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Tom Musco: Guest, Sicily 2000

Sicilian Food

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.)

This is section one of five. To download the whole document as a pdf file for printing click here.

Jump to:
History of Sicilian Food
Sicilian Food Today
Sicilian Pantry
Typical Sicilian Dishes

It seems appropriate that I am beginning to write this essay on Sicilian food at my mother’s 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 mother’s 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 to finish.

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 adults.

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 food.

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 regions
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 frequently eaten.

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, sheep’s 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 normal cakes.

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 Food


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