In the evening courtyards of a beautiful city in Sicily, I surrendered my appetite. I discovered the crush of a ripe tomato, and I did so with my fingers before my tongue. I’m sure I was not the first to pick up the secrets of Syracuse tomato sauce in the dark. When I finally licked my lips of tomato and wine, it was like kissing the hand of everyone at the table.
In Italy, the tomato sauces that delicately laced each strand of pasta or were brushed, cold, onto bread beneath the salt and heat of prosciutto, were brighter than what I knew. They tasted sour and sweet, the earthiness less of the grease-wet cardboard box a pizza absorbed, but like a tomato fresh from an herb garden, still a little dirty. The sauce held aroma like the underworld funk of a mushroom, the brackish burst of an olive, the fragrant basil and oregano.
In a thin layer, I could taste sauce on its own, much like the Italian white wines I was growing so fond of. Earlier, in the South of France, I had begun a writing project—but it was impossible in such a village not to write about food. So in it crept, and when my residency was over I found myself on a train to Italy, notebook still in hand, with a story to write and an eager palate.
In Milan, I only ate out or cooked (meagrely) for myself. I’d been in a village of less than eighty people for over two months, so readjusting to the big city was something I was pleased to do in a place that served salted anchovies with Campari or Aperol for primo, your ‘first meal,’ followed by risotto with truffles or seafood, all for the low standard price of local street fare. It was when I arrived in Sicily, weatherworn from the nine hour boat trip on an outdoor deck, that I adapted to dining off of the mainland, and the best way to experience it—as with most places—was to befriend a local.
In Syracuse, tomatoes are treated the way one might seduce a beautiful woman—with plenty of foreplay. The man across from me, defiling a wedge of tomato using his thumbs, was called Rafik and owned a store close to the room I was renting from a Sicilian family. Often, they fed me, but not wanting to disturb the matriarch at so late an hour, I’d stopped into the store to buy bread, oil, and wine. Rafik approached and offered me a drink in French, and though my eye was still on the chilled bottle of bianco in the fridge at the back of the shop, my mouth said: “D’accord, une bière.” or ‘All right, one beer.’
He poured from the tap behind the counter and scoffed when I pulled out my wallet, still rattling off French that I struggled to keep up with. Loosely, he said: “Did you come to me and ask me for a beer? No. I asked you if you would like a beer. I saw another French person and I thought I would do something good.”
I smiled and thanked him, though I wished he hadn’t bought it. I knew I’d be expected, now, to sit at the counter and drink it with him. He pulled a glass of Prosecco from beneath the bar and tapped my glass with it; I met his eye instinctively. “I’m actually not French,” I said in French.
“Yes, you speak with an accent.” He said in perfect English. It was the polite way of recognizing that my French was slow and stunted, picked up lazily in a village that had little contact with the rest of France. “You’re from the UK?”
I shook my head. “I live in Canada. But I’ve been in France for a little while.”
“You’re in luck. I speak four languages. I’m from Tunisia.”
He poured himself more Prosecco. I was beginning to feel stupid for considering that he had offered me the beer to come on to me; he had just recognized a foreign face and offered his friendship. Still, when he asked me to dance with his friends from the shop after they closed, I lied and said I was meeting friends of my own.
“I thought you might be alone.” He was correct. “You’re welcome to come back with your friends. I’ll be here tomorrow.”
I was, of course, hesitant to return. I’d mentioned Rafik in passing to my host, and she gasped as though I’d slapped her. She waved her spoon.
“No boys! I don’t know this ‘Rafik’!” she said his name as though it were the most preposterous of pseudonyms. “No boys here!”
Her daughter, Giovanna, spoke excellent English. I was sipping Campari and eating chocolate covered espresso on the terrace when she came up to me, mixing an aperitif though she was only fifteen.
“Rafik is cool,” she said. Apparently she knew him. I think she’d picked up ‘cool’ as English slang in the time I’d been there, along with ‘bumming’ a cigarette; delightful and charming. “I can come with you if you like.”
Since Giovanna knew the group from Rafik’s shop, we returned that night. I didn’t know what to expect, but since he had mentioned dancing the night before, I wore a feather-light slip dress that wouldn’t weigh me down at any bar or club. When Giovanna walked into the store before me, everyone kissed her cheeks, and I relaxed. Rafik tidied the bar and locked the door.
