Finding My Inner Foodie In Sicily

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.

La Tomatina – The Lovely Tomato Festival

Each week, Gadling is taking a look at our favorite festivals around the world. From music festivals to cultural showcases to the just plain bizarre, we hope to inspire you to do some festival exploring of your own. Come back each Wednesday for our picks or find them all HERE.

By the look of its name, “La Tomatina” might make you think of the word tomato, or in Spanish, tomate. That’s because La Tomatina is currently the largest tomato throwing event (as well as the largest food fight) in the world. Each year on the last Wednesday of the month of August, the Spanish city of Bunol erupts with a riot of dancing, drinking, fireworks and plenty of messy tomato-throwing fun. The name Tomatina is the word tomate altered with the ending “–ina” added to it to mean lovely. So La Tomatina is the lovely tomato festival.

The origin of La Tomatina was during another Spanish festival, Gigantes y Cabezudos or Giants and Big Heads in October, 1944. In this festival, people dressed up with giant masks over their heads. A group of kids wanted to join in and entered the area with their masks on. One of the kids somehow tripped and fell over and landed near a street grocery. Thinking some of his friends tripped him, he started to throw tomatoes at them. This started a food fight and soon not only the kids who started the fight were throwing food but also people from the festival as well.

Even Bunol city officials were provoked into the fray. The store owner eventually called police and the people were forced to all pay the grocer for the food they had ruined. The next year, the kids and others returned with their own tomatoes and repeated the fight but instead three weeks before the Gigantes y Cabezudos festival. Every year the festival grew until the entire town was celebrating on the last Wednesday of each August each year.

Want to participate in this one-of-a-kind Spanish food fight? Keep reading below to learn more.

Over time, La Tomatina has grown to a fight of over 30,000 participants, but not without plenty of government interference. In 1950, the regime of Francisco Franco deemed the festival without cultural or social value and labeled it a violent display of public vandalism. But people still tried to keep the Tomatina alive. From 1950-1954, La Tomatina was attempted every year but the police always intervened and fights always ended before everyone had thrown all their tomatoes.

In 1955, the supporters of the Tomatina from Bunol flooded the streets of the city for the Burial of the Tomato or “El Entierro del Tomate.” The people protested the ban of their town festival, which in five years had become an established tradition. They marched down the streets with a giant tomato in a miniature coffin towards the plaza of Bunol where the festival had always begun. It was a real funeral for the Tomatina. Funeral rites and songs were performed. In 1957, the government relented, agreeing to allow the festival only if the Bunol city government supervised the planning and execution of the event. The tradition of La Tomatina was in place.

The first event of La Tomatina is removing a tethered ham from a lard greased wooden pole. It takes many attempts and more than one person to reach the ham. After the ham is freed, the start of the annual fight is signaled by firing water cannons. Bottles and other objects that could injure participants are prohibited in the fight. Trucks full of tomatoes then roll down the roads of Bunol. People ride in the back and shower the people on the streets with ripe tomatoes. People on the streets then hurl the tomatoes among themselves. The tomatoes must be squashed with the hand before throwing them. A rule that is official but hardly ever followed is that clothes cannot be ripped off opponents. Tomatoes and tomato pulp are flung around and the whole area near the Bunol plaza is dyed pink. The fight ends an hour after the first water cannons with another blast.

In 2002, La Tomatina of Bunol was classified as an International Tourist Festival. The event is currently organized every year by two participants of the original Tomatina. La Tomatina really is an expression of freedom and a protest against powers that seem out of common people’s control. Both the powers of the individual and the group importance are enumerated by the event. The greased pole is an obstacle that everyone must help each other to overcome so that the festival can begin. The ham represents the powers that be. It is impossible to climb the pole alone. After the ham is down everyone is free to do mostly what they want with the tomatoes. Every tomato represents a choice and the choice of a person influences how the individual progresses.

The whole event is a symbolic representation of how the collective people have more power than any man, whether king or peasant, and that one man can not fundamentally rise over another permanently. It is a festival that shows that even the most oppressive of governments can never have ultimate control over the hearts and souls of its citizens. La Tomatina is an act of defiance to the powerful because within the fray of the fight, every man is equal, and ultimately, only armed with a tomato.

Photo of the Day (6.01.08)

Local markets are an eternal source of curiosity for many travelers. Exotic smells, strange sounds and all sorts of unfamiliar produce make food markets around the world a must-see destination for the culinary-inclined. Markets are also great photo spots too, as Flickr user Theodore Scott illustrates in this shot from the Sacred Valley in Peru. The bright colors of the vegetables on the tarp along with the movement of the women as they hustle about certainly piqued my interest. Theodore, did you have a chance to try any of the tomatoes? I wonder if they were any good.

Taken any pictures of the market in Peru? Or maybe just at the farmer’s market in Pensacola? Upload it to the Gadling Pool on Flickr and we might just feature it as our Photo of the Day.

Spain’s Most Excellent Tomato Fight (This Month!)

There is no better festival on the entire face of this planet than La Tomatina.

Sure, that’s my own personal opinion, but until a pie throwing festival comes along, La Tomatina will continue to be numero uno in my book. Part of the reason I love it so much is because of the pure simplicity of the event:

1. Provide 110 tons of tomatoes to a drunken crowd
2. Sound a horn
3. Let them throw tomatoes at each other for an hour

Can life get any better than this? I think not.

Just click on the video above and I think you’ll agree with me. Or better yet, jump on a plane and head on over to Buñol, Spain. This year’s tomato throwing festival occurs on August 29; you’ve still plenty of time to make it!