Wednesday, October 7, 2009

AFJ 2009: The Sicilian Connection (accessorized by fig cookies)

Moderator Sara Roahen, author of "Gumbo Tales: Finding my Place at the New Orleans Table" says she won't talk much since the Sicilians are much more interesting. Creole Italian is one name for the cuisine. By 1880, New Orleans had country’s largest Italian population. A pre-Katrina census counted 250,000 people of Italian descent, mostly in New Orleans. Many local neighborhood boites serve spaghetti and meatballs, usually on Wednesdays. The muffaletta (alternate spelling muffuletta, among others) has Sicilian origins.

Liz Williams, president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, Arthur Brocato, third generation of Angelo Brocato’s Ice Cream and Confectionary, which was fully rebuilt after Katrina, Sandra Scalise Juneau, who teaches baking traditions and Joseph Segretto, owner of 1179 Restaurant were the panelists. Segretto formerly managed Louis Prima.

How did they get here? Williams’ grandmother came from Palermo in 1903 and various family followed. Her family made big distinction between being Sicilian and Italian. Her great grandfather was a butcher and worked at the French Market. After the butcher generation, there were policeman; then the later generations were more professional.

Brocato is Sicilian on both sides. Grandfather’s family were blacksmiths, and he worked as a banana inspector. They opened a little grocery store on the corner of St. Philip and Dauphine and sold snowballs, peanuts and picked up Creole cooking. The other side of the family went from shoemaking through death by yellow fever and into gelato and cookie making. Cookie and pastries were made for special occasions and for the St. Joseph’s altar. Cassata cake consisted of a pan lined with sponge cake and filled with ricotta, decorated with marzipan and more ricotta or a poured icing glaze. Brocato makes the marzipan version his grandfather made.

Scalise Juneau is also a double Sicilian. Her paternal grandfather came to work in the cane fields, and this accounted for many Sicilians coming to Louisiana. Eventually he sent for the family. Her maternal grandfather established themselves in a small restaurant and then sent for the rest of the family. Grandfather also worked at Hotel Monteleone.

Segretto came from doing a Sardinian luncheon. The food is very similar to Sicilian food. Sicily is largest island in the Mediterranean, and produces the most wine in all of Italy. It also has the oldest aristocracy. The culture is polyglot, and many cultures that blended in Sicily ended up exporting aspects of Sicilian cuisine. The Sicilians then re-imported the variations from places like France.

Many pastries, including our fig cookies (popular for the St. Joseph altar) and the reginale (queen’s cookies), came from nuns in the convents. Each panelist recounted various food memories and shunning of improper marriages. Talk of spadini, sitting on pasta pots as high chairs, and no roux in red gravy. No talk of sauce here. Segretto recommended "Pomp and Sustenance" by Mary Simeti Taylor.

Creole cooking legend Leah Chase noted she makes a light roux with tomatoes and tomato sauce, but uses tomato paste and wine when she wants it to be more like Italian gravy.

Scalise talked about the St. Joseph’s altar tradition that has spread from the Sicilians to other Catholic communities. Along with cucidada (fig cookies), there are savories including stuffed redfish and other baked representations of local foods on the altars. Our later excursion to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum included the altar pictured here.

-- Claudia Perry, "official" AFJ conference blogger

No comments: