by Tom Musco
Tom was born in Manhattan, NY and grew up on Long Island, NY. He
met his wife Judy Jenkins at Umass, Amherst in 1967. Except for
2 years as a VISTA Volunteer in Eastern Long Island, Tom and Judy
lived in Massachusetts. They moved to Royalston, Massachusetts in
1977, built their house and timber frame business, had two children,
home schooled them and enjoyed the small town life of Royalston.
Tom developed his cooking skills feeding his family and as his form
of relaxation. Family mealtime, healthy food and its enjoyment were
part of the backbone of Musco family life.
(Tom was a guest with the Journalism Sicily Program in 2000.)
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History of Sicilian Food
Sicilian Food Today
Typical Sicilian Dishes
It seems appropriate that I am beginning to write this essay on
Sicilian food at my mothers house. Three of my four Sicilian
grandparents were born in Sicily, so I can say with some confidence
that I was raised in a Sicilian household on Sicilian food. There
was lots of fish including stuffed sardines, stuffed squid, fish
soup with stripped bass, fresh flounder, or cod; broiled mackerel,
marinated cold mackerel, tuna, or swordfish. Soups included fresh
pea soup, dried pea soup and chicken soup. Many of these dishes
were garnished with Locatelli Romano cheese (those not acclimated
to its aroma claim they can smell it a block away). That is not
to say that my mother could not resist some of the 1950s and 60s
fancy new convenience foods once in a while.
My father was trained by the Army to be a cook, and usually did
the Sunday dinner cooking-the "special" meals like a lamb
roast, or a flank steak, or a roasted chicken. This type of food
was special because it was American, and anything American was better
than anything Italian. The majority of the food I ate as a child
was made from scratch, including bread, pizza, and lots of fish.
The big culinary event of the year for our family (that was not
associated with a holiday) was getting together with some of the
really good cooks in my mothers family during the summer and
having a cuscusu (couscous) feast. Preparing cuscusu was so complicated
that my mother would not attempt it herself until instant couscous-just
add water and boil- became available in stores in the 1970s.
Cuscusu is the apex of Arab-Sicilian cuisine; its successful preparation
is considered the height of culinary art. Preparing cuscusu is a
long, involved process. It can take four to five hours from start
The starting point for all couscous recipes is the same. Semolina
grains are slowly poured into a large, round terra-cotta dish with
sloping sides called a mafaradda and formed into small pellets by
hand. The process of raking, rolling, aerating, and forming the
pellets is called incocciata by the Sicilians.
The difference between Sicilian cuscusu and North African couscous
is that the Sicilian version is always made with fish and seasoned
with bay leaves, while the North African type is made with lamb
and seasoned with red pepper.
When the couscous pellets are formed they are then steamed over
boiling fish broth in a couscoussiere (a steamer made especially
for this purpose). The fish broth is made using a three-to-one ratio
of white fish to oily fish. The fish used to make the broth is not
eaten. Small fish, shrimp, and in our family octopus were cooked
up and eaten with the cuscusu. The kids in our family were really
grossed-out to see a whole baby octopus being eaten by one of the
In a strange twist on the parental interview of new friends and
possible girlfriends, my mother would subject these innocent non-Italians
(I never had any Italian friends or love-interests) to a typical
Sicilian meal to test their character and endurance for exotic fare.
One of these interview/meals might include pasta con le Sarde(pasta
with sardines and fried bread crumbs), "dry pizza"(pizza
with anchovies, chunks of Romano cheese and spices-no sauce of any
kind), and if they passed those culinary hurdles they were strongly
encouraged to try stuffed calamari (squid) or the ultimate test:
cold squid salad made with sliced squid and very prominent whole
purple squid tentacles.
Needless to say, the few friends I had were loyal, had a well-developed
palette, and were fed well when they visited. However, there were
a large number of once-only dates in my teenage years. I started
to smarten up in my "old age." When I was about 19 I had
a girlfriend who was Swedish. I never let her get near my house.
We would meet at her house where she would make Swedish chocolate
chip crepes stuffed with strawberries and cream. It was not new
and unusual food, but the rest of the evening always involved something
new and exciting.
This is all by way of saying that food was important in my family,
as it is in Sicily, and Sicilian food is not the same as Italian
Sicilians eat much more dried pasta than fresh pasta or macaroni.
Their sauces are simple, using tomatoes, basil, herbs and nuts.
The cream and butter-based sauces that are popular in northern Italy
are virtually unheard of in the south. Olive oil is extensively
used, beef and chicken are used much less than in the north.
Today Sicily has the most varied and developed antipasto course
in all of Italy. It is served as a series of dishes, both warm and
at room temperature, with the emphasis on the play of contrasting
flavors. This type of antipasto table is modeled on the old Renaissance
antipasto, which was developed for the noble families of Italy.
It has survived best in Sicily, having been much simplified in other
In Sicily the diet is strongly based on grains, vegetables, and
fish. Meats and game are available, but often used in very special
dishes, not everyday ones. Swordfish and tuna are the fish most
Sicilian vegetable dishes are usually elaborate preparations, often
with many ingredients added to the main vegetable to create complex
flavors. Among the vegetables most stressed are eggplant, zucchini,
peppers, cauliflower, broccoli and artichoke. And after Tuscany,
Sicily offers the greatest variety of dishes using beans, especially
the ancient Mediterranean ones, favas, chickpeas and lentils.
Sicilian bread is generally of very high quality because of the
wonderful nutty flavor of the famous Sicilian wheat. Generally the
bread is dusted with sesame or fennel seeds. The island has a wide
variety of stuffed pizzas and focacce, called scacciate or panate.
The Arabs introduced the art of making confections, combining nuts
and fruits with sugar and honey. Because of the mystical, ritualistic
and religious connotations attached to sweets, the convents and
monasteries of Sicily became the prime repositories of Arab-based
desserts. Today the production of desserts has passed from the convents
and monasteries to the commercial pastry shops.
The ingredients in traditional Sicilian desserts include candied
citron, orange and other fruits, almonds, walnuts and pistachios,
marzipan, sheeps milk ricotta, jasmine and orange essence,
homemade bread crumbs, eggs and Marsala wine. The cakes often include
ground nuts in the flour, and are often heavier in texture than
Desserts developed in the 19th century are based on creams, chocolate
and butter, and are often French adaptations of lighter pastries
from Florentine Renaissance cooking.
Part II: A History of Sicilian