This piece originally appeared in Gastronomica, was reprinted in the Best Food Writing 2006 anthology (Avalon Publishing Group), and is excerpted from my book, BAROLO (University of Nebraska Press, 2010)

Fingernails stained purple, I walk the quiet, cobblestoned streets of Barolo, Italy. It is early evening. My day has been spent harvesting the Nebbiolo grape crop for Luciano and Luca Sandrone, brothers whose distinctive features – one’s red suspenders and the other’s bald head – will certainly plague my dreams. I’ve been working in the vineyard for a month as a way to stay in Italy, as a way to be less of a tourist. At the moment, I’m a little stunned by the day’s heat and hard physical labor. Stunned, relaxed, and suddenly very hungry.

I step toward the counter, the butcher hidden from view in the back room behind the meat case. I hear the sound of a handsaw. I look to the walls, mostly blank, save for a poster of a bikini-clad woman holding a porterhouse in the air. The poster is signed in silver ink by “Valentina,” and addressed to “Franco.” Next to Valentina, encased in a black frame, is a picture of Barolo’s castle with a man-shaped shadow clinging to its east wall. I step closer and see that the man, like a comic-book superhero, is adhered to the ancient orange stone at least fifty feet off the ground. The man is facing the camera, sun in his eyes. His head is enormous, too big for his body, as if he’s been pieced together by Barolo’s resident mad scientist. A thick black moustache, curving over the sides of his mouth, is spread nearly horizontal in the force of his grin. He’s dressed in rock-climbing gear, leg muscles bursting in effort, his hands gripping a strange and bulbous rope. I step even closer to the picture, my nose nearly pasted to the wall, my breath fogging the frame’s glass, and see that this man is rappelling down the façade of the Castello di Barolo on a fifty-foot string of salami.

Before I can laugh, before I can even exhale, I hear the sound of thick flesh behind me, spreading into a massive smile. I turn. It is, of course, the man in the picture, Franco the Butcher, his moustache crawling over his face like a caterpillar on steroids. He wears brown-framed glasses that stretch from his eyebrows to his upper lip, from his black sideburns to the bridge of his boxer’s nose. A billow of black hair shoots geyser-wise from his head, calling to the florescent lights. His hands, strong enough to lift me by the top of my head, are streaked with blood. And yet — I never thought I’d describe someone like this — Franco the Butcher is jolly.

“Ciao,” I say, “Franco?”

“Si, si, Franco,” he replies in a quiet, gentle voice, a voice as hairy as he is. He rubs his hands together as if compressing the air into a pancake.

“Queste carne,” I say, running my hand over the expanse of display case, “e bellisima.”

“Grazie,” Franco says, truly touched by the compliment to his meats.

I watch as he rounds the counter, kicking sawdust from his shoes, and joins the scales, knives, and cleavers on the back wall. I examine his wares, salamis of all kinds: white salamis, red ones, pink ones, purple; salamis that nearly stray to black; duck salami, donkey salami, Barolo salami, truffle; salami as long as my legs, salami as short as my thumb; and there, twisted into cylinders as thick as my forearm, salami di cinghiale. Wild boar. Wild boar salami. I repeat the word in my head like a cured and fatty mantra, “Salami, salami, salami, salami…” until I descend into a cow-pig meditation. I wonder which meat held him to the walls of Barolo’s castle. I wonder if he celebrated his climb by eating his equipment. I smile and he sees it, his hands now on his hips, his white apron smeared with blood and fat.

“Americano, no?” Franco slurs.

“Si, americano,” I say, “ma adesso, in questa macelleria, sono italiano.”

Franco laughs at my wish to be Italian, then sighs, turns abruptly left, waves to me and utters, “Viene, viene qua.”

He leads me away from the salami display, and I watch reluctantly over my shoulder as these lovely jeweled life-vests float further and further away. Franco stops in front of the fresh meats: tenderloin, strip, porterhouse, sausages, pork chop, whole chickens, whole ducks—feet intact and orange, webbed and clinical in the light; pigs’ feet, pigs’ ears, pigs’ blood, veal chops, veal scallops, headcheese, and sweetbreads. And tripe, beautiful white tripe spread wide in its container like a Chinese fan; trippa, resting in recline like the Aurora Borealis on its lunch break. Franco reaches for the tripe with an ungloved finger. It yields like a lover to his touch. The tripe, for lack of a better word, is kissable.

