Sunday, February 17, 2013

Green Vespa, Green fava

This post is a response to my friend Andrew's blog post on the same Vespa. As I wrote in my last post, we're conducting a little experiment. He's an American that has just arrived in Palermo and is completely fresh and unconditioned. I've been living here for more than 5 years and am, perhaps, more Palermitana than American.

M. (My partner) doesn't remember the first time we met, when he chased me out from underneath an avocado tree in Palermo's botanical garden chiding me that I was in a prestigious scientific institution and NOT a free-for-all orchard.

The second time we met (and the first time he remembers)was when I came to his office asking about a volunteer position in that same prestigious institution. There had never actually been a volunteer before, at least not in the more modern sense of the word, and there was some puzzlement about how it was to be done. After a department meeting or two and much voting it was decided that he would be my tutor and that I would have to pay for my own insurance.

Looking back, I don't know how consciously M. was in on it, but there was definitely a plot. Nobody in the Botany department or in the Garden was at all surprised when we finally revealed, months later, that we were living together. It was what they had planned for all along.

M. offered to take on his Vespa to get my insurance policy. I was divided over my dislike of fast moving vehicles and childhood love of Audrey Hepburn...but in the end I hiked up my skirt and sat behind M. on the then somewhat lumpy old seat of a scratched up forest green 1974 TS 125 Vespa Piaggio and off we went.

M.'s somewhat flustered state came out in his driving. He would think of something I absolutely HAD to see and suddenly change direction, go against traffic and finally park up on the side-walk. Terrorized, I spent most of my time clutching him tighter and burying my face into his back. Perhaps this was exactly the effect he was hoping for, because he often found reasons for us to leave the Garden together and go for a ride. Also, he talked incessantly. But with the helmet over my ears and the wind whipping away his words, I couldn't catch a thing.

Late Winter moved towards Spring. We moved in together on Valentine's day (not on purpose), but continued to try to keep our relationship secret. He always referred to me as Dotoressa Funsten and I waited until he had left for work to slip out of the apartment and come into the Garden from a different entrance. One day, one of the gardeners gave him a huge bag of fava beans. "Thanks, but what am I supposed to do with all of these fava beans, I don't have any time to cook them," he said.
            The gardener replied, "Can't Dotoressa Funsten cook them for you?" M. and I both turned red in the face.
            "Why should Dotoressa Funsten be cooking my fava beans for me?" he asked carefully.
            "Well you live together, don't you! And she always goes home 45 minutes before you do. I thought that she must do the cooking." 


M.'s favorite fava bean dish was, and still is, "favi a cunigghiu" or rabbit fava beans. Rabbit, because they are traditionally eaten without utensils, but by squeezing the bean out of its husk into ones mouth. Presumably, like a rabbit. This is a poor farmer's dish that uses the largest, least prized, fava beans - the ones that are used to feed the livestock.

Both dried or fresh favas can be used. In the kitchen I recommend the Leonforte variety. Dried favas (500 g) should be soaked for 12-18 hours and will take longer to cook. Put them in a big pot, cover with water, add a couple heads of whole garlic and a few bay leaves, and boil them until they are soft (for dried fava beans 2, 5 hours or more or 40 minutes in a pressure cooker).
Fresh favas (1 kg) should be cooked in the same way but will take much less time (30 minutes)

When the beans are soft, salt to taste and add some pepper and a hefty dash of oregano. Traditionally, everybody scooped beans out of a communal pot and sopped up the broth with crusty bread.

...But back to the Vespa...

Remembering it's powerful libidinous effect, I became quite jealous when M. gave rides to young female students or civil service workers. If it came up, I would invent a reason why I urgently needed a ride somewhere or I would be cranky and withdrawn all day. When M. finally got what was bothering out of me, he burst out laughing. The Vespa, an instrument of seduction! Didn't I see all of the unlikely pairs holding on to each other at the stop lights? He did stop giving rides to the young studentesse though.

