In Plain Sight

C. Dale Young

Alongside the twisting road to Erice, the cane fields

moved like water, the leaves and stalks bending

and rippling like water under the hand of the wind.

We had never seen sugarcane growing this way

except in the Caribbean; it had to be a mirage, a trick

of the imagination. But it was no trick, the cane

brought to Sicily by the Arabs in the Tenth Century.

Because Europe was sour, because it was addicted

to honey colonized by bacteria and its resulting toxins,

because in the many tributaries and streams of Sicily

the Arabs saw something akin to the world of sugarcane

they already understood, they planted the cane carefully.

But as each turn in the road revealed a new vista, not once

did we sight a mill, evidence sugar was in production.

Apparently, the Arabs brought sugar to Sicily,

but the Normans followed with fire and steel, the cane

growing rampant there now more a weed than a source

of golden sugar, the sweetness of predictable wealth.

By the end of the Fifteenth Century, sugar was worthless

in Sicily. Zucchero, said the Sicilians, the word a nod

to the Arabic sukkar. The Normans softened it, made it

more palatable before taking it back to France as sukere,

the word then stolen by the English to become “sugar.”

God only knows how many centuries would have passed

without sugar in Europe, had it not been for the Arabs.

That evening, as we ate a pastry filled with ricotta,

the server, in the slowest of Italian, proudly explained

the filling had been made in that area for centuries,

the earliest recipe dating back to the late Tenth Century.

He pointed out there was nothing more Sicilian

than this ricotta, nothing more Sicilian at all.

We smiled at this with the knowledge gleaned earlier

that day. Sheep’s milk is blended with powdered sugar

to make ricotta, sugar that arrived in Sicily mere years

before ricotta was established: still unseen, the Arabs, the men

and women who made so much of the European experiment

possible. A mere 5% of my DNA comes from the Arabian

peninsula, but sitting there eating that sweet dessert

I lifted wine to my lips and quietly toasted: Sukkar!


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