I feel my feet slowly spinning across that high-school dance floor, slowly building a tango confidence to ask the beckoning girl out for a cup of coffee.

“Ti piace trippa?” Franco asks.

I shrug. I’ve never had it before. But how can I not like tripe?

“Si,” I say.

“Ah,” Franco smiles, “serio.”

“Si,” I nod, “serio,” and I feel more substantial for saying so. I feel like I could knock down buildings with my bare hands. I feel like I could keep up with Franco the Butcher.

He lifts the tripe from its tray and, like delicate lingerie, it unravels in the air. I want to rub its texture between my fingers, I want to try it on for size. I imagine taking a few pieces home to Il Gioco dell’Oca’s kitchen, asking my friend Raffaella for preparation advice, and cooking a tripe dinner together: soup, casserole, napoleon, whichever. I watch as Franco cuts a small piece the size of a finger joint. He holds the white gem to the light like a coin.

“Ah, trippa,” he says, and hands me the piece.

Amazing, I think, Amazing that he sensed my desire to experience its texture.

The tripe coin is soft and perforated, rich and heady like a chunk of styrofoam soaked in black tea. I, like Franco, hold it to the light and can almost see through it. I think I’m seeing ghosts. I think I can see my family back in Chicago. They’re all sitting in rush-hour traffic, car radios blaring classic rock. I allow them all to return home safe, then lower the tripe to the counter to give it back to Franco.

“No, no,” he says, holding his bloody-but-innocent palms at me, “Prego.”

“Che?” I ask, not quite understanding.

“Si, si, prego,” he offers again.

I’m confused. I think he wants me to keep the tripe. I’m not sure what to do with such a small piece. I reach to put it into my pocket; possibly I’ll play with it like a rubber stress ball on the way back to Il Gioco.

“No, no,” Franco says, and I raise the tripe again from my pocket to the counter, “Prego.”

I look at him and shrug. I shake my head. Somewhere behind me, Valentina, in her golden bikini, is comfortably holding her porterhouse. Franco opens his mouth. For a second, I think he’s going to take a bite out of me. I lean back and he points to the tripe, then points to his mouth, and again says, “Prego.”

I get it now, but that doesn’t mean I believe it. He wants me to eat the tripe.

“Crudo?” I say.

“Si,” Franco says.

He wants me to eat the tripe raw.

What kind of culinary hazing is this? Why? Why? Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the pig stomach, but the raw ingesting of such items sends my own organs into disarray; my once hungry stomach now closes in on itself like a fist. My mouth goes dry. I’m having trouble swallowing.

“Prego,” Franco says again, and I feel there’s no way around this.

My stomach recoils deeper into my ribs and I want to cry. I hold the tripe to the light again and it goes from beautiful to revolting in no time flat. Raw tripe, if about to be cooked, is one thing, but raw tripe that wants to stay raw is another.

I look at Franco. His eyes are wide, his cheeks are glowing red. Jolly never looked so evil. I stare at the tripe, wriggling in the toddler laughter of my little sister whenever I got into trouble with my parents. I look to Franco. I look for a way out. The fluorescents burn into me like a spotlight. The audience is waiting; there’s no turning back now. After all, I told Franco I was “serious.”

I close my eyes and bring my fingers to my mouth.

I smell it before it hits my tongue: dust, metal, morning saliva, bathroom tile, campfire. It squirms in my mouth like a goldfish fighting for its life, a mini skinned bronco bucking my teeth, surely stirring a cowboy-shaped splatter from my stomach.

Hold on, I think, as the taste of pure gut struggles to pass over my taste buds, Hold on. I don’t dare bite into it, don’t dare explode the taste of unmentionable pig over my tongue.

So I swallow it whole, think of oysters, hold my breath, and wait.

“Bravo,” Franco claps and laughs in descending octaves.

A sweat breaks from my forehead. I gag audibly, but keep it down.

Opening my mouth to exhale, I know I have passed a hideous test and am surprised to find that the taste, if not the memory, has already faded. I rode the bull and returned a little trampled, but ungored.

Franco pulls a necklace of wild boar salami from the wall and hands it to me as my reward, laughing all the way. I can’t believe I’m going to thank this man.

“Grazie,” I say.

All Franco does is laugh.

As I turn to leave the macelleria, paper bag shifting in my arms, Franco the Butcher raises a bloody, tight-fingered hand into the air and, smiling his biggest smile of the day, dangles another slice of tripe into the light.

“Domani,” he says, pointing to the horrendous thing.

I shake my head. I wave.

Tomorrow, I think, opening the door to the street, Tomorrow I’m not coming anywhere near this place.

You brushed your teeth nude this morning in front of the full-length mirror.  As a memoirist, what are three adjectives that you’d use to describe that experience?

I have to admit, I’m a little uncomfortable with this question.


Why?

Because you know the answer already.


Be that as it may, I believe it’s a valid question.  Besides, a few other people may read this interview.  You can’t ignore your audience.  As a writer, you should know that by now.

OK.  Fine.  Now it’s my turn: Be that as it may, I’m not necessarily comfortable describing my naked body at the bow of an interview.


Bow?  Like the front of a ship?

Yes.  I like maritime references.


But you can’t swim.

No, beyond the doggie-paddle, I can’t.


Do you think your fondness for maritime references lies in this strange lack?  Are you compensating for an inability to float on the surface of water?  I mean: you can’t swim?!  How pathetic is that?

(Silence).


Is your reluctance to answer my first question related to your being uncomfortable with your body itself?

A little, maybe.  Yeah (clears throat), I suppose.


Stop being such a woman.

Oh my god.  I can’t believe you said that.  Not only is that a bit sexist, but you’re starting to sound like my father.


Pu-pu platter of Daddy Issues, anyone?

Shut up.  Look, I don’t need this.  (Standing from chair, hands on hips) I have plenty of other shit to do…


Ok, ok, sorry.  It’s just that I know what gets a rise out of you.  I couldn’t resist.  Sorry.  I’ll stop.  Sit down.

(Sitting, harumphing) Alright.


Can I provide a little advice on how to answer the question without you getting all up-in-arms?

(Folding arms over chest, quite aware of the body’s psycholinguistics) I’m listening.


Why don’t you do what you often do in your writing—choose words or descriptions that make little sense as a direct answer to the question, but allow for reader interpretation, thereby making you seem smarter than you really are.  In this case, describing yourself naked in the full-length mirror, brushing your teeth, pre-coffee, jetlagged after having just retuned stateside from Barolo, Italy where you celebrated the publication of your new book, do you think big words may be appropriate?

(Unfolding arms) Yes, I do.  Two of the three should be big.  Four to five syllables.


Go ahead.  Close your eyes.  The mirror.  The Mentadent.  The ribcage. The shoulder blade.  The SoniCare you got at a discount from your dental hygienist sister.  Three adjectives.

(Eyes closed, rocking forward and back in the chair) Bored, ecclesiastic, heretical.


Ha!  Now that’s a body I want to see.

(Eyes opening, sultry like Jessica Rabbit) Well, if you play your cards right…


I must admit.  After bored, I thought you were going to go for ponderous and incantatory.

As you know, those were my second choices.


Moving on: What does the word peripeteia mean to you?

Can I have a moment to look it up on Dictionary.com?


No.

A fat heirloom ox.


Oh, you mean like the Italian Piemontese bue grasso?  Is this some shameless way to segue into a discussion about your book, BAROLO, about your illegal work in the Italian Piemontese wine industry?

Well, I’m glad you asked.  It’s about more than that really—about a culinary evolution, and uncovering identity via sense, about falling in love with women and place and food and wine and lifestyle, about hedonism colliding with loneliness in a rural Italian cage match—no time limit and no disqualification, replete with the weaponry at hand: heavy logs of truffled salami, sachets of hazelnuts…


(Interrupting) Let me stop you there.  You’re doing it again.

What?


Being unnecessarily arcane.  I mean, what?  You want to sell some books, right?

(Sheepish) Yes.


(Like the wolf who swallowed the sheep) So why don’t you mention that BAROLO is a food-and-wine memoir, how you describe your six months living in a tent in the garden of a local farmhouse, picking wine grapes, mopping cantina floors, apprenticing in restaurant kitchens, and butcher shops, and bakeries, discussing your developing relationships with the eccentrics who inhabit the town, etcetera?  Why don’t you name-drop M.F.K. Fisher for Pete’s sake?

