Ceci: The Killer Chick-Pea

The next time you are enjoying hummus, the Middle Eastern dish of mashed chick-peas, garlic, lemon juice, and sesame oil, consider its murderous past.

Likely originating in ancient Persia and cultivated by humankind for thousands of years, this legume, also known as the garbanzo, has found its way into the cuisines of Spain, Mexico, Italy, North Africa, India, and the southwestern United States.

Yet the chick-pea’s relationship with the varied nations of the world has a dark undercurrent. For parts of the 13th century, the Kingdom of Sicily was ruled by the French: Charles of Anjou became King of Sicily in 1268, cared little for the Sicilians, plundered the island ruthlessly, removed Sicilian landowners, and replaced them with French officials in his quest for a Mediterraneanempire.

While powerful political enemies of Charles were plotting against him, the Sicilians had long been dissatisfied with their lot under French rule and made their own move. Awaiting vespers (evening prayers) outside a Palermo church on Easter Monday, March 30, 1282, a large, volatile crowd volatile exploded when Sicilian women were harassed by French soldiers and one sergeant was stabbed to death by an enraged husband.

As the church bells peeled, the mob attacked the French and messages ran throughout Palermo calling for an uprising. The revolt spread throughout the island and virtually all the French (and even their Sicilian wives) were massacred.

It is said that many French trying to hide were “tested” by their ability to pronounce ceci (Italian for chick-pea); if the suspect was unable to say chay-chee (plural) or chay-chay (singular) acceptably, he or she was French and was therefore killed.

The revolt, known as the Sicilian Vespers, and this deadly linguistic test gives to the humble chick-pea a nefarious quality.

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