Finding My Inner Foodie In Sicily

Meg Nesterov

I really hate the F-word. I think it’s overused, lazy and borderline offensive. I’m talking about the word “foodie,” a concept we have rallied against here before, yet the movement seems to stay strong and keep evolving with the advent of the latest bacon Frankenstein dish or artisanal ketchup. I do love food, and sometimes a meal (or more often for me, a really good peach) can be transformative. My singular “fancy” New York dinner in over a dozen years in the city was a worthy splurge at Momofuku Ko, made all the more enjoyable as we dined in jeans, listening to the Violent Femmes. In my career in travel PR, I have had the luck to dine in some of the world’s best restaurants, multiple times, for free. While I loved trying pine needle risotto and lobster spring rolls, I hated the feeling of being fattened up for the slaughter, of having to pace myself through 15 courses, of feeling like a competitor in the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest and being expected to pay a day’s salary for the privilege.

While I can appreciate a lovingly prepared, picked-in-its-prime, artfully presented dish, sometimes I think food is just a means to an end, quick fuel to keep you going. I’ve eaten many a “dirty water” New York hot dog without giving it a thought, had microwave popcorn for dinner, and subsisted on beers and ham-and-cheese toasties on the road. I’m one of those people who “forgets” to eat, and especially now that I have a toddler at heel all the time, I often wish I could just take a pill to replace the tasks of cooking, eating, and cleaning up after. Preparing a multi-course meal on the scale of the average Japanese or Italian home cook is just not in my wheelhouse. Or could it be?

We recently took a two-week trip to Sicily, the last “big” trip we’ll take before my baby turns 2 next month and we have to start paying for her tickets. The highlight of the trip was a week spent in a rented farmhouse outside the town of Noto in the southeast. Set amidst lemon trees and a small river to wade in, the interior was especially the stuff of “Under the Tuscan Sun”-style fantasies: three bedrooms with beamed ceilings and iron beds, a cozy living room loaded with an international assortment of books and board games around a Moroccan-style fireplace, a bathroom with soaking tub (a rarity in Italy, where claustrophobic showers that flood the bathroom are the norm), and the pièce de résistance: a huge kitchen with a long dining table, large center island, and lots of light and space. The sort of kitchen you might imagine yourself in, barefoot in a fabulous sun dress, cold glass of wine in hand, chopping herbs just picked from the garden, while your beaming child munches on organic fruit and your relaxed husband takes a break from staring out into the valley to light the coals for your 5 euro steak filets. That pretty much sums up my week.

Cooking each night with the resources of Italian supermarkets, food specialty shops and green markets broadened my palate as well as my waistline. When artisanal, organic and locally made foods are the norm and not the exception, being a foodie becomes more human, less pretentious. I put my college minor in Italian to the test when going to the butcher, the baker and the gelato maker. In Sicily, it is socially acceptable to eat gelato for breakfast (sometimes on a slightly sweet brioche roll), but as the weather was starting to heat up and even the small town gelaterias had a wide range of flavors to sample, I thought it fair to eat twice a day. The highlights were milk & honey in Noto and a peach bourbon in Modica; there were no low points in the ice cream sampling. Adopting the local customs, we planned for a primo, a salad, and a main course each night. Sometimes we’d be too stuffed from a bruschetta-like salad and frozen pizza enlivened with spicy sausage, basil from our garden and roasted cherry tomatoes; we would have to forgo the herb-and-parmesan rubbed pork chops we grilled until the next night.

Did I mention I’m also not a tomato person? While I like a marinara sauce as much as the next gal, I never could handle the texture of a raw tomato: seedy, watery, anemic. A sun-dried tomato held some appeal, but I’d still eat dishes like bruschetta like a culinary Russian roulette: one bite delicious melted cheese, the next would be all slimy seeds and rough skin. Living in Turkey with amazing produce had warmed me to the idea of a raw tomato, but after nearly a year back in the U.S., I was back on strike. In Sicily, staying close to the town of Pachino, a tomato Mecca, I ate them like potato chips, even adding them to already tomato-heavy pasta dishes and pizzas. Who knew the wee cherry tomato could be so bursting with flavor, so devoid of seedy ickiness, so much like a fruit?

We’ve now been home in Brooklyn over a week and life is slowly returning to normal. The jet lag has abated enough that I can stay up later than 9 p.m. again, and the scale is less angry at me than when we first returned. I’ve been experimenting with how to use the pistachio pesto (add lots of garlic for pasta, spread extra on sandwiches) and pistachio cream (dip berries, or as the Internet wisely suggests, spoon directly into mouth) purchased in the markets, and am hoarding the sun-dried Pachino tomatoes for after summer. I’ve made bruschetta a few times, though the cost of decent tomatoes and fresh mozzarella in Brooklyn would make most Italians choke on their crostini. At least at home I could rediscover what’s great about not being in Italy: non-Italian food. Avocados returned to my salads, Chinese moo shoo pancakes were now available, and salmon roe was just a quick subway ride to Brighton Beach away. While I miss the twice-daily gelato fixes, Sicily taught me that enjoying food doesn’t have to be pretentious or expensive, and you can always follow your stomach to what’s most freshly available in your area, whether that’s spaghetti with fresh tuna and red pesto sauce or a perfectly done burger and fries. And sometimes, microwave popcorn makes a fine second course.