That Weird & Wonderful Sicilian Cookie

February 3, 2014

Minni di virgini, virgins’ breasts—little white cakes topped with a candied cherry—are nibbled in early February to remember and celebrate Saint Agatha, the patron saint of Catania. They symbolize (to me at least) what Sicily is all about: an epicurean isle brimming with black humor, where every pain morphs into pleasure. Virgin Breast Cookies for St Agatha's Feast in Sicily, copyright Jann Huizenga

Agatha, a pretty daughter of Catania who’d taken a Christian vow of chastity, caught the eye of the pagan Roman governor of Sicily. When Agatha rebuffed his advances, he retaliated by ordering her breasts pulled off. Then he roasted her in a kiln for good measure. She died on February 5, 251.

And so a martyr and patron saint was born. The citizens of Catania still celebrate Agatha as fervently as ever from February 3 to 5. On the 4th and 5th, for two long emotional days and nights, thousands of men pull a 40,000-pound silver carriage with Agatha’s relics through the city streets, followed by rivers of devotees. There is a sea of votive candles. Bells peal. Fireworks roar. Babies fly high above the mob, sent forth by trusting parents to touch the saint’s relics. Viva Sant’Agata! 

People snack on roast horse meat and virgins’ breasts. The final night, in a dangerous and utterly Sicilian move, the men drag and push Agatha’s heavy carriage up a steep hill in the city center, risking their lives in the process. Yes, when it comes to festivals, Sicily really takes the cake.

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