Oh, I do love M.F.K. Fisher—she drives Nascar-fast into the human and the sensual and I feel freaking gypped by my birth-year because I never got to eat with her, never got to French-kiss her.  I adore, of course, “The Gastronomical Me,”


(Interrupting, eyes rolling) Oh, of course…

…and her lesser known “A Cordiall Water,” which discusses all sorts of oddball medicinal recipes and traditions, across place and time.  The book made me not only want to place-travel, but to time-travel as well—


(Under breath) So you drive a DeLorean?

…which can still be done in certain parts of the world it seems, like rural Africa, where my wife, and your wife, is from—places that float outside of time, which, in a way, allows the traveler to similarly float, providing for future awkward conversations with folks who self-identify as “grounded.”  So yes:  Fisher was an inspiration to me when writing BAROLO.  My favorite anecdote in “A Cordiall Water” details Fisher’s conversation with this ninety-year-old woman at a bus stop in Dijon.  The woman talks of her granddaughter’s death; how the entire family gathered with some impotent doctor in a tiny, hot room around her deathbed; how the old woman went outdoors and collected a bunch of frogs in a burlap onion sack and laid it on the dead girl’s chest.  The trapped frogs hopped around in a failed attempt to restart the girl’s heart.  Then, the old lady then got serious.  She captured a pigeon and, with a fillet knife, sliced it open vertically, unfolded its body from its organs, and placed its still-beating bird-heart onto the sternum of the dead girl.  In an instant, the girl came back to life, sitting up with a deafening inhale.  This story made me want to go to Dijon.  That Dijon.


Good mustard there?

There is good mustard there.


What’s your favorite Italian-y thing to see in a kitchen?

An obese salami as long as an arm, cut off at the bottom and strung from a nail in the wall, a piece of butcher’s paper on the floor to collect the fat drips as it dries out over the course of a season, and an open bottle of Luciano Sandrone 1990 Cannubi Boschis Barolo uncorked and opening-up on the adjacent counter.


That’s two things, really.

OK.  Just the salami then.


You worked in the restaurant industry for over fifteen years.  What are your favorite Italy-inspired recipes that you’ve created?

As a first course: Chicken Liver Ice Cream with Maple-Caramelized Cippolini Onion, Hazelnut, Blood Orange, Pancetta, and Prosecco Jelly.  In Italy’s Piedmont region, chicken livers are really big, especially in this fabulous dish called finanziera, which stews all sorts of bird organs and cock’s combs with vegetables in Barolo wine and Barolo vinegar and such.  As a desert course: Revisionist Caprese Salad: Basil Ice Cream with Buffalo Mozzarella Syrup, Oven-Dried Sweet Tomato, and Tomato Rock Candy.


Wallace Stevens once said, headlocked and bloody-nosed, by Ernest Hemingway on Duval Street in Key West after midnight, and after too many Triple Dickels, “you write from the armpits, motherfucker.”  What do you think he meant by that, and do you write from the armpits?

I think he meant that as a compliment, except for the motherfucker part.  Knowing Stevens’ work, inherent in his outcry is the veiled notion that the writer has to allow for stink, can’t cover it up and PH-balance it.  Our pores must be open, and our lives never anti-perspirant.  Picturing the two of them together like this, I can’t help but feel a quiet intimacy—the genius of all seas singing into a bucket of bull’s blood.  It’s some weird-ass literary bumping-and-grinding.


A quick follow-up:  What the fuck do you mean?

I mean as a writer I try to be open, listen to language and description leak from the celestial monochord, and to practice writing enough so that I can distinguish between the good leaks and the bad.  It takes practice, observation, and trust.  And risk.  Writing is not only, “Raise Your Hand, Raise Your Hand If You’re Sure!” but if you’re unsure as well.


Can you give us one more deodorant commercial reference please?

Um…


Take your time.

“Secret: Strong Enough for a Man, Made for a Woman.”


Now who’s being sexist?

Proctor and Gamble.


You once mentioned that you thought M.F.K. Fisher had sexy armpits.  Care to elaborate?

I never said that.


But do you take issue with the thesis?

Well…not necessarily.


Do you consider yourself an armpit fetishist?

Not really.  But I’m a man of eclectic tastes.


This shows in BAROLO.  You tend to navigate between a tone that’s brash and smart-ass, and one that is earnest and damn-near ecstatic.  Are you trying to suffuse Anthony Bourdain with the language of the lyric?

