We use only the finest ingredients, everything top of the line. No short cuts. Nothing fake or artificial, imitation or second-rate. Our sugar is only the purest granulated. Our salt is the very best from the sea. You can sift through any barrel of our flour and see not one single gnat! Hey, there’s a shop I won’t name two blocks south of here they use a flour so full of flies the customers think the bread is poppy seed! Another shop I know cuts its flour with sawdust. In the name of Saint Rosalie, it’s true.
Our flour is pure, one hundred percent wheat. Our milk and cream only yesterday were still part of the cow. That’s one of the reasons why we moved out here to Cicero from the city, to be closer to the farmer. Our honeys—both dark and light—are so sweet that the beehives that produce them don’t zzzzz, they mmmmm.
Our almonds—the taste floats on the tip of the tongue! Now,
you don’t want an almond that bites the tongue back. An almond
should caress the mouth delicately, like a breeze swaying a new
leaf on a tree. The same is true of cinnamon. There you aim for
an elegant pungency, a somewhat sharper taste that also arouses
the nose. A nut, bark, or bean should persuade and seduce the taste
buds, never dominate or overwhelm. We select all our spices and
flavorings with the utmost care. My Carla and I search constantly
for new combinations. If only the mouth had time enough to sample
Our vanilla is so silky that just its smell makes you think you’re
floating away on a cloud. Our cocoa bursts warmly across the tongue
with an assurance as complete as an embrace. You know the three
wise men who brought baby Jesù gold, frankincense, and myrrh?
I think much better gifts would have been vanilla and almond, cinnamon
and cocoa. What else, other than the Madonna’s most sweet
and holy milk, could have given the Child more delight?
We use only the purest butter, never oleo or lard. Even a goat’s tongue can tell the difference. Butter lends a lightness to the dough that its greasy impersonators can’t possibly match. We spare no expense.
Our eggs, they’re so fresh we crack them when they’re still warm from the hen. And clean! I scrub each egg with a little brush until its shell is so shiny it hurts my heart to have to break it. Of course, with food you can never be too sanitary. You’re right, we could eat off the floor we’re standing on. And your kitchen floor, too, I bet.
Here, have a taste. Biscotti, just five minutes out of the oven. Yes, yes, of course it’s free. Free taste, the Americani way. Try it and believe me. You like? Isn’t that one of the most delicious things you ever put in your mouth?
A dozen? Sure. Or maybe you’d like two dozen? This bag can hold two dozen, easy. Our biscotti never go stale, though your family will eat them up too fast to find that out.
Two dozen it is, and for your hard-working husband I’ll throw in two extra. No husband? Go on! Not married? A knock-out like you? I can’t believe it! You’re pulling my leg!
These days, it pays to advertise. I talk to everybody who walks
in, though the mugghieri don’t let me go on a tenth
as long. They know me well and have heard it all before.
“Cavadduzzo, Cavadduzzo,” they say with a laugh, “you allow your tongue to gallop around too many words.”
It’s a joke on my name. I laugh along with them.
“If I wanted to hear a sermon,” they tell me, “I’d go to church. For a speech I’d visit the alderman or drop by Bughouse Square!”
They’re entitled to a smile after working all day: the women at home with their kids doing the cooking and washing and ironing, the men shoulder to shoulder in the factories, operating the complex machines of American industry.
Factory, home, shop—the difference is small. Work is work. Every shoulder drags a cross. Each head bleeds beneath its own crown of thorns. Everyone labors on one type of assembly line or another, doing the same things over and over every day, all day long, sunrise to sunset, day after day after day.
I remind myself of this whenever I grow weary, when it’s four in the morning in the dead of winter and I want to remain curled in bed beside Carla’s dark warmth, when it’s summer—ninety-five degrees—and the temperature of my kitchen becomes so high I swear I’m baking, too, when I see a short cut in a recipe and the devil whispers, hey, Cavadduzzo, listen to me, I know an easier way, no one will ever know, Cavadduzzo. In these moments when I’m tempted to make not the best loaf of bread I can but something merely passable, something the mouth will not too strenuously object to, I think of what it means that working people eat and depend on me. I pretend that my dear mother and father will break the next loaf, and then I think the same of their parents, then their parents. And when I’m so tired that even my great-grandmother Crucifissa’s face doesn’t encourage me, I make believe I’ve been selected as the baker for the Last Supper, and Jesù Cristu will hold my bread up in his hands.
“Mangiate,” he’ll say to the apostles.
Taking his example, I draw the next breath and continue.
Still, most people don’t know quality unless you smack them with it in the face. They don’t know what they want until you convince them that they want it. A man doesn’t crave his own candle before God has suggested that he can be a saint. For the sake of the bacon, sometimes you have to tickle the pig’s ass.
During our first months here we kept the front door open so as to lure any passers-by with the smell of our bread. I waited patiently by the cash register and watched. The people of Cicero walked down the street, head down, most of them fast, like busy people with a purpose, intent on getting where they wanted to go. You could see that their heads were full of this and that. Some mouths would mumble a steady intonation to the sidewalk. Other mouths would smile or frown, as if remembering better times. Then they’d get a whiff of my bread and hesitate, head whirling about, nose unconsciously sniffing the air. The nose would then compel the brain to order the feet to turn into Cavadduzzo’s bakery, now.
Then they’d walk through our doorway, and even if they’d just left the evening table their mouth couldn’t help but begin to water. Usually they’d overhear me talking to somebody as if the person was my best friend—and how will people ever become my friend if I don’t treat them as one?—and then I’d see the stranger’s mouth drooling and I’d offer the tempted soul a free taste, a sweet piece of whatever just came out of the oven, and three times out of five they’ll walk out with not just a loaf of bread but a bag full of biscotti or perhaps a cake or pie or both.
People make a habit of buying from our shop. They learn the times of day when our breads emerge hot from our ovens. They assume a fresh loaf will always be waiting for them. In this business, timing is everything. You don’t tell a woman with three kids at her ankles and a fourth in her arms rushing home to cook her husband’s supper to wait. We strive to match supply to their demand. By day’s end when we’ve guessed right we have five or six loaves remaining, just like Jesù Cristu with the loaves and fishes. As you know, after his sermon in the desert the apostles gathered up twelve baskets of leftovers. Not too bad when feeding thousands. The wise baker always ends his day with a little left over, and never disappoints by selling out.
