Review: On Persephone’s Island: A Sicilian Journal by Mary Taylor Simeti

In 1962, Mary Taylor came to Sicily on a graduation trip to do social work in the Dolci Center in Partinico. There she met Tonino Simeti, married him, and stayed on the island permanently. Only eighteen months after their marriage, Tonino’s elder brother died, and the dreams the couple had of a nomadic life doing development work in Africa were replaced by the reality of taking tare of Tonino’s elderly parents and running the debt-ridden family farm.

Although a struggle, they managed all this. Thus, their live settled into taking care of Tonino’s parents, raising two children, and running a farm; all next to Tonino’s job as a teacher at the university of Palermo. After living on Sicily for twenty years, Mary decided to write a book about her experiences. The result is On Persephone’s Island. By describing one year in the life of her and her family, she shows us the cycle of the seasons on the island, the harvests and seasonal foods, and the festivals. She also stirred in many references to the long and varied history of the island. As Mary put it herself:

I have spent the last few winters reading about Sicily, research for a book of months that would trace the varying rhythms and calendars—archaic, agrarian, contemporary—that govern the passage of time on the island.

On Persephone’s Island and the two other books she wrote afterwards about Sicily are considered a liberation by many Sicilians. For many outsiders, Sicily equals maffia, but Mary’s books show an island with milennia of history, a deep and distinct culture, and a richness in local food and cooking that is among the best in the world.

The family lived in two places: an apartment in Palermo, from which Tonino worked at the university and the children went to school, and the farm Bosco, 50 kilometers away, with its own demands on their time. The family therefore constantly traveled between the two places, and we learn about both city and country life in Sicily.

At the time of writing, Sicily was still an island with an enormous difference between rich and poor, resulting in neighbourhoods in Palermo, and shepherds in the countryside, that were so poor that they were almost forced into a life of crime:

Tonino, not in the least surprised by the news [of the arrest of a shepherd for murder] in this morning’s paper, explains to me that violence is almost inevitable where shepherds are concerned: very few of them own their pasturage, their margin of profit is too low to allow them to pay much rent—especially in an area like ours, where land values are high—and they are therefore hard put to keep their flocks alive without resorting to prevarication, poaching, and deceit.

Similarly, of a poor but historic neighborhood of Palermo she wrote:

But the neighborhood is colorful and cruel and courageous in the sheer obstinacy of its endurance and in the imagination and inventiveness with which it manages to survive, and it is here that one must go, keeping a very firm grip on one’s purse, to discover the charm and the fascination of Palermo.

Highway robbery was also rife; many roads were considered dangerous, and Mary deplored the vulnerability of their farm due to its isolated location.

And yes, Sicily was also plagued by the Mafia. The book highlights many other aspects of Sicily, but Mary did not avoid the subject. The Second Mafia War was still a recent memory, and the Mafia influence was still strong. People were pressed for `protection’ money, there was Mafia-related government corruption, and standing up against the Mafia was an act of courage. Although she did participate in some anti-Mafia protests, Mary wrote that she was thankful she never had to decide whether she had that courage.

Cycles

Of all the rhythms and calendars, the agrarian cycle was the most demanding one in their lives: seeds had to be sown, bulbs had to be planted, trees and vineyards had to be pruned, weed had to be fought, and then there was the harvesting of olives, grapes, tomatoes, fruits, and vegetables, and all the processing that was associated with it.

The rewards were also there:

But, then, this is one of the great merits of Sicilian cooking: the basic ingredients are usually so good, the oil so pure, the vegetables so fresh and so intense in flavor, that they can stand on their own merits.

Consequently, food standards on Sicily were high for just about everyone, especially for common food such as bread and olive oil. Mary’s family had their own olive trees and press, the kind of arrangement that many Sicilians considered essential to secure the best olive oil. People that were not so lucky at least tried to participate in shared olive groves and olive presses. The freshly pressed olive oil right after the November harvest was especially venerated:

One November [someone] made us the present of a loaf; Tonino whipped off his sweater, wrapped it carefully around the bread, shoved me and the bread in the car, and made for Finocchio [the location of their olive press]  at breakneck speed to get to some new oil before the bread had cooled off.

The demands of the agricultural cycle also meant that sometimes they had to hire farmworkers and sharecroppers. The relation between Tonino’s family and these workers often went back generations, and therefore required a careful balance between historically developed rights and duties, and the desire to modernize these relations. At those moments, Mary was not only responsible for feeding her family, but also these workers:

I soon learned that the basic rule of such a cuisine is to keep it runny. Whatever I cooked had to be swimming in the sauce or juice or dressing that was required to wash down the thirty kilo loaves of bread that disappeared every day. The tomato, onion, and tuna fish salad that made up the 10:00 a.m. breakfast (picking started at sunrise) floated in very watery vinegar and oil, and the stewed eggplant and potatoes or the egg fritters we ate about 2:00 p.m. were awash in tomato sauce. More sauce had to be prepared for the evening pasta, which was followed by grilled sardines or sausages, or by cheese and salame.

The most elaborate of the agrarian cycles was the wine making. The vineyards and the wine-making equipment required maintenance throughout the year, and the process of turning grapes into wine had its own yearly cycle of harvesting, pressing, fermenting, tasting, mixing, and bottling.

Even at the time Mary wrote her book the wine making process was changing:

[B]y far the majority of grape producers now take their grapes to the big cooperative wineries that store the must in gigantic steel tanks and have their own equipment for filtering the dregs. Even people like us who still make the wine at home have mostly converted to reinforced concrete or stainless-steel cisterns, which can neither mold nor absorb vinegar. We keep a few wooden casks in operation for seasoning the red wine, since wine matured in wood has a different, fuller taste, but the greater part of our production is stored in steel cylinders […], which also have the great advantage of being easily cleaned, since each one has an oval door in the side through which a thin person can squeeze.

These cylinders also had another advantage:

A steel wine cistern far outdoes a bathtub in resonance, and even tone-deaf Tonino sounds like Luciano Pavarotti as he scrubs away [to clean it].

Another important cycle on the island is that of the feast days. The most beloved is I Morti (Il Giorno dei Morti, the Day of the Dead, 2nd of November), a festival commemorating the dead, and a day where children that had been good received gifts. Next to toys these gifts were traditionally pieces of marzipan shaped into fruits, vegetables, fish, clams, nuts, and other foodstuffs. The best artisans made these sweets into highly realistic pieces of art:

I once gave my children fried eggs and peas for supper, and it wasn’t until they put their forks to it that they realized it was made of marzipan.

Apart from the main festivals associated with the seasons and Christian calendar, such as Carnival and especially Easter, many villages also had their own festival for the local patron saint. These festivals were typically celebrated with processions, religious plays, horse races, or communal meals. The processions were often extravagant enough to attract visitors from the island or even from abroad. Mary and her family also liked to visit them when they could find the time, and for the book she made an extra effort. She wrote lovingly about some of the communal meals she participated in, and she got carried away by the religious plays:

Tonino and I sheepishly discover tears in each other’s eyes. It was so real. The emotion that was released together with the doves was so intense, the longing for just such an encounter so palpable. Mary and Jesus, Demeter and Persephone, black-veiled mother and murdered child, release from mourning.

Myth and History

Mary had done a major in history before she came to Sicily, and when she settled on the island she studied Sicily’s long, richly varied, but sometimes miserable history.

Sicily was colonised by many different cultures from the ancient Greeks to the Arabs, the French, and the Spaniards. All of these cultures left their mark on Sicily, in the landscape, the language, the crops that were grown, and the food traditions. Although these colonies made some people very rich, it also resulted in abject misery and poverty for many Sicilians, both these groups also had their own food traditions.

The oldest marks were left by the ancient Greek. In Greek mythology, both Demeter and Persephone are goddesses of harvest, grain, fertility, and even (by extension) of law and life and death, and the cults of Demeter and Persephone were strongly rooted in even more ancient fertility rituals. Both goddesses had strong associations with Sicily due to the fertility of the island and the cultivation of grain on the island. This association was symbolized in Greek myths; for example in one myth Zeus gives the island to Persephone as a wedding gift. Mary felt a personal link with Persephone, and the book repeatedly refers to Persephone and her links to Sicily, even in the title of her book. The realization that Demeter and Persephone are the development of earlier fertility goddesses was also important to her: in those earlier myths the goddesses were not portrayed as such bitches (her word) as in Greek and Roman mythology. As she notes, feminists in the USA had made a similar discovery around the same time independent from hers.

Later colonizers left their own marks: the Arabs brought advanced irrigation, fortresses, and lemons, oranges, silk worms, rice, and sugarcane. The French brought Christianity, and the Spaniards brought agave, prickly pear, and religious processions. All colonizers also brought language:

History has made the Sicilian dialect almost a language apart, so great is the legacy of the Greeks, the Arabs, the French, and the Spanish. The dialect is full of marvelous metaphors, strong and vivid and with a rude vitality that has long since been ironed out of Italian […]

Mary also quotes extensively from many of the earlier books on Sicily, ranging from the diary of Ibn Jubayr, a Spanish Moor who was shipwrecked off Sicily on his return from a pilgrimage to Mecca; to Arthur John Strutt, “an English gentleman who in the 1830s made and then wrote A Pedestrian Tour in Calabria and Sicily”.

Aftermath

After On Persephone’s Island, Mary would write two more books that are nowadays considered classics. The first Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-five Centuries of Sicilian Food, later republished as Sicilian Food: Recipes from Italy’s Abundant Isle, describes the history of the food of Sicily with an abundance of recipes.

The second book, written together with Maria Grammatico, Bitter Almonds: Recollections & Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood, describes the life of Maria Grammatico as an orphan girl that was raised by the nuns of the monastries in Sicily. Maria’s childhood was very dificult, but she did learn the recipes of the Almond-based sweets that these nuns made, and as an adult opened her own shop to sell these delicacies.

Mary’s bibliography is far longer than this, see for example goodreads.

The farm, Bosco, is still owned by the family, although nowadays it is run by Natalia, Mary’s daughter.

Reading the book

The book is still in print, and has been converted to an eBook. For example:

See goodreads for a full list of editions.

Credits

Featured Image: Wolfgang Sauber, Statue of Isis-Persephone holding a sistrum. Temple of the Egyptian gods, Gortyn. Roman period ( 180-190 A.C.), The statue is in the Archaeological Museum in Herakleion.

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