Fateful Mufletas

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published May 13, 2005, issue of May 13, 2005.

Sometimes there are columns so serendipitous that they make you believe in fate. This is one of them. It was Sunday, May 1, the last day of Passover for you readers in America but the first day after Passover here in Israel, where the holiday is seven days instead of the eight that it is in the Diaspora. This day is known in Israel for its Maimouna festival, a traditional North African and especially Moroccan Jewish celebration whose name has variously been traced to the memory of Maimonides, to the Hebrew word ma’amin (believer), and to one or two Arabic words. It’s a day of feasting and revelry in which some families set up tents in their backyards or in parks and invite friends to join them.

Not being of Moroccan ancestry, I spent the Maimouna not in a tent but in my workroom, writing an article. At one point I had to look up a word beginning with the letters “mu.” On their way to it, my eyes fell on another word they never had seen before. This was “muffuletta,” defined by my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language as “New Orleans. A sandwich made with a large, round roll of Italian bread…. [Italian dialectal, bread with a filling, from Italian muffa, mold, probably of Germanic origin.]”

Beneath this was the “Regional Note”:

“The New Orleans muffuletta is one of the few large American sandwiches not made with a long crusty roll. Instead, it is made by filling a round loaf of Italian bread with layers of hard salami, ham, provolone, and olive salad.”

The note continued by explaining that the muffuletta was first created in 1910 at Salvatore Lupa’s Central Grocery, located in New Orleans, where it became “a favorite lunch for farmers on their trips into town.”

So?

So this: The most commonly served food at the Maimouna celebration is called a mufleta. Because it is so associated with the day, the May 2 edition of the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv ran a photo of Tiberian Jews celebrating the Maimouna; although there was not a morsel of food in sight, the photo had the headline, “Mufletas in Tiberias.”

A mufleta, mind you, is not a sandwich. It is a kind of crepe in which balls of dough are rolled out in very thin leaves and cooked together in a frying pan, each new leaf being laid on the previous one and turned so that the fresh leaf is always on the bottom. When the mufleta is done, it is brought to the table and the leaves are separated. They are then eaten in one of two ways: Either pieces are broken off and dipped in a blend of butter and honey, or they are smeared with it and rolled like a cigar with the butter and honey inside them.

Ah, one other detail: No one knows from whence the word mufleta comes. It’s a mystery.

And the word “muffuletta”? Despite the derivation given by my dictionary, the truth seems to lie with Joe O’Donnell, senior researcher at Muffoletta Ltd., an organization dedicated to furthering the cause of “the authentic muffoletta” (there are numerous variants of the word). “Muffoletta,” O’Donnell writes, is the diminutive of Sicilian muffola, “fingerless mitten” — which is what the bread, before it is stuffed with its ingredients, resembles.

Introduced, not created, by an Italian immigrant in New Orleans, of which it has since become as emblematic as the mufleta is of the Maimouna, the muffuletta, O’Donnell informs us, is a Sicilian specialty eaten in great quantities “on the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, November 11. In Reisi and the province of Caltanissetta, residents prepare the muffoletta — special bread rolls, seasoned with fennel seeds… and filled with sausages, ricotta, or other meats and cheeses. Thousands of these rolls are offered to the crowds of visitors who come to taste the newly-made wine produced in the area.”

Curious, no? Although a bread roll is not a crepe — and salami, ham, provolone and olive salad are not butter and honey — both the mufleta (when it is rolled) and the muffuletta consist of dough with something inside it, and both are connected with feast days on which they are offered to guests and visitors. Moreover, as a quick glance at a map of the Mediterranean shows, Sicily, which was under Arab rule for centuries in the Middle Ages, is — with the exception of Gibraltar — the point at which Europe and North Africa most converge.

You can draw your own conclusions. Here are mine: Once upon a medieval time, there was a Sicilian food called the muffoletta that crossed the hundred kilometers of water separating Sicily from Tunisia; that was originally either bread with a filling that turned into a crepe with a different filling among Jews in North Africa, or a crepe with a filling that turned into bread in its native Sicily and that retained in both places its character of a festive specialty connected with a specific day of the year.

If that isn’t serendipity, you tell me what is.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.



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