Like many long-time expatriates, I am still surprised by how certain minor holidays, such as Valentine's Day, have become so mainstream in the States that they are celebrated with enthusiasm by people of all ages and backgrounds. Only here have I seen kindergarteners decorate Hello Kitty cards with glittery hearts and distribute them to their little classmates, or retirees purchasing bunches of roses for their belles.
Of course, Valentine’s Day has its naysayers: mostly jaded New York types who roll their eyes at the thought of making money for Hallmark, which did much to launch the holiday here. The company created special cards to celebrate the holiday, which was named after an early Christian bishop and created to put a pious shine on the not-so-tame ancient Roman pagan festival of Lupercalia. In a way, the recent revival of the ancient Jewish Festival of Love, Tu' Be'Av, could be read as a Jewish answer to Valentine’s Day, as Hanukkah is to the ubiquitous Christmas.
Ironically, in Italy, the very country where the original Valentine — and I — was born, the holiday was hardly observed until relatively recently. Then the chocolate company Perugina — coincidentally based in Umbria, the region that is probably Valentine's birthplace — made Italian marketing history of by branding their hazelnut-based, chocolate-dipped pralines "Baci" (BAH-chee), Italian for "kisses.” In a strike of advertising genius, Perugina's art director in the 1930s, Federico Seneca, wrapped the chocolates in decorated tin foil, slipped in a piece of paper printed with a romantic quote and created a blue box decorated with an image of a couple inspired by Francesco Hayez's famous painting "The Kiss.”
So, Perugina is Italy’s Hallmark, and its Baci have become Italy’s symbol of Valentine’s Day. Who knows? Maybe even the chaste saint would have surrendered to such sublime kisses. My gift to you: a recipe for homemade baci. Buon appetito!
Alessandra Rovati is an Italian food writer and lecturer based in New York. In addition to her published articles and recipes in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Joy of Kosher and several international publications, Alessandra writes Italian-Jewish culinary history on her web site, DinnerinVenice.com. Alessandra has been a featured guest on a variety of television and radio programs and has spoken at universities and cultural institutes. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest for more classic Jewish-Italian recipes.