Strega Nona Is Not a Communist

The Calabrian witch thrives on scarcity

Tomie dePaola/Prentice Hall
Samuel Ashworth

The other day I saw this meme.

Variations of this meme, which depict Strega Nona, the beloved “Grandma Witch” created by the late children’s book author Tomie dePaola, as an exemplar of mutual aid and socialist praxis, appear quite regularly. Given the internet’s limitless appetite for deciding anything people have affectionate feelings toward is Actually Anti-Capitalist, it was perhaps inevitable that Strega Nona’s draft number should come up. Unfortunately, as a person who has read Strega Nona (and its many sequels) to his toddler one thousand times over the last year, I must insist everyone knock it off. Strega Nona is not your Marxist meemaw. Strega Nona is going to be the first one up against the wall.

I could retype this book from memory, but I’ll keep the plot summary brief. Strega Nona, a geriatric sorceress in 15th-century Calabria, provides matchmaking and medical services to the local townsfolk. She is getting old, so she hires a local peasant boy, Big Anthony, whom we are told “didn’t pay attention.” She assigns him a dense and forbidding paragraph of chores, and in exchange grants him food, three coins a day (denomination unspecified), and a place to sleep next to the goat shed. She forbids him, however, to touch her pasta pot.

The reason why soon becomes apparent: The pasta pot is magical — Strega Nona sings a song and it spontaneously seethes with pasta, then sings another to simmer it down. One night Big Anthony catches her performing this spell. But when Strega Nona calls him in to eat he ducks away from the window to avoid detection, and so doesn’t see Strega Nona completing her pasta sorcery by blowing three kisses to the pot.

The next day, Big Anthony races to the town square to share the news of the enchanted pasta pot— as anyone should, when they have discovered a solution to food insecurity (which we can comfortably assume to have been widespread in 15th-century Calabria, as it was brutally occupied by Spain and the site of serious peasant rebellions). No one believes him. “Liar,” they call him. It is not that they do not believe in magic, for all of them visit Strega Nona for her cures and potions. It is that hope is a luxury they cannot afford. This is the moment Big Anthony gets radicalized. He vows to seize the means of pasta production and bring it to the masses.

Two days later he gets his chance, when Strega Nona goes out of town. Once she’s out of sight Big Anthony rushes to the pot and sings the song. Immediately it bulges with hot pasta. Vindicated, Big Anthony invites the whole town to Strega Nona’s. The divisions of class collapse as rich and poor alike eat from the same pot. When all are satisfied, Big Anthony sings the second song. But alas, he does not blow the kisses.

Big Anthony emerges to rapturous adulation from the crowd. He is no longer Big Anthony, the goat-milker who doesn’t pay attention; he is the Italian Prometheus. He has not merely bent the arc of history, he has snapped it like an uncooked noodle.

Until a nun notices the pasta creeping from the house. Strega Nona says that abundance is our birthright, the meme insists, yet the picture it captions shows Big Anthony in a moment of gathering horror: he cannot shut the pot off. Soon the pasta bursts from the house in a torrent, thundering down the hillside toward the town. Swept along in the wave, Big Anthony shrieks the song, but without the kisses, it is futile. The tomato-dimmed tide is loosed, the ceremony of innocence is drowned. In terror the townspeople scramble to build barricades, but the pasta swarms over them; they can hear the timbers crack and splinter in the burbling mass and know that their bones are next. “We are lost,” they cry. The priest and the sisters of the convent kneel and pray.

At the last second, Strega Nona returns. She sings the song and blows the kisses. The pasta sputters to a stop. The relief of the townspeople swiftly turns to rage, rage they direct not at the true cause of the disaster, but at the man whose only crime was to try to smash the Calabrian crone’s carbohydrate cartel. “String him up!” they cry.

Of course, Strega Nona stops them from lynching him. But this is not mercy. For she doesn’t just want to punish Big Anthony, she wants to make an example of him, to show the townsfolk what happens to those who forget their place. “The punishment must fit the crime,” she cackles. Now that the town is half-buried under a mound of pasta the size of the Fresh Kills landfill, she commands him to eat it. All of it. The book ends with Big Anthony wracked with pain and regret, his belly freakishly distended, and Strega Nona blissfully asleep in her bed.

Strega Nona says that scarcity is a capitalist myth, says the Internet. Nonsense. That woman holds the secret to culinary cold fusion. She could feed the world at will, but she hides her power of pasta prestidigitation, hoards it, sharing it with no one. She suppresses the pasta supply — a staple food, no less! — in order to inflate the value of her commodity. At the same time, she possesses an apocalyptic weapon, and cannot even be bothered to shut the curtains when she recites its secret codes? This is the same amoral capitalism that breeds oil spills, poisons drinking water, and propagates wildfires.

The person who should be valorized in memes is Big Anthony. He is the one who rejects scarcity; he is the one who brings the Olive Garden Unlimited Pasta Pass to all mankind. Strega Nona's utter negligence in failing to install proper safeguards nearly annihilates all of Calabria. But instead of apologizing, she uses the catastrophe to strengthen her control by "rescuing" the town from the nightmare for which literally any system of human jurisprudence would hold her ultimately responsible. Then, following the plutocrat’s playbook to a T, she punishes Big Anthony — whose only crime was to try to bring spaghetti to the people — by carrying out a sentence that would absolutely have been lethal were this not a children's book that also has rabbits the size of dinner tables.

Fortunately, like the revolutionaries of the past, Big Anthony will not let the capitalists keep him down. Big Anthony will never stop seeking the secret of Strega Nona’s magic. In one sequel, he discovers a magic ring that makes the wearer beautiful, which makes the women of the town so psychotically horny that they try to tear him apart like the Bacchantes slaughter Orpheus. In another, jealous that Strega Nona is teaching Bambolona the baker’s daughter her secrets and not him, he will cross-dress as Antonia, a brave and transgressive move in 15th-century Italy.

To be clear, while Big Anthony is well-meaning, he is also delusional and driven by his own narcissism, as so many revolutionaries tend to be. But if everyone insists, for some reason, on making Radical Strega Nona memes, let us strive for accuracy. The witch woman has triumphed in our collective imaginations long enough.

Samuel Ashworth is a writer in Washington, DC. His fiction and journalism have been featured in Eater, the Washington Post Magazine, Longreads, Elemental, Hazlitt, Barrelhouse, and many others