In Plain Sight
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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