I make no secret of my shameless and insatiable need for cookbooks and books about food, nor is my particular interest in Middle Eastern, North African and Mediterranean food one I’ve kept hidden so, when I was presented with the opportunity to review a book on Sicilian food it is no surprise that I grabbed it with almost indecent haste!
“Sicilian Food” by Mary Taylor Simeti was first published in the US as “Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-five Centuries of Sicilian Food” in 1989 and has been re-published here in Australia by Adelaide’s Wakefield Press.
While I can appreciate the benefits of the less cumbersome title, the new one does not really do justice to the contents of this book which is so much more than a collection of recipes. Simeti is an American who married into Sicily, but even so, came late to her full appreciation of the rich culinary history of her adopted home. It wasn’t until she and her Sicilian husband began to spend time in the countryside that the historical significance of the peasant culture around her began to tease her earlier interest in history, sending her off on the fascinating and thorough research which informs this book.
Sicily lies at the toe of the boot that is Italy and has had a long association with the culinary arts – the first known Western cookbook, the now lost “Art of Cooking”, was written in Syracuse in the fifth century BC. Sicilian food has been influenced by the many and varied cultures which held sway over the Mediterranean island, including the Greeks, Arabs, Romans, French and Spanish. Such was the reputation of Sicilian food, that possessing a Sicilian cook was considered to be a status symbol in the Roman Empire and a great many Sicilian dining favourites subsequently made their way up the boot to the rest of Italy and Europe.
In the early chapters, Simeti’s book follows the incursions by the miscellaneous conquerors and notes the culinary influences of each of them with plenty of traditional recipes reflective of each culture. There is a chapter devoted to bread and it’s place in Sicilian society, further chapters look at foods of the various classes of past Sicilian society and the final chapters are dedicated to pastries, street foods and ice cream. Each chapter of the book is a fascinating and very well-researched read about the history and culture of each subject with anecdotes and excerpts from historical and literary sources. Interestingly, for a good Catholic school girl, the section on sweets and pastries involved research into the histories of many of the convents of Sicily as the devout nuns exercised their creativity by turning out a plentiful supply of treats! The recipes are traditional and classic Sicilian dishes and Simeti states that she has made each of them herself – even going so far as to attempt some of the more ancient and unusual concoctions that she read about in her research.
Mary Taylor Simeti is a New York girl who travelled to Siciliy, in the 1960’s, for what was meant to be a two year break. There she met her husband, an agricultural economist, and they now run an organic farm near Palermo. She has written several other books, some in Italian, and including one which is a memoir of a convent-trained pastry chef.
As I stated earlier, “Sicilian Food” is not just a collection of recipes, but a well researched and accessible examination of an influential and rich culinary tradition. Simeti’s writing style is descriptive, amusing and engaging – this is a book that belongs in the hands of anyone who has an interest beyond just the taste of their food.
Mary Taylor Simeti will be in Sydney and is appearing as part of the “Crave Sydney International Food Festival” on 9 October, 2010.[mc4wp_form id="16750"]