And this little piggy finished fourth in the Regata StoricaBy
Seeing that by now I have drilled into everyone’s brain the fact that the Regata Storica is an event that has been held over the past several centuries, it’s fair to say that many of its attributes could be regarded as traditions.
Tradition, as I have drilled, etc., is a word intended to connote The Way We’ve Always Done It. But a closer look at many traditions demonstrates clearly, even to those in the back of the room, that they can be changed, eventually to become the new Old Traditions.
Take the pig.
For about the last hundred years, if not more, the traditional prize to the pair of men finishing fourth in the Regata Storica on the gondolinos was a live piglet. I have not yet begun the search for the reason for this, so just accept the fact that along with a blue pennant and some money, the pair got a young Sus scrofa domestica.
And they weren’t merely presented with the little swine at the end of the race. Before the race even formed up, the creature was put into a crate, placed on a boat, and exhibited up and down the Grand Canal.
By 2002 the animal rights organizations finally overcame this tradition, having claimed for years that the practice was cruel and inhumane. I saw the parade of the pig once, and it didn’t look so degrading to me. He was a lot more comfortable than anyone on the #1 vaporetto on a Sunday afternoon, and nobody in the animal rights organizations cares about them.
Returning to the subject of the fourth-place prize: Either people lived closer to the earth back then, 0r there were fewer scruples running around unsupervised, so a live pig seemed like a fine thing. The idea was not to divide it, like the baby brought before Solomon, but to send it to the country somewhere to be fattened and cossetted and tended until it was time for it to achieve its true destiny: Sausage. Soppressa. Pork chops, Pork roast, and so on.
There is a hoary old joke about this undertaking, which can be altered according to whichever town or place you want to insult. The person who told it to me was insulting Pellestrina, and it was made funnier by his imitation of the distinctive local accent. To Venetians, this way of speaking implies something rustic (to put it politely) and uncouth (to be frank). It implies individuals who would not consider pig-fattening to be anything out of the ordinary.
So: Two men from Pellestrina enter the Regata Storica, finish fourth, and get the pig. They are being interviewed by the national reporter, who asks them what they plan to do with it.
“I’m going to take it home,” says one.
“Take it home?” says the reporter. “Do you have a pigsty?”
“So where will you keep it?”
“Oh, I’ll keep it in the kitchen,” the racer replies.
“The kitchen!” blurts the reporter. “But what about the smell?”
“Oh,” the racer says, “he’ll get used to it.”
What would be a good substitute for a live pig? I hear you ask.
A pig made of Murano glass. And it doesn’t have to be fed or slaughtered, or shared out in perfectly equal halves, because they make two of them.
Now we come to the real point of the story. A few weeks ago, the very enterprising and high-spirited members of the Settimari rowing club decided to add something else to the prize line-up. They dispensed with the annoyance of raising and killing a pig, and got right to the point of it all, which in Venice translates as Food.
They planned a big dinner in their small clubhouse, invited Martino Vianello and Andrea Bertoldini, who had finished fourth this year, and uncrated two gigantic roasted whole pigs, ordered from somewhere in Umbria where the art of roasting pigs has reached the sublime.
If you’re a vegetarian and still reading (unlikely, I admit), you might want to stop now.
We spent several hours gorging on one, and the other was given to the pair, who didn’t anticipate any trouble at all in dividing and consuming it. Just like the old days, but better.
Because, as Andrea Bertoldini explained it to me, a live pig was really a problem. He’s been racing for at least 20 years, and has finished fourth in other editions of the Regata, so he has had first-hand experience of what being awarded a baby pig really means.
It’s not just taking care of it for months (you generally give it to somebody who’s already got the sties and the feed and the mud and all). It’s that you start to become attached to it, like Fern Arable; you feel sorry for it, and so everything gets derailed in the Natural Order of Things.
So Andrea was perfectly fine with dispensing with the tradition and moving on to something new, and easier to handle.
Better yet, he and Martino were each awarded a plaque which proclaimed them to be a “Principe del Porchetto” (Prince of Roast Pork). This was not only original, and cleverer than the old joke, but a play on the term “Re del Remo” (King of the Oar), which is given to the couple which wins the Regata Storica five years in a row.
Andrea and Martino have finished fourth in various years, but this the second year in a row they did it, and so the title of “prince” implied that if they were to come in fourth for the next three Regatas, they could be called King of Roast Pork.
Maybe you had to be there.
In any case, you’d have loved it. You never had to look into the creature’s soulful eyes, and you got as much as you wanted of the tender, herb-infused meat encased in dark greasy skin that was insanely crunchy. If you were to shut your mind about what you were eating, it wouldn’t have been because the animal inspired pity. It would be because you refused to think about what the food was going to do to your arteries.
If those two really do become Kings of Roast Pork, they’re going to have to spit-roast an entire herd of swine to supply the celebration. I’ve already got my plate and fork and cholesterol medicine ready.