Wiping the Mess

Mo-pin-a (n.)  Italian slang for a dish cloth or napkin used at the dinner table .  

My first generation Italian mother grew up in Cleveland’s Little Italy during the World War II era. My mother often describes her childhood years as a struggle to get ahead. Each family member worked formidable jobs in order to put food on the table and to buy the items necessary in order to keep the household thriving. I’m quite sure “disposable” was not a word ever used during these times. The stories that are most pervasive and memorable are those of love born out of that shared struggle. The family came together and helped one another out in times of need. My mom recounts a story about how she didn’t have her own bed and bedroom until she was 18 years old because her aunt and uncle and three kids lived in her parents’ dining room.

Family meals in this Italian American household were very jovial- a time to take a break from hard work and to enjoy life. Sweaty uncles in their undershirts reached across the table for a second helping of pasta-fagioli or to break off a piece crusty bread while children slurped spaghetti from their plates. When the sauce spilled over or the oil dribbled down the corners of one’s mouth, someone would shout, “pass the mopina!”. The mopina was a communal dish towel set on table used by all greasy hands young and old. My mother smiles when she recalls those times with the family dinner. Though the children of immigrants pull themselves up so that they may set their own proper table complete with fine china and cloth, something is indeed lost from the days of the chaotic family meals.

Suppertime in my child-hood household was a different type of setting. My brother and I were instructed to set each plate with a paper napkin along with the fork and knife. My uncle was in the paper industry, so we often joked about the fact that our high napkin usage usage must indeed be supporting paper businesses similar to Uncle’s. I’m sure we were living the “high-life” of the eighties when paper was cheap and “disposable” was fashionable. We hardly considered the implications of the evolution of the dinner table from thrifty post-war Americana to the synthetic, individualistic and impulsive ways of the 1980’s.

During the early days of our marriage, my immigrant husband and I had a few differences in our approach to life. My husband did not grow up in the same expendable age as I did, so he was often shocked about my “just use it and throw it” approach to life. In his third-world home, for example, paper napkins were a rare commodity reserved for special occasions, because one-time use goods were very frivolous and exorbitant. They were also quite costly. In contrast, in my home, cloth goods were reserved for special occasions like Christmas dinner.

Once we were married, the discord of our divergent backgrounds came to play at our table. Unable to shake his frugal up-bringing, my husband would hardly ever use a napkin and would prefer instead to wait until the end of his meal and go wash his hands. No matter how cheap paper napkins were, he just could not get himself to embrace upon the “use and toss” mentality. I, on the other hand, felt naked and dirty in the absence of my paper companion. Unable to sit through a meal without incessantly wiping my hands and mouth, I plopped the plastic napkin holder complete with flimsy paper napkins onto the center of the table for a “use as needed” solution to our problem.

As time passed, my husband and I began creating our new blended culture comprised of our own unique values and traditions. Personal responsibility and the Native American philosophy, “leave the earth a better place than you found it” became one of our core values. First, recycling became a competition with the game of, “which is the bigger load: trash or recycle?” Though recycling was the clear victor, we began to see ways in which we could reduce our waste; thus, a game of input versus output. We began assessing our overall consumption and deciding on ways to reduce our per family waste.   

One third of America’s landfills are comprised of paper and paper products. Our in-home garbage assessment revealed that the majority of our remaining trash consisted of a lot of paper napkins and towels, many of which could not be recycled. Clearly, we could not continue such unnecessary waste, thus paper napkins were substituted for cloth. Many studies do suggest that if each family member uses their own cloth for each meal and then the cloths are submitted to the laundry on a daily basis, the savings to the earth don’t materialize due to the high emissions related to daily washing and drying of linens. Reducing the number of napkins per family member and increasing the number of napkin uses per week, however, does make a marked difference.  According to research conducted by

"...over the course of a year you might wash your napkins 50 times and during the same time you might go through 350 (50 x 7) paper napkins. This scenario is much more favorable towards the reusable napkins, with 5 grams of greenhouse gas emissions for the cotton versus 10 grams for the single-use paper napkins."

These facts coupled with our desire to create a sustained and responsible family tradition resulted in our final move: capitalizing on an old world way by adopting the mopina.

My husband and I have reclaimed the dinner table by borrowing foods and customs from our collective heritage and by creating new socially responsible traditions and memories for our children. The switch to cloth is representative of our love for food, family, idealism and respect to mother earth. Dinnertime is a huge event and is the highlight of our busy days. We ruled out the television during dinner and brought on good old fashioned conversation with shouts from the little ones to “pass the mopina!”.



Leigh Ann Ahmad was dragged kicking and screaming to the Cities by her husband; having been born and bred in Cleveland, Ohio, she just could not fathom how colder could be better. Now, five years and two kids later, she cannot imagine a better place to play and thrive. She’s a reformed carb-aholic, wannabe writer, social justice advocate, book- club geek, veggie grower and local foods connoisseur.