What do Dead People Eat?

In Sicily, they eat this:


It looks like baskets of fruit, but it is all made from martorana, which Sicilians will rush to tell you is nothing to do with marzipan. Martorana is made from ground almonds, sugar and a little water, nothing else. Since Sicilians refuse to use anything except the freshest organic almonds, harvested in September, it really is tasty in a way marzipan never is. Most people use icing sugar, but I have been told the best is made with brown sugar. It is important not to use too much – this is a sweet that should not be too sweet.

Many friends of mine make it in late October. They press it into their vast collection of fruit moulds, or else sculpt it by hand if they are very skillful. Then they leave it to dry for a couple of days – it stays moist and soft on the inside – and then carefully paint it using natural food dyes. Traditionally they would use natural substances like beetroot juice for pink or red, cuttlefish ink for black, and carrot juice for orange, but nowadays they buy the colours ready made.

Whilst martorana is named martorana in Palermo, after the Martorana Church where it was made by the resident nuns, it is known in other parts of Sicily as pasta reale or frutta reale. Reale in Italian means royal and also real. Nobody knows whether this stuff is real paste, real fruit or royal fruit.

Whilst we English and Americans are cavorting around at Hallowe’en parties, the Sicilians are preparing to go and visit their deceased loved ones. November 1st is all Saints Day and November 2nd is All Souls. For All Saints there is a church service to remember the dead saints. For All Souls, there is something very different.

Inventive forms of martorana: from left to right, Cannoli, Cheese sandwiches, Sicilian types of burgers, Spleen sandwiches (a great Palermo delicacy!) and Hot dogs – perhaps a nod to the Sicilians of New York?
Martorana fruits, the more traditional form
Martorana prawns – prawns are very much loved by Sicilians, including dead ones evidently
Martorana jack’o’lanterns – a nod towards Hallowe’en and perhaps an attempt to marry the two rival traditions peacably
Martorana vegetables
More martorana models of Sicilian snacks
this one blew me away. They are martorana models of sea urchins, cut in half and ready to eat. Sicilians eat them by scooping out the inside (raw) with a piece of bread.
Martorana octopuses and a couple of red mullet – prized local fish that is rather expensive.
A basket of red mullet – when food is made for ancestors, it’s best to offer them luxury. After all, they only get to eat once a year.

Sicilians often prepare a picnic, with wine, packed food and plenty of martorana fruits, and spend the whole day on November 2nd at the cemetery remembering their badly missed ancestors and feeling close to them.  Sicilian graveyards are an experience in themselves, as the tombs look like miniature old-fashioned houses. Nowadays the whole picnic experience seems to be falling out of fashion and fewer people do it, but when my husband was a boy he spent every November 2nd at the graveyard with the rest of his family, living and dead.

Before leaving, they would leave plenty of martorana, some other food, and a nice glass of wine at each tomb for their ancestors to enjoy.

This graveside picnic tradition comes straight from the ancient Romans, who did exactly the same thing as part of their pagan religion, but don’t mention that to a Catholic Sicilian! They don’t really like to hear it!

The main reason this exclusively Sicilian tradition is dying out is the invasion of Hallowe’en, a foreign holiday which has invaded Italy within the last ten years in a very commercialised way. Last year, I was highly cheesed off by the fact that various people here criticised Hallowe’en in ways that showed they did not understand it at all. I heard two priests saying that attending a Hallowe’en party was tantamount to devil worship.

This year I see it differently. The draw of this commercialised money-spinner, which is fast turning global, has started to eradicate a Sicilian tradition that existed for almost 2,000 years. Sicily’s more sensible critics of Hallowe’en say that they have nothing against it, it’s just that it’s not THEIR tradition.

This year, instead of arranging a Hallowe’en party for my son, I think I shall take him to have a picnic with his great-grandmother instead. She passed away when he was two – it’s about time they caught up. And anyway, if he wants some Hallowe’en spookiness, you can’t exactly get more morbid than that, can you?

I do know there are a few other places where people have graveyard picnics to remember their dead. I suspect many other cultures have other ways of remembering their lost loved ones.

What do they do where you come from? I would love to learn more.
If you have written about it or published photos on your blog, please post a link in the comments section.

By the way, I would like to mention that I do not get any revenues from the advertisements you see on my blog and I have no control over what WordPress chooses to advertise. I have, however, sent them an outraged message about some links I consider wholly inappropriate, which I sincerely hope will be removed soon and never seen again.


26 Comments Add yours

  1. Thanks for your usual great post! I shared a link on “The Italian South” Facebook page.


  2. I like the idea of keeping out foreign traditions in favor of local ones. Not to stretch things however but Halloween was originally a Celtic festival and I believe the Celts and Sicilians were not strangers to each other in ancient times so possibly the festival is not a completely foreign import.


    1. All the pagan religions in Europe had the same Indo-European roots originally, so common basic ideas would be logical. The fact that both festivals are about the dead shows some kind of connection.
      I did read an interesting article saying the origin of both festivals may be the same, deriving from the idea of leaving sweet foods out for the dead. Part of the old tradition in Sicily is leaving sweets and dried fruit for kids to find in the morning on All Souls day – which is quite similar to handing out sweets to kids at Hallowe’en really. I suppose they diverged long ago and I do agree with keeping local traditions going.
      However, when I proposed the graveyard picnic to my husband he said “Yeuch it was horrible, I’m not doing that again!” so I have capitulated, and will be having a Hallowe’en party tomorrow. All the kids around here think it is way more fun than their own tradition.
      UPDATE: I had the Halloween party unplanned – all the kids in the village showed up, since they know The English Lady does apple bobbing, touch-the-zombie and stocks up on lots of sweets. What was very nice was that some mothers came over with sweets made from marzipan, and lovely cakes and biscuits.