After a while many form a favorite weakness, something special, for their sweet tooth, whenever they have an extra nickel. For many it’s our cannoli, which I
make two or three times a week.
Everybody wants me to tell them its secret.
“Cavadduzzo, Cavadduzzo,” they implore, “every Christmas, Easter, and Saint Joseph’s Day my dear wife makes cannoli, but hers are never quite this good. Do you have any hints for her?”
“Tell her not to go to all the trouble,” I answer, “when she can always find them here.”
“Cavadduzzo, Cavadduzzo,” others continue, “you know I respect your privacy and in my wildest of dreams would never intrude, but please, tell me one thing. What sweetener do you use? And how much sugar and bitter chocolate do you blend into the cream?”
“Precisely the right amounts,” I respond.
Sometimes they plead, wringing their hands. They fall down before me on their knees. They kiss my hands, feet, the hem of my apron. “Cavadduzzo, Cavadduzzo, trust me! I’ll do anything on earth for you, please! I’ll even name you godfather to my firstborn son! Just tell me the sweet secret to your cannoli!”
I make a big show of looking around, shushing them quiet with a finger to my lips, shutting the light, locking the front door, bringing them back into my kitchen by my ovens, clearing my throat, sipping a glass of cool water so as to facilitate movement of my vocal cords as well as lubricate my powers of memory, and then I have them place one hand over their heart as they swear never to tell anyone what I am about to say.
“My secret,” I then whisper into their ear, “is use only fresh.”
One man told me that as his great-uncle Federico lay on his deathbed he waved away the monsignor and in the delirium of his fever asked instead for my cannoli. No sooner had word of this request reached my ears than I had a boy in the neighborhood deliver to the unfortunate man a dozen of our finest cannoli in a paper box. The next morning I was informed by the grieving nephew that as the angels came down for the old man’s soul he was polishing off the eighth cannoli and had bitten into a ninth!
Here was a priest offering a dying man Holy Communion, and he wanted instead just one more taste of the creamy sweetness that comes only from the kitchen of Cavadduzzo!
Perhaps I blaspheme. May God forgive me. But between you and me, the pews at Sunday Mass would be infinitely more crowded if the Pope used a crispier wafer and a sweet ricotta filling!
Let me tell you how Cavadduzzo’s of Cicero began.
One day in our former shop, down on Chicago Avenue just west of Hudson Street, near Saint Philip Benizi’s in Chicago’s Little Italy, a man stopping by for a loaf of bread told me that he was moving to Cicero to work at a new factory being built there, Western Electric. Line work, he said, acceptable pay, assembling the earpieces of telephones.
Make mine loud, I said. The one we got here on the wall—I pointed to our shop’s pay telephone—its receiver is way too low. Oh, he said, I can fix that easy. As I made change for his coin, he unscrewed all our phone’s screws and was disconnecting the various different wires inside the piece you hold up to your ear. Of course we never heard one sound out of that telephone again, but in passing the man did say how much he’d miss eating our bread.
So I said, don’t they have bakeries where you’re going? And he said, what do you think, there’s a Sicilian bakery on every street corner in La Merica? I said, perhaps not Sicilian but maybe Neapolitan. And he said, what do you think, there’s a Neapolitan bakery on every corner? So I said, perhaps not Neapolitan but maybe Genovese. And he said, do you think there’s even a Genovese bakery on every corner? Even every other corner? So I said, well, perhaps not Genovese, but maybe Tuscan. I hear the Toscani don’t make too bad a loaf of bread. But not sweet, he said, with a sad shake of his head, not sweet like your Sicilian bread.
In truth there’s no bread on earth as good or sweet as Sicilian, no higher compliment you can pay a person—living or dead—than to say that he or she’s as good as bread.
I reached for a loaf and gave it a kiss as he again said, you know, I’ll really miss this. Here, my friend, I said, breaking off the loaf’s end, breaking off a piece for me, then pouring two glasses of chianti.
Any crust of bread, I said, is good if nourishment you lack. He knocked back his glass and said, maybe if you’re sick or cold and dead, but since I’m still alive and hot I’ll say there are some breads I would not want to put too near my face, and so I said, in this new place is there really no good bread? Go on, I said, you’re pulling my leg.
He said, I beg you, listen, there’s not even a Tuscan bakery there, and I said that the Toscani bake their share of decent bread. But not fair, he said, not rich and sweet like this! God blessed this wheat himself!
Eat, I said, breaking off another piece.
At least today, he said, I’ll feast and end up full. He pulled my sleeve and said, I grieve to think of the thousand and one cristiani just like me who’ll work all day long in the hot factory in Cicero and trudge home to a table empty of good bread.
He sighed, then with his fingertip wiped away a tear.
“What I eat today,” he cried, “may I eat next year!”
Later it became clear to me that he was no ordinary man. Undoubtedly
he was a messenger from God himself, most likely an angel or archangel
whose earthly assignment was to get my feet moving down the path
of my destiny. So of course I concluded that I had no choice but
to journey to Cicero.
Then all at once the place’s name hit me. “Cicero!” I shouted. I threw my apron to the floor. With the heel of my hand, I gave my forehead a loud whack. The name itself seemed like a sign from God. I ran to the back of the shop to find Carla, who sat beside our warm ovens sewing. “Can you believe it,” I shouted, “here in the prairies of La Merica there’s a town named for the famous Roman orator, statesman, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero!”
Carla looked up calmly from her needle and thread. “Living all these years with you, Gerlando, I’ve come to believe even in green mice.”
I paid her no mind. “Cicero!” I cried. “Known the world over for the rhythm and cadence of his sentences, his elegant diction, his skillful balance of antithesis, and several other oratorical qualities too numerous to recount or remember!” I’d always been a firm believer in the powers of oration, so I was careful to enunciate each of my consonants and vowels, creating a firm yet flexible hollow of my mouth, pushing breath up from my diaphragm while simultaneously gesturing with both hands and arms.
“See-sah-rro!” I sang, a cappella. Like cookie dough in sugar, my tongue happily rolled the r. “Carrr-lah,” I crooned, “too-morrr-ow we jourrr-nee to See-sah-rrro!”
Wearing our finest clothes, we began at the Hawthorne Works gate and walked wherever our feet carried us, finding one less than adequate Czechoslovakian bakery and a pair of general groceries run respectively by a German and a Pole with rheumy eyes. None of these storekeepers comprehended the melodious tongue of Marcus Tullius nor any of its more muscular southern dialects. Ergo, Carla and I returned to the main plant, where we waited outside the gates until a squadron of whistles shrieked a somewhat less than ceremonious ending to the day shift. Then we let our ears be our guide, listening for the least scrap of Italian, until we found and then followed a pack of several young cristiani smoking twisted black cigars as they trudged home.
The men entered their doorways breadless, having stopped along the way home at no bakeries.
I asked Carla for her thoughts. She said she was still quite displeased that the angelic visitor had broken our telephone, and at the same time happy that this morning she’d thought to wear comfortable shoes.
“No,” I said, “I mean about this place.”
“I’d forgotten just how bad those cheap cigars stink,” she replied. She waved a hand before her nose. “Gerlando, I’m so very glad you don’t smoke.”
“I leave that for my ovens,” I said with a wink.
Once again we traced our steps back to the factory. In the meadows alongside the road, a hundred thousand grasshoppers soliloquized noisily, clinging to the swaying blades of wild grasses and weeds. “No bread,” the chorus of grasshoppers sang. “No bread, no bread, no bread!”
“Maybe the broken telephone is a sign, too,” I said. “Taken literally, it suggests that we should make no more calls from that box. At least here in the village of Marcus Tullius Cicero”—I pointed to Western Electric’s huge Hawthorne Works complex—”if our telephone ever breaks again we’ll know where to get it fixed!”
In the end Carla had to admit that the angel had been right about one thing. There was no place anywhere, no matter what direction you walked in, for the workers to buy a decent loaf of bread.
That is, until Cavadduzzo rode to the rescue!
Sicilians are not too unlike the place from which they come. Being an island, Sicilia gives birth to people who often are islands themselves. As a people Sicilians tend to be withdrawn, generally looking inward rather than out at others and the world. Living on an island teaches you that everything useful and worthwhile and certain is inland rather than beyond and out on the dark, strange, forbidding sea.
After enduring endless centuries of plunder and humiliation from whatever exploiter was mighty enough to anchor its ships offshore, Sicilians grew to strongly suspect anyone they didn’t know. Some say that our dialect, which those from the mainland find nearly unintelligible, came about as a form of defense or protection against outsiders. Even today it’s not uncommon for a stranger asking directions from a Sicilian villager to be told that no such place exists, even though the village in question may be in plain view in the valley below, and the man from that very village.
Why trust the unknown when for thousands of years it’s brought you mainly suffering and pain? You don’t want to be on this side of the grave the day a foreign vessel drops sail off your shoreline. Its crew is anxious to commit the very actions that haunt your worst nightmares. The brutes are sure to rape your wife and daughters, kill or enslave your husband and sons, and steal whatever else they might desire, even food from the fists of the tiniest children. Avert your eyes if you like. These aren’t pretty pictures. Truth seldom wears a ribbon in her hair.
We Sicilians feel our own isolation. We open our hearts only to our closest friends and families. Since Sicily is the Mediterranean’s biggest island, perhaps you’ll understand my belief that we have the region’s biggest hearts. Our hearts cannot help but explode with a mixture of emotions just as Mungibeddu, or Mount Etna, Europe’s only living volcano, creases the sky with lava and smoke. We have such fierce pride coupled with great sadness because bedda Sicilia is such a beautiful land, the land of our parents and ancestors, and yet our lives there were so harsh that we left it! Understand that only the most desperate of people do such a thing!
Hear me! We Sicilians here in La Merica are all a bit desperate, all a little crazy in the head, all the time going in at least a couple of directions, all proud and happy and eager to work and to please others and yet private and sad and split and confused, all in the same moment. Our feelings are like a minestra, the soup that we eat each day, made up of water and a pinch of salt and whatever else we can scrounge or find.
We resemble a minestra, too. In Sicily you can see hair of every texture and shade, skin color ranging from the darkest to the most fair, all evidence of the island’s many invaders. Since the beginning of time Sicily has fed countless millions of people—from the Phoenicians and the Greeks, the Carthaginians and Romans, the Vandals and Goths, the Byzantines, the mighty Arabs who ruled for three centuries, to the Normans, the French, the Germans, the Austrians, and the Spanish.
Mark this. Whatever power ruled Sicily, ruled the world!
We Sicilians have outlasted and endured over two thousand years of foreign occupation, plunder, and slavery until we’ve become what we are now: a triangular bowl of rising dough routinely splashed by a miscellany of foreign seed.
You may have noticed that I’ve yet to talk about seed, or
about yeast, the curious organism that permits dough to swell and
rise. Well, put the children and the priests and nuns to bed. I’ll
begin with the tale of how I got my name.
It began innocently enough back in Palermu, where my father owned the finest bakery on the Via Duca della Verdura—the Duke of Vegetable Street. As apprentice to my father, I worked all day long in the kitchen beside the hot ovens, responsible for maintaining the fires and keeping a watchful eye on whatever at the moment happened to be baking. My main duty was to avoid falling asleep. My favorite task was to put the loaves in the oven as I recited the benediction of the bread.
As the Madonna’s belly swelled with baby Jesù!
Grow, bread in the oven, grow
As God’s love expands throughout the world!
May each crumb be healthy and nourishing,
As pure as Saint Joseph!
May each crust be fragrant and full of flavor,
As generous as Saint Anna!
May each loaf be wholesome and sweet,
As inviting as Saint Francis!
May each slice be a tonic to those who eat it,
Just as the most merciful Saint Rosalie
Put an end to our plague!
Grow big, dough,
Big and long as the Holy Father’s staff!
Let this bread swell and come out well!
One day I must have recited the prayer too loudly, or perhaps the
Holy Father or Saint Nicholas got his aim wrong. Anyway, that morning
more than just bread began to expand in the oven’s stifling
heat. So I went outside to douse the fire in my pants with a bucket
of water. Watching me beside their baskets of fruit and vegetables
were the men of Via Duca della Verdura.
“What are you doing there, young Gerlandu?” one of the dukes called out. “Giving your bean a spring bath?”
“No,” said another, “he’s only washing his little mushroom.”
“It looks as if he’s holding a cherry pepper,” responded a third.
“No,” said a fourth, “it looks more like a young eggplant, only not quite as dark.”
“Eggplant?” the first duke cried. “Look at its size. The head’s as fat as a peach!”
“No,” said the second, “it’s as broad as an artichoke!”
The third agreed. “It’s some sort of squash or pumpkin attached to a thick vine!”
“And that’s only the tip,” said the fourth. “Look, I can’t believe he’s taking out more!”
“I never imagined such a melon!”
“Step back! The water’s making it breathe!”
“There’s no end to it! It’s taller than he is!”
“It could knock down a church!”
“It’s an oak tree, I swear!”
“See how it blocks out the sun!”
“If he leaned over a bit, I bet he could lick it like a cat!”
“No, that would be a grave sin.”
“Yet one worth risking Hell for!”
“He’ll need a second bucket if he wants to wash it all around!”
“There’s not enough water in the sea!”
“What a door-knocker!”
“It will take a week to dry!”
“Look how he’s able to push it back.”
“Amazing! It collapses back inside his pants just like a concertina!”
“What music that instrument could play on a wedding night!”
“His bride would never want to stop dancing.”
“It would take away her breath and more!”
“She’d never want to leave the sheets!”
“It would put even the mightiest horse to shame!”
At that moment a passing horse, hearing its name, cavaddu, whinnied long and loudly. And because I was a boy, only fourteen or fifteen, from that day on the men of the Duke of Vegetable Street called me Cavadduzzu, or little horse. They pounded my back and smiled whenever they saw me, in all ways treating me as their equal.
For every blessing there’s a curse.
God the Father must get bored all day long sitting on his throne up in Heaven hearing the archangels chant his praises. He must get restless every day eating his dry and tasteless wafers of flat bread. His boundless mind must be tempted to play tricks on his most pathetic of creations, man, the talking monkey who struts about the earth so falsely inflated with self-importance, it’s as if he doesn’t have a stinking culu in his pants. What other explanation beyond an ironical disposition can there be for God’s decisions regarding our fates? Why else would he mock me with such an imposing tool only to render its output ineffective?
Be sure that the men of Via Duca della Verdura took me to the most forbidden parts of Palermu, where the right coin could be exchanged for ecstasy beyond Christian imagination. At the century’s turn Palermu was a pretty desperate place, thronging with people trying to put two twigs together and end up with a bundle. For the right price there was someone willing to do just about anything. I cast no stones. I make no judgments. I call no woman or man a whore. That’s God’s job. And that’s why we have priests, to hear our confession and grant us absolution after we’ve wrestled all night long with mortal sin.
Sinning’s a gamble, sure. Just before dawn, as soon as the last tingle is over, it’s wise to pull up your pants and begin the search for a priest, hoping the devil and death don’t find you first.
I was just a colt, not quite sixteen, but I grazed long and hard in those fields of pleasure, savoring each and every moment, until one night a droplet or two of my seed bounced off the wall or ceiling, somehow landing on the tongue of the sweet angel who lay beneath me calling out my name.
“Ca—” she cried, then all at once stopped. “Cavadduzzu, God made you with sugar instead of salt!”
I confessed I didn’t understand.
“Taste,” she said, smearing my mouth with some of the milk I’d puddled on her belly. “See? It’s sweet. It’s supposed to be salty, more like the paste of anchovies.”
“Like anchovies?” I said, tasting my seed, quite amazed.
“Sure, men and women both. It’s said we taste of salt and the sea because that’s where we once came from.”
“From the sea?” I said. “Go on. You’re pulling my leg.”
“If this is a leg,” she said, “where is its shoe? Believe me, I know my business.”
“As do I,” I said. I then told her of my work in my father’s bakery.
“Well, that explains it,” she said. “As a youth you must have eaten too much sugar and honey.”
“No,” I told her. “I’m not permitted. My father would have beaten me senseless with his fists and belt and a dozen sticks if he had ever caught my fingers in the honey. I tended mainly to the ovens, making sure they were hot, then sliding in the bread, reciting the benediction, then pulling the bread out.”
“From what I can tell,” she said with a smile, “you’ve more than mastered that lesson. Believe me, Cavadduzzu, when it comes to delivering the loaf you’re no apprentice.”
Again I confessed I didn’t understand.
“Ahh!” she said suddenly, slapping her forehead with her hand. “I know the answer! Of course! The heat from the ovens must have cooked and sweetened your seed!”
“Go on,” I said.
“No, really,” she said. “Believe me. The ovens cooked you.”
“But I’m not made of bread,” I protested.
“And yet like a loaf you rise and swell.”
“A man is not bread,” I argued.
“And yet during the Last Supper,” she said, “when Jesù Cristu told the apostles to take and eat his body, he didn’t hand out cheese.”
“True,” I agreed.
“He gave them bread. Bread was his body.”
I nodded my head.
“Bread is sacred,” she said, “as is the body.”
Again I nodded.
“Without bread,” she declared, “neither man nor woman could live.”
I nodded a third time.
“And without a body,” she said as she wiped the luxuriant length of her own with the bedsheet, “the soul would float away like smoke in the air.”
“True,” I agreed.
“So where would the body be without bread?”
“In the grave?” I guessed.
“Correct,” she said. “And what would happen if you were to bury a piece of bread?”
“It would grow green with mold,” I answered.
“Correct again,” she said. “And what would happen after it grew green with mold?”
“Worms would crawl all over it and eat it.”
“And what happens to the body in the grave?”
“It grows green with mold,” I responded sadly, “and then the worms that sleep inside our guts wake and crawl out and eat us.”
I wept for several moments into the soft folds of a pillow. The logic was complete and inescapable. My body was made of bread, and somehow I’d cooked it!
Then an even more fearful thought crept from my brain onto my tongue. “With seed sweet rather than salty,” I said, “what temperament of children do you imagine I’ll produce?”
“For that,” she said, laughing and pulling the sheet between us, “you’re mounting the wrong mare. You’ll have to marry una bona fimmina to find the answer to that question.”
So Carla and I married, of course after first finding each other
agreeable. That she was passing through Palermu with her brother
Luigi and his new wife, Ciccina, made our getting together infinitely
simpler than having to endure the innumerable stages of courtship
in her backwater village in Girgenti. One day the three appeared
strolling down the Via Duca della Verdura just as I was taking a
batch of biscotti from the oven for the second time. The
smell proved irresistible to Luigi’s long nose. Soon the three
stood in my father’s shop, each holding a plate of my warm
biscotti. After several minutes Luigi was telling us that
he used to steam couscous and bake bread for his companions in the
hills, and as Carla and I exchanged glances, Luigi and my father
discussed the difficulties higher altitudes present to yeast.
“Yeast is a most temperamental animal,” Luigi proclaimed with a smile. Already I could tell that he was the type of man who thought himself an expert on life. From the many lines around his eyes I imagined he’d seen his share of Hell, but from his deep laugh I guessed that he hadn’t forgotten there was also a Heaven. He was a man who knew what it was to live, how to suck the juice from each moment and spit out what doesn’t agree. So I nodded in assent at all he said, every now and then giving Carla a smile, then offered the trio coffee and a platter of my finest cannoli.
Carla did not immediately pull her hand away as mine brushed against hers when I set the platter down on the table. Again our eyes met and smiled. After Luigi ate the first cannoli and reached for a second and moments later a third, I knew his fair sister would be my wife. At that moment outside on the street, the salt-seller was singing:
“Sa-li a-iu! Sa-li!
Cu vo-liu’ sa-li?”
Salt have I! Salt!
Who wants salt?
Knowing what I know now about my sweet seed, I should have run
out onto the street. “Me!” I should have cried. “I
want salt! Me! Me!”
All went well between Carla and me until the wedding night.
We knelt beside the bed, reciting our prayers. Afterward I stood, took her fair hands in mine and kissed her cheeks and lips, and then, as was my habit, proudly pulled off my nightshirt and with a flourish threw it to the floor.
“Aiieee!” shrieked Carla, stepping back.
“Don’t shrink from me or hide your eyes,” I said. “It’s only a loaf of bread.”
“Get away from me!” she screamed.
“As you like,” I whispered, slipping my shirt back over my head and shoulders and down past my hips, “but, believe me, there’s nothing here for you to fear.”
“But your cosa!” she said, pointing.
“Remember that we are each made in God’s image and likeness.”
“Not the God that I kneel down before!” She made the sign of the Cross, then held her breastbone so as to catch her breath. “Mother of God, I thought the name
Cavadduzzu was only a joke!”
“Don’t tremble so,” I said, sitting down on the bed beside her. “In matters of love God did not create anything forbidden or wrong, just as long as the heart is pure and both agree fully on the practice.”
She shook her head. “I’m married to a horse!”
“If that’s what you think, then I’ll leave you and go sleep in the stables.” I stroked the backs of her hands, kissed the soft insides of her arms, then walked to the door.
“Show me your feet,” she demanded.
I lifted my nightshirt. “Don’t fear me,” I said. “See, my feet aren’t cloven. I have five toes on each foot, just like you.”
“Now your backside,” she ordered.
“See,” I said, pulling my nightshirt up further, “no tail.”
I turned and bent before her so that she could inspect the crown of my head. “See, no horns. I’m human just as you are, though hardly half as divine, not a quarter as lovely as your gentle fingertips, as inviting as your alabaster arms, your luminous smile, almond eyes, rosy cheeks, raven hair, supple neck.” I thought of a different adjective for each part of her body, slowly and lightly kissing each feature as I gave it praise, until Carla fluttered like a little bird within my arms.
“The hour’s late,” I whispered.
“I’ll never lie with you,” she sighed.
“Then we’ll just sit together here on the bed,” I said. I ran my lips again down her neck. “I’m a patient man. All good things in time. If not tonight, tomorrow. If not tomorrow, the next day.”
“You’ll never touch me,” she said. “Never.”
Her body was like wax, slowly melting. “No matter, my darling,” I said. “If not the next day, then the day after the next day. There’s no rush, Carla. If not the day after the next day, then the day after the day after the next. If not the day after the day after the day after—” Then I could no longer speak, for she was pressing her moist lips upon mine.
We fell back together on the bed as I kissed the throbbing stretch of her white throat, then stroked her dark and suddenly wild hair.
A baker has real cause to worry when the bread fails to rise.
After our first year together, Carla’s belly was still as flat as any maiden’s. We were living then in a third-floor apartment in New York’s Mulberry District with Luigi and Ciccina, Gaetanu and Teresa, after having passed through Ellis Island, where they changed my name’s ending u’s to o’s. Carla went to church and made novena after novena to the Madonna. I recited countless prayers to the saints. Now, the best thing about the saints is that there are so many of them. If one’s no good you just move on to another. Carla worked the Madonna, and I worked the saints, going so far as to drop in on different churches at various hours in the day in the chance that perhaps their hearing might be better in one place than the next.
After we came to Chicago with Salvatore and Rosa, we told Assunta about our situation, and she agreed to try to help us. She rested her hands on Carla’s belly, then on mine, then with her mortar and pestle prepared for us a gamut of cures mixed in clay. Carla and I pinched our noses and swallowed all that Assunta had to offer us. Several weeks later Carla sprouted a new set of molars, and I now have to shave twenty times a day.
Month after month passed, each without event. Nothing but anticipation grew in the garden of Carla’s sweet womb.
“I’ve been thinking,” I said one night to my beloved as we stood after kneeling together on the floor beside our bed reciting our prayers. “Maybe God is denying us children because of the manner in which we perform the act itself. Perhaps we each draw from it a bit too much enjoyment. It’s possible that we’ve inadvertently given insult and as a result made the Madonna and the saints jealous.”
“That’s it!” Carla cried. “Of course the Madonna and the saints are jealous! Nearly all of them were virgins!”
“So from now on let’s be like them, virgins,” I suggested, though after several moments of thinking it over we recognized the obvious contradiction in that plan.
“Well,” Carla said as we climbed into bed, “I still believe that’s the solution. Perhaps it’s our pleasure the saints object to. So let’s try to perform the act from now on in a very holy and saintly way. Let’s derive no pleasure from it.”
I agreed with her fully. “No pleasure,” I said.
“None at all,” she concurred.
We shook hands on it, then put out the light and held each other in our arms and lay down together, embraced, and kissed.
“I’m deriving no pleasure from this,” I said after a while. I had to grit my teeth to speak. “Absolutely none! None! None! None! None!”
“Nor am I,” she cried, writhing beneath me in my arms. “Nor am I! Nor am I! Nor am aiieee!”
Finally I became so desperate that I took the most extreme and
reckless step any mortal man may in this life take. I went to see
Now, my belief about doctors is simple. If you’re sick you can stay home in bed sipping a bowl of soup, and you’ll feel better in two weeks. Or you can go to a doctor and pay him for his time and a bottle of pills that, taken with soup and plenty of bed rest, if you’re lucky will make you feel better in fourteen days.
Most of the time while the doctor’s figuring out what’s wrong, the patient turns green and dies. And while the dead man starts to stink and rot, the doctor runs out of fingers adding up the bill!
This doctor asked me to put some of my seed into a small cup. I told him if he waited until tomorrow I could bring him a whole jarful, but he said no, he needed a dollop while it was still fresh and warm. While my seed was still fresh, he separated some into six or seven glass tubes and added drops of this and that to make the liquid change color. Of course I knew this display was only a circus for my benefit, a show designed to convince me that he was an expert at his job. He wanted me to think he was earning my money. But then he put a droplet of my seed on a rectangle of glass and inspected it beneath his microscope.
He explained that inside each seed there exists the whole baby, perfectly formed, though extremely small and curled up and hungry. Each seed comes equipped with a tail that enables the baby to swim toward the mother’s egg, he explained. The mother’s egg is like a big omelet, the doctor said, feeding the baby and lasting for nine months, during which time the child grows. When the entire omelet’s eaten, the thirsty baby claws its way out of the womb in search of some milk.
“Hey,” I said, “what do you make me out to be, a rube fresh off the boat? Tell me something I don’t know.”
He viewed my droplet of seed, noisily sucking his front teeth for the longest time, then turned to me and let out a long sigh.
“You don’t have any swimmers,” he announced.
The room suddenly drained itself of air.
“You are most certainly wrong,” I told him. I pushed out my chest and stood tall.
“You must be mistaken. I am Gerlando Cavadduzzo, from the Via Duca della Verdura in Palermu.” I stood on my tiptoes and thumped my chest. “I know for a fact that my seeds swim with the very best.”
“Perhaps your seeds once did,” he told me, “and perhaps one day they will again, but they don’t now. Look for yourself.” He gestured toward the microscope. “I’ve never seen a case quite so bad,” he continued. “It’s like a little cemetery down there. Your seeds are as still as tombstones.”
I put my eye to the tiny hole of light at the top of the tube and saw at the other end a bluish sea scattered with what looked like tiny, motionless ships. Their smashed and broken hulls floated silently in the water. After the doctor showed me how to reposition the glass slide, I explored the ocean below, searching vainly for anything that might show the slightest sign of being alive.
I found an island, triangular in shape, surrounded by a thousand and one invading ships. “That’s only a bubble of air,” the doctor told me when I showed it to him, though when I looked at it again I could see clearly that he was wrong. I was able to make out the tip of San Vito Lu Capu, Marsala, Sciacca, the long coast of Agrigentu, Gela, Puzzallu, Pachinu, Siracusa, Catania, Taurmina, Messina, Milazzu, Sant’Agata di Militellu, Cefalù, Bagheria, and Suluntu.
Then I sighted my hometown, Palermu. A cascade of tears blurred and tumbled from my eyes. I adjusted the focus and after a few moments saw the Duke of Vegetable Street and my father’s bakery. Outside on the street stood overflowing baskets of fresh mushrooms and cherry peppers, eggplants and squash and watermelons. I waved a hand to my old friends.
Then again my eye searched the sea. My eye moved past the long-dead ships of the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Goths, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Germans, Austrians, Spaniards. Their crippled hulls cluttered the unhappy waters around my island.
Finally, all by itself out in the middle of the gray Atlantic, steaming its way hungrily toward the promise of the Golden Land, I spied a lone ship gamely wriggling its little head.
“Figghiu miu!” I cried.
Then the rotten piece of meat with eyes who dared to call himself a doctor examined it and said it was as dead as stone, that its apparent motion was due entirely to the fearful trembling of my hands.
Shoulders sagging, I dragged my carcass home, where my dear Carla
was pacing the wax off the kitchen floor. As usual she’d mixed
the dough for the afternoon loaves, but for some reason today the
dough failed to rise. Good Lord, I thought, this is the last thing
I need. Around her lay a dozen trays of flat, barren dough.
“I don’t know what I did wrong,” she said, holding back her tears. “Please don’t be angry with me.”
I took a deep breath, then smiled at her and kissed both her hands. “My dearest Carla,” I said, “only a fool could be angry at a saint.”
“But today’s business—” she said. “It’s a Friday. You know how well we sell on Fridays. We’re hours and hours behind! You were gone so long at the doctor’s! Gerlando, look at the clock! The three o’clock whistle’s about to blow!”
“The hour’s of no importance,” I replied. “Did I ever tell you how grateful I am to you for being my wife all these years and putting up with me and my many faults, and for devoting so much of your time to our business?”
She sniffed my breath. “If you’re not drunk you must have been walking too long in the sun. What do you mean, the hour’s unimportant? For a bakery, timing’s everything! Open your eyes! Look at all I’ve ruined.”
“My darling,” I said, “my eyes are wide open. I see clearly probably for the first time in my whole life. Believe me, you’ve ruined nothing.”
She shook her head. “I can’t for the life of me think what I did wrong.”
“You did nothing wrong,” I said. “You’re not at fault here, Carla.”
“I must have offended the saints,” she said, turning from me and twisting her apron in her hands. “That’s the only logical explanation I can come up with. You know how I sometimes get all those couplets of the bread prayer confused. Maybe I rushed through the benediction or recited a few of the words out of order.”
“No, my jewel, my treasure, my long-suffering companion.” I took her hands in mine and again kissed them. “Please understand what I’m saying. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s my fault, not yours. You never gave the saints offense.”
She pushed me away. “How can you remain so calm? Can’t you hear what I’m saying? It’s Friday! Today the workers are paid!”
“Then they’ll take their rich pockets to the Czechoslovakian. Or they’ll go without.” I looked at my Carla, then at the empty ovens, then back at Carla. The flesh of my heart began to break. “Please,” I said, “if you don’t mind, leave me alone for a little while. I must be by myself for a few moments. Please go into the shop and care for the customers.”
I locked the door, then shut the lights and fell to my knees, sobbing. My tears dripped saltily down my cheeks and into my mouth. For a dark moment I wondered if I should take my life so Carla could be free to have children by some other, more virile man. I looked around for a long knife I might use to stab myself with and then slice out my beating heart. At that moment there was a sharp banging on the door.
“Gerlando,” Carla cried, “the workers say they’ll wait!”
“Tell them there’s nothing to wait for,” I shouted back. “Tell them the tragic news. The seed is all dead.”
“Don’t talk crazy,” Carla shouted back. “Already the workers are standing in line.”
“You don’t understand! There’s nothing I can do! My seeds are like tombstones in a cemetery!”
“Don’t talk nonsense!” she screamed. “You’ve never failed before! Have faith. Say the prayers. Through all the years we’ve been together, your bread has always risen!”
“But Carla, I’m not talking about bread! I’m talking about you and me!”
“I’m talking about you and me, too, Gerlando!” she shouted. “Don’t give up hope! You know how to do it! Start with a clean, warm bowl. Measure the flour. Recite the prayers. Try again!”
So I lit the candles that flanked my statue of Saint Joseph and started from scratch, measuring the flour and the water, and so on. I mixed the ingredients and then kneaded the dough carefully, reciting every prayer my father ever taught me. I gently separated the dough into graceful mounds. These I carefully covered with warm towels as I repeated my prayers.
It was to no avail. Clearly a curse had fallen on my kitchen. The toweled dough drooped as flat as sewer lids.
I unlocked the door to the shop. A crowd waited patiently before the counter, stretching like a serpent out the door and onto the sidewalk. I raised my hands for their silence.
“My dear friends and neighbors,” I began, “I am exceedingly sorry to inform you that this humble bakery, Cavadduzzo’s of Cicero, which has had the supreme and unsurpassed pleasure of serving you and your loyal families for lo these many years, is hereby and henceforth, from this day forward, closed. Please return to your homes. Due to tragic circumstances, there will be no bread today.”
“No bread today?” they said, shocked and disbelieving.
“My ears deceive me! What did he say?”
“Mother of God, no! No bread?”
“I am grievously sorry,” I said, “to be such a bitter disappointment and so grave and absolute a failure to those I so deeply and dearly love.” I looked at my Carla’s face until a wash of tears obliterated my sight.
I knew the crowd witnessed my tears, which soon grew to thunderous sobs, but I was unashamed.
“We’re sorry,” they told me as they left. “We’re so sorry. So sorry. Whatever the situation, you have our sympathies, our sympathies.”
The crowd fell into a hush as they exited, and then I could hear them talking outside on the sidewalk.
“Did you see him cry? What a display!”
“I’ve never heard a man issue such moans and wails. He could make a fortune as a hired mourner!”
“He wept as copiously as Niagara Falls! I saw it once! They make you wear a raincoat to get near it!”
“He must be in great shock. His face was as white as a nun’s bedsheet.”
“Of course, he must be grieving for someone he loved.”
“That’s it! There’s no bread today because somebody in his family died.”
“His wife has family living back in the city, in the projects near Saint Philip Benizi.”
“That’s it! There must have been a terrible accident! They must all be dead!”
“No, he’s not rushing out to grieve over them. He went
back inside. That means that someone back in Sicily must have died!”
“I kept hearing a telephone ringing as I stood there waiting in line. I knew it wasn’t just in my ears!”
“That’s it! He must have received a telephone call.”
“Yes, it was a member of his family.”
“Somebody back in Palermu.”
“A brother, sure. Somebody said his brother.”
“His twin brother, of course.”
“He’s closing the shop for the funeral, out of respect.”
“Did you hear? Cavadduzzo’s brother is dead!”
“Oh, darkest of days!”
“Oh, woe and despair!”
“Better him than me!”
“The saints have mercy! Did you hear the news? Cavadduzzo’s twin brother has departed and is no more!”
“I know already. I heard it this afternoon. The entire Via Duca della Verdura in Palermu is draped tonight in black.”
“Gerlando’s poor heart must be broken into two.”
“Of course, Cavadduzzo’s of Cicero will be closed for three days, out of respect.”
That dark night I held Carla in my arms until I could hear her
soft snores, and then I went down the stairs and locked myself in
the kitchen. All that night I grieved, weeping so profusely that
my tears washed clean the floor. A pod of blue whales could have
drowned in my tears, I shed so many. There are not more drops in
all of the Mediterranean Sea.
At four o’clock the next morning, my eyes popped open out of habit. I found myself sleeping on a table in the kitchen, which without the heat of my ovens felt as cold and damp as a grave. Curse or no curse, I arose and fired up my ovens and began as usual to make bread, measuring the flour and mixing the et cetera, separating the dough into et cetera, reciting et cetera to Saint Et Cetera.
The morning dough remained as flat as the earth before the voyages of Columbus.
Don’t panic, I cautioned myself. What distinguishes man from the lower animals is that man has the potential to think even when he has to itch his ass. So I devoted the rest of the morning to scratching my cranium for some idea that might spark my yeast into a bubbling froth.
I had no doubt whatsoever that the problem concerned my yeast. Like most bakers I kept a variety of yeasts in stock in the event one should become temperamental or go bad. These I tested with some warm water and a bit of sugar. Each yeast foamed up just fine.
Now, you know that yeast is just like an old man with a sweet tooth. If you offer him only flour and water, he’ll do nothing but sit in the shade and snore. But if you want him to get up and plow a field or draw water from the well or pick tomatoes for the evening sauce, you have to coax him with something extra. You slip him some grains of sugar or a few drops of honey or molasses. Then after he’s started eating the sweets, he can’t help himself and begins feeding so happily on the wheat flour that he begins belching, which in turn causes the dough around him to expand and grow.
All afternoon I worked, coaxing the yeast, mixing it with various sweeteners. Every time I added the flour—phhttt, like a flat tire. I worked all Saturday evening, into the early hours of the night. No bowl I owned went unfilled.
I tried sugar (granulated, powdered, brown), honey (every shade from dark to light), molasses, corn syrup, maple syrup. Each dough remained as lifeless as Lazarus.
Again I slept on the hard slab of my table, until just before four on Sunday morning, when I had a most peculiar dream.
I dreamed I was a boy again, out on the town with all of the dukes of Vegetable Street. Everything was the same, except that Palermu had somehow sunk beneath the sea. It made sense in the dream. We all had to swim by wriggling our tails. In my dream the dukes and I and everybody were having a great race.
They swam far ahead of me, laughing, coaxing me to catch up with them. I knew somehow that if I lagged behind all would be lost and I’d be forgotten and dead. So I wiggled as fast as I could, slipping farther and farther behind until they disappeared in the darkness, and then I began to fall into a terrifying void that I somehow understood would be without end.
In my dream I tried to scream, but then a beautiful lady with dark hair and eyes and graceful white wings like a butterfly caught me. She caressed me, telling me not to worry. The dukes’ race isn’t important, the beautiful lady said. She held my face to her breasts and said swimming was not to be my destiny.
“Lie still,” she whispered to me. “Don’t wiggle your tail or try to move. Allow yourself to listen to your own silence. Be who you are. Accept your true fate, which is to lie still and be surrounded by water. Be like an island.” She sketched a three-sided island in the air. “Try to be like the egg that calmly remains in place rather than like the restless, ever-wandering seed.”
“But kids,” I said. “I want sons and daughters. Carla and I—”
She bared one of her breasts and placed its nipple into my mouth to silence me.
“Gerlando,” she said, with a voice I knew was my dear mother’s, “your kids are all those who eat of your bread.”
Then the angel transformed into Carla, who in the darkness hovered over me saying it was perfectly all right if we didn’t have any children, she loved me just as I was, at the same time stroking me in my dream or actual life or perhaps only in God’s wildest imagination, causing the little horse for which I was named to rise up on his hind legs and with a shudder whinny furiously, causing the Mungibeddu on my island to erupt, shooting into the air a dozen arcs of seed which I could hear splash on the floor as well as into one bowl which held a portion of yeast cake, which within moments began to bubble. Somehow, in my excitement and confusion over awakening in so unorthodox a manner, I accidentally knocked this bowl over into a larger bowl containing flour, water, and salt. These ingredients I then mixed together without thought after I put on the kitchen light and lit my morning candles to Saint Joseph.
Though I could hardly trust my eyes, the morning dough appeared to rise.
As was my habit I then kneaded and separated the dough into loaves, then with a sharp knife scored each with three crosses.
In the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Ghost.
I ran then from the kitchen, leaving the dough to fall flat or
to rise again, according to its destiny.
I unlocked the door and left my shop, walking about the dark streets of Cicero. Other than me, only the songbirds were awake. My tale might be better if I said I stopped by a church and bowed my head and prayed, but in truth I attend Mass only twice a year, on Christmas and Easter morning. Still, it felt a bit like Easter morning, with the promise of spring in the chill air. I listened to the chirping birds and the sound my shoes made on the roadway, thinking of my father’s shop in Palermu and how I should put my shop up for sale now that I’d lost my ability to be a baker. I’ll go to the Hawthorne Works tomorrow, I decided, and ask for a job of any kind. Perhaps my future was in telephones.
My feet took me in a circle, like a pair of old horses eager to return to the barn. After an hour or so I found myself at the start of my street.
Something’s wrong, I thought. The front door of my shop was open! Somebody had broken in! Thieves! Murderers! Oh dear God, I thought, somebody’s stolen the cashbox and murdered Carla in her bed!
Instead she’d simply opened up the shop for the day. When she saw me she shouted, “It’s risen! It’s a miracle! Alleluia! It has risen! Bread!”
All that Sunday my customers poured my ears full of praise, saying that my loaves had never before been quite as sweet and delicious.
“I don’t know what you did,” they told me, “but this new bread, it has a peculiar richness—”
“A delicate flavor—”
“No, it’s more of an integrity—”
“A certain fullness of texture—”
“It isn’t a sourdough, is it?”
“No, it’s more of a sweet undertaste—”
“A quite abundant flavor—”
“My widowed aunt ate an entire loaf by herself!”
Over the next week business in my shop doubled, then like a dough rising doubled once again. “This new bread’s a dream!” everyone told me. “Whatever you do, Cavadduzzo, don’t go back to your old recipe!”
Of course in time I returned to more conventional means of feeding my yeasts, though maybe every other year, on the most special occasions. . . .
Isn’t the body—plant or animal—the source of all food? Doesn’t the mother feed her children with secretions from her breast? Isn’t honey the saliva and regurgitation of countless thousands of bees? What is an egg if not a cleverly packaged menstruation?
How can the male body offer another life? If we can happily chew a tasty nut, which in truth is nothing less than a form of a tree’s seed, why not a man’s?
Why shouldn’t a man imitate Jesù, who at the Holy Supper gave bread to his friends saying, “This is my body, take ye and eat”?
Knowing God sweetened my seed to help my bread grow
Gives me all I need: Cavadduzzo’s of Cicero.
Tony Ardizzone’s most recent novel, In The Garden of Papa Santuzzu, will be published by Picador USA/St. Martin’s Press in July, 1999. His work has received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, a Pushcart Prize, and other honors. (1999)