We live along the Mediterranean coast, so we consume a healthy Mediterranean diet, of course.   Well yes and no.  Visitors imagine the locals consuming a healthy diet of leafy greens, legumes, crusty bread and fresh fruits ripe and locally-grown.   This is all true, and yet there is another reality as well.

I have never seen people eat so  much meat!   Breakfast is the only meal that excludes it, so bacon and sausage are not acceptable choices for most in the morning.   Breakfast consists either of a coffee and nothing else, or some refined flour and sugar confection, usually industrially-produced.    Might as well eat nothing, I say.     (Yes, I know Italian coffee and pastry bars are the best in the world, but only the most un-thrifty types head there for breakfast every day.)     But then there is lunch, and there is dinner.    Plenty of animal offerings, red meat mostly.   A man will eat fish, but chicken is considered  a demeaning choice, a feminine choice!…for real men.     And cured meats never are far from any respectable table.    You will be offered sliced cold cuts and cheese for the antipasto, meat sauce on pasta, mixed grilled meats, roasted haunches of meat, meat stuffed with more meat and cheese for a main course.      Not surprisingly, Bernalda, which squeaks over the line with twelve thousand inhabitants, is rife with butcher shops:  there are at least fifteen boutique-type shops,  plus numerous supermarkets with their own butchers.

There are three butcher shops in Bernalda specializing—to the exclusion of everything else—in horse meat.    You can pick your cuts and they will cook them for you right there.    My sons are not unusual in their love of horse meat,  which is considered a more robust and nutrient-packed alternative to beef and pork.    Pregnant women and wimpified men, as well as sickly children, are encouraged to partake.    Young men and boys here have the regular pastime of getting together and going out for a huge meal of freshly-prepared carne equina, which they swear is more flavorful than any other meat.    My husband and I will not eat horse meat, but of course any explanation from people who freely partake of chicken,  pig,  and cow slices would be hypocritical.    It just feels wrong.     One visit to Calabria has provided me the stuff of nightmares.    I saw butcher shops with the heads of cows and horses hung up high in doorways so as to stare out at the sidewalk.    Their sad eyes looked out from behind those multi-string fly barriers which adorn every doorway,   a mute rebuke to every carnivore passing by.

Even these familiar animals can offer some daunting cuts for the table.    A very popular dish for festive occasions are the involtini  (wraps)  of organ meats, called niummurriedd.    These can be tiny and charcoal-grilled, or very large and slow-roasted in the oven.     The large wrapped meat roll–“u marro“— that my mother-in-law used to cook was absolutely excellent.    They are made of heart, lung, liver, and more, and wrapped in lengthy pieces of sheep gut.    They require hours of preparation time and are considered a great delicacy when made correctly.     Folks say the best ones are those which aren’t exactly scrupulously free of,  well,   extraneous matter.    Not recommended for the cholesterol-challenged.

“Homeopathic Diet”   oil on canvas, 2006

I have been offered tiny birds,  arranged on a plate with their startled eyes staring up as if to say,  “I was swatted out of the sky for this?”    Snails are popular,  not large ones served with garlic butter sauce, but tiny little gritty ones.   They are called “lumache” in Italian,  but here they are known as “varvaliesc.”    They are a very popular choice during the Spring,  and folks can be seen alongside the roads with plastic bags collecting them on any humid morning.    One unfortunate dining convocation had me refusing the main dish,  a large stewpot full of boiled chicken feet.   You should know that boiling them plumps them up and removes most traces of color,  but not the toenails.    The sounds produced by a table full of folks enjoying boiled chicken feet is similar to the sounds produced by people eating small garden snails in tomato sauce;   musical sucking sounds punctuated by loud staccato slurping.    I cannot deny that to a blind guest it might seem quite appetizing.

I have been served fox, without knowing it at the time.    A fox is close enough to a dog to be,   well,  dog.   Rabbits are popular,  and my first neighbor across the gorge had a large corral of them.    I always knew when the family was having rabbit for dinner,  because the accoustics were such that I could hear the screams the poor animals made.    There are wild hares,  and pheasants,  most of which have been added by the hunting associations for sport.    Often in their dazed confusion, freshly released from a crate into an unknown territory,  they are hit by cars.   My son’s friends have been known to improvise a barbeque if the victim was fresh enough.    Just the day before yesterday a boar ended up in the stew pot after being hit by a distracted driver.    They say that Italians have perfected the art of making do,   and this is prime evidence of the truth of that!    I once gave my husband a T-shirt with a Road Kill menu on it,   very amusing to some,   but not to all.

Years ago I participated in the making of sausage,   just pork mind you,   and I suppose I made enough snide comments during the session that the women never invited me back.    I will admit I am not sorry.   Making sausage is,  after all,  a lot like politics.    Another pork-related dish is sanguinaccio :   If you are served a dense chocolate pudding after the meal,  you might want to ask what it is called before you eat it.    It is just what it seems,  a chocolate pudding,  made however with a large percentage of fresh pig blood.    To my mind, one could leave out this ingredient and have a wonderful dessert.   With it, not so much.

It should also be said that people here are equally disgusted by  things like  peanut butter, fried rattlesnake  (this one never fails to earn me stares of disbelief),  root beer,  bottled salad dressing,  Spam, and Velveeta.  On the other hand, things do change rapidly in our traveling world.  My husband loves Pizza Hut pizza over the original Italian kind, and imported Budweiser beer,  pancakes and nachos  are all the rage here this year!  Do they sell chocolate Cornflakes in the U.S.  yet?  Go figure.

Of course the typical Mediterranean fare is available as well,   but I will leave that for other posts. Enough has not yet been said about the quality and variety of Italian cooking.    There are so many wonderful concoctions of beans, greens,  vegetable stews,   grains and fresh flavorful fruits,  that becoming a vegetarian would be an easy step to take.   We are almost there,  in terms of quantity, but we do like a little added flavor in the form of animal flesh once in a while.    But some will consider us cowards when it comes to adventurous preparation of animal parts. We keep to our safe ground,   or sliced, and above all,  recognizable,  culinary path.

“At Pasture”  oil on board, 2011


11 thoughts on “Meat

  1. I will always remember the involtini from the meat capital of the world! Except for it’s name: What was the name of that town with the restaurant down the street from the butcher-shop, where they served the vino nero with the celery in it?

    1. I am pretty sure it was Altamura, which is just north of Matera. But them again, Locorotondo (Puglia) looked very familiar the last time I was there….You would have to ask Joe! Although he might not remember……..(Trivia about Altamura: They are exporting their bread now in many parts of Europe, if you can believe it. My friend Berardino and his family were in a filming of the Cake Boss there, he is the big guy’s cousin. Small world! )

      1. That is believable. We have Iggy’s and they make a bread called “Francese” which is really good and not as good as those loaves we would get at the salumeria in Metaponto Lido, but it IS good! I need to look up “Cake Boss,” eh?

        Now that you say it was probably Altamura for “meat capital”, I can hear Joe saying “Altamura,” in his distinctively JCC il terzo Italian accent!

  2. My mother-in-law’s family came from Cersosimo, a small farming town in Potenza. Her mother had a small handwritten notebook with some recipes in Italian and since she knew I had such an infatuation with Italy, she gave it to me. I used an Italian dictionary to try to interpret them and imagine my horror when I translated the very first recipe ….. Sanguinaccio. My husband has vague memories of his nonni making this when he was a child though he said he couldn’t bring himself to eat any of it. My husband absolutely LOVES sopressata. We went to the “Little Italy” in the Bronx, NY and we opened the door to the Calabria Pork Store and they had dried sausage hanging from the ceiling and lots of cheese. I couldn’t stand the smell, but my husband was in heaven! He gnawed on the dried sausage and one of the links was completely gone before it made it to our car.

    1. That is so funny. That hard sausage really has a distinctive odor which can be overwhelming when there is a lot of it in the room! Some of my friends try to cure their homemade sausages in their closets (very small apartment) and end up with dogs following them around when they wear the clothes. The ladies that I made it with were really offended by my comments about how disgusting it was, I guess I understand that now.
      I know Cersosimo somewhat, another really nice (unless you live there, as is often the case) hill town to be discovered. All the hilltowns are interesting in my opinion!

  3. I am thrilled to have found your blog since there is so very little written in the English language about life in Basilicata. I hope you continue writing about this place and its people for many years to come. And your art is absolutely wonderful and entertaining.

    This story put perspective on an old Santoliquido family tale about my great aunt Chelsea and her husband John Dente. It seems that Mr. Dente was fairly affluent, having emigrated to Boston from Forenza and establishing himself in a profitable business, but he was also said to be a miserly soul. Anyway, the current generation – me included – was amazed and horrified to learn that he frequently came home from the butcher shop with chicken feet (and heads) to be made into soup by my great aunt. You have put this into an entirely new context for me! I now realize that Mr. Dente was simply enjoying a traditional Lucanian delight (although I still wonder if he was overly frugal). I would not have ever known this without reading this particular blog entry of yours. Grazie di esistere!

  4. Isn’t it interesting that as people move away from their humble origins, they begin to shun the very foods and traditions that kept them alive and well originally? And it is even more interesting that folks are beginning to move back towards their old traditions, such as eating whole grains, eggs, other things that we had identified as being “bad” and a sign of “eating like a poor person.” I am a ways away from eating chicken feet, however, but I can’t think of anything better than a pot of beans!

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