Hm.  I never thought about it that way, which is strange considering we share one brain.  Maybe so.  But you make it sound like I’m administering a suppository.


What specific food/wine-related memory is your favorite from your time in Barolo?

Oh hell.  This is a tough one.  In Alba, Italy, in October, the white truffle conquers the area—festivals, fairs, carnivals, markets all devoted to this delicacy.  I remember bushwhacking the streets and running into this canvas truffle tent set up in Alba’s middle on Via Vittorio Emanuele.  Streaming rain.  The narrow alleys.  The risk of being harpooned by a Versace umbrella-top.  Inside the tent, row after row of truffle hunters (or “trifolau”) displayed their wares—the truffles they unearthed just that morning with the aid of their hunting dogs.  Ridiculous sensory overload.  But again, you know all this.  You know how I bought an entire white truffle the size of a duck egg from this red-bearded pirate of a man, and how he threw in a black truffle for free.  Only in Alba.  And then, of course, you know of the night I apprenticed in the I Cannubi restaurant kitchen with Chef Ercole Musso.  And how Ercole translates into English as Hercules, and how this is actually linguistic understatement.  You know: The madman worked me to the bone—to the circulatory system!—in his kitchen for eleven hours, then we adjourned to the empty 1:00am restaurant, ate a four course meal—bread and local cheese, fresh pasta with sage and butter and braised veal, persimmon panna cotta, local pears and hazelnuts.  And we polished off three bottles of Barolo.  Then, Ercole, in his endless quest for further indulgence, forced upon our “meal” 50-year-old Jamaican rum, 60-year-old Amontillado Spanish sherry, Cuban cigars and, what he described in his very limited English as Moroccan Tobacco, which was a spliff of hashish.  The chests of our shirts were stained with olive oil.


When Ercole actually said the words, “Moroccan Tobacco,” opening and closing his Cuban-cigarless hand like a sock puppet, his inflection reminded you of an event in your past.  Why don’t you tell us about that?

OK.  When I was eight-years-old, I slept overnight at Jason Brand’s house.  He was my best friend and, like most pre-adolescent best friends, he lived across the street.  It was my first time sleeping anywhere but my own bedroom, which I was reluctant to do, mostly I think because of my eyesight.  Like you, I started wearing glasses at age five, and contact lenses at age eight.  My eyes were degenerating at such a rate that the optometrist told my mom that I would likely go blind by age thirty.  That he was wrong was something we couldn’t predict.  As a child, I used to practice being blind by walking around my parents’ house at night, in the dark, honing my other senses.

I had just woken up in the middle of the night with a wicked pee in Jason Brand’s strange bedroom, his aquarium gurgling and whirring away in the corner, and struggled, in a dream-haze, to find the door.  My heart began to sprint in my chest.  Finally, fingers tracing the wall, I found my way into the hallway, lit only with the dim orange streetlights leaking through the window-cracks, and I saw the bathroom holding itself at the foot of his parents’ half-open bedroom door.  I took careful steps along the carpet, listening to his father’s snores, when, in front of me materialized the indistinct gray, green-eyed shape of the Brand’s cat, who, after having been bitten twice by similar neighborhood pets, I had developed an irrational fear of.  Well, rational, really.  Squinting, I looked into what I felt was its face, and it looked back at me, eyes streaming light into the otherwise dark hallway.  Then, it opened its mouth and crooned a deep, slow, throaty robotic Me-ow.  My heart leapt fifty feet into the air and stayed there, hovering over the chimney of Jason Brand’s house.  Breath erratic, skipping like a record.  The meow was not a cat’s meow.  It was a human’s.  It was spoken in the deliberate voice of a person trying to communicate.  This cat was talking to me.  A chill shot from my lower back to my neck and spread upward to my ears.  The cat continued to stare at me.  I’d heard the cat mewl before, but this wasn’t its voice.

“Sebastian?” I whispered, “Is that you?”

Me-ow,” the cat spoke again, low, laggard.

My heart dropped through the chimney, beating like a snare drum, and back into my chest.  Without going to the bathroom, I ran back to Jason Brand’s room with my eyes closed.  I held it until sunrise and gave myself a bladder infection.

Ercole said it in the same voice as Sebastian’s terrible Me-ow.

”Moroccan tobacco.”

Anything else you’d like to add?

None of the aforementