How This Author Rescued an Ancient Recipe

Food scholar and Princeton native Katie Parla sought out the elders of an Italian city in order to reconstruct a once-celebrated soup.

A bowl of crapiata, the age-old festival bean soup unearthed by author Katie Parla. Photo by Ed Anderson

Imagine a bacchanal on a summer night, a peasant community guzzling red wine, banging tambourines, and dancing themselves into a frenzy in the communal courtyards of their dwellings carved into the face of a mountain in Southern Italy. 

Now imagine, fueling this sprawling saturnalia, cauldrons of a rustic bean soup called crapiata, from the Latin word for drunkenness.  

This revelry would seize the ancient city of Matera every August 1 as it celebrated the end of the wheat harvest. The festival—and its signature refreshment, the soup—dates back centuries. Both seem to have faded out in the 1950s. 

If not for the culinary sleuthing of Princeton native and Rome resident Katie Parla—award-winning food and travel writer, author and educator—the tales of revelry, and definitely the recipe for the soup, would likely be lost to history.

In her new book, Food of the Italian South: Classic, Disappearing, and Lost Dishes (Clarkson Potter), the recipe for crapiata falls into the lost category. 

If a recipe is truly lost, how does one identify, let alone reconstruct it? For crapiata, the answer seems to hinge on Parla being, in her own words, “a brochure hoarder.” In 2016, when she signed the contract for her book, she delved into her notes and documents, including those from a 2004 trip to Matera.

The modern city stands on a plateau above a warren of cave dwellings, with house-like stone facades that line the face of the mountain as it plunges to fertile plains. These dwellings, known as the Sassi, date to Paleolithic times and are so remarkable they were named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993. The dwellings, evacuated in the 1950s, became a tourist magnet. Local groups reconstructed how rooms were furnished and food was cooked, and handed out simple, explanatory pamphlets.

Visiting the Sassi in 2004 and perusing those pamphlets, Parla first saw mentions of crapiata and the wild harvest festival it crowned. She didn’t think about them again until she dived back into her materials in 2016—and was captivated. 

In Southern Italy, the cave dwellings of the Sassi, with their stone facades, gave birth to crapiata, a soup central to a libidinous festival. Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

“The festival felt super pagan to me,” she explains. “You had a really poor population that was allowed to go nuts a few times a year. And in the August 1 festival, they got disproportionately excited about eating a dish that wasn’t radically different from what they were eating every day.

“What struck me about crapiata,” she adds, “was how simple it was—all these different beans. It felt super ancient. I thought, Lemme go see if I can find a recipe for this thing.”  

The food in modern Matera, on the plateau, is—well, modern. “In homes, there’s no longer a communal courtyard where everyone is sharing and doing joint preparation,” Parla says. “Every apartment in the housing projects has its own kitchen.” 

Parla doing one of her favorite things: browsing cookbooks in a bookstore. Photo by Ed Anderson

In 2016, she descended into the Sassi. In recent years, market stalls, boutiques and chic hotels have sprung up in the old dwellings. “I went to a little shop that sells heirloom beans and spices, and was like, ‘Is there a trattoria here where I can try this dish?’” she relates. “‘No,’ they said, ‘but we’ve been thinking about it, too, because our grannies remember this dish.’” They suggested she visit a dried-bean stall in a marketplace in the modern city. In the city, most people shop at supermarkets. To chat up old-timers, the ones who might recall how their grandmothers cooked in the Sassi, you head for the open-air markets. There, “you’re super conspicuous if you’re under 75.” In 2016, she was 36.

When Parla asked about crapiata, “a set of arguments followed. It was fascinating. Some said the dish used many grains and beans, some said predominantly favas.”

She wrote it all down and moved on to another market, where the recollections proved more anecdotal. The crapiata was cooked in huge copper pots in the courtyards, then left to cool before serving to the revelers. Parla asked about proportions and quantities, but the answer was typically Italian: “As much as you need.” 

Returning home, “I took an average of what people told me, then tested and tweaked.” She left out some of the herbs people mentioned, “because I liked the beans as the protagonist,” and added carrots “for a little extra flavor.” 

Heresy? No. “Authenticity is subjective,” she says. “There were many crapiatas. Was there an original one? No one can know. There’s no original carbonara recipe, just like there is no original Neapolitan pizza recipe. Those things have been codified after the fact. Mainly from marketing, honestly. What I was interested in was the spirit of the dish.

“Sometimes cookbooks go too far in telling people exactly how to serve something. You’re the boss—serve it at whatever temperature you want. Think about the Sassi when you do it. There’s no reason, when we create this homage, we can’t create our own in the process.”

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