Story by Marianna Gatto: Cucidati, who’s nanna, Maria Antonia Cortese, photographed here as a young woman with her niece, was born in Pueblo, Colorado in 1901.
The Story of a Family (and Sicily) in a Cookie
It is said that every recipe has a story behind it.
This statement rings especially true among Italian Americans, for whom the significance of food extends far beyond sustenance, and cooking is among the most visible expressions of identity and pride. Eating rituals figured prominently in the Italo American immigration experience. Distinct food and traditions, such as the revered Sunday dinner, played an integral role in constructing and preserving Italian American identity and maintaining family cohesion.
In Italian American households, the holidays, and Christmas in particular, are often occasions when family recipes reemerge, and generations gather to prepare time-honored dishes and share stories, thereby ensuring that such traditions are passed on to future generations. Whether purely Italian in origin or an amalgamation of Italian and American foodways, heirloom recipes provide links to our family histories and allow us to commune with the loved ones and bygone eras to which they belong. In short, recipes are memories; recipes are heritage.
The recipes that engender the most thoughtful reflections of my heritage are those of my grandmother and namesake, Maria Antonia Cortese Gatto. Each year, in the weeks leading up to the holidays, my kitchen is transformed into a virtual cookie production line. Using my nanna’s recipes, I prepare dozens upon dozens of cookies and share them with family and friends. It is my grandmother’s recipe for cucidati, or Sicilian fig cookies, however, that takes center stage, and over the years, these little pillows of fig goodness have attracted quite a fanbase.
The History of Sicily in a Cookie
Likened to the “Italian Fig Newton,” (quite disparagingly, in my opinion), the ingredients used to create cucidati depend on the maker. Among the standards are dates, figs, raisins, and a mixture of nuts—almonds, walnuts, and pistachios. Variations include the addition of chocolate, cherries, cinnamon and similarly earthy spices, marmalade or honey, orange zest and juice, other types of nuts, and Marsala, brandy, or flavored liqueurs. Cucidati, meaning “little bracelet” in Sicilian, are referred to in other dialects as vurciddatu and purciddatu. Sardinians know them as papassini, while Calabrese versions include petrali and San Martini.
Homemade cucidati, 2018Whatever the name, cucidati have been made for centuries in Sicily and reveal the culinary legacy of the diverse cultures that influenced the island throughout history. For instance, the Ancient Greeks first introduced and cultivated grapes in Sicily, and the fruit’s sun-dried version—raisins—later became an essential ingredient of Sicilian gastronomy in both sweet and savory dishes. Although several species are indigenous to the island, the Greeks also introduced certain varieties of figs. Date palms, meanwhile, were first were cultivated in Sicily during the Roman era, however it was under Arab rule that production of them flourished. Arabs, who were master confectioners, brought pistachios and citrus, and almonds, which are believed to have been introduced to Sicily 1000 BCE, and also came by way of the Middle East. The Spaniards brought chocolate, a food they had acquired through the colonization of Mexico, while Jews, prior to their expulsion during the Inquisition, were integral to Sicily’s sugar industry, which thrived during the fourteenth century. Marsala, a wine commonly added to cucidati’s fruit-nut filling, takes its name from the Sicilian city in which it was created, a place name that is derived from the Arabic marsa allah, meaning God’s harbor.
Adorning tavole di San Giuseppe, or St. Joseph’s Day altars, cucidati carry symbolism in Italian folk Catholicism. According to popular belief, St. Joseph’s miraculous intercession delivered Sicily from a severe drought during the Middle Ages, and the cookies are believed to have been among the foods prepared in honor of the saint. Their labor-intensive character, and nutty, aromatic complexity, makes them ideal for Christmas, and in some Italian American homes, they are synonymous with the holiday season.
Growing up, cucidati were the first cookies that I would snatch off my cousin Vita’s Christmas cookie platter, a beautifully crafted assortment of a dozen delectable varieties, all made from scratch. Vita’s mother and my nanna were sisters-in-law, and their respective recipes for cucidati originated from in Lucca Sicula, a village situated between Agrigento and Palermo. My nanna received her recipe from her mother, which makes that recipe over 150 years old (and that may be a conservative estimate).
My nanna, Maria Antonia, was born in Pueblo, Colorado in 1901. Her father, Giuseppe, and eldest brother, Giovanni, first arrived in the United States in 1897, entering not through Ellis Island, but through the Port of Louisiana. Like many Sicilians, Giuseppe and Giovanni, at age 12, worked in Louisiana’s agricultural industry, which, following the abolition of slavery, looked increasingly to Sicily as a source of labor. Giuseppe and Giovanni soon returned to Lucca Sicula to prepare for the family’s permanent immigration to the United States, and in 1899, Giuseppe, his wife (who was also named Vita), and sons Giovanni and Antonio reached American shores. The Cortese family continued west to Pueblo, the southern Colorado city that had established itself as a center for coal and iron mining and steel production, industries that had earned it the nickname “Pittsburgh of the West.”
