in which I explore my (Sicilian) roots

I grew up in an apple pie, brats and hamburger midwestern american home.  Our culture was midwest america.  I was vaguely aware that my ancestors had come from all over europe – Norway, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, to name a few – over the last 200 years and settled here in the heartland.  Some had been here long enough to fight (and die) in the civil war.  Some came at the turn of the 20th century and were given citizenship after fighting in World War 1.  But from no one, no exceptions, did we receive any sort of cultural heritage.

I was always jealous of my friends who had strong family cultural roots.  Be it polish polka-ing, irish step dancing or german cooking, their families had managed to hold on to a little piece of their history.

My family’s cultural history was limited to the norwegian joke book at my grandparent’s house.  Seriously, that was it. 

I’ve always felt that american culture, if not a void, is at least a neutral.  It’s a background upon which a variety of cultural colors can be strewn.  Alas, my family’s canvas is sadly blank and devoid of hues of any shade, vibrant or mute. 

I had always thought that earlier generations of immigrants melted into the stew of american life quickly.  Imagine my surprise to find that many midwestern immigrants maintained their link to europe for generations after immigrating, speaking the european language at home, maintaining european language schools and cooking good ol fashion european food.

Why was my family different?  I still haven’t answered that question completely.  For my mother’s mother, my maternal grandmother, perhaps part of it was unintentional.  Her parents spoke italian only to one another, and after her father was killed in a car accident in the late 1920s, italian was rarely spoken in her home.  Faced with the daunting task of raising 4 children alone in the great depression, my great grandmother probably didn’t have a lot of time or energy to impart the finer points of her heritage on her children.

No italian culture, cooking, language or otherwise, passed down to her, and as such, none to my mother, and none to me.

I could always take the path I see many american converts to Islam take – adopt the culture of my husband and become and honorary egyptian.  But, while I’m happy to be married to an Egyptian, and hope that our children (inshaAllah) will one day learn and appreciate their heritage, I just can’t do it.  Sure, I love to wear abayas on occasion, and I can make some mean mahshy and kofta, it’s just not me.  

Alhamdulilah though, I’ve found a way to reclaim my own lost heritage.  We acquired some new bookshelves, and as such, I reorganized by book collection, which is quite a monumental task.  In doing so, I came across some cookbooks I hadn’t really looked at.  They were given to me by my grandmother when she moved out of her home into her condo and were recipes from the Greenbush

The Greenbush was a triangle of land in Madison, Wisconsin, where waves upon waves of immigrants settled, including my grandmother’s family.  Decades later, I would live there for a brief time in college.  Each new group of immigrants added to the flavor and uniqueness of the area.  Sadly, urban planning redeveloped the neighborhood in the 1960s, scattering the inhabitants to all corners of the city.

Some of the legacy of the neighborhood lives on though, in the cookbooks by Catherine Tripalin Murray, and it was from those cookbooks I began to explore my Sicilian-Wisconsinite heritage this weekend, at least in food.  All received high marks from AbuS, who hadn’t liked the americanized italian food we’d eaten in the past.

From Grandmothers of the Greenbush:

Salsa Fresca Di Pomidoro a la Puttancesca – the recipe of a woman who had immigrated from Palermo, Sicily

  • 2 T olive oil
  • 2 to 3 large cloves garlic, chopped or mashed
  • 2 small cans flat anchovy filets, drained
  • 2 pounds fresh Italian plum (Roma type_ tomatoes
  • 6 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 T chopped fresh basil (use less if dried)
  • 2 T chopped fresh parsley
  • Fresh ground pepper to taste (no salt)

Put olive oil and drained anchovies (the anchovies I bought were in olive oil, so I just used that) into a large non-stick or stainless steel skillet.  Cook anchovies over medium heat, stirring until they begin to dissolve.  Add chopped/mashed garlic.  Saute an additional 3 minutes.

Blanch tomatoes quickly in boiling water and peel.  Chop into small pieces and add to oil, anchovy and garlic mixture.  Cook until tomatoes also begin to dissolve.  Add remaining ingredients of sun-dried tomatoes, basil and parsley.  Simmer uncovered over low heat until sauce thickens.  Adjust seasoning with garlic and pepper.  Mix small amount of sauce with cooked pasta.  Reserve and pour remainder over individual servings.

Note: tomato pieces make this a chunky sauce.  Since anchovies are salty, no additional salt needed.  Cooking does away with the fishy taste and leaves only a piquant flavor.  Try without cheese, as it may mask the distinctive flavor.