  3. unwillingexpat says:

    You’ve got to hand it to the Palermitani, what a literally a bitter/sweet way to celebrate All souls! I’d love to have a picnic with my family in the ‘al di la!’
    I’ve written a little post about the ‘morticini’ here in the province of Messina, not quite as delectable and creative a your post but along similar themes!


    1. Thank you for the link – I loved your post about the morticini.


  4. unwillingexpat says:

    P.S: I’ve just seen this report on the Mexican Day of the dead, done by a friend for ABC, Australia! Very colourful indeed!!


  5. Sofia says:

    Thank you for sharing the beautiful tradition and the gorgeous mortorona (they are very impressive). I live in Barcelona, and really in Spain in general you are supposed to celebrate All Saints Day in an also respectful manner with. There are also typical cakes. 🙂 However Spaniards also love to party, so Halloween is also taking over very very fast. I’m sure tomorrow night the streets will be full of people in morbid fancy dress costumes. I think its a wonderful idea to celebrate that way with your son this year.


    1. It seems as if Halloween is taking over the world. Are the people in Spain starting to abandon the old customs too?
      What are the cakes like in Spain, or what are they called? I would love to see some pictures!


  6. Lesha says:

    Thanks for another beautiful post! The Martorana are beautiful and delicious, we always have to get them when we visit. BTW, I have nominated you for the Italy Magazine “Best Living in Italy” blog contest!!


    1. Thank you so much for nominating me! That’s so flattering – even if I don’t come anywhere, your vote of approval has made my day! 🙂


      1. Well deserved, too!


  7. beba says:

    Halloween in the USA used to be just for kids. We got to wear a cheap costume and run around the neighborhood collecting candy. It was one early evening of silly fun. That era lasted from about 1950-1990. Then, the “adults” gradually took over and made it crass, commercial, and mainly an excuse to drink large quantities of alcohol. The female costumes all became “sexy”. Over-protective parents did not want their kids going door-to-door. Candy became suspect. Some good news is that Halloween now seems to be less of a draw. So maybe Sicily and other places can soon get back to their own traditions. Or maybe we have all moved on?


    1. I didn’t realise it was so recently that Halloween in America had become such a cringe-fest. I hope you’re right that it wil die out and go back to something a bit nicer. There is a strong backlash against Halloween in Sicily, which as I said has only appeared here in the last 10 years, so maybe it will die out quickly here.
      In the UK it’s not our tradition to do trick or treat door to door, and it has never caught on even though some kids tried to copy it from American movies. We organise parties for little kids with apple bobbing and other traditional games, and the trad foods like toffee apples.
      Commercialisation of traditions always seems to start in America and it never improves anything. Don’t get me started on Christmas!


  8. lostnchina says:

    Wow! That’s so awesome! Sicilians are much more creative compared to we Chinese. We make paper knock offs of things, like a Benz car, a palatial house, Rolex watches, paper money…gold nuggets…you get the idea…and we burn them at dead people’s graves during our Tomb Sweeping day which is in April. I like the idea of Martorana much better!


    1. I do remember once seeing a whole motorbike made out of paper in Singpore. You have to admit that’s pretty cool.
      Though a motorbike you could eat would be even better, I do agree!


  9. pipmarks says:

    I spent a year in Finland and remember going to the cemetery and placing candles on the graves of my host family’s relatives on All Saints Day. The days were short and I think there was already some snow around. All of the candles looked beautiful. In my town they also had soldiers watching over the war graves over night but I don’t know if that happens everywhere. This youtube video gives an idea of what it was like: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SMus5-wV-bg.


    1. That sounds like a beautiful tradition. Thank you for the link too!


  10. The martorana almost look too much like the real foods they’re made to appear as in some cases. I’m assuming this is intentional, yes?


    1. Yes, that’s intentional. In real life you can tell they’re not real because most of them are slightly smaller than the real thing. The ones I photographed are particularly good quality ones. They come from a bar near my house which is known over a wide area for selling fantastic martorana. You see others that may be a little less realistic, but they usually are very good.
      There’s a legend that the nuns of the Martorana Church in Palermo (who supposedly invented this stuff, though everyone knows that’s not really true) once made a lot of this fruit for a visiting bishop, and hung it on trees in thier garden – apparently he was tricked into thinking it was real fruit.


  11. Our Adventure in Croatia says:

    I remember going to the cemetery as you say, to visit relatives, never done the picnic thing though!!! I never knew it was done in the past in parts of Italy. I only saw pictures of Mexicans dia de los muertos, I think Mexican picnic on graves, which I found strange, now I discover Sicilians used to do it too!


    1. Yes, it came as a surprise to me too.
      I knew about the Romans doing it. Living in Italy is a constant journey of surprise for me, discovering how many things the Italians still do that were part of the ancient Roman religion. They have woven them into their catholic rites and do not know they are following the old customs their ancestors carried out over two thousand years ago.
      The Sicilians sseem to keep up the old customs more than any other bunch of Italians I have met. Perhaps the constant invasions made it a kind of defiant patriotism??


  12. Sharon says:

    I LOVE your blig. I recently started reading it and having a strong Sicilian ancestry found your dna blog funny, facinating and real. Great reading, can’t wait to read the next installment.


    1. VH says:

      I am so glad you are enjoying it! 😀👍


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