Scores of men from Lucca Sicula had been recruited to work at Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I), which was owned by the Rockefeller family, and was the only integrated steel mill west of St. Louis. Earning $0.10 an hour, Giuseppe and Giovanni worked 11-hour days, six days a week, at the mill, which at the time had one of the highest worker mortality rates in the nation. Although seldom acknowledged, the multi-ethnic workforce of Pueblo’s steel industry played a vital part in America’s victory in World War I & II, the construction of the nation’s skylines and railroads, and the United States twentieth-century industrial dominance.
Pueblo’s immigrants, like their compatriots elsewhere in the nation, formed enclaves in which they recreated the social structures of their homelands. The Cortese family initially settled in an area near downtown known as the Bottoms, which was largely a Sicilian neighborhood, and it was there that my grandmother, Maria Antonia, was born. Following the devastating Flood of 1921, which remains the worst natural disaster in Colorado’s history, the family moved to Goat Hill, another predominantly Italian neighborhood overlooking the steelworks that is purported to have received its name from the Italian families who herded goats in the area. Goat Hill was, by any standard, a very poor neighborhood, yet its cooperative economy and social support networks enabled the residents to build abundant lives. The Italian women of Goat Hill made cheese, canned vegetables by the bushel, and baked bread in large, bee-shaped communal ovens. For every household chore, they agreed upon the day of the week when it would be completed and performed the task cooperatively.
My nanna, whose name would take many forms throughout her life including Marianna, Maria, and finally, Mary was a pious, soft-spoken woman who demonstrated an innate talent for art and an affinity for cooking. Among the Italians of Pueblo, she was known as a seer, or intuitive, with a keen ability to foretell events. In 1932, Maria married Calabrese immigrant Mercurio Ferdinando “Fred” Gatto, a steelworker, and the couple soon welcomed three sons into the world.
During the Great Depression, as industrial production plummeted and the demand for steel fell sharply, thousands of miners and millworkers lost their jobs. As my grandfather traveled in search of employment, Nanna raised my father and his brothers and cared for her aging parents, countering scarcity with fierce resourcefulness. Like many of her contemporaries, my nanna grew and raised much of the family’s food and sewed their clothes and linens. In the hardest of times, she transformed potato peels into supper and repurposed flour sacks into undergarments.
As World War II was coming to an end, Nanna turned to my grandfather one evening and said, “There is no future for our boys here, Freddy. We have to move to California.” Arriving in 1946, the Gatto family first settled in Lincoln Heights, a neighborhood northeast of downtown, which was then home to approximately 20,000 Italian Americans, before purchasing a home in Hollywood, an idyllic community of palm-tree lined streets and iconic bungalows.
Without fail, Nanna made her cucidati every year, sometimes a few times a year, along with turdilli (the Calabrese version of stuffoli), pizzelle, and soft, cocoa-walnut biscotti. As with all her recipes, she seldom used standard measuring cups or spoons, and improvised each preparation depending on the availability of ingredients. Just as they had for her Sicilian ancestors, cucidati carried a special meaning. They symbolized the exorcism of hunger; cucidati were cookies of abundance and well-being.
A decade after their arrival to Los Angeles, Nanna suffered a stroke that resulted in the partial paralysis of her right side. To regain movement and control of her right arm, my father encouraged his mother to practice writing. Among my greatest treasures are the recipes that my nanna painstakingly transcribed during her recovery, each letter replete with ripples and waves. As long as I can remember, my father would unearth her recipes during the holidays, and with great reverence, share a story or two about his mother and the recipe we were making. He evaluated our final product based on his sensory memory of her divine creations, striving always to recreate her foods in the ways that only she could. I later understood this as an affirmation of his belief in the communion of saints, the spiritual union between the living and the dead.
I never met my nanna. She died before I was born. Throughout my life, there were comparisons between myself and the woman in whose memory I was named, primarily our shared love for cooking, and similar sensibilities, mannerisms, physical attributes, and determination.
My nanna was indeed a visionary, and few days pass that I do not offer gratitude for her foresight and will, and the successes these attributes afforded us. Each time I embark on the cucidati-making process, I am reminded of the powerful, mystical nature of genetic memory (not to mention the technological luxuries that my grandmother did not have; she ground pound upon pound of dried fruit and nuts by hand).
Although I never had the opportunity to stand beside her in the kitchen, I know that Nanna, my spirit guide, is never far away.
Marianna Gatto is a historian and author, and the director of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles. Photo of Maria Antonia.
See full story with photos of early day Pueblo and this family at this link https://www.orderisda.org/culture/stories/cucidati-the-story-of-a-family-and-sicily-in-a-cookie-christmas-2018/