Legend has it that once upon a time a tremendous famine came to Siracusa, and the people were so hungry they had lost all hope they would survive. Then one day-- it was the 13th of December--a miracle happened. A mysterious ship appeared, from far away, loaded with wheat. Starving and grateful, the people of Siracusa threw themselves on the grain and taking it to their homes, cooked it just as it was, without grinding it into flour first. It was Lucia’s Day, the feast of the martyred saint of Siracusa, December 13. From that day forward the saint that saved the Sicilians from hunger has been celebrated across the island on her feast day by serving, not bread or pasta, but only la cuccia, a dish of wheat berries boiled and seasoned in various ways around the region. La cuccia is eaten all over Sicily on Santa Lucia. My grandfather liked it simply boiled and seasoned with a dash of oil and some salt, and I believe this was the traditional way to eat it. Today, as our palates tend more to the sweet, la cuccia is often prepared as a dessert, mixing the wheat berries with ricotta and candied fruit, or with honey, blancmange, or vino cotto. When I began to research my documentary on Santa Lucia, I discovered, much to my surprise, that Siracusa, where Santa Lucia is the patron saint, had completely lost the tradition of making la cuccia. That tradition was recovered a few years ago by the pasticceria Artale, near the Duomo of Siracusa, where they make the dish on December 13 and hand it out to all the townsfolk. Devotion to Santa Lucia is very heartfelt in Castelbuono, an ancient, beautiful town at the base of the Madonie mountains. Here the feast of Santa Lucia is actually celebrated twice a year, in September and in December, both times by serving la cuccia. Many today still like the traditional method of preparation, the one my grandfather preferred and which the poor and the farm hands on our lands ate. Here in Castelbuono a handful of chick peas is added to the grain. For those with bigger appetites, la cuccia is also prepared at Castelbuono with blancmange, a milk pudding that dates from the Middle Ages, flavored with lemon peel, cinnamon and shavings of chocolate. In Palermo, the devout not only eat no bread or pasta on December 13, they do not use any flour at all in their cooking. But don’t think they perish from hunger—anything but. A traditional dish for Santa Lucia is the arancina, a large ball of rice, stuffed and fried. In honor of Lucia, these are even sometimes stuffed with chocolate according to a custom that probably goes back to Baroque cooking, when it was fashionable to mix sweet and savory. Another Palermo specialty are sweet panelle: these are very different from the savory panelle made with chickpea flour. Sweet panelle are a kind of half-moon pastry filled with cream. Nobody makes them at home; they’re found only in some pasticcerie. As you can see, devotion to Santa Lucia does not mean having to go hungry! Lucia’s name comes from luce, light. And so she is also the protector of vision and of the eyes. For this reason, especially in eastern Sicily, a bread in the shape of eyes or eyeglasses—called “uocci di Santa Lucia” was traditional. It’s a custom that is disappearing, unfortunately, but I discovered something similar in the charming town of Modica, an industious little city that is particularly rich in culinary heritage. Here, halfway between Modica alta, up on the hill, and Modica bassa, down in the valley, a group of devotées of Santa Lucia meet each year to make cucciddati, small, thin leaves of unleavened bread. Made of water, flour and salt only, these are baked in the oven and then taken to the Church of Santa Lucia to be blessed. They are then pressed on the eyelids in the hope the saint will provide protection. The Garofano bakery of Siracusa has resumed this tradition, making an excellent bread for December 13, with just flour and water and a trace of yeast to give it the right consistency. The bread is taken to the church and blessed before being distributed to all. In my travels around Sicily I’ve had the impression that the eastern end of the island is less rich in culinary heritage, perhaps because economic and political power has long been concentrated in Palermo, the capital. Be that as it may, the nicest celebration of Santa Lucia in all of Sicily takes place in Belpasso at the foot of Mt. Etna, on the island’s eastern side. It’s a great celebration of lights, color and sound, without, however, any special local foods. On December 13 in Belpasso, the stands in the market sell torrone, nuts and candies, things we never eat at our food fairs, along with crespelle, little pancakes typical of eastern Sicily, made with a very liquid batter that demands speed and dexterity to handle. They are filled with ricotta or anchovies and then fried in hot oil. On the night of Santa Lucia, the whole town turns out for a procession with floats. Four or five tractors pulling flatbed trucks have been decorated with huge, mobile stage sets which are manipulated, to music and singing and psychedelic lights, during the course of the evening, so that they open like a kalaidoscope to create various scenes. Scenes that illustrate episodes from the Bible and stories from the life of Lucia. This virtuoso display of images is a living vestige of the masterful Baroque sets built for parties and banquets in 18th century Europe.