Giuseppina Torregrossa (b. 1956, Palermo) writes extraordinarily creative and insightful stories about the life experiences of women in her native Sicily, particularly as these pertain to issues of femininity and sexuality. The author’s insight into the feminine psyche no doubt stems in part from her twenty-year career as a gynecologist and breast cancer researcher, while her creativity appears largely the result of her passion for food and the influence of the centuries-old Sicilian tradition of the cuntu (It. racconto orale; Eng. oral story).
Torregrossa’s exceptional storytelling skills are plainly evident in her first novel L’assaggiatrice (The Taster) (Iride, 2007; Rubbettino, 2010), the tantalizing tale of Ancitruzza, an educated Sicilian housewife who returns home one day to discover that her husband, Gaetano, has left her without warning. Feeling abandoned, isolated and “attapanata (an untranslatable Sicilian word),” Ancitruzza knows she must react and find a means to support herself and her two daughters. At the urging of her sister, Fifidda, she opens a putìa (It. bottega; Eng. shop) in the seaside town of Strafalcello where she sells typical Sicilian products such as aromatic herbs, essential oils, and local wine, as well as an alleged aphrodisiac, cioccolata al peperoncino (chocolate with red chili pepper). Owing to her delectable products, seductive sales tactics and unassuming demeanor, Ancitruzza quickly becomes a point of reference for lonely townsfolk and tourists alike. But the needs of her customers are not satisfied exclusively in the front of the shop. When she closes for lunch each day, she prepares appetizing Sicilian dishes (the recipes are featured at the beginning of each chapter) in the back of the store. As Ancitruzza prepares the food, the rhythmic movements, the smells, the textures and the flavors awaken her senses and desires — desires that she realizes with select shop clientele, satiating not only their hungry bellies, but also their bodies and souls.
Any author worth her salt orients the reader to the geographical setting of the story, and Torregrossa does not disappoint in this respect. One of the main techniques she uses to convey the Sicilian culture to her readers is language. Lexemes from the regional Italian of Sicily and the Sicilian dialect (which is a language in its own right), including the names of regional dishes, old words, popular sayings, exclamations, common expressions and song lyrics, are sprinkled throughout the text like seasonings, adding dashes of local flavor to L’assaggiatrice.
Although the regional Italian of Sicily is utilized throughout the novel, it is most prominent in the recipes of the local cuisine. There are scrumptious-sounding Sicilian sweets such as sfincia di san Giuseppe, cassatelle di ricotta (Sic. cassatelli or cassateddi di ricotta) and pignoccata (Sic. pignuccata), as well as the savory dish caponata (Sic. capunata). One recipe features a Sicilian term: pane cunzatu (Reg. Ital. pane cunzato; Ital. pane conciato; Eng. dressed bread).
There are number of dialect words in L’assaggiatrice, a few of which appear quite old either because the author herself is unable to translate them or because they are reminiscent of a pre-industrial era. Occasionally, these terms appear in regional Italian form; for example, the –u ending typical of Sicilian masculine nouns has been replaced with the Italian –o ending, as in the case of zimmilo below.
attapanata (an untranslatable word similar to the Ital. intrappolata; Eng. trapped)
Io mi sento attapanata. Cosa vuol dire? Non lo so con precisione, è una parola che sentivo a casa da bambina. (Mi sono fatta l’idea che è come essere in trappola, anzi in una palude, i piedi affondati nelle sabbie mobili, il corpo per intero nel fango, la testa fuori per respirare.)
(I feel attapanata. What does it mean? I don’t know precisely, it’s a word that I used to hear at home as a little girl. [I’ve decided that it’s like being in a trap, or worse in a swamp, with your feet sinking in quicksand, your whole body in mud, and your head above to breathe].)
zimmilo (Sic. zimmilu; Ital. bisaccia; Eng. pack-saddle)
Lu zimmilo, borsa di paglia intrecciata che viaggia attaccata al dorso degli asini, da noi è anche un ristorante.
(The zimmilo, a bag of woven straw that travels attached to the backs of donkeys, is also a restaurant in our town.)
Quite appropriately, L’assaggiatrice presents a Sicilian proverb as an epigraph that is written in a mixture of Sicilian and Italian and pertains to food (I’ll let you read the book and decide for yourself what it means):
… e sale metticcinni ‘na visazza e falla come vuoi, sempre è cucuzza!
(Ital. … e sale mettine una bisaccia e falla come vuoi, è sempre zucca!;
Eng. … and put a sack full of salt on it and make it however you want, it’s still a pumpkin!)
The exclamations in L’assaggiatrice are in Sicilian and Sicilian Italian. Like the proverb above, they tend to provide the most insight into the culture of the island.
Bedda matri, che malanova!
Perhaps the best Italian translation of this phrase is Mamma mia, che brutta notizia! (Oh my God, what awful news!), but the Sicilian bedda matri (Ital. bella madre) means “beautiful mother,” which is of course different from the Italian mamma mia, “mother mine.”
Torna parrino e suscia!
This Sicilian exclamation (Sic. Torna parrinu e sciuscià!; Ital. Torna prete e soffia!; Eng. literally, The priest returns, and he blows!) has no figurative equivalents in Italian or English, but it is used when someone annoys you by repeatedly asking the same thing. The origin of this exclamation stems from a Catanian legend of hidden treasure, which is said to be watched over by an otherworldly custodian that often takes the form of a priest. According to this legend, a grape harvester attempted to light a lantern close to the hidden treasure, but each time he lit the flame a priest would suddenly appear and blow it out. The frustrated grape harvester responded with this exclamation (and a few other choice words for the priest).
Babba, babba, babbasunazza!
The Sicilian noun babba refers to a stupid woman (the masculine form is babbu), which in Italian can be translated as stupida (stupid) or scema (fool). The noun babbasunazza derives from babbasone (also “fool” or even “chubby fool”) plus the peggiorative –azza (Ital. –accia; Eng. nasty or silly, depending upon the tone of the speaker). So, the Italian equivalent of this exclamation is either Stupida, stupida, stupidaccia! (Stupid, stupid, stupid fool!) or Scema, scema, scemotta! (Fool, fool, silly fool!).
There are several everyday expressions in Sicilian in the text. These expressions, like the exclamations, are among the most difficult lexical items to translate, as they typically don’t have direct English equivalents.
vìriri e svìriri (Ital. vedere e svedere; Eng. literally, to see and unsee, i.e., in the blink of an eye)
In cucina sono brava, riesco a fare certe cose con niente, e in un vìriri e svìriri, che la gente resta ammammaluccuta (Ital. sbalordita; Eng. dumbfounded).
(I’m good in the kitchen, I’m able to make certain things with nothing, and in the blink of an eye, so people are dumbfounded.)
gira vota e furrìa (Ital. gira e rigira; Eng. literally, turning and turning again, which means that no matter how hard you try to change your behavior, you end up doing the same thing, i.e., here we go again)
Mi saliva un desiderio forte da dentro alla pancia, le gambe si stinnicchiavano lunghe lunghe sotto al tavolo e tanto faceva che, gira vota e furrìa, la pasta di raffreddava e poi ce la trovavamo la sera a cena.
(A strong desire was rising up from inside my belly, my legs were stretching out beneath the table e tanto faceva che, here we go again, the pasta got cold and then we found it there in the evening for dinner.)
The novel also features a few lines from an old Sicilian song, the title of which is unknown (apparently, the author’s father used to sing this song while he was shaving, so if any of you can identify it, she and I would both like to know).
u suli è tramuntatu ‘nta ‘stu mari e tu bedduzza mia canti d’amuri…
(Ital. il sole è tramontato in ‘sto mare e tu bellezza mia canti d’amore…;
Eng. the sun has set on this sea, and you, my beauty, sing of love…)
Of course, it is impossible to adequately capture the essence of a delicious novel like L’assaggiatrice in a blog post. I think the luscious (sorry, but I just can’t resist the temptation to use food-related adjectives to write about this book) description of the novel that appears inside the book jacket says it best: “è un racconto goloso e lieve, dolce di fichi e fresca di mente (it is a gluttonous and light story, sweet with figs and fresh with mint).” So go ahead, readers, try a bite!
In Translation: L’assaggiatrice has been translated into Dutch, and I’m excited to report that an English translation is in the works. Not surprisingly, Torregrossa’s second novel Il conto delle minne (literally, Il racconto delle tette in Italian and The Tale of the Tits in English) has already been translated into ten languages. As soon as the English translations of both novels are released, I will be sure to post an update. You won’t want to miss these books.
On Facebook: Giuseppina Torregrossa has a Facebook page on which she recently posted her fascinating interview for La Reppublica with Sicilian-born writer Dacia Maraini. She also has a beautiful website that features all of her writing (medical texts, literary novels, newspaper articles and a blog) and some wonderful projects benefitting women that she has been a part of over the years.
Personal Note: I am so very grateful to the author for patiently answering my questions about L’assaggiatrice and for graciously granting me an interview, which I will post soon. Stay tuned, because Torregrossa makes some intriguing comments about the Italian and Sicilian languages and the themes of her work (and you will absolutely love her photo).