Sunday, October 19, 2008

Everything Just Tastes Better in Sicily...


from the coffee in the morning to the gelato in the evening and all of the pasta and fish in between, it’s just, in a word, better. How do they do it? Is it simply that the ingredients born of the superb Sicilian soil are better? Do culinary fairies specific only to the region sprinkle magic dust upon the heads of babes? Perhaps. Or perhaps it is something deeper and, yet, a little more basic. In Sicily, food is love, food is life, food is everything. One look at the action in the daily markets and you know that the food providers and the food preparers mean business. In Siracusa, I watched as little old ladies who delicately stood no higher than my waist touched, tasted, yelled and waved their hands until they walked away triumphantly with a package of goods that would most certainly be turned into gold in a matter of hours. I have witnessed this dance before. In fact, I have seen this dance throughout my whole life. My own Sicilian mother amazed me as a child with her sudden transformations from gentle mother of few words to culinary drill sergeant whenever she stepped foot in front of food counters or shopped open air markets. Oh, how I loved to watch her in action. My fondest memories of my mother’s work revolve around the preparation for holidays and special occasions, when she would make the longer-than-usual trek to buy food at a place she simply referred to as “The Italian Store”. As a child, I assumed she gave the store this name because the owners were Italian, however, I now believe that she also bestowed this moniker upon the store because it was much deserved. The food was the freshest, the imported goods were authentic and employees knew their business. It was the real deal, it was Italian. As icing on the cake, my mother would also speak Italian when shopping the store, a treat for me as she only spoke her mother tongue when conversing with her sister. Seeing my mom speak Italian was that subtle reminder of her existence before mine, like watching my dad throw a perfect pitch or put spin on a football better than anyone I have ever known. It reminded me that before I was even a thought, my mom once skipped through the dusty streets of a foreign country in shoes handmade by her father, speaking a language I don’t understand and that my dad once rounded the bases in a corner of Detroit, dreaming of the major leagues. Yet, somehow, the delicate fabric of the universe collided to bring me to that point, watching my mom touch, taste, yell and wave her hands in preparation of creating her own brand of magic.

Sicily, for me, has always been a place that is both familiar and unfamiliar. It is a place I have heard about since birth. It is a place I have seen only twice. It is a place I missed calling home by about 15 years and the implementation of a liberal immigration policy in the US designed to attract cheap labor to growing industry (wow, how times have changed, huh?). So, I left it with a bit of awe, wonder, recognition and complete misunderstanding. I am in awe of the beauty. There is Mt. Etna, rising up like a dark phantom over rolling hills and valleys seemingly unintimidated by the volcano's prophecies. My favorite scene on top of the volcano was watching bright butterflies gently fly around the tough and menacing lava. There is the Mediterranean that is so blue at times you think your eyes may singe upon looking at it, like staring at the solar eclipse too long. There are the Temples of Segesta and Agrigento, remnants of an ancient culture that bred the subtle hodgepodge that is today's Sicily. Indeed, there is beauty. Yet, there is confusion too. That confusion is perhaps best exemplified in the half-built constructions that litter every city, not to mention, the straight up litter. Staring at one stretch of beach after another, I couldn't get my head around the mountains of waste marring the delicate beauty laying underneath. My cousin, when asked about the state of things, simply offered up, "It's the Sicilian way". Later talks revealed dilemmas of organization, mafia and government, ending with another conjecture that Sicily doesn't do government. I laughed inward and thought about how many times I had told my sweetie that Italy needed a bad government because if it had good government, than it would truly be Utopia and everyone would move there.
While there are many things from Sicily that I will carry with me "ever days" (the term my neice used to use mean forever) there are a few that stand out.

Etna. It's massive and glorious and I wanted to roll around in the lava beds to keep warm!

Salt. My mom once told me that when she was a child Trapani was all salt beds as far as the eye could see. Today, the salt beds have receded to the outer stretches of the city, making room for more streets, shops and other business. The beds remain fascinating and provide the town with its unique product.

The Trapanis. While it is my mother who was born in Trapani, Sicily, it is my father's family that currently lives there. I have spent most of my life separated from this family by geography, time and language, yet, visitng them is far from a diminished experience. It is a favorite holiday, a coronation, a champagne float with a dark chocolate center. Seeing my great aunt, the last surviving sibling of my grandfather and the matriarch of this massive brood, play with her great grandchildren, dance her hands in time while telling a laughing story, and touch my face with a teary recognition was a greater finale to my 10 day whirlwind than I could have hoped. My sweetie's mom turned to me more than once during dinner and said, "You're the celebrity here", and, indeed, they can make it seem that way with huge feasts and fancy cakes. But, at the end of the day, I'm family, and isn't that so much better?
(for the greater collection of pics see http://www.flickr.com/photos/31423632@N07/)

3 comments:

Cristina said...

What can I say? I lay my pen down, humbly, and walk away. Wish I had been there with you.

Toni said...

Well, the subject matter lends itself extremely well. It is seriously difficult to write an uninspired word about Sicily.

Kay said...

Wow! I bow down to Toni, the princess of prose. I agree with Cristina and wish we ALL had been with you. What an adventure! So happy your father shared the blog. Kay