Unexpected food was one of the delights of Sicily, where Bink and I spent ten days last Eastertime. We stayed in the hillside town above Palermo where my father's mother was born. Just looking at the food in the markets was a treat, or at least interesting. Outer-spacey food intrigues me, and I'm extra intrigued that my species figured out you even could eat some of it.
Like the piles of grey frothy sludge for sale in wooden trays at fish markets (I think it was some sort of pre- or neonatal sea life). Who figured out it was fit to eat?
Bink did eat a plateful of fried baby squid, each one's itty-bitty body, including its wavy little legs, no bigger than your pinky's fingernail. They were recognizably edible, but it was disquieting to watch several miniature bodies disappear in each forkful.
Prickly pear cactus was in season, and we avoided pulpy red patches, where people had stepped on its ripe fallen fruit.
I ate it in a restaurant as strawberry-like sauce drizzled over basil ice-cream. Basil ice-cream is as good as mint, and tart red pulp is nice on cool green.
The most Sicilian of foods is the artichoke. In Sicily, the local leathery thistles are not the neutered affairs we see in grocery stores in the USA. They are sold with their thorns intact, and I can tell you, they hurt if they stab you. They are like the maces medieval knights thwacked each other with.
Bink and I spent a morning wandering the vast outdoor market in Palermo, where you can buy everything from pirated CDs to slinky undies to bits of animals you didn't know were edible.
Toward lunchtime I bought two artichokes. A young aproned man hauled them out of a cauldron of boiling water, roiling with lemon halves, wrapped them in butcher paper, and charged 45 cents each.
(The year before, I'd paid $6 for an artichoke in a morally elevated joint in southern CA. But Palermo is the opposite of morally elevated.)
We sat on the dirty steps of a church and tried not to burn our fingers pulling the leaves off to get at the flesh. The stems are edible too, which is why I'm chewing on mine (above, left).
Every night when we came back to the hotel, I asked for the room key in Italian, though I don't speak the language. I always stumbled over the number: 211 "due centi un dici." (sp?) [spelled wrong--see Bink's funny note about counting in Italian, in the comments, below]
On night number six, I got the rhythm right, and the non-English-speaking night clerk, Roberto, who until then had been merely polite, was transformed. He announced that we were now amici del casa, or "friends of the house," and that he was therefore authorized to offer us a glass of grappa.
Grappa. The wavery scent of this clear liquid signals that it's something you probably shouldn't ingest. Since it's up to 80 percent alcohol, the scent is correct. But I enjoyed drinking grappa with Roberto. It tastes good, and it effectively dissolves language differences.
Nothing is alien when you get used to it.