The Vespa had to be put aside when I was pregnant and a bump on the rode caused a little scare at 5 months. With the Garden across the street, and the demands of a newborn taking up all of his free time, it sat rusting in our apartment building's atrium until after our daughter started to walk. We moved across town, and M. took advantage of the scooter's sabbatical to do some work on it, tuning up the motor, touching up the paint job, and most dramatically completely re-stuffing the seat and re-upholstering it in chocolate brown naugahyde with a cream trim. M.'s warhorse now had class!

Now that are daughter has started nursery school, we've taken to zooming off to our respective jobs together (this time in different parts of the historic center). M. still chatters away and I still can't understand more than half of what he says. I do like looking at the "brotherhood" of scooter-drivers and get a warm fuzzy feeling seeing all of these friends, couples and colleagues hugging each other tightly as they scoot around the cars.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Due Americani a Palermo!

 Photo of the Genio di Palermo at Palazzo Pretorio, by Fabrice de Nola

Yes, It's been a while - almost a year really. My writing has gradually petered out over the past years for various reasons. My daughter is probably the most important. She's three now and both me time and us time just keeps getting more and more precious. The second is an unclear idea of exactly who I am writing to. When I started out, both on the web and for the Giornale di Sicilia, I imagined myself writing a kind of love letter to the dejected Palermitani, hoping to show them how magic they and there city were through the eyes of an American.

Nobody is as critical about Palermo as its own people. They will assure you that it is the most backward, dirty, ignorant city known to man where it is impossible to ever DO anything - anethema exemplified. I have always been fascinated by this love-hate relationship the people here have with their city. In the beginning, that's what bewitched me most about Palermo.

At first I thought that this conflict was at the root of the problem, that the Palermitani had been conquered and humiliated by so many other people throughout history that they just needed a little encouragement in finding a new, more positive identity for themselves other than the downtrodden victim.  I got a lot of my ideas from Leoluca Orlando's Primavera di Palermo (Palermo's Spring) during his 2 first runs as mayor as told by Jane and Peter Schneider, two American Anthropologists, in their book Reversible Destiny, Mafia, Antimafia and the struggles for Palermo. The very title bespeaks to American optimism. I can't imagine a Sicilian ever thinking of Destiny as being reversible, at best he might think of bartering his way out of it.

This is a city that chose the Genio di Palermo (seen in the blogs header) as it's symbol - a crowned midget with a serpent sucking from his breast. There are various representations of this figure throughout the city, but I think the inscription on the the Genio di Palazzo Pretorio says it most clearly; "Panormus conca aurea suos devorat alienos nutrit" or " Palermo, the golden bay, devours its own and nurtures the foreigners." Is this self depreciation something far to ingrained in the culture to be overcome by a new branding strategy...and if it were eradicated what would be left of the culture? Is it, perhaps, an integral part?

But time passed, I've been living in Palermo for over 5 years now. I came almost immediately after graduating from Berkeley and have had the bulk of my adult (work and family) experiences here. As the honeymoon period wore off with the city (more or less in conjuction with having a child. The city's eccentricities become much less cute when they threaten the health and safety of your offspring) It became harder and harder to write. I was confused about my relationship with Palermo, it was becoming more and more ambivalent.

I was becoming Palermitana. At some point I ceased to be an observor and went native, I had been infected with the oppressive cynisism tipical to the Palermitani that nothing would ever go right and that there was little use trying. Corruption, favouritism and dysfunction would always win. But that little germ of American can-do was still persisting somewhere.

When I met Fabrizia Lanza through Manlio, I immediatly recognized a fellow Sicilian/ Cosmopolitan hybrid. She was relaxed, hospitable, sympathetic and knowledgable about the frustrations of trying to make things work here, but also in love with her Island and passionate about wanting to share it's treasures with the rest of the world through her cooking and school ( We immediatly started hatching projects and that can-do part of me came alive!

