There’s no better way to build anticipation than settling into my airline seat with a book centered on the region I plan to visit. Once I’ve arrived, the reading offers insights or just flows into my experience of that place.
Sicily is on my mind but, oh well, I’m not there. So it’s armchair travel time and I’m pulling favorites from several shelves of books acquired during my research for Seafood alla Siciliana. These include at least a dozen Sicilian cookbooks in English and Italian, and one of these days I’ll share my faves among those.
But, for now, I’ll point you to five books that convey the essence of Sicily and its traditions. They’re all novels, short stories or memoirs. None are new, but it doesn’t matter.
Sicilian Carousel, by Lawrence Durrell, takes us on a fictional tour of Sicily with a narrator who has procrastinated too long about visiting his friend Martine, making the trip only after her death. Careening around the island with colorful and sometimes comical British companions, he broods about mortality while making dead-on observations such as this, alluding to the island’s fertility: “Everything ‘takes” and there is a suitable corner where soil and temperature combine to welcome almost everything.”
For Durrell, Sicily is a sub-continent requiring at least three months to absorb its overlapping cultures and traditions.” He has this to say about a wheat field that the rest of us might say is golden: “It is impossible to describe the degrees of yellow from the most candent cadmium to ochre, from discoloured ivory to lemon bronze.” His opulent but pin-pot precise language shames me into stopping, looking again and sharpening my senses.
The Wine-Dark Sea, by Leonardo Sciascia. In the title story of this Sicilian author’s superb short story collection, a civil engineer from northern Italy takes an interminable train trip to Sicily in the company of a boisterous Sicilian family. When one of the children compares the sea to wine, the rest of the family mocks him. Green or blue, they laugh, but certainly not red like wine. The engineer doesn’t associate the phrase with its source, The Odyssey, but it sounds familiar and he muses over the meaning. By the end we understand that the protagonist is–and may remain–as much a stranger to Sicily as any foreigner.
In another story I love, “The Long Crossing,” would-be immigrants pay a smuggler to take them by boat to what they believe to be New Jersey, with tragicomic results.
Mattanza: The Ancient Sicilian Ritual of Bluefin Tuna Fishing, by Theresa Maggio. In this memoir, this author tells of the year she spent on Favignana, an island off the west coast of Sicily. Slowly she is accepted by the tonnaroti (tuna fishermen) and other locals, and is invited to witness the laying of the traps and bloody killing of enormous bluefin during their spring migration.
In so doing, she bears witness not only to the long history of these traditions but to their disappearance. That the Mediterranean’s bluefin tuna are mostly gone is due not to the ancient method of trapping and killing them one by one, but to a voracious worldwide appetite for bluefin and to technology that makes it easy to scoop them up.
As a bonus, the book contains diverting stories of everyday life on Favignana and a love story of sorts with a tonnaroto.
The Snack Thief, by Andrea Camilleri, is just one among many titles relating the adventures of Inspector Montalbano, a deliciously irascible police official with strong culinary desires and opinions. Here he looks into seemingly separate events that turn out to be connected–the murder of a Tunisian sailor on a Sicilian fishing trawler, an elderly man stabbed in an elevator, a housecleaner/prostitute’s young son who steals other kids’ snacks.
While he lazily but astutely solves crimes, Montalbano eats one vividly described meal after another, almost always involving seafood. Stuffed bass in saffron sauce, roulades in tuna, pasta with crab, to name a few. Eating a hake with anchovy sauce, he declares that one whiff is sufficient to determine that “the hake were crying out for joy at having been cooked the way God meant them to be.”
Montalbano’s girlfriend Livia lives in Liguria and misses most of these meals, so it’s typically others who take the brunt of his wrath when a culinary misstep occurs. When Mimi, a colleague, sprinkles Parmesan on her spaghetti con le vongole, Montalbano heaps it on: “Even a hyena, which being a hyena, feeds on carrion, would have been sickened to see a dish of pasta with clam sauce covered with Parmesan.”
On Persephone’s Island, by Mary Taylor Simeti. Central to this book is the insight that rural Sicily still belongs to Magna Gaecia, with an annual rhythm of harvests and celebrations echoing those of the ancient Greeks. Into this seasonal structure, Simeti weaves a memoir that begins with her arrival in Sicily in 1962, her marriage to a Sicilian and the experience of raising a family in Palermo and her husband’s country estate.
For example, Simeti describes the arduous work of the olive harvest. Most are pressed into oil but some are gathered in October, still green, for table use. After soaking in water, they are combined with oregano and fennel in brine salty enough to float an egg. Once the bitter juices are drained, the olives are glossed with fresh olive oil.
In this world, Greek myths co-exist peaceably with Christian rituals and secular realities. Persephone was queen of the dead and daughter of Demeter, the goddess of wheat and in a more general way of fertility and the harvest. All of these traditions come together in All Souls Day, the most beloved of Sicilian feast days and a time for displays such as sugar peasants bearing baskets of fruit and fish on their heads.
This book is a feast too, beautifully written and as open to Sicily’s flaws as to its beauties. As Simeti writes, “Sicily is a fun-house mirror in which Italy can behold her national traits and faults distorted and exaggerated.”
So that’s my Sicilian reading list and I’ve only grazed the tip of Mount Etna. It’s outrageous to leave out Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), with its unforgettable dinner scene featuring a drum-shaped timballo stuffed with meat, pasta and all manner of other ingredients.
But I had to stop somewhere.