Rochester's Sicilians (1942): Cannoli, Brusciuluna, St. Joseph's Bread

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Wed Nov 5 03:20:36 UTC 2003


   There was an article on Alan Davidson (OXFORD COMPANION TO FOOD author) in last Sunday's NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE.
   Davidson is also famous for the journal PETITS PROPOS CULINAIRES (PPC) and the OXFORD SYMPOSIUM ON FOOD.  Gerald Cohen recently asked me for Bruce Kraig's work here, so I went to the New York Public Library to check them out.  (It's easier than finding the stuff in my apartment.)
   Both PETITS PROPOS CULINAIRES and the OXFORD SYMPOSIUM ON FOOD aren't in the NYPL.  They aren't even in New York City.  They're off-site, in New Jersey.  I was told I could file a library complaint, but "they won't listen to you."

by Jerre Mangione
New York: Columbia University Press
copyright 1942, 1952, 1963, 1972, "finale" copyright 1981
Originally published Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943

   This book probably is also representative of Buffalo's (NY) Italian community.  There's no other similar book for this period (pre-1950).  A great read with, of course, some food items.

Pg. 16:  The losers would dispatch one of us to the neighboring saloon for a bucket of beer, and the women would spread a white tablecloth over the table and pile it high with fried Italian sausages, _pizza_ made with cheese and tomatoes, and fried artichokes if they were in season.

Pg. 26:  The third faction ostensibly sympathized with the two who were _rifridati_ (cooled) but could be counted on to sprinkle enough salt on the wounds to keep the quarrel alive.

Pg. 41:  Donna Rosalia talked incessantly about the refined life she had led in Girgenti and about the horrors of living in America, where she had to associate with a lot of _cafoni_.

Pg. 90:  After all, Saint Joseph's Day came only once a year--and what other saint could goad Sicilian women to the same culinary heights?  Sarina's long table of food stretched from one end of her living-room to the kitchen, and was piled high with a dazzling variety of meats, fruits, and pastries.

Pg. 91:  Each guest filed by the banquet table, cafeteria style, selecting the food he wished, and then went to the head of the table to have it blessed by jesus, Joseph, or Mary.  He then had the choice of either devouring the food right then and there, or tasting a little of it and taking the rest home in a paper bag.  The children did both, but no one dared scold them because it was Saint Joseph's Day and everyone knew how much Saint Joseph loved little children.
Pg. 92:  Joseph would say grace and the moment he was through the guests would yell "_Viva San Giuseppe_!" and dig into the food.
   (No "Saint Joseph's bread" here--see page 133--but a nice description of the day--ed.)

Pg. 128:  He was especially noted for a Sicilian delicacy called _cannolo_, which was unsurpassed by any of the other pastrycooks in Rochester and seldom equaled even in New York and Palermo.  As a boy he had been apprenticed to a famous Sicilian pastrycook and he learned his trade well.  He might have become a celebrated pastrymaker had he remained in Sicily, but here in America, the land of ice-cream and pie, there was not enough of a market for his products and he became another factory worker, expressing his real talents on holidays and other occasions when he could give banquets for his friends and relatives.
   Although his _cannoli_ were masterpieces, his recipe for making them was no secret and he willingly itemized it for anyone who wanted to attempt it.  Needless to say, no one ever approached his results, though several of his more determined imitators came to his kitchen to watch every move and measurement he made.  The ingredients were simple: cottage cheese refined to a smooth paste; tiny bits of chocolate mixed into the paste, and a few drops of a magical spirit known as _cannela_ (a liquid cinnamon), whose sharp odor recurs to me with fully as many memories as a cup of tea ever gave Proust.  The trick, my father claimed, was not so much in concocting the cream (Pg. 129--ed.) as in preparing the crisp, cylindrical shells that held it.

