Food is a large part of any travel experience. Experiencing the food of a culture is an important step in getting to know the people of that culture. Of course, trying new things isn’t ALWAYS a pleasant experience, which is exactly why we do it…to find out. In 2005, my second season in Sardinia, I had one of these ‘not-so-pleasant’ tasting experiences. It came at the hands of PierFranco, who you will remember from my ‘arrival in Italy’ story and, thankfully, with my ‘at this point very new’ friend Streets at my side.
PierFranco is the brother of Totoni-the President of Nuoro Softball-but is one of the few who has defected from the island to mainland Italy. During the summer of 2005, PierFranco came to Sardinia for a visit. I was thrilled to see him, as he had been something of a savior to me the summer before and we had, somehow through the pieces of words that we spoke in each other’s language, formed a friendship.
One afternoon PierFranco invited a couple of my teammates and I for a drink in town. A year after meeting PierFranco for the first time, my italian had improved, but was far from fluent. Streets had just arrived in Italy a few months before so her italian vocabulary was somewhere around 20 words at this point. We walked through Nuoro, past the places we knew well without stopping, and came to a tiny bar, which may be better described as a room, down a small street that we had never known existed before. I should explain 2 things about Nuoro at this point. First, it is a tiny place. The fact that we had never been to this bar or even down this street in the months we had been there is extraordinary. Second, nothing ever happens here. Nuoro’s ‘boring factor’ is off the charts, and while the downside of that is obvious, the upside is that being in a strange bar full of men, down a small alley I had never seen before, with a man I barely knew who didn’t speak my language was surprisingly not a scary situation. In fact, it was quite the opposite. From a traveler’s perspective, this bar was the ultimate find. The ‘white whale’ of adventurers: The ‘hole-in-the-wall local bar’. And we hadn’t just stumbled upon it. No, we had been brought there BY A LOCAL! In that moment we crossed over. We were no longer tourists, no longer just visitors to the island. As we entered this bar (it had no sign, of course. If it has a name, it is most likely simply the last name of the family that owns it and neither they nor their customers, who are mostly family friends, have any need for a sign) and were introduced to the inhabitants-who smiled at us, that is important-we became locals too.
I don’t remember the names, mostly because I could barely understand them even then, but I remember a round bald man with a big, friendly smile that seemed to be in charge and a smaller, darker skinned man who wore a hat and resembled Carlos Santana. Somebody poured some beers and we sat around the white plastic tables and drank them while the Italian men talked and laughed and attempted to engage us in conversation. We mostly smiled, laughed and nodded, pretending to keep up and find everything as hysterical as they did. By the bottom of our third beer glass we were all close friends and we had been invited back for dinner. They said they close the place to the public (public?) and set up a big table right there in the bar and they’d have a great meal and we should absolutely come back. Obviously, we accepted.
When Streets and I arrived back at the bar a few hours later, it was exactly as had been described. They had combined all of the plastic tables to form one large dinner table that ran the length of the bar. This, of course had been covered with a sheet of white paper deemed a tablecloth. We were beyond excited. What a cool travel experience! Accepted by the locals; invited to dinner; forming friendships that transcend language! This is what it’s all about! Right? All of this is enough to be excited about in any country, but being invited to dinner in Italy-where are you going to eat better in this world?
As the platters arrived and were set on the table, our excitement quickly turned to confusion and then to dread. There were no heaping piles of spaghetti coated olive oil and beautiful sun-ripened tomatoes. No sliced prosciutto lying next to creamy mozzarella or wrapped around juicy cantaloupe. No, no. What we saw on these platters was something like a grey pork stew. There was a lot of meat, different cuts of pork, and it appeared to have been cooked in this grey juice. Of course the question will arise, ‘What made it grey?’ and the answer, ‘I have absolutely no idea’, is what turned an amazing local travel experience into a terrifying challenge fit for Fear Factor. Well, that and the actual recognizable baby pig featured in the center of the platter.
I was overwhelmed. I was horrified. I was trying desperately not to make the ‘gross face’ and offend my hosts. Before I had time to react, I had been served a plate (a plastic plate) of…dinner. I tried it, of course I did. And it tasted…100% as awful as it looked. I glanced at Streets and saw that she looked exactly like I felt. I managed a few bites in my attempt not to be rude. Then, one of the guys across the table from me reached toward me with a spoon full of something. He was motioning at me to eat it. He was smiling, very proud to offer this delicacy to the American who had never eaten real Sardinian food. I knew I could not resist without deeply offending him. So, I opened my mouth and let him feed me from across the table. In a situation that was already bad, this new development made things much worse. My first few bites had had a sort of chalky texture. This new arrival was a mix of chalky and mushy, and tasted nothing short of horrible. I felt briefly like I could vomit.
Apparently, I wasn’t doing a good job this time of hiding my ‘gross face’, but the man who had done this to me seemed anything but offended; he was smiling. In fact, he was on the verge of laughing at me as he pointed at his own head and repeated an Italian word a few times. I had no idea what he was getting at; I was consumed with the decision to spit or swallow.
When, still laughing, he pointed to the baby pig on the platter everything came together for me. The word that he kept repeating, which I had been fighting to remember from high school Italian class, came crashing through my consciousness as he pointed from his head to the baby pig and then back and continued to laugh. ‘Cervello, cervello, hahaha!’ I had just been spoon-fed brains, directly from the skull of a baby pig.
This experience certainly didn’t kill me, but I’m not sure it made me all that much stronger, either. What it did do was keep me from ever returning to our ‘locals bar’ anywhere close to a meal time.