Rose Selvaggio Prepares a Traditional Sicilian Ceremonial Dish

A unique and difficult-to-prepare ceremonial food found on the coastal region of Northwest Sicily is a version of the North African grain delicacy known as couscous. Brought to the island in the fifth century BC by the Carthaginians and continued in the ninth century during the Arab incursions, couscous or cuscuszu in the Western Sicilian dialects, became localized in villages and towns following the Southwest mountainous seacoast from Sciacca through Selinunti to Marsala into Trapani City and Erice and its surrounding villages, and ending at the island's inlet at Castellamare del Golfo.

Rosina forming the cuscuszu.

Created from worked grains of semolina steamed in either a large flat perforated spoon or a double boiler, the preparer cures Maghrib couscous in chicken or lamb broth and serves it mixed with meat or fish and vegetables. Trapanese cuscuszu, in contrast, consists of semolina kernels, which the cook forms, strains and steams, and then lets stand for two or three hours in a fish soup, although she can prepare a stock from meat or vegetables if fish is unavailable.

When immigrants from the cuscuszu region came to this country, they had to change their preparation of the dish because they lacked the traditional implements and ingredients. In Sicily, the steamer, for example, was made of terra cotta that spread the heat evenly so that each cuscuszu kernel could cook without turning into paste. Most newcomers could not bring the steamer to America--it was much to fragile to last during the long trip--and so they had to improvise and use a colander that had many "hot spots" and a semolina grind that was much finer and more difficult to manipulate than that purchased back home.

the formed from unformed cuscusu.

The result was that each cook had to devise a complex technology to make this dish so it would be like the one they were used to consuming. Often this knowledge was transferred from one generation to another. Rosina Selvaggio is a good example. Born in this country, she studied her mother's improvised cuscuszu technique. When the older lady could not cook anymore, Rosina assumed the role of the family cuscuszu preparer and at the age of 62 made her first meal for the extended intimates. Afterwards Rosina followed the traditional behavioral pattern of making it knowing that it would be years before she could make the food as good as her mother and that she would have to work to improve her technique.

The following excerpts and photos therefore deal with issues pertaining to folk technology and the cook's perception of how to solve the difficulties of making this traditional ceremonial dish in a country where she does not have the right tools.

Title Page

Rosina talks:

One of my first memories was sitting on a chair as a little girl and watching my mother make cuscuszu. My mother was so good at it. You should have seen her fingers going round and round making those kernels. She was like a machine. Then there was the heavenly smell of cinnamon while the cuscuszu was steaming. Our people from Xitta steam it with cinnamon and onion.

Ma even had trouble over here. One thing was the semolina. In Sicily there were two kinds: semolina fino and semolina rosso. Now rosso, does not mean "red." It means large or big. Its dialect. When you run your fingers around the edge of the maker, you incucciare or bond together the large semolina with the fine pieces and make the cuscuszu. In America they did not have these kinds of semolina. Ma had no choice but to get the Regular Cream of Wheat. It is ve ry fine. It makes very small refined kernels, but Ma found it difficult to form the kernels the way she was used to doing. I did not have as much trouble because I never had the experience of making cuscuszu with the right ingredients.

Pouring the
Cream of Wheat into the makeshift maffaradda.

The picture shows me putting the Regular Cream of Wheat into the pan I will use to make the kernels. This pan is American. In Sicily, they used a smooth ceramic bowl with beveled edges. That was called the maffaradda. It is an Arabic word like cuscuszu. This maffaradda made it very easy to move the fingers around fast and form or bond these semolina grains into kernels. After doing a lot of experimentation I finally discovered how much of the Cream of Wheat I could put in the pan and how much water. If you put in too much water, the mixture gets pasty. If you do not put enough in, the kernels don't bond and it will all get pasty. What is the danger here? It takes hours and hours to form and sift the kernels. If you have not m ade them right, if you make them too small or too large or too wet or too dry, then when they are steamed they all turn into glue and that's it. No dinner, no cuscuszu. I'd rather be dead.

I will tell you my technique. It's too bad you have only this picture, but I will try to fill it in. I take my right hand and I move it in quick circles. Short quick circles. You asked me how do you form the kernels when you use your hand this way? As I move my hand in these circles I watch and by feeling the grain I form the kernels. I get those little kernels formed. There are things going on in my mind. I think well the kernels are not just right. They are not perfectly round enough and so I need more Cream of Wheat. Then I think the mixture is too wet so I need a little more Cream of Wheat. But sometimes it gets too dry and I put in more water. The Cream of Wheat is not easy to bond. I told you that it is not what the Sicilians used. It is the best we can get in America. I have to keep in mind that the most important thing is I do not make the kernels with my fingers. It is just the action of the hand over the semolina and my finger tips rubbing against the surface that does it.

Detail of the fingers bonding the coarse and fine semolina into a 
cuscuszu kernel.

How do I know what surface to use? That is a hard question. There is no maffaradda here. Now that Sicilians have money, they can go back to the village and buy one. But we are immigrants and so we had to learn to make do with what we had. I kn ow women who use different surfaces. I guess the one you begin with is the one you get used to and like best. If you don't, you find another one. The most important thing is that you develop a feeling between the surface, grain and your touch. It is not h eavy but a very light one with the fingertips and sometimes the forefinger and thumb. When I say to myself that it feels right, that it feels like the kernel is round and put together then I can go ahead and do more and more until I stop and strain.