From what I could tell, only Rafik and a man named Aldo actually worked at the store, but I’d never seen the stools unoccupied by the same trio of customers, the best of whom was Alessandra, introduced by Giovanna as her best friend. Alessandra wore a dress similar to mine, tightly gripped one of my hands and one of Giovanna’s, and led the parade of us out to the alley, down about a block, and into a courtyard bordered by four apartment buildings. The grassy square in the centre was crowded with bright streetlights and five or six huge jasmine trees. Stools were set up on the cobblestones, still under the massive, fragrant branches, around a stone oven and a stack of firewood. It was hot and the air was heavy, so I couldn’t imagine a fire.
We sat in a semicircle, a bucket at each of our feet. I hadn’t asked any questions yet. Giovanna was laughing and drinking a bottle of beer she’d pinched from the store as we left, but I still felt more comfortable with her there. I was next to Alessandra. Across from me, Rafik told me he was happy I was with them, in French at first, out of a newly formed habit I doubted would fade. Then, “Are you hungry?” in English.
Someone’s grandmother emerged from the closest apartment building, the yellow one, with a bag of tomatoes. No—a sack of tomatoes. It was almost as big as her. Aldo rushed to take the heavy bag, and a couple of kids came out of the building with more sacks. Rafik picked up a tomato, turned it over in his hands, and cut it in half from top to bottom, stem to root, knuckle to thumb. It bled.
“Pomodoro,” he said as tomatoes changed hands, passed around the semi-circle, and were gutted over the buckets. Italian for tomato, so I’m sure he’d said it for my benefit. Someone gave me a knife, and I sliced my tomato, exposing its insides. Its smell was somehow quenching.
“Look, it’s like yours,” Alessandra giggled slyly, gesturing between my legs. At first I thought she was referring to mine in particular, so I tugged my dress self-consciously lower, but I realized then that it was the most polite English term she could muster. I examined the vulva of it—the way I’d split it, with the darker, wet seeds lying on either side of the pink core, it did evoke the image of inflamed sex, the splay of a woman who had spread her legs. Rafik was digging around the little green stem at the top, ripening it to the same dark red as its surroundings. He flicked a bit of juice off his hand and into the bucket.
“For this, we don’t use knives,” he explained without looking up. “They brutalize the fruit.” I’d learned of this concept during my time in France, where a salad consisted of whole lettuce and endive leaves placed around your plate in a fan. Florian, a fellow writer, had been discussing peculiar French eating habits at a restaurant as I cut leaves of endive into more mouth sized pieces. My serrated motions wouldn’t fly in Paris. “In France,” he said, “the leaves are just as delicate as the flower. Like this:” he demonstrated the proper reduction of a leaf with the flat of his knife and greased tines of his fork, folding it gently over four times into a bite that hadn’t even creased or cracked at the folds. “If there’s enough oil, the first time it breaks is in your mouth.”
I copied Alessandra, annihilating any green or white parts of the tomato, digging my fingers into each half in a way that seemed obscene. I almost felt shy rubbing the flesh free of the skin in front of the men. Giovanna had already eviscerated three tomatoes, sucking the skins dry with relish, tossing them onto the grass behind her. They were beginning to attract gulls.
“So this is for supper,” Alessandra finally explained. “For sauce. We want the seeds—they are bitter, but in Italy we like this.” I examined the mess in my bucket so far. Tiny, golden pearls of seeds peeked out of the frothy pulp of tomato flesh, and even though the sun had long set, they sparkled. “The skin?” she scrunched her nose up, tossing the thin shell of a tomato over her shoulder the way Giovanna had. “We don’t want this. For soup, yes. Not for sauce.”
I think the total number of tomatoes used for the sauce was close to one hundred and thirty five. I think so because I’d had fifteen tomatoes, and there were nine of us. Others could have been faster, done more. I don’t know.
We each had a bucket of pulp to present the grandmother inside. She’d been liquifying whole bulbs of garlic and small onions that looked like shallots in hot olive oil since we’d arrived. She kissed us each as we brought our buckets in, and I thanked her awkwardly, either for the kiss or for cooking. She said “Prego” seven times, flapping her hands at me as though it were nothing. It was a pot that took up the centre burner of the gas stovetop, as well as a corner of each surrounding four. Alessandra translated while the grandmother patted my cheek, reaching skyward to do so. “You must be Italian,” she clucked. “Such a nice girl.”
“So,” Alessandra was explaining while Giovanna helped the grandmother—whom I’d now been instructed to call nonna—chop basil and anchovies so fine that the paste of it dyed her fingers. “She starts with the garlic, that’s molto importante. As much as you can get your hands on.”
