An age-old tradition in Abruzzo and parts of central Italy that goes back to the 15th century, the Panarda is communal feast of anywhere from 40 up to 60 or even 70 courses that symbolizes abundance.
Trying to decipher the origins of the Panarda is far trickier; basically no one agrees. Some say the name comes from pane and lardo; others say it comes from the Greek pan for 'all'; still others say panarda, paggio or panatica were medieval words for military provisions and/or the plunder taken after a victory in battle. Generally it was the one time when the aristocracy of a village or town mingled with the commoners.
Some say the first Panarda was held way back when after a young mother in Abruzzo returned from fetching water to find her baby in the mouth of a wolf. She prayed to St Anthony Abbot, and the wolf released the baby, and in return the woman promised the saint a communal feast, which is why many Panarde used to take place around the saint's day in January.
In Molise, however, the Panarda was associated with St Joseph (19 March); in Villa Santo Stefano, in Lazio it's held in honour of St Rocco (16 August). In other places the Panarda is associated with Carnival–an orgy of eating just before Lent. These days they are often held for weddings, baptisms, and other events.
According to Villas For 2 in the Abruzzo, the story of its origins is slightly more sinister:
Way back when in times of famine, a Duke of Lanciano got tired of hearing the peasants complaining how hungry and short of food they were, so he prepared a feast. And the food kept coming. And coming. Finally the peasants said they couldn't eat any more, but the Duke made them eat their way thru every course..all 40 of them...until every one of the peasant died of over- eating.
A traditional Panarda has strict rules. In the old days it was practically a mortal insult to refuse an invitation (the story goes that Gabriele D'Annunzio—a good Abruzzese from Pescara—once feigned a grave illness to avoid going). Once at the table, the master of the Panarda will announce each course with a drum roll (in the old days they would fire off a cannon). Horrible misfortunes are certain to fall on the head of anyone who abandons their fellow diners before the end of the feast, which can go on all night.
Menus traditionally include plenty of soups, lesso, lamb, cace e ova, pizz'e foje, pulses, pizzelle, fish (notably siluro), maccheroni alla chitarra, whole suckling pig, a massive timballo, vegetables (generally a fritto misto), salumi, cheeses, fruits and a whole range desserts.
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