Fabrizia needed an intern to help her in the garden and kitchen and I thought of an old friend of mine from my Landscape Architecture degree at Berkeley. He had asked me for some advice about putting together a propsal for the American Academy in Rome to study the relationship between stories and food. I hadn't heard from him since and supposed that he hadn't gotten it. But maybe I could do better!

When I wrote him, I found out that he had just finished teaching a P.O.N. class in London to a group of students from a small Sicilian Agricultural school and loved it. He was looking for a new job while working nights in a pub to pay his London rent. He jumped at the chance and within a couple of weeks he was here! Everything moved so quickly.

That brings us basically to the present. Andrew has just arrived and is staying with me here in Palermo for a week. He has never been to Sicily before, and has the opportunity to see the city from a fresh angle. We decided to link our blogs (his is together and create a kind of dialogue about Sicily - as seen from the point of view of a new arrival and that of a well-seasoned expat who is almost as Sicilian as she is American. 

I think exciting things are in store for us (and you readers as well). Stay tuned...

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Happy St. Josephs Day (Father's Day in Italy)

On October 13th, 2010, Giovanni Callea posted an article in the blog Rosalio describing the immense and mostly unused open area in front of his apartment. He writes:

I see this green lung every morning from my balcony. Behind it the city unfolds, in the background you can make out the sea. Lots of cement in valleys and mountains. This morning I went for a walk with my daughter, it was just us, in a green space, immense, silent, just a few meters from one of the principal arteries of the city drowning in cement: surreal!

I met Giovanni on the way to a convention where he and Manlio were giving a talk. Flora was around 6 months old, so it must have been about a year after his post. He was there to present the Parco Uditore, that "green lung" that he described in his post. He talked about it in the car excitedly and I half listened. But I must admit that, at the time, I felt too tired, strung out, sucked dry by an infant that nursed every 20 minutes, resentful of my husband for not being able to carry some of the load, disappointed with Palermo and most of all wrapped up in too much self-pity to really listen or care. Sometimes I really am a solipsistic piece of scum. I spent most of the convention in the back rooms nursing to keep Flora quite, and never heard his presentation.

Piazza Einstein, Via Leonardo da Vinci, Via Uditore, the Viale Regione Siciliana Nord Ovest...caught up in my little life in via Lincoln where my consciousness of the city was confined by the University, the Sea and Piazza Politeama, these names meant nothing to me. That is, until we moved. Only after Manfredi Leone, the Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Palermo, and the graduate students who had formed the association Parco Uditore came to our new apartment in via Sciuti to have a pow-wow with Manlio on the plant species in their project did I remember Giovanni and his vision.

In the almost two-years that I had just been struggling with being a mother, the project had exploded.

6,500 signatures had been collected, mostly through Facebook. Both the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Architecture had become involved. Professors had mobilized there students to write theses on the park, and thus a huge amount of information had been created and applied to the park's design (under Prof. Leone). The Urban Planning Commission had approved the project, the Region had provided funding, and now construction has begun and the park is scheduled to open to the public at the end of this short, it worked.

I met Giovanni again for the first time since that car-ride while taking a walk through the park on a blustery February morning. We were with Professor Leone (another dedicated father who has really put his heart into this project), Peiro D'Angelo and Gerlando 'Jerry' Presti (two of the grad-students that created the Association Parco Uditore and are doing a large part of the grunt work - clearing out trash and plant matter, mapping out trees, marking pathways with flags and chalks, overseeing their construction...etc.). With it's rolling grass, gentle topography and vestiges of agriculture (prickly pears, loquat trees, olives, carob trees, and almonds in bloom) the park is already quite beautiful. The Region's 100,000 euro will add a playground, a fitness circuit, a fenced-in dog area, a bocce court along with all of the necessary pathways, benches, water-fountains, irrigation, etc. rendering it a usable open space unequaled in this city of giardini storici and direly needed in the high-density, concrete "New Palermo" (see last post).

