the fact that slop sloughs over the town, no one is harmed. And yet, even still, Strega Nona doesn't quite fit, and that's because, of course, it's a children's book.

a close of of a page of Strega Nona, a children's book

Part of the problem parents have in assessing the meaning of children's stories is we aren't the intended audience. We are, despite an avalanche of evidence to the contrary, accustomed to viewing the world as a rational place, one in which a single cause will create an appreciable effect, where the details in stories—the books we read, the movies we watch, the narratives we stitch together from article after article about the deluge of death beyond our walls—are slotted like arrows in a quiver, ready to be shot, with varying degrees of accuracy, at the same target: toward the end, toward some resolution or conclusion, toward something that provides an answer to the question, "Well, what's it about?"

Strega Nona, like other children's books, defies this logic. Consider that Anthony's bigness, emphasized every time the narrator repeats his name, has nothing to do with the story; unlike fleet-footed Achilles or Gotham's Dark Knight, Anthony isn't big for any reason that I can tell, other than that it makes him sound goofy. Or think about how his introduction, as "Big Anthony, who didn't pay attention," which the practiced, pattern-recognition parts of our brains understand as foreshadowing, is a red herring: Anthony's operative sin isn't being inattentive; it's disobedience. And yet my daughter loves the line—"He doesn't pay attention!"—and she never refers to him as anything but Big Anthony. (Well, "Big-an-TON-y.") Which is another way of saying that young children take from children's stories what they require for their entertainment, whereas their parents grapple with a grab bag of impressions, some amusing, benign, or edifying and instructive, and others that seem designed to heighten the anxieties and terrors of being a parent.

The tools a children's book like Strega Nona uses—compression, elision, repetition—are the same as those used in books meant for adults, but wielded to a different end, which leads to confusion of the kind I struggle with each and every night. So when I emphasize the micro lessons I approve of in the text, such as when the narrator notes that being angry "[i]sn't a very good thing to be," I can't help but wonder why Big Anthony's threatened revenge is to provide the town with an all-you-can-eat pasta party, even if I think that a party provided with endless quantities of unsauced pasta would make me, personally, very sorry, indeed. But my daughter exhibits no such confusion, briefly acknowledging the heightened moralizing tone of her father's voice before observing, "He's going to make a lot of pasta!"

I fully recognize how silly all of this is, but because I am apparently doomed to circle this molehill of unsauced pasta for the entirety of this eternity in isolation, I find myself empathizing, slightly, with the blinkered parents who have tried to ban the book for its portrayal of a benign but powerful witchery. After all, what we share isn't a fear based on some superstition; if anything, as parents, we're highly attuned to what may be the clearest theme of both the book and the folktale foundation upon which it was built—that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. What we fear is our children, when exposed to bad ideas, will be subconsciously affected; that the impressions this book leaves will run like salmon against the values we've tried to encourage, ready to spawn a school of wrong thinking, aberrant impulses, and awful reasoning. And, as a consequence, our kids will do things we don't want them to do: they'll want to become witches, or they'll enjoy bad pasta dishes. While those might seem like the smallest of stakes to reasonable people, our fears have some added resonance in "these uncertain times," when we all seem to be mired in a story with a similar theme centered around a caricature with bad hair, and the consequences can be as terminally effective as a few doses of hydroxychloroquine.

I admit that I've been guilty of taking a child's eye view of the current situation, at times focusing only on those things that give me entertainment or pleasure, trying to push away the dismal news that drips in every day by spending the long hours inside cooking and eating well, and I suppose one could easily argue this focus on saucing pasta is decadent, unseemly, out of touch, or at the very least, entirely frivolous. And even as I read the book to my daughter and think irritatedly about the pasta, I'm keenly aware of my good fortune: not just that I have a job, or that my family is healthy, or that I can afford to buy food, but also that I can, whenever I wish, hug my daughter close when millions are devoid of any human contact, when thousands upon thousands have had to die and grieve alone.

And yet the book's pasta still weighs heavily on my mind. Part of it is that I suspect my daughter is thinking of our nightly arguments about whether she has to eat her dinner when she asks, with wide-eyed innocence, "Big Anthony has to eat all the pasta?" But the fact that readers of all ages seem to delight in all that unsauced pasta suggests to me that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of why pasta is truly a miraculous food, which has less to do with the noodles themselves than how they release starch into their cooking water, and how that cooking water then becomes the perfect medium for building an emulsified sauce. Someone who loves the noodles themselves might be content to slop a bit of sauce over them and call it a day, but in doing so they've gotten in the way of one of the finest pleasures in the world, one that requires only a handful of ingredients, a little patience, and almost no experience. If a love for wet noodles exemplifies anything, it's that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

But I get it; there are other, bigger things to worry about, and perhaps my hangup with the book is a holdover from a childhood in which I, unlike my kid, was regularly served terrible pasta. So I swallow my objections. Instead of purposefully losing the book amid the others on our shelves, I continue to read it to her every night, and I try not to think about all the the odd bits I find concerning—all the Calabrian girls who necessarily need husbands, the too-casual reference to a lynching, the disturbing Dantean echo in Big Anthony's punishment. I put them out of my mind and try to focus on the small things that matter more, not less, in this post-apocalyptic time; my family, our good health, and, above all, the sheer fact of my daughter's existence. And when we get to those final pages and my daughter yells, "Look at all that pasta!", I do, and I say nothing, even if I'm certain I'm right: That mountain of pasta would look a whole lot better with just a little bit of sauce.