Columbus Day is one of those rare holidays which truly has nothing to do whatsoever with food, a day that most people in America associate with a day off from school or work, if not the brutal subjugation of indigenous populations, slavery, and genocide. But, insofar as Columbus Day exists, I challenged myself to find any possible positive thing to come from the man's voyage to the New World, so I turned to food.
Since Columbus—who sailed the Atlantic for the Spanish crown—hails from the coastal Italian city of Genoa, Columbus Day is actually celebrated in Italy as la Giornata Nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo. Unlike in America, where the date changes slightly from year to year, Italians always celebrate this day on October 12, the day that he landed in the New World.
The city of Modica, in the Southeastern part of Sicily, celebrated this year's Italian Columbus Day with a chocolate-themed program. That's appropriate, as Modica happens to be home to a fascinating chocolate history and culture. In the 16th century, Modica fell under Spanish rule and played host to returning conquistadores, who brought with them goods from the New World, including chocolate. In exchange, Europeans left behind smallpox, typhus, and influenza in their newly conquered territory.
Since that time, chocolate has been produced in Modica according to traditional Aztec chocolate recipes—Modican chocolate, or "cioccolato di Modica" has the same coarse texture and warm spice accents of the bars one finds strolling the markets in, say, Oaxaca. Modican chocolate is traditionally flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, and chili pepper (or peperoncino in Italian), but can be found in flavors as diverse as anise and carob. The comparatively "cold" production of this type of chocolate means that the sugar remains crystallized, giving the end product its distinct consistency.
A 1999 New York Times article on chocolate in Modica cites a few particularly intriguing regional recipes, such as 'mpanatigghi, a type of empanada-like pastry (easy etymological link there) filled with ground beef, chocolate, and spices; liccumie, which are similar but use eggplant in place of beef; and u lebbru 'nciucculattatu, a dish of rabbit cooked in chocolate. A similar dish appears in Tuscany as lepre or cinghiale in dolce e forte—rabbit or wild boar in a type of sweet and sour sauce made with chocolate, vinegar, and spices, topped with pine nuts.
Equating Columbus' voyage to the New World with the introduction of chocolate into the Sicilian culinary vernacular makes a lot of sense. And, actually, it doesn't stop in Sicily: We can link the Columbian Exchange to such important delicacies as tiramisù (from Veneto) and Nutella (from Piedmont).
It's a bizarre historical twist that so much of the indigenous culture and tradition of the region—including language—fell victim to colonization, yet pre-Columbian chocolate-making persists not only in Mexico, but in this unlikely corner of Sicily. It turns out that those brutal conquistadores didn't vanquish everything, and even gave birth to a hybridized chocolate tradition.
But they're still war criminals.