November 27, 2012

Blog theTwentieth: On Saracens, Sugar, & Sicily

… with two recipes for 
Red Peppers Tangy ‘n Sweet
I’m just not sure what to think about Saracens.  On one hand, they threatened my people (on my father’s side) with extermination, for refusing to surrender themselves and their Christian faith.  On the other hand, Saracen traders brought Sicily sugar, which was experimented with in the culinary arts before it found its natural place in the confectionary arts, bequeathing to South Italy its repertoire of sweet-‘n-sour dishes, in which vinegar mixed with sugar gives the tangy effect.  It works great on red peppers, which look great on a holiday plate. 

Saracen in late antiquity meant Arabian, more or less, but by the  Middle Ages it generally meant Muslim to most Europeans, as Venetian meant European to most Muslims, in each case no doubt by the metonymy of naming a people by its foremost emissaries, its traders.  The Saracens menacing my Sicilian forebears were probably Moors from North Africa, the kind Orlando Furioso fought.  In any case, it goes to show what a cosmopolitan place the coveted island of Sicily was, that the Sicilians those Saracens were menacing were of Norman extraction, to which earlier Norman invasion of the island I trace my half-Irish niece’s and nephew’s red hair (on my sister’s side of the recessive gene pair, that is). 

It’s easy for me to make light of the Saracen expedition against Sicily because it failed, thanks, on at least one occasion, to the warrior Madonna.  Yes, the warrior Madonna, and, no, she’s not some pagan syncretism of Sicilian Christianity.  I learned about her from my Sicilian uncle, who is a martial arts black-belt that invented his own Sicilian martial art, which he named after himself—LiobĂș—formalizing into an art‑form an old Sicilian tradition of street fighting with tree limbs whittled smooth into rods.  He is also a poet of the Sicilian dialect, who has published books of poems translated on facing pages into Italian. Okay, so maybe my Sicilian uncle is syncretistic.  But Sicily’s warrior Madonna is not.