Why you should care
Because giving a ham leg to your teacher is priceless.
It was freezing cold, and 22-year-old Francesca Scrolli watched in horror as a rough-looking peasant slit the throat of a live pig, tearing open the animal’s soft pink flesh. Thirty-five years later, Scrolli can still vividly recall how the pig, dangling from the ceiling by a rope, squealed as its blood gushed onto the floor. Red pools of blood expanded, reaching Scrolli’s cowboy boots and staining them.
The young middle-school teacher was so frightened that she couldn’t move. But what happened next was even scarier: Before the animal was totally drained, some of its blood was collected in a cup from which everyone in attendance was expected to drink. When it was Scrolli’s turn to take a sip, she fainted instead. “I passed out. My stomach was churning in disgust. The squeaking, terrifying noise of that poor animal being slaughtered still haunts me at night,” she says, noting how the pig sounded like a “crying newborn.” Later, the pig was roasted over an open fire, and then served for dinner.
It was a way to thank doctors, public officers and teachers for their helpful and loyal service.
Paola Verde, anthropologist
Scrolli, now 67, will never forget how an entire community sacrificed that pig in her honor, in gratitude for her teaching and her bravery. Each morning, Scrolli took the 6 a.m. train from Rome, traveling 30 miles east to Piglio, a wild patch of land roamed by bandits and shepherds, to teach Italian and history to dozens of children who spoke only a local dialect. Named after the sheep-leather shoes of locals, Piglio had just one middle school, and Scrolli was one of only a few “outsiders” who came from the big city to work.
“Mothers, grandmothers, the elders and even the mayor were constantly honoring me and my Roman colleagues with gifts of all sorts,” Scrolli says. The slaughter of animals was not solely a spectator sport in Italy until the 1980s, when progress finally spread even to remote villages. Butchering a pig was a sacred ritual used to honor respectable guests, explains Rome-based anthropologist Paola Verde. “It was a way to thank doctors, public officers and teachers for their helpful and loyal service.”
Mothers and grannies would also gift eggs, hens, butter and bottles of homemade wine and liqueur to teachers, who could not refuse. “If I said, ‘No thank you,’ they would have taken it as an insult,” Scrolli says. One morning as she got off the train, she bumped into the mayor, who dragged her to the central bar. Instead of offering Scrolli espresso, he made her gulp down four shots of hot grappa, dubbed cicchetti. By the time she got to the classroom, she could barely stand. “I was drunk, and collapsed, once again, on the floor,” she says, recalling how her pupils laughed about it for months. Often, at the end of the day, students’ mothers invited Scrolli to spend the night at their house, worried about her taking the train back to Rome with strangers. To get away, Scrolli would kindly turn down their invitations, insisting that she had to get home to look after her mother.
Italy’s long-held rituals die harder in small, tight-knit communities, where generations have preserved a number of ancient customs. “The sacrificed pig, the gifts, the pressing hospitality offers are all part of the so-called primitive gift tradition handed down across ages,” explains Verde, referring to it as history’s first “cashless economy.” Before currency and banks, barter ruled, with people exchanging goods for other goods or services. Even after the rise of money, such customs lived on, especially among poor farmers and shepherds who couldn’t afford to pay a doctor, for example. Instead, they would offer payment with what they had in their backyards and pantries: eggs, milk, cheese, ham, pasta and jam pies.
In Scrolli’s case, as for most teachers back then, the gifts came with no strings attached. She was a public employee, paid by the Ministry of Education, so her students’ parents expected nothing in return, Verde explains. They were already getting what they wanted — better language proficiency for their children, which they hoped would one day enable them to find work and leave the countryside in search of a brighter future.
And that’s exactly what happened. Today, thousands of Italy’s small, remote villages have become ghost towns with crumbling ruins; many others, like Piglio, are suffering from brain drain. As the younger generations leave home, they also leave behind the elders — the keepers of the older traditions. Yet in a few forgotten corners of the rugged Abruzzi hills, the blood gift still survives. Elderly farmers occasionally kill a pig or two in honor of important visitors, usually foreigners, or locals who immigrated to the New World in the 1950s and return to their hometowns in summer.
The bloody cup, though, is long gone. So if you’re ever driving around rural Italy and wind up in what appears to be an abandoned village, don’t freak out if a bearded butcher rolls out the welcome mat by tying a pig to a rope and cutting its throat.