Beneath green, white and red banners, there’s been an influx of massive meatballs, cannoli and bags of zeppole. Also present are bored police officers, taco trucks, piña coladas served up in coconuts with little umbrellas and a horde of out-of-towners engaging in the gluttony.
The only Italians I meet at the Feast of San Gennaro are from New Jersey and Long Island, and as they munch on chili-smothered corn on the cob, I wonder how much of Italy is left in the commercialized stretch of Mulberry Street.
The annual Feast of San Gennaro is an 11-day festival rooted in Catholicism and the culture of Italian immigrants who brought the traditional festivities to New York City.
Honoring the Patron Saint of Naples, its first celebration on Mulberry Street took place in 1926. Today, Figli di San Gennaro, a non-profit organization that donates money to religious and educational institutions and other causes, sponsors the festival. But few of these humble beginnings and inclinations remain in the feast we see today.
From Sept. 13 to 23, we marvel at cannoli-eating contests, musical performances and infinite Italian pastries — all of which are designed to emulate the homeland for Italian immigrants. And yet the traditional bowl of pasta primavera costs upwards of $15. Furthermore, I do not remember learning about margaritas and empanadas when studying the Italian Renaissance, nor was there any mention of coconuts growing on the Mediterranean. The deep-fried Oreos and sub-par Italian hoagies made with stale bread only add further confusion to this hybrid of cultures.
The discrepancies extend beyond the food and into the area itself. Little Italy has been shrinking in recent years as children of immigrants assimilate into the New York City lifestyle and then move away. According to the 2010 Census, not a single resident of the neighborhood was actually born in Italy. Yet tourists flock to the area expecting the most authentic bowl of spaghetti and slice of not-so-thin crust pizza the city has to offer. The strip of identical restaurants is similar to Disneyland, where dancing characters distract consumers from the fact that they are spending $20 on Mickey Mouse pancakes. Except here, instead of Mickey, we have a saint. And instead of Space Mountain, we have a decrepit Ferris wheel.
I fear the transformation of the traditional Italian feast into a fried food fest says little about Italy but a lot about American culture — or lack thereof. New York City, built on a foundation of mixed cultures and diverse people, has warped the Feast of San Gennaro into something similar to Coney Island boardwalks. It is not Italy we see being celebrated on Mulberry Street — it is the consumerist culture that our own country is famous for.
Unfortunately, the efforts put forth by the festival are a gross misrepresentation of the religiously inspired and community-oriented Feast of San Gennaro, a tradition that has been revamped so much that little remains of what was once Little Italy.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Sept. 19 print edition. Sasha Leshner is a contributing columnist. Email her at email@example.com.
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