A fellow traveler to Sicily, who was my age, had come from Germany to the United States when his father accepted a job with a brewery in Tampa, Florida. He said that it had been hard to leave his friends, but America was then very exciting, and, of course, it was the setting for the western stories he loved of Karl May (you can look him up) and for American movies and TV. He said that many Europeans view the United States differently today than they did back then and now had no desire to move to America. They do not want to live without universal healthcare; have expensive “public” colleges and universities and other “public” education that has to be supported with bake sales; and do not want to live where the middle class is shrinking.
At least one Sicilian, however, enjoyed his trip to the United States. After the server in a Taormina restaurant gave me some Italian instruction (if you want the check, you don’t say “conto” as I had said, but “il conto,” I think. He continued that Americans said “grazie” with two syllables when it has three), the server talked, at considerable length, about his trip to the United States. He and three others started in Miami, the home of his boss’s wife. They drove across the southern United States—Alabama and Mississippi, he reported—to New Orleans. They continued into Texas and he scored a seat to the Super Bowl–$800 for the ticket—even though he knew nothing about American football. (He should have talked to that Palermo server. See post of November 21.) Then on to the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, and California. He loved San Francisco and hated Los Angeles. He said several times that the trip took forty-five days and cost 10,000 Euros. We listened. We asked some questions. He talked at length. And then some more. When we left, the bartender stopped us and gave us two free limoncellos. As I had concluded on previous trips to Italy, it is a disgusting drink.
I had not known that limoncello is a generic name for a lemon liqueur. I thought that there was one brand. Instead, I was told that each region of Italy that grows lemons has its own limoncello. To me, that just means the proliferation of something that should not be drunk. The spouse likes it fine.
I will never regard tiramisu the same again. A guide stated that the dessert originated in the brothels of the Veneto region where it was thought to help patrons . . . um . . . get it up.
I had many wonderful Sicilian desserts and pastries: almond cakes, a puff made from pistachio flour, gelato, but my favorites were the cannoli. I learned they were not all the same. The shells varied as did the texture and the sweetness of the fillings. The best was in a Palermo restaurant. The filling was the lightest of all the cannoli I had and barely sweet. The shell was not the typical cannolo tube, but two fried pieces of pastry, puffed and crunchy, forming a sandwich with the creamy cheese. Delizioso!
The strangest confection is known as St. Agatha’s breast. I don’t know if St. Agatha of Sicily is the patron saint of all the island, but she is the patron saint of some of its regions. Agatha lived in the third century and made a vow of chastity. A Roman lusted after her, but she spurned his advances. He, knowing that she was a Christian, had her arrested during a time of Christian persecutions. She was sent to a brothel where she was raped, but she refused to renounce her God. She was then further tortured, and her breasts were cut off. She was sentenced to be burned at the stake, but a timely earthquake saved her. (What it did to others is not mentioned.) She was sent to prison, where she died, but not before St. Peter healed her wounds. (Hearing this story, I am again reminded that so much of religion is about sex.)
She is commemorated in many ways in Sicily—in paintings and sculpture and churches—but most bizarrely in a sweet confection. It is a white mound with a cherry on top, representing a breast of St. Agatha. This may seem to be sacrilegious, but apparently not so. We visited an old convent, and we ended up in the gift shop. Pastries were for sale that the vendors swore were made from the convented-nuns’ recipes. These included row after row of Agatha’s breasts.
I bought one at a shop in Catania. It was a white cake with a gloppy fruit filling covered with a too-sweet white frosting and what I took to be a maraschino cherry nipple. Awful might be too strong a word, but it was assuredly not good. Something that seldom happens with me—I did not eat it all, and I wondered what it would have done to my sexual development if I had grown up with this bizarre “treat.” I speculated on how it had affected all the Sicilians who had grown up with it. You can quote me on this: St. Agatha’s breasts are not as good as real ones.
(continued November 28)