The process John is like this. You form the kernels, and then you strain them so that the good ones fall through on the sheet. The bad ones are left in the strainer. What I do is to take the bad ones and put more Cream of Wheat on them and make them in to good ones. I strain again and do this over and over again until I have made enough. It takes me about six hours of forming and straining before I am done.

Spreading the sifted cuscuszu out to dry on a sheet on the table.

All the raw cuscuszu is in a pile on the sheet. I make sure the kernels are spread out in a very thin layer so they can dry. See the picture shows that. I wait awhile. But I don't just sit on my behind and do nothing. I am always running my fi ngers through the kernels. Some are clumpy and so I have to break them apart. Others are just pieces and I have to put them together. You asked me how long I do this. I think about an hour or so. At least until I think most of the wetness is gone and the kernels look good.

My next step is to season the raw cuscuszu. I put olive oil on my hands, only the Castelventrano brand because it so rich and green. Not like the America olive oil, which looks like corn oil. I make sure every piece is coated and then I add my seasonings like pepper, salt, and cinnamon. This is a very delicate process. If I am too rough with the kernels then I will break them apart. But I have to be sure each is coated with the seasonings.

Steaming the raw cuscuszu in the 
pignota di cuscuszu sealed to the pan with a ring of dough.

I take bayleaf and put it in that dark green pot you see in the left part of the picture. We call it pignota di cuscuszu. That is from Sicily. My uncle brought it over ten years ago when I discovered that I would be the chief cuscuszu maker in the family. I put the raw seasoned kernels in the pignota and then I take some flour and water and make a dough strip and bond the pignota to the pot. I do that because I don't want any steam coming out from the edges. If that happens then the kernels will become like paste. Most people use the dough; some will resort to strips of sheets. In Sicily the cook would have the traditional ceramic pot and the pignota. One would sit on top of the other in a perfect fit. You w ould not have to have the dough or the sheets. Some people are very skeptical. I know Sicilians in my mother's village of Xitta who will use the dough anyway. They are afraid that the steam will seep through and ruin the cuscuszu.

The picture you see below misses some steps. I had taken the fish heads and put them in the tomato broth and let them cook for a while. Then I had filled the strainer with raw garlic and poured the tomato broth minus the fish heads through it. The garlic makes the broth robust. The strainer gets rid of the scales and the eyes. Real flavor in the soup comes from the fish heads. After I took the tomato broth, put it in that pot, and added the fish.

soup with fish heads

In Sicily, there are special kinds of fish you use to make the broth. It is very important because the soup is what gives the cuscuszu flavor. It is the curing agent. In Xitta they used different kinds of fish, a bony kind, a fatty kind, a meaty kind. In America there is only one kind the sadachi which I think is what the Americans call "porgies." It is a very delicate fish and cooks quickly so you have to be careful that you are ready for the cure before you drop them into the soup.

During the
curing stage, the steamed cuscuszu mixed with the fish soup is put in a large pot.  Here Rosina is wrapping the container with a blanket to retain the heat.

Next is the curing. Very important. This is just one picture and it misses a lot. What I do remove the steamed cuscuszu from the pot, mix it with the broth until it in a big pot. When I feel that every kernel has been drenched in the broth, I put a white sheet over the pot--I call it my cuscuszu sheet. You know Italians always put things on their special sheets. When they make their pasta, they put it on the white pasta sheet. When they make their ravioli, they put them on the white ravioli sheets. Well this is the cuscuszu sheet that I put over the pot so the heat will stay inside. Then over that I put this woolen blanket. You want to keep the heat inside while the kernels soak up the broth and gather the flavor. Everybody cures their cuscuszu for different periods of time. Sometimes everyone is so hungry, the cook just cures it for a half an hour. I do it for at least an hour and usually an hour and a half.

This photograph shows the cuscuszu ready to eat with a little wine. Hard to believe that all this work went into something as simple looking as that! You can make out the fish on the side. What people usually do is eat the cuscuszu and then have the fish. There are many styles of eating it and every family has a strict tradition about cuscuszu eating. When I was a little girl, I thought it was soup and

Cuscuszu on 
the table ready to eat.

So I put a lot of broth on it. There is always a tureen of broth for those who want to flavor their cuscuszu more or make it moist. But I made it into a soup. Boy did I get it. Everyone yelled at me that I was desecrating a family dish, that I was insulting my mother, and God knows what else. You can be sure I never put much more broth on my cuscuszu. Our family tends to eat it very, dry. Others, however, will have it almost like a soup. It is just a family tradition.

It is hard for a Sicilian, Italian, or American who is not from this part of the island to understand the importance of cuscuszu. It isn't just a food. It is the most intimate way a mother or grandmother communicates to her family. When she serves cuscuszu she is saying to her family that it is the most important thing in her life. In my family and in the others I know that make cuscuszu, it is usually prepared for some special event. My sister used to come to visit us every year and so we had cuscuszu in honor of her homecoming. We were saying to her, "You are still part of our family even if you live a thousand miles away in Florida." For other people it is a different occasion, but I think the meaning is the same. I did not realize this until I talked to other people who made cuscuszu. Antonina, you know, she has a restaurant in the Eight Mile and Mack area is from our part of Sicily and she makes cuscuszu and one of her daughters is learning how to do it too. I asked Tony, "Do you ever serve it in your restaurant?" She said, "No. It is too much work to make. People, Italian people do not know what it is and it is a special dish. I would only make it for my family, not for strangers."