An American writer living in Sicily sympathetically captures a Sicilian woman’s recollections of her childhood in an orphanage, complete with recipes.
After a few pages describing Sicily’s impoverished west coast, tracing the history of its pastries, and explaining how she met her subject, Simeti (Travels with a Medieval Queen, 2001, etc.) draws on taped interviews to let Maria Grammatico speak for herself, with an occasional interpolation. When Maria’s father died suddenly from a heart attack in 1952, her mother, pregnant with a sixth child, was unable to support the family on their small farm near Erice. So 11-year-old Maria and her younger sister were sent to a local orphanage, the San Carlo, run by nuns who earned money making and selling regional delicacies. With a mixture of pride and pain, Grammatico describes the orphans’ involvement in every step of production, from shelling kilos of almonds to making molds for the famous Martorana fruits, painted marzipan candy. She learned how to paint them and how to make pastries and preserves, skills that later helped her earn her way in the world, but she remains angry about the conditions she and the other children endured. They lived mainly on meatless pasta and worked long hours in the laundry, the kitchen, and the hospital. They had no playtime, no books to read, and were punished harshly. Girls with developing breasts had to bind them painfully tight because brassieres were thought sinful. Maria missed her family, but stayed on at the orphanage until, thinking she wanted to be a nun, she entered a cloistered order in Catania. A nervous collapse brought her home, and in her early 20s she began making and selling confections and pastries; she now owns two shops. The recipes are clear and easy to follow, but the most memorable portions here contain Grammatico’s vivid recollections of a vanished culture and way of life.
Eloquent celebration of food and a woman who learned the hard way how to prepare it.