Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Four favorite cookbooks satisfy when the yen for real Sicilian food – not just Italian – overtakes me

Two things always get me thinking about Sicilian food: a visit from my brother (the most recent was a week or so ago) and a trip to New York in an often-futile search for real Sicilian restaurants.

Cefalu, Sicily
Notice I said Sicilian, NOT Italian. (Our grandfather was born in the ancient and beautiful seaside town of Cefalu. Our great grandfather came from Ventimiglia near Palermo.) There’s a difference. Just as Sicilians have their own dialect, they have their own cuisine as well.

Sicily’s history is one of domination by larger powers: Roman, Vandal, Byzantine, Islamic, Norman, Catalan, Spanish – all of whom left behind elements of their cuisine. Aristocratic Sicilians imported French chefs called “Monzu” who brought classic techniques with them. To my mind,
it was the Moors who introduced the flavors that most differentiate Sicilian and Italian food. The Moors controlled Sicily from 724 until they were routed in 1492. They used cinnamon and other spices, dates, figs, dried grapes, citrus fruits in their food – elements still found in Sicilian dishes today. They introduced the sweet-and-sour combinations still beloved on the island.

Mary Taylor Simeti in her garden from Amuri
If you want to learn more, you need only turn to Mary Taylor Simetti. As an American college student, she went to a small Sicilian village for a summer, met a Sicilian boy, married him and has lived in that country ever since.

ON PERSEPHONE’S ISLAND: A SICILIAN JOURNAL is a perfect introduction to the culture and history of Sicily as well as a charming memoir of her learning about and adjusting to her adopted homeland. It is arranged in three sections: winter, spring and summer and describes the flora and food and special celebrations of each season.

Her POMP AND SUSTENANCE: TWENTY-FIVE CENTURIES OF SICILIAN FOOD contains the best culinary history I’ve found anywhere as well as dozens of recipes. As Diane Serbe wrote on her website, “If there is one book that belongs on the shelf of Sicilian food lovers, it is POMP AND SUSTENANCE….[Simeti] set herself to the discovery of Sicilian food. She haunted former convents and palaces where Palermo’s libraries have been maintained…Though the subtitle indicates the historical sweep of the book, Simeti has organized the material to reflect both the external influences of a series of conquerors, and the domestic changes brought about by peasant, clergy and aristocrat alike.” And as Ms. Serbe points out, “Yes, there are recipes for Virgins Breasts and Chancellor’s Buttocks.”

And, if your interest is in learning to cook Sicilian food, rather than merely learning its culinary history, there are two additional books you should have: Simeti’s SICILIAN FOOD: RECIPES FROM ITALY’S ABUNDANT ISLE and BITTER ALMONDS: RECOLLECTIONS & RECIPES FROM A SICILIAN GIRLHOOD, written with Maria Grammatico.

And, sadly, no, I didn’t find a great new Sicilian restaurant in New York. Like my grandmother and aunts before me, I’ll just have to do it myself!

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