The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

What's A Chicken Pitcher?

So I'm about fifteen years old and working as a stock boy at a grocery store. Here I am stacking the canned peas when one of the checkout girls comes running up to me and says, “Quick! I need a price check on a henway.”

“A what?”

“A henway! A henway! I need a price check on a henway!"

“What's a henway?”

“Oh, about four pounds! Ha-ha-ha-ha!"

Fast forward a few decades. Knowing I have a son who lives in Italy, a friend who runs a local Italian restaurant asks me if I can get him some chicken pitchers. So I call my son and ask him to find me some chicken pitchers.

He says, “What's a chicken pitcher?”

If you're asking the same question, maybe the traditional story of the origin of the chicken pitcher will provide the answer. Or not.

Back in the autumn of 1478, the Medici family held the reins of power in the Republic of Florence. Their bitter rivals, the Pazzi family, wanted to change that by eliminating Giuliano de' Medici, the head of the Medici clan.

Even though this was the Renaissance, the feudal system was still around and the Medicis got a lot of their wealth from the labors of their tenant peasants. But it seems Giuliano was a benevolent despot – and a real party animal, who occasionally put on big festivals in the surrounding villages to celebrate good harvests and such. So the Pazzis got somebody to convince Giuliano to throw one of these big parties. The plan was that when the party was over and Giuliano was sleeping it off, the Pazzi's hired assassins would sneak in and kill him.

So there was a big festa. Everybody came, everybody partied, and everybody went to bed to sleep it off. And the assassins came sneaking into the village to do their deed.

I don't know where the Pazzis shopped for assassins, but they got a lousy deal. The clowns they hired made so much noise stomping across the village commons that they woke up the chickens. The chickens, in turn, set up a cackling, squawking frenzy that woke everybody up and spoiled the assassination attempt. The assassins were captured and killed.

So appreciative of the chickens was Giuliano that he had his artisans and craftsmen create ceramic renderings of chickens to use as wine pitchers at another party he threw to celebrate that failed attempt on his life. Then he gave the pitchers to the party-goers to serve as symbols of good fortune and as guardians against evil deeds.

And thus they have served Italian families from that day to this. It is now traditional to give chicken pitchers to family and friends as a way of saying, “Buona fortuna!”

Now, I will be the first to admit that this is very likely an apocryphal tale designed to sell chicken pitchers. You see, in reality the Pazzi Conspiracy, as it was called, was somewhat successful. Pazzi assassins actually killed Giuliano one Sunday morning at High Mass in the Duomo. He was stabbed nineteen times. The attempt was only partially successful because Guiliano's brother, Lorenzo, survived. Although no chickens were aroused in the process, the whole thing played out in front of about ten-thousand people, most of whom kind of liked the Medicis. As a result, the Pazzis found themselves in deep chicken sh.......stuff. One of them was heaved out a window. His naked body was then dragged through the streets and tossed into the Arno River. The rest were pretty much driven out of Italy. And all this occurred in April of 1478, so by autumn of that year the supposedly heroic chickens would have had little to cluck about.

But it's a nice story. One in keeping with the imagination of a people who will also tell you that tortellini was created by a peeping-Tom innkeeper as a tribute to the navel of Venus as seen through a keyhole. (Go look it up.)

Legends aside, the colors and designs on modern chicken pitchers vary greatly according to the whim of the artist. Most of them look pretty much like chickens or roosters, with beaks and combs and wattles. Some have beautifully decorative wings and feathers painted on, while others sport designs based on a theme – like Christmas, for example. They can be short or tall, slender or fat. Some people try to pass off regular old pitchers with painted-on images of poultry as chicken pitchers, but they're not the same. A true chicken pitcher is traditionally shaped like a chicken.

The town of Nove, in the northeastern Italian province of Vicenza in the Veneto region, is famous for its pottery and is often considered the “birthplace” of the chicken pitcher. Some of the finest examples there come from the studios of Marco Pizzato. The Umbrian town of Deruta also produces beautiful ceramic work, including some wonderful chicken pitchers. And, of course, chicken pitchers can be found among collections of world-famous Vietri pottery from Vietri sul Mare, the “City of Ceramics” along Campania's Amalfi Coast.

And you don't have to go to Italy to find chicken pitchers. Priced as low as ten dollars, they live in gift and collectable shops all over the United States as well as on the Web through Ebay and dozens of local distributors. Although some sell for well over a hundred dollars, the median price is around forty bucks. I found one in a little antique store downtown that had “Aviano” painted across the front. They wanted thirty-five dollars for it. Sold!

Now, I was in a little pottery shop the other day. They had a nice display of Vietri pottery, but no chicken pitchers in the Vietri collection. Mostly plates and other dinnerware. But they did have some chicken pitchers in another display......a display of Mexican pottery! Wait a minute! Don't tell me there were messicano chickens involved in Giuliano de'Medici's rescue! No sale! Even if I buy them in America, my chicken pitchers have to have Italian pedigrees.

So if you want to put a little Italian touch on your home d├ęcor, or if you're looking for a unique wedding or housewarming gift for friends or family, try a chicken pitcher. Just beware if they start clucking and squawking in the middle of the night.

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