I somehow had a Campari again, and I realized that Rafik had slipped back into his bartender role. I felt guilty, like I should be making my own drinks. But I realized we had all come up with little reasons to be in the kitchen, despite the heat—to inhale the toasted scent of garlic, or raw tomato, or distribute the cold drinks everyone was beginning to press to the backs of their necks, or just be around nonna, who was humming a low-pitch, croaky version of Madame Butterfly. In my case, I stuffed myself into a corner with spice shelves, hanging herbs and coils of cured meats, and drank as unobtrusively as possible as the Sicilians taught me eagerly about the pride of the island, which was, apparently, nonna’s sauce.
“Now, the tomatoes should be the colour of blood.” I peeked into the pot, which was easy because nonna was about five feet tall. They had reduced drastically and darkened a bit as they cooked, become rusty. She uncorked half a bottle of Chianti and dumped the whole thing in, somehow turning the flame to a low blue while stirring constantly, as though she had three hands. The wine hissed, the berry and olive smell of it burning off in a steam that made everyone’s eyes water. “This stops the cooking.” Alessandra coughed. As the alcohol deglazed the bottom of the pot, nonna dove in and began picking little black bits of tomato out of the simmering sauce with her fingers. Like those who walk on coal, she didn’t feel its heat.
“The pasta is cooked in water that tastes like the sea.” Nonna added generous spoonfuls of salty pasta-water to the sauce and al-dente bucatini to help bind it. I thought to myself, This pot could feed twenty people, and then at least ten more people emerged from the surrounding apartments so that there were twenty of us to be fed.
Outside, there was a long wooden picnic table that I’d missed on first glance because it was dark and it was on the other side of the trees. Someone had lit candles, and the sauce was a masterpiece. “Made with love,” Alessandra said. I cringed, blushing at the memory of my fingers plunging into the softest part of the tomato. But perhaps I’m too prudish.
Rafik’s family were among those who had joined from the other apartments, and they’d brought with them a couple bottles of wine and some plates of complementary dishes. Geographically, Sicily is a stunningly short distance from Africa, and the Tunisian family added a blend of spices to their courgette fritters that tasted like hot red peppers, saffron, smoke, and salt. I used my fork to swirl one around my empty plate, scooping up leftover tomato sauce from the pasta. When Giovanna and I finally left, in the hours closer to dawn than to midnight, we were full, drunk, and electrified.
“Okay, so you fuck the tomatoes?”
I was trying to relay my experience to my sister, Lara, over the phone. I laughed harshly. She was a better cook than I, and I made her promise to help me recreate nonna’s sauce at home. We’d steam up an icy winter that the Sicilians would never see. But I knew that some senses aren’t replicable, and that the little explosions of bucatini we’d eaten weren’t characterized by a secret spice, or the unique tang of an Italian tomato fresh off the plant, though of course none of that hurt. That midnight supper would be forever cast in the amber of a hot August night in Syracuse. When I thumb the silk of a halved tomato, and my hands sting with its acid, I can smell summer on them, and I remember what a chef friend of mine said to me over a bonfire and a bitter sip of fernet. “Taste is the only sense that stimulates your entire body. You might think touch, but touch stays on the outside. Hunger carries us through the day.”
A Note on the Invisible and Visible
What struck me while considering invisibility was the effort and practice we devote to disappearing. I was fortunate to travel to Europe this summer to work on some projects at a writing residency. I am someone who can feel so physically huge when travelling, with my backpack and suitcase and height. So ostentatious when alone. So it came as a surprise to me to slip into the cracks of southern France and disappear.
Food, drinks, even books became purely experiencial with only strangers to watch me consume them. My appetite resting right on the surface, my every whim instinctive. It was what might have felt like loneliness if it belonged only to me, but in every city I could recognize others so far from home and unobserved.
There were things I kept as secrets: the rasp in my throat as I realized I hadn’t spoken all day; the jolt of the spine when I heard my own name on another tongue for the first time in weeks; the late night radio that spoke directly into my ear.
And when I reappeared, it was a slow realization. In the French village I settled in, I noticed the ways in which I was seen again. Another resident asked me, in English, what I was reading. A dim message on my computer screen from home read goodnight as I rose in the morning. We cooked and ate in larger and larger groups; someone offered me the first beer I’d tasted in weeks, someone else shared a recipe for bruschetta.
As far as we may travel, it’s not easy to disappear on purpose. But visibility, as it turns out, is a beautiful accident.