Sicily’s countryside speaks in dramatic beauty–sheer stone faced mountains and sweeping valleys fringed by sea, pastures with grazing sheep and mists drifting below craggy ridges, olive groves speckled with wild yellow sour grass (oxalis stricta) blossoms, and wide fields waiting for wheat. Though the historical centers of Sicily’s cities are filled with stunning architectural beauty, since ancient times, agriculture has been central to Sicilian life. Along with several other products, the Greeks introduced grapes and olives to Sicily. For the Roman Empire, Sicily served as its breadbasket. When the Arabs arrived, they introduced irrigation, which served to further intensify farming in Sicily. Traveling though Sicily, it’s exhilarating to see vast expanses of open space on land that has been inhabited from so far back in time that the stories of the original people seem to seep into the earth itself–roots half hidden in the soil, and not completely understood.
In trying to learn more about Sicily before visiting it, I came across the beautiful film, Sacred Flavors of Sicily, describing Sicilians’ connection to food through the celebration of sacred rituals. Fabrizia Lanza, historian and museum curator, heads the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School in Sicily, previously run by her mother. One of Lanza’s projects is to archive videos demonstrating food techniques, that, as she explains on her web page, are in danger of extinction. In Sacred Flavors of Sicily, Lanza describes her deep interest in food. “To me, food holds significance far beyond consumption. It is a chain of humanity, encounters, and sensuality. More than an object, food is our guiding metaphor.”
As I listened to and watched Lanza’s film, it occurred to me that the people she interviewed weren’t simply describing their work as cooks or bakers. Food wasn’t a commodity. The Sicilians in her film were intimately part of the food they grew, made, and ate. Food was the tangible representation of people’s shared coexistence with the land and their neighboring community. The film shows an elderly woman, Nellina Selvaggio, making lace cookies to place on an altar for the feast of St. Joseph, the patron saint of the family. A tree of life motif decorates every scartuciatte cookie, explains Selvaggio, “with a stem that is never interrupted.” Food in her world demonstrates the interconnectivity of all life, and serves as a bridge from the past to the future as she passes on her skill. The fruits and flowers on the lace cookies “represent the things we create through our lives as offerings to God,” explains Selvaggio. The community prepares an abundance of foods for the Feast of St. Joseph, and people make vows. When people prepare food with their own hands, present it as a sacred offering, and share it with others, an I-Thou relationship is nurtured with the land and neighbors. One of the household members in the film offered up this prayer for St. Joseph’s, beautifully summing up this lived connectivity between the soil, human activity, and the sacred.
Love the bread, heart of the home
perfume of the table, the joy of the heart.
Honor the bread, glory of the fields
fragrance of the land, feast of life.
Respect the bread, sweat on your brow
pride in work, poem of sacrifice.
Don’t ruin the bread, richness of your country
that holy gift for human toil.
Surprisingly, when I looked up who wrote the prayer, I learned Mussolini was the author. Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, in her book, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy, explains that these lines are actually from a speech Mussolini made to imitate the structure of a prayer. Mussolini words were part of a larger intention. He used people’s dependence on bread as a political symbol, connecting it to the nation’s wealth, explains Falasca-Zamponi. Mussolini embodied his idea in what he termed the Battle of Wheat. Speaking to representatives of the agricultural unions of the time, he played on their sense of pride, telling them it was a shame that Italians had to look for work abroad. He appealed to values of hard work rural Italians held in order to gain their support in so they would be willing to become soldiers. Falasca-Zamponi explains Mussolini’s aim was to gain rural people’s backing in order to accomplish his desire of expanding Italy’s access to resources through invading and controlling other areas such as Ethiopia. Quoting Mussolini, Falasca-Zamponi states he wanted to ‘”augment the nation’s [Italy’s] power and virility.”‘ Different, however, is the way his words are used in Lanza’s film, Sacred Flavors of Sicily. When the speaker in the film reads the words about the bread, nothing of Mussolini’s political motives appear to inhabit them. Instead, the words demonstrate honestly valued connections between land, food, human labor and life. Placed in a context that honors the flow of life embodied in their presence of bread, and without ulterior motives, the words function truly as a prayer–affirming life, and the human effort to bring forth its bounty.
Wheat, vegetables, and fruit growing in the fields all look beautiful from a distance, but few of us pause long to consider the link of life connecting from field to farmer to food on the table. Farming has always been a difficult life. In southern Italy there are nuances to farming beyond the struggle with nature to achieve a harvest. The Maffia has controlled the food system there, making farming even more difficult. In February 2016, Reuters reported that “Italy’s mafia has infiltrated huge swathes of the country’s agriculture and food business, earning more than 16 billion euros ($17.7 billion) in 2015 from the industry.” Additionally, as Rebecca Roberts explains in her May 2014 article, “Rise of the anti-mafia land movement,” The Mafia uses food as “a tool of power, with the residents of southern Italy literally relying on the Mafia for their daily bread.” The food costs less when bought through Mafia controlled businesses, but also is often coated with pesticides or E.coli. Cooperatives like Libera Terra, however, are working to free people from this kind of oppression, and to give control back to those working the land and shop owners who sell agricultural products.
Much of the food we buy today at grocery stores is raised on commercial farms, farms, which according to Jeff Vidal’s article, “Corporate stranglehold of farmland a risk to world food security “are growing in size, and squeezing out small farmers, even though their farmland is generally more productive and sustainable. Roberto Romano’s 2010 film, “The Harvest/La Cosecha,” depicts the difficult life of farmworkers this century on commercial farms, and their struggle for necessities, education, as well as their altogether herculean effort to hold on to dreams.
The loss of the sacred, our turning most everything into mere commodities demeans existence. When we our gaze consistently views the world through a lens of self gratification, when we value earth’s fecundity and wild abundance only for utilitarian purposes, we reduce and diminish life to a few hard, dry crumbs. We want more from life, but end up with less. We have it all, but remain empty. In Wendell Berry’s poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” Berry writes about the experience of this kind of life,
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute.
It’s inspiring to see people in Sicily working the land, and to watch women like Nellina Selvaggio in Lanza’s film create art with the food they make. Most people, though, will not likely be taking the time to create such food in this way, or at least not frequently. How, then, do we find a way to step off the treadmill where everything must be accounted for, everything compute? How do we nurture an awareness of our connection to the earth, our food, and our communities so we find again an I-Thou relationship with life? Berry, long an advocate of knowing the land you live on and understanding its needs, suggests that if you eat, you are a part of the food system. In his article, “The Pleasures of Eating,” Berry presents several ideas we can consider in an aim to find a deeper connection with food:
1. Participate in food production to the extent that you can… 2. Prepare your own food… 3. Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home… 4. Whenever possible, deal directly with a local farmer, gardener, or orchardist…5. Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production…6. Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening…7. Learn as much as you can, by direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of the food species.
Though we may live in cities where open land is difficult to come by, we can grow a plant in a container for a window to help ourselves remain mindful of the earth and our ultimate dependence on it. In California, as part of a Curated Feast, and in a collaboration between historians and chefs, you can sit with others at a meal and learn about the origins of the food as you eat. This could be an engaging way to kickstart a venture into learning to be your own curator of the foods you eat, as Berry suggests. Beginning with one thing, one practice, we can change our story into a different narrative, one with a more satisfying plot.
In Berry’s poem, “Wild Geese,” the poem’s speaker goes on a horseback ride one Sunday morning where he eats persimmon and wild grapes, and opens a seed with the promise of a tree to be–
what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.
We have what we need to connect to the earth. Simple, daily practices can help us understand how. We have what we need to feel alive again. It is a seed inside us. We can help it grow into a tree.