Pollo Stufata con Pomodoro e Patata – from a woman who had immigrated from Cammarata, Sicily

  • 1 3/4 pound fryer chicken, cut up into 10 pieces (I used boneless, skinless chicken breasts instead)
  • Flour
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup olive oil (I used much less oil)
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
  • 5-6 fresh basil leaves or 1 t dry basil
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 4 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
  • 1 medium onion, cut in half lengthwise and sliced thin
  • 1 8 ounce can of peas, drained (I used 1 lb frozen peas)
  • Grated Parmesan or Romano Cheese

Dredge chicken in seasoned flour.  Brown in olive oil in skillet; remove and set aside.  Drain off any excess oil leaving just enough to saute garlic and onion until soft.  Add tomatoes, mashing large pieces and simmer for a few minutes.  Add basic and oregano and simmer a few minutes more and set aside.

Use a broiler pan and arrange chicken in single layer.  Place quartered potatoes between chicken pieces.  Pour tomato sauce over chicken and potatoes making sure a little sauce goes under the chicken.  Cover with foil and bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 45 to 50 minutes.  Remove foil and distribute the peas over the chicken mixture making sure peas are pressed into the sauce.  Sprinkle cheese lightly over entire mixture and bake another 10 to 15 minutes.  Test for tenderness.  Add additional salt and pepper to your own taste.


inshaAllah more recipes to come, both from the Greenbush and other areas of Italy!


6 thoughts on “in which I explore my (Sicilian) roots

  1. I think we both had that similar experience of growing up. Although there was always a myriad of ethnic cuisine; Norwegian, Polish, Italian, German in my home and grandparents home we never had a strong attachment to any certain place. My grandparents were removed from the language and culture of their parents – the closest relatives were great-grandparents married to each other, one from Italy and one from Germany who had to speak English to even communicate with each other. While I’ve taken honorary Moroccan status it has also made me very aware that I am not that – that I am American and whatever dullish, crude conglomoration of ethnicities that come with it! (PS if you come across any recipes from Catania Sicily I’d love them – (that’s the only city/place I know of ancestors)

  2. I always said that about American culture too, that’s growing up I felt like I had NO culture. I think that’s why I always knew I would have an inter-something marriage, and why I was always attracted to all the different cultures out there in the world. And another plus to interculutral marriage, marrying someone outside my culture has made me recognize and appreciate the culture I was raised in a bit more. Just like you did in this post :)

  3. Amanda – inshaAllah I’ll check. I didn’t see anything in an intial browse, but I’ll see what cities are close by and see if there’s anything there. I have a few more italian recipes I’ve already tried and will post soon inshaAllah, and a lot more on my to make list

    GoriWife – that is so true! There is culture there somewhere, but we just have to be motivated to dig it out.

  4. I was thinking that I’d write that I am Canadian, which is very similar to American, and that I felt fine not knowing much about my “roots”. I feel great being Canadian and not at all cultureless.

    But then I realized that I still have a strong culture with being a Quebecker. Here, reading and thinking in English, I think Canadian. But in my “real life”, it’s a big part of me and my day to day. And it’s definitely a culture. So I guess I just have enough of that withoug going into the Anglo part of my family (with Irish mostly, some Swedish). My name is an Anglecized version of a Swedish name so for anyone here, it just makes them think that I speak English. And I like that. It’s good enough for me!

  5. Wow, nice post. Growing up, I knew that I was Scottish (on my Mom’s side) and German (on my Dad’s). Most of the culture we got at home was German, esp when it came to food, customs and the like. But nothing on a very deep level. We never did partake in anything like tradtional dance, etc. Two of my cousins, whose mom is Irish, had them in Irish dancing and we would go to all of their functions. That’s when I became hooked on the Irish music and culture. Some of my favorite childhood memories are when we would to go to Ceili’s in the church basement, eating soda bread from the bake sales, flirting with the cute Irish boys. LOL.

    I think it is important for kids to know where they came from; to have a strong sense of identity. Like you said, it gives color to their world. I wish my parents would have done a lot more in that arena.

    I am proud of my childrens’ rich heritage, esp their Jewish side, there is so much history on that end of it. Sometimes I still wish my daughter went to the Islamic School. For the upper grades they always had Culture Day, where kids would dress up and explain their heritage to the class, bring foods, etc. I had always had planned to send her to in my clan tartan and a pot of matzoh ball soup. Heh, heh…no one else would have that mix!

  6. Candice – when you come back to blogging, could you expand on the quebecois culture? It’s something I know nothing about, aside from watching a single simpsons episode in quebecois in college french

    sabiwabi – you guys do have an interesting mix. How are you teaching your kids about it?

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