Sicilian Pomp & Sustenance

Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Food
Mary Taylor Simeti
Alfred A. Knopf, New York: 1989

The Heart of Sicily: Recipes and Reminiscences of Regaleali, A Country Estate
Anna Tasca Lanza
Clarkson Potter, New York: 1993

It is no secret that I love Mediterranean food – in all its wonderful guises. Sicilian cuisine seemed to me to encompass quite a few elements from around the Mediterranean Sea – Greek, Near Eastern, North African and of course from their near neighbours on the mainland of Italy. In fact, it is Italian food with a difference – a rich difference that makes use of the island’s fresh produce from both the land and the sea. The end product is uniquely Sicilian.

Mary Taylor Simeti’s book, Pomp and Sustenance, taks us through those different elements and places them in their historical and cultural context. Reading her preface hooked me from the first time I opened the covers of this book. As Simeti puts it:

I discovered that food in Sicily shares in what I have come to regard as the terrible density of Sicilian culture, an insular culture compacted by centuries of foreign conquest and domestic oppression.

Indeed, the book is part history, part anthropology in its obsevations of superstitions and practices, and part cookbook. The layout of the chapters also reflect this, beginning with ancient Greeks and Romans. She draws on quotes by Plato and Archestratus of Gela (both 4th century BC) and not least by that 1st century AD Roman cookery source, Apicius’ Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome. Simeti, however, remarks that even with the Roman Empire, the island remained (at least) culturally Greek even though many Roman members of the senetorial class owned large estates on the island. Similarly, the transitions from pagan to Christian moved quickly and in 535 AD, Sicily became allied to the eastern Byzantine Empire. By the 9th century the invading Saracens introduced many new methods of agriculture, new produce and new cooking techniques from the east. Norman knights arrived in conquering mode in the 12th century, setting up prosperous trade in luxury produce to the north. And so on, as history tells us that both internal strife and prosperity made its mark on Sicilian cuisine through the ages.

The recipes in each chapter reflect the essence of the different invading cultures and the development of insular ways of life – divorced, yet connected by cultural links to the mainland. The simplicity of the Greeks shows in the numerous fava bean recipes. New exotic ingredients, with an emphasis on citrus and the first European introduction of rice, was brought in by the Sarasans, giving us the Sicilian arancini, stuffed rice croquettes, literally translated as “little oranges”. Significantly, the Arabs (Sarasans) also brought pasta with them. Another staple, bread is given an entire chapter which recounts many superstitions and cultural traditions – some of which I mentioned in an earlier post, Much Ado About Mollica.

The contradictory decadence of the monastic orders is reflected in the sumptuous sweets, many made for religious festival days. Last, but not least, gelato (Sicilian sorbetti) is given a chapter, much to my (and my ice cream machine’s) delight.

Mary Simeti also wrote the forward in the translation of Anna Tasca Lanza’s The Heart of Sicily. This book is a wonderful insight into the workings of a traditional Sicilian agricultural estate just outside of Palermo. Throughout, numerous photographs of work on the farm beautifully illustrate activities. The farm/estate is actually a large rural aristocratic landholding known as a latifondo. Indeed, Simeti says in her introductory remarks:

The food that Anna Lanza presents in the following pages is colored by this double thread of Sicilian history, the aristocratic and the agrarian.

Anna Tasca Lanza divides the book following the seasons from Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter with an introductory section Nella Nostra Dispensa (In Our Pantry). Each of the seasonal section contains a few introductory remarks and typical recipes using fresh ingredients from the estate – peas, artichokes and wild greens in spring, peppers, tomatoes and aubergines in summer, onions, mushrooms and apples in autumn, and dried beans, potatoes and citrus in winter. Meat, game and fish also follow the seasons. Often special celebratory dishes for festival days are mentioned – the feast of San Giuseppe (19 March) with special cream puffs, the feast of Sant’ Anna (26 July) with Anna Lanza’s Gelo di Melone (watermelon pudding), the feast of San Martino (11 November) flowing with new wine, and the feast of Santa Lucìa (13 December) with Cuccìa made from wheatberries. Not least, both Easter and Christmas foods are also highlighted.

I have not cooked much from these books, although what I have cooked was spectacular – memorally caponata from Anna Lanza’s book and maccu (fava bean soup) from Simeti. I have enjoyed them primarily for their clear writing and their insights into the history and culture of a special island. However, with my new access to fresh Mediterranean produce, I am looking forward to trying more recipes. I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.

* * *

* Mary Taylor Simeti’s book is available as a kindle book under a different title: Sicilian Food: Recipies from Italy’s Abundant Isle.
* Anna Tasca Lanza also operates a cooking school on her estate.

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23 comments

  1. The best kind of recipe books these days, whether historical or autobiographical are informative in some way. It’s the only way that we’re going to be lured into picking them up and placing them on shelves that say: ‘there is no such thing as too many cook books. ‘ You’re an addict, Debi, confess. :) 🙂

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    • My name is Debi and I am a cookbook addict. Yes, I believe I am, but also (I hope) a discerning one. I love anything to do with history and ethnography – particularly if there is food involved. It’s only the image that says “there is no such thing as too many cook books”. Amazing what photoshop can do!

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    • Nice to find another Simeti fan! Sorry, Annie, but we cannot get bbc out here in Greece, but will be back in the UK soon and will download the programme on iplayer if it is still available. I can imagine that it was spectacular. Thanks for the link!

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  2. I am the only person in my (Italian) family that has not – as of yet – been to Sicily. It’s downright disheartening. Your book, on the other hand, sounds like the perfect antidote until I make my first visit. Will need to check it out!

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    • I, too, need to cook more from it. However, finding time to experiment in the kitchen is proving a wee bit difficult. I have Simeti’s book on kindle here, but the hardcover is at home. Kindle cookbooks are wonderful for an easy transport of a cookbook library, but I still like the feel of the hardback.

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      • Me too Deb, much much rather a hardback cookbook, I have however embraced reading novels on the kindle, love that I can adjust the font size, and the light is always good.

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  3. Hi Debi, I have the Anna Tasca Lanza book. I too have cooked little from it though I have read it time and time again. One thing I have done is make the tomato paste though on a much much smaller scale.

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    • Will need to look up that recipe – or at least have it to hand when the tomatoes start growing again. Lucky you that you are entering spring and growing season. I agree, though, it is a good reading book – Simeti’s, too.

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