Pg. 132:  One of my father's meat courses was usually _brusciuluna, a combination of Roman cheese, salami, and moon-shaped slivers of hard-boiled egg encased in rolls of beef that had been pounded into tenderness.  All this was held together by an engineering feat involving many strings and toothpicks.  The other meats served were chicken (two kinds usually--boiled chicken, from which the soup had been made--and roast chicken), lamb, and veal.  (...)
   Bread was eaten with every course, except with such other flour products as spaghetti and pastry.  it would have been considered a redundant eating bread with them.  My relatives, like all Sicilians, had a deep-seated reverence for bread, and they transferred it to their children to such an extent that none of us, even to this day, can eat food without bread and not feel guilty.  it was considered sinful to waste bread, or to permit a loaf of bread to sit upside down, or to eat meat without eating bread.  one of the most hospitable gestures a host could make during his campaign to gorge a guest with food was to give his guest permission to eat his meat without bread.  Once that permission was granted, no risk of sinning was incurred.

Pg. 133:  And when times were bad, they said to each other, "As long as God grants us a piece of bread, we shall get along."
   Possibly because Sicilians, more than any other group of Italians, have suffered greatly in their struggle for existence, their attachment to bread and what it symbolized was stronger and they put their best efforts into making it.  They make it finer and tastier than any other Italian bread.  They sprinkled sesame seeds over it and wrought it into a dozen different designs expressing their love of life and fear of the Devil.  They made loaves with replicas of flowers on them, loaves formed like a woman's braided tresses, loaves to look like giant amulets, and loaves shaped the way you would shape your hand if you met up with the evil eye.  The most common kind was the loaf with three gashes cut into its top--a warning to the Devil of what might happen to him if he tried to interfere with the goodness of God.
   The only bread that had a finer texture was the bread that was prepared in honor of Saint Joseph on his birthday.  it was firmer and sweeter than everyday bread and as fancy as bread could be without being pastry.  My relatives knew of no greater culinary tribute to pay a saint.  So closely was this bread associated with Saint Joseph that eating it made me feel a little like a cannibal; as much as I liked its taste, I was always careful not to bite into the bread too hard.
(Pg. 134--ed.)
   Next to bread and wine, _pasta_ was the most cherished of foods.  My relatives agreed that no matter how much food a man ate, he could not satisfy his appetite if his main meal did not include some form of _pasta_.  This might be in the form of noodles or spaghetti served with sauces of butter, or oil and garlic, or _suco_ made from meat and tomatoes.  If you got bored with noodles or spaghetti, you had the choice of a score of different shapes of macaroni with as many different names, including butterflies, angels' hair, stars, little worms, sparrows' tongues, and big cannons.
   If my father knew in advance that his guests were to include a couple who were expected to announce their engagement, he would advertise the situation by serving a tubular macaroni about three inches long known as _mezzo-zittu_, which means half-engaged.  And if the couple were already engaged and about to be married, the macaroni he served was _zittu_ (engaged), almost twice the size of _mezzo-zittu_.  This was about as far as a Sicilian's sense of delicacy would permit him to go.  Once they were married, such suggestive symbols were considered superfluous and any kind of macaroni would do.

Pg. 152:  _STRAFALARIA_ MIGHT SOUND LIKE A PECULIAR disease, but among my relatives it was a powerful invective--more powerful than "hussy" or "slut"--used against any woman who either flaunted her sex brazenly or was suspected of misbehavior with men.

Pg 170:  But somehow the news that two American _butani_ were regular visitors at Compare Calogero's saloon got back to his wife.

Pg. 224:  In spite of the fact that the word _Americano_ was usually preceded by the Sicilian word _fissa_, meaning stupid, Americans were suspected of miraculous shrewdness and dishonesty. (...)
   The first supposedly English word many of my relatives learned even before they landed in America was _girarihir_, meaning "Get out of here."  Immigrants were solemnly advised to yell this word at any stranger in America who approached them, for it was emphasized that if a Sicilian was identified as a _greenhorno_, some American would surely try to rob him of his money or belongings.

Pg. 237:  ...the rest of the family circle attended the buffet supper and ate _pizza_, hot bread with olive oil, roasted chestnuts, and chickpeas, all to the accompaniment of red wine.

Pg. 253:  "_Mangia_, _mangia_," they urged.  "Eat it without bread, but eat it," they would finally say in desperation.

Pg. 275:  To my Sicilian relatives there were only two kinds of women: respectable women (_donne oneste_) and _strafalarii_.

Pg. 278:  One afternoon while we were eating a _gelato_ in front of the pastry shop where my father had once been an apprentice, he suddenly pointed to a buxom woman passing by...

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