I am an adventurous eater. I love food, and I love new, exciting foods. When my dad would bring home cuts of exotic meats from his friends’ hunting trips out west, I was always eager to have a taste of things like elk or bear.
Like Ted Nugent, I love vegetarians: they’re all I eat. But even more than meats, I love seafood. My favorite time of year as a child were trips to the beach where I’d eat fresh scallops and shrimp. Even better than that were trips to visit my dad’s family in Delaware and Maryland, especially if blue crabs were in season.
So when I have traveled outside of the United States, I’ve opted for interesting seafood dishes.
Now, as a classically trained singer, I have had the opportunity to travel across the world to study and to sing. I’ve also had the opportunity to learn various languages, especially those that operas are commonly sung in (Italian, French, German, Spanish, some Russian).
It’s nearly impossible to really learn to communicate well without spending some time in the country of origin. Which, of course offers great opportunity for eating.
I’ve now been to Italy three times, to learn more about culture and about singing. The last time I was there, I had the opportunity to sing the role of Musetta in La Boheme on an island off the coast of Naples called Ischia. I swam in the Mediterranean every day, lived in an apartment surrounded by a lemon grove, sang a major role in an opera, and ate fresh seafood constantly.
I know, my life seems rough, right?
Now, by this point I’ve studied Italian in class, and been to Italy and been able to practice the language a few times with native speakers. I should be fine to order food, correct?
Well, yes and no. The food vocabulary one learns at first is comprised of simple things, like peach, chicken, or sauce. I know the word for fish (pesce), but I don’t know all the types of fish. And even if I did know the translation, I’d probably never have heard of that type of fish before, having lived most of my life in landlocked regions of America, nowhere near the Mediterranean.
I was on a limited budget, and ate out rarely. It was easier to buy seafood from one of the numerous fish markets on the island, take it to my apartment, and cook it. I could see what I was getting, and, when language failed, could point and grunt at whatever looked best in the glass case.
On the three occasions where I splurged on nice meals in restaurants (the errant pizza late after rehearsals doesn’t count) I had adventures beyond my wildest food dreams.
With most of the people from my program, I ate at the only local restaurant open on Sunday for lunch one day. I ordered the special, which was a sautéed fish I’d never heard of. Like most Americans, I expect my fish dish to come out with a fillet, and a side of some vegetables or something. Wrong.
What came out was a fish.
A fish. On a plate. Some foodies would say, that’s really the only way to serve fish. Reminder: I grew up in a landlocked mountainous region in Pennsylvania. This was terrifying beyond reason. I didn’t even know how to eat it.
Of course I tried it. How could I not? From an early age, I was told to at least try everything on my plate, and in later childhood, was coerced into eating things on my plate with the “a Girl Scout always tries new foods.” I’m not sure where my parents got this idea, but it was highly effective. Dishes (like pigs in a blanket) that looked revolting were suddenly at least mildly appealing because I was being true to my Girl Scout heritage. Apparently.
What I tasted was the flakiest, lemoniest, most delicious fish I’d ever had. I ate until I thought I’d burst. And then ate some more, because that’s just what I do. Sure, I was a little creeped out that it had eyes, which appeared to be looking at me, but I just covered those up with a sliced lemon like one of those eyeshades you get on an international flight, and went on my merry way.
A whole fish isn’t so bad, you might be thinking. But apparently “whole foods” are a theme for me.
The next restaurant I ate in, I went alone. I’d been to the only bookstore that carried English books, haranguing the proprietor about whether the final Harry Potter book was in yet. “Ha Harry Potter?” I’d ask, hopeful.
“No. Domani possibbile,” and he’d wave me out of the tiny cubicle of a store. This was day three of my stalking the man, who, when the ONLY copy came in, sold the book to someone who came to the store earlier than me that day. Harumph.
So I’m not happy, and decide to fill the void with a nice lunch. There’s a cute little restaurant I’d heard was good from others in my cast, with a few outdoor tables. I sat down, and ordered another special. It was “calamari con…” After the “con” (which means “with”) was a long description. I recognized none of the words, but assumed (falsely) that it meant lots of side things.
So I order it.
The waiter, with great flare, presented me with: a squid on a plate.
A SQUID. ON A PLATE.
SQUID. ON PLATE. WITH EYES LOOKING AT ME.
I don’t know what my face looked like at this point, but it did prompt the waiter to ask, “E bene?” (is good?)
“Si!” I enthusiastically replied, because I’m never willing to send a meal back to a kitchen. Some combination of embarrassment and fear (likely from watching movies like Fight Club which make me always want to treat food service workers with kindness and respect) keeps me from sending even cold food or poorly cooked steaks back.
He leaves me alone with the squid.
I look at it, and gird myself, picking up the fork and knife. I sliced a piece of tentacle arm off, and, with the squid looking at me, with the vacant doll eyes of the shark in Jaws, I take a bite.
A bite of the MOST AMAZING buttery chewy seafoody goodness I’ve ever had. Seriously, it was an explosion of delicious in my mouth.
As I’m sighing with pleasure over this first bite, some friends from the program see me, wave, and come over, stopping short when they see the squid (or the squid saw them?) on the plate.
“What the hell are you eating?”
Faces of disgust.
Like they couldn’t see it, looking at them, with its eight tentacle arms spread across the plate in beautiful array.
I put my fork down.
“Most delicious thing I’ve had here.”
“Oh. Well, enjoy your…squid.”
And they leave.
I ate the whole thing. Ink sac and all.
When the waiter brought my check and took away the plate, he seemed pleased. I gave him my compliments to pass on to the chef and left.
This was my second to last day on the island, having finished my final performance the night before, and I assumed this was my last food adventure for the trip.
But I was wrong.
I’d come to Ischia with a friend from school. She and I decided while making our plans to see some of the things in Italy (like the Vatican, Rome, and Pompeii) that we may never have the chance to visit again. We’d purposely planned for an extra few days before heading back to the states after the operas ended to sightsee and vacation. We spent two nights in Positano, a delightful little town on the Amalfi Coast.
After being on an island that was visited by few Americans—there were more Europeans who came there on vacation—Positano was a bustle of America. Note: I was able to get the 7th Harry Potter there—their English bookstore had stacks and stacks for the American and British tourists who couldn’t wait.
My friend and I, Harry Potters in hand, went to the beach and sat under umbrellas and read. My idea of a perfect vacation, by the way.
About lunchtime, we headed to a cantina for some pizza. She had lots of stomach problems, which made adventurous eating pretty much out of the question throughout the whole trip, and got pizza margherita, which just had cheese.
I, of course, being me, order the “pizza del mare.”
The pizza of the sea!
It had a variety of seafood from mussels to calamari. When I opened my box of pizza, there was the sea alright.
Little purple squids, also with little eyes, looking up at me in their sea of cheese. Mussels, still in their shells, with pools of butter forming over the pizza.
Why were the mussels still in their shells? That makes NO SENSE on a pizza.
My friend was revolted. “I can’t even watch you eat that.” She made me turn the other direction from her to eat my pizza, and she faced the opposite way from me.
I experienced what I can only term a “foodgasm.” Sorry if that’s crass, but hey, we’ve all tasted something that was so incredibly delicious that eating it is comparable only to our private bedroom lives.
Perfect dough, fresh cheese, homemade marinara, and seafood that had probably been harvested that morning. A PARTY OF FLAVOR IN MY MOUTH. Forget what it looked like, it was worth it.
I thought, when I returned home, how funny, my triptych of whole seafood bits on a plate. This could NEVER POSSIBLY HAPPEN AGAIN.
Because of a Frank Sinatra song, and because of a short flight from Texas, my husband and I went to Acapulco, Mexico for our honeymoon.
Having never been to the world’s most popular spring break destination, we were inundated from the airport to the resort hotel and spa with BUY A TIMESHARE! FREE BREAKFAST! BUY A TIMESHARE!
We were so tired by the time we got to the hotel, we accepted the free breakfast and timeshare meeting they’d scheduled the next morning.
I’m not one to pass up free breakfast, so we go. When the timeshare representative, who was American, saw that we were 1) an adjunct professor/bookstore employee and 2) an adjunct professor/ graduate student he close his timeshare book, and said, “In 15 years, when you can afford a timeshare, I’d love for you to come back to me. Hang onto my card. Now, here’s a list of the best restaurants in Acapulco. Enjoy the free breakfast.”
So, armed with an insider’s knowledge of the best places to eat in the city, we set out for some delicious cuisine throughout the trip. On our second day, we ventured out for seafood.
We sit down in the restaurant he said was the best place to have seafood, and while we’re waiting on our shark fin appetizer, we try to translate the all-Spanish menu.
Now, I’ve had five years of Spanish between junior high and high school, and I tested out of four semesters of Spanish from taking the Advanced Placement course. La-ti-da. At the time I sat in that restaurant, I hadn’t had Spanish for about nine years. And my travels to Italy, Austria, and Kenya, among other places, didn’t offer me much opportunity to use my Spanish.
The Español part of my brain had atrophied.
Still, there were some things I’d never forget, like “cerilla,” which means “ear wax.” This was one of the possible AP/Clep test words, and it’s burned in my brain, mocking me for sheer uselessness.
Despite my forgetfulness, and tendency to respond in Italian or German, I understood nearly everything people said to me.
So when I ordered the crab soup, and the waitress said, “it has a whole crab in it” (in Spanish, of course), I said it was fine. Of course I wanted an entire crab’s meat in my soup.
What I was not expecting, though my previous experiences should have told me otherwise:
How had I not learned my lesson? And more importantly, how the [expletive deleted] do you eat soup with crab legs sticking out of the bowl?
Lucky for me, I’d just married a man who still loved me after watching me drip crab soup all over my chin during a supposedly romantic dinner.
Later that night, I sat in the bathroom for half an hour (this happened to each of us on this trip at least once…keep that in mind if you are thinking of honeymooning in Mexico). I used this length of time to reflect on my adventurous food choices.
So worth it.
Even if coming out of the bathroom results in this face: