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Inviting Writing: What Do You Call That Cookie?

It is nearly impossible to find anything on the Internet when you have only a phonetic spelling from a foreign language

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A bakery in Puglia. Image courtesy of Flickr user stijn

For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about holiday foods that make your holidays. This is a rich subject for Smithsonian and its readers; we have run stories of holiday lefse (and other time-consuming traditional foods), lutefisk, rice grits, sugar plums and the great debate over whether latkes or hamantaschen are the perfect Hanukkah food.

Pasquale's Italian Wonders

My parents have a Christmas party every year without fail. Even now, with my dad well into his 80s and my mom not far behind, they are making copies of the song book; my mom is practicing the carols on the piano; and the freezers are filling up with party foods.

The highlight for me, for many years, was made the day of the party. My dad, Pasquale, would crank out sheets of sweet dough in the pasta machine. He would then cut the dough with a fluted pastry cutter and fry it in spirals.  He would pile the pastry spirals up like a pyramid and cover it in warm honey and nuts.  We called it shca-te-la.  And therein lies the problem.

One year, when the Internet was still young, I decided that I was going to make them. My dad’s recipe had no name. So I started researching. It is nearly impossible to find anything on the Internet when you have only a phonetic spelling (of a foreign language, no less). I couldn’t find another recipe, history, photo or anything on these things. I am sure it is because we didn’t pronounce the name like most Italians would. My family is from a small mountain town in Puglia, Italy, and the dialect is unlike any other in Italy. There is a lot of French influence in the region, and even many Italians have no idea what people from there are saying! I live in a close-knit community with a fair amount of Italians, so I got on the phone and called the Italian who owns the grocery, the Italian who owns the liquor store and the Italian who has the pasta market, to no avail. They all wanted to help, but when I said shca-te-la, they drew a blank. But I got my dad’s recipe, so I went to work and renamed the pastries Pasquale’s Italian Wonders.

On a recent trip to my ancestral town in Italy, I met the most amazing people. The language barrier was still an issue, but when I said shca-te-la, eyes lit up.  They knew exactly what I spoke of! The spelling is schart’llat, which returns no answers in a Google search (although I intend to change that with a blog post), and it is similar to scallidde, a pastry found in some more southern areas of Italy. The pastries were made in spirals as a symbol of approaching heaven, and they are indeed heavenly. I have decided that having the proper name is reason enough to crank up the fryer and make a batch this holiday. But we decided that naming them after Grandpa Pasquale will be the new tradition!

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