Giovanni's daughter is about the same age as Flora. The two got to playing right away, picking dandelions, holding hands and trying to get a scooter to move on the not-yet-paved muddy pathways. I admire Giovanni so much. At the end of his fateful post he writes:

I'm tired of complaining about what others don't do!If there is anyone that wants to invest themselves in a project that won't repay anything other than the sensation of being a free man in a city that simply aspires to normalcy, knock once. And lets search together to understand how it can be done.

Happy St. Joseph's Day, Giovanni and Manfredi. You did it. You gave your daughters a park, when its a triumph for any parent of a toddler to just get dinner on the table.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

New Year, New Palermo

A 1960's Postcard of Via Sciuti

I moved in with my now-partner and father-of-my-child 5 years ago this Valentine's day, sealing my fate as an "Americana a Palermo." While with each passing new year along with the usual meditations and resolutions I think about my place here in this strange metamorphic city, this year is especially poignant because we have, rather violently, moved out of our love-nest to the "other" Palermo outside the historic center.

Via Sciuti is the realm of the bourgeoisie, who, according to Roberto Alajmo, noted local journalist, historian and the writer of Palermo è un Cipolla, abandoned Palermo's center in the 50's because they wished for rolling shutters instead of blinds. All I had known about this side of Palermo was that it was where the so-called "sack of Palermo" took place in the 50's. If you look at Wikipedia's (if not reliable for its factual accuracy, a perfect gauge of what is widely believed to be true) explanation of the event, it is decidedly negative:

Between 1951 and 1961 the population of Palermo had risen by 100,000, caused by a rapid urbanisation of Sicily after World War II as land reform and mechanisation of agriculture created a massive peasant exodus and rural landlords moved their investment into urban real estate. This led to an unregulated and undercapitalised construction boom from the 1950s through the mid 1980s that was characterised by an aggressive involvement of mafiosi in real estate speculation and construction. The years 1957 to 1963 were the high point in private construction, followed in the 1970s and 1980s by a greater emphasis on public works. From a citizenry of 503,000 in 1951, Palermo grew to 709,000 in 1981, an increase of 41 percent.

More serious than the wartime destruction of the old city was the political decision to turn away from its restoration in favour of building a “new Palermo”, at first concentrated at the northern end, beyond the Art Nouveau neighbourhood of 19th century expansion. Subsequently in other zones to the west and the south spreading over, and obliterating, the Conca d'Oro orchards, villas, and hamlets, accelerating the cementification of what formerly was green.

Real estate developers ran wild, pushing the centre of the city out along Viale della Liberta toward the new airport at Punta Raisi. With hastily drafted zoning variances or in wanton violation of the law, builders tore down countless Art Deco palaces and asphalted many of the city's finest parks, transforming one of the most beautiful cities in Europe into a thick, unsightly forest of cement condominia. One of the most important buildings of the great Sicilian architect, Enesto Basile, was razed to the ground in the middle of the night, hours before it would have come under protection of the historic preservation laws.

In fact, there is a distinct divide between the two sides of town, with each one turning up there nose at the other. Some of our more "alternative" friends were shocked and dismayed to here of our move, and took it as a sign of moral corruption. According to them, this side of Palermo is populated by icy-hearted consumerists that prefer drab concrete condos to history in the form of the 18th and 19th century villas that were torn down, people that would turn and look away if you were hurt or even if you asked for the time. But really, I feel like more people smile and wave to me here while I was routinely the victim of catcalls, scams, and shoving pedestrians in the city center. I guess "friendliness" is really a difference of opinion.

The prejudice goes both ways, however. My partner was nearly dispossessed by his family when he moved to the "wrong side of the tracks" and they took it as a given that if he had not already started shooting heroin or joined a gypsy band, he would soon.

Although the historic center is beautiful in a spectral way, with its ornate baroque palaces still showing blast holes and blackened facades from World War II, nobody can deny that life here is more comfortable and convenient. This is a part of the city built at the height of the automobile, as my husband said, built to glorify it. The streets are wide, with ample parking spaces and appropriate space is given to cars and pedestrians alike. Viale Lazio is always backed up with an unreasonable traffic, even in mid-siesta when all other streets are barren. And the one-way streets are maddening. To go and pick up Flora in the car we need to literally drive a spiral, zeroing in on the nursery-school as if we were creeping up on a prey.

But, coming from Los Angeles, I am quite used to this kind of madness, as long as the space it is played out in is dilated. I wonder if this is another one of the reasons why I find myself quite at home here...the 50's architecture, Mediterranean climate and rampant traffic all remind me of my birthplace. This piece of via Sciuti could really be a segment of Colorado Blvd. I swore that I would never live in Los Angeles again or any other city that reminded me of it but everybody knows that even the most rampant atheist will suddenly return to the church (if they were raised religious) once they have children. Something happens to us when we reproduce, we transform into our parents.

Monday, August 1, 2011

My Muse, the Fishmonger

Time passes in a blur these days. I have a file of half-baked articles for the Giornale di Sicilia and for this blog starting in March that haven't made it to print, and because pertinence is everything in journalism, probably never will.

Thankfully my favorite fishmonger, Tonino Pennino, is an epic figure that will surely never go out of style. I sent this article off to the online journal early last Spring and they've finally posted it!

Check it out, and leave some comments if you're inspired to do so.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Calories for the Cold Months

Oh my goodness! Somehow the fall and winter have gone by, and I didn’t write about any of it. I didn’t write about I Morti, the festival of the dead. I didn’t write about any of the sweets that the defunct leave for the good little boys and girls who go the cemetery on Nov. 1st to visit their graves; not a word about the frutti di martorana - mandarins partially unpeeled to reveal their succulent segments, peaches with soft felted skin, mushrooms with cacao soil clinging to their base, all crafted out of almond paste with such artistry as to seem real, or about the taralucci - baked lemon crullers with subtle hints of anise and lemon and a crunchy sugar glaze, or about the tetù cookies - walnut sized cookies with cloves and chocolate and of course the ossa di morto - and nothing about the macabre little wafers with a white circle of meringue so named because they are made to resemble bits of bone with some flesh still attached.

I didn’t write about he last summery days of l’estate di San Martino, or even jot down recipe for the rock hard anise scented cookies that are dipped in Marsala on November 11th to say goodbye to the summer heat and to welcome the oncoming winter.

I neglected to write about my first “real” Thanksgiving I held here in Palermo, with 15 people (including Flora) crowded around a precarious table extended with slabs of masonite propped up on saw-horses. The chairs were pushed up against the furniture leaving no room to stand up, and slices of rotolo di tacchino and daubs of dried fruit chutney had to be slung from one end of the table to the other. I didn’t write about how we all sat languidly on the floor of the living room dipping bucellati - golden semolina pastries bursting open with a fragrant paste of figs, orange peel, chocolate and spices - in home made allorino.

On December 13th, the festa di Santa Lucia, a friend brought over some arancini (fried balls of rice made to resemble oranges, or the saints eyes that were burnt out, depending on how morbid an interpretation you prefer) and I even tried my hand at making cuccia (a pudding of whole wheat kernes, ricotta and chocolate) but I didn’t write about any of it.

I didn’t write about the sfinci Carmella, my cleaning woman taught me to make for Manlio’s birthday. As he gets closer and closer to 50 he gets more dour every year. But when I called him in to the kitchen presenting him with one of the potato fritters hot out of the oil and dusted with cinnamon sugar he was delighted. He said they were just like his childhood babysitter Rosalia used to make, and went into a rapture of nostalgia describing her long silver braids, and her white socks pulled up to just under her knee leaving a piece of sausage leg peaking out under the hem of her black skirt.

I didn’t write about my sister-in-law’s Christmas eve dinner, about the tray of succulent roasted goat she made that I complemented her on by saying it was the “goatiest goat I had ever eaten” (and therefore the best). I’m sure that the art of goat roasting is either genetic or my husband learned from his sister. I didn’t even write about her artful recombination of the leftovers into a plate of papardelle with goat aglassato.

I didn’t write about New years, though I must confess that in this case there was nothing to write about. We all had the flu, and watched old VHS tapes until midnight when we opened a dusty bottle of cheap champagne someone had given us years ago to toast 2011, then went back to bed.

I didn’t write about Flora’s first birthday on January 13th or the battling cakes her godmother and I made for her. Ironically enough, Gabriella made a plumcake - an Italian version of an English breakfast cake, and I made a cheesecake - the American interpretation of an Italian crostata di ricotta.

So many recipes unwritten, so many traditions left unexplained! Well thankfully, the winter calorie-fest isn’t over yet...There’s carnevale with fried chiacchere and zeppole, the festa di San Giuseppe (Father's day here) with ricotta stuffed sfinci, a soup made up of all of the larders left-overs, and intricate sculptures of bread. Then finally, we will close the circle with almond paste again - this time in the form of Easter lambs.

Here is Carmella’s recipe for chiaccere, crispy strips of fried dough dusted with powdered sugar. I suggest making them when you have a crowd. With the an appeal similar to that of potato chips (but worse because they are sweet), they are the kind of thing that you eat until they are gone.

500g all purpose flour
4 eggs
50 g of melted butter
100 g sugar
1 “finger” of grappa

Mound the flour mixed with the sugar on your working surface, make a well in the center and add the eggs, butter and grappa. knead the dough together as if you were making pasta, adding a bit of water if the dough is too stiff. Let it rest for at least 20 minutes. Then roll the dough out as thin as you can, and cut it into strips with a pizza roller or fluted pasta cutter. Fry the strips in abundant hot oil, draining them on paper towels. Dust them with powdered sugar and serve.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Tinnirumi - Grandma's Cure-All For the Heat

“Tinnirumi” are the leaves and shoots of a long pale summer squash particular to Sicily. From heat-stroke to a hangover, they are said to cure whatever ails you during the hot season. I am not built for the heat, and spend the whole summer swooning about, nauseous from the humidity. My first summer in Palermo, one of my husband’s coworkers at the botanical garden, sensitive to my “problems of acclimatization,” gave me a bunch off tinnerumi. Most vegetables grown here are also grown in California, but I had never seen these before. “How do I cook them?” I asked. He admitted that his mother always prepared them for him, and that he had no idea. When I asked my husband what to do with them, he had a similar story. It should be no surprise, then, that I got the recipe from my mother-in-law. 

Pina is in her mid-eighties. I only see her a few times a year but we speak nearly everyday around 11. The conversation rarely wavers from clarifying wether I come from England, South Africa or Australia (she never identifies me correctly as American) and finding out what we are eating that day.  When I told her I had a bunch of tinnirumi but I didn’t know how to prepare them, she got very excited. “Oh in America there are no tinnerumi? They are very detoxifying and full of salts and minerals. Very good for you in the summer.” Here is her recipe:

To make tinnirumi, first, strip the leaves, buds and tendrils from the stem, rinse them in a colander under cold water and chop them coarsely. Then, dissolve 6 salted anchovy fillets in olive oil in a large pot over a medium flame. Add a few squashed garlic cloves, and saute them until they turn golden. Next, add the tinnirumi, a 500g can of peeled tomatoes and salt and pepper to taste. Thin the soup with some water and let it simmer until the tinnirumi are tender. Meanwhile boil 350g of of broken spaghetti. When the pasta is al dente, drain it and add it to the tinnirumi. This pasta is served tepid with a drizzle of raw olive oil.

When my husband came home I proudly presented him with my creation. “What’s this?” he asked. When I told him I had made the tinnirumi, he laughed. “This really is pasta asciutta!” Pina had forgotten to tell me that tinnerumi is served as a soup. The bristly leaves should become slippery and create a fragrant green broth. Instead, mine were still rough and the cold pasta stuck together.