Cooking and Eating

On our arrival in Sicily, we seemed to be off everyone else's schedule. We kept arriving too early or too late for meals. The wonderful guy at the Palermo tourist office, the only bloody tourist office that was actually staffed in Sicily, as near as we could tell, gave us a couple of notes about eating in Sicily. Breakfast is light - usually espresso and a roll. Then there's a break around 11 a.m. for espresso at a local bar. Lunch is usually 1 p.m. and probably the biggest meal of the day. Dinner is late ( 8-9 p.m.). You show up for dinner at 6 p.m. and you are going to spend two and a half hours outside a locked door with a big neon "Loser Tourist" sign flashing over your head visible to everyone but you.

We cooked a fair amount on this trip. Dining out can be expensive, especially with our  tastes in wine. Since we had apartments with pretty well equipped kitchens, it was pretty easy to dine in. There are some trade offs cooking for yourself. You don't get to experience local dishes. You miss the society of dining with others, and that's a big loss in Italy. Italians eat late and the evening promenade is an important part of civic life. When you cook for yourself, you have to force yourself to eat later and/or make a point of going out after your evening meal.

On the upside, you can shop the markets and engage with people much more honestly at the ground level. You can try things you don't recognize or have only read about. You do save a bundle of money too. There is also something about cooking in another country that feels more rewarding than marching from one landmark to the next. When you cook, you're participating in the cultural conversation of the country. When the smells of good food are coming from your window, they join the smells of good food everywhere. I don't mean this to sound so new-agey but it's true. There's just something about cooking that makes you feel like you belong.

When I say "we" cooked, what I mean is Carolyn cooked and I supervised. OK, I pretended to be busy studying maps. I think she actually liked doing something after a day of cowering in fear watching me try to drive us from place to place. Honestly, she's more adventurous in the kitchen than I am. I have my small collection of dishes I cook well. Carolyn actually knows how to assemble ingredients on the fly and make something out of nothing.  I did have one genius moment yielding the following awesome travel tip: I used an Eagle Creek Flat Pack to keep my shirts and pants relatively wrinkle free while compressed in my one bag. They work pretty well with the added benefit that the plastic sheet that you fold your shirts on and keeps the pack stiff makes an absolutely perfect flexible cutting board. Just use the side that doesn't have the folding instructions on it and be sure to wash it before you stick it back in your luggage.

We made mostly pasta based dishes. Dried pasta travels well and you can put whatever looks good at the market in or on it. If you're cooking in Italy for the first time, it's a great way to start feeling the culinary love. Shopping a market is intimidating if you don't speak the language but commerce is a language we all understand and when you buy someone's produce, you share something we lose in our e-commerce world. That vendor is proud of their produce and your purchase of that produce justifies that pride. For a short time, you're no longer a tourist, you're a valued customer.

The fish looked amazing at the markets but it also looked like no fish we'd seen at a store before. Next trip we'll have a go with sea creatures.

We didn't pack much for cooking. Once we hit the road in the car, we carried a small bottle of olive oil, some hard cheeses, a couple heads of garlic, a bag of dried pasta and some spice mixes we picked up in Erice. We'd pick up fruit, vegetables, wine, bread and meat along the way.  This saved our lives on Stromboli when we were dropped at our apartment it seemed like we had been driven miles away from town. It was dark and we couldn't see where to go but we had enough food and wine with us to dine in fine style. It wasn't until we went to bed and I heard music in the air that I realized why our driver was pointing uphill and what he was saying. He was telling us that the best restaurant on the island with live music and beautiful views of the sea was 100 yards uphill from our apartment. Memo to myself - hit the Italian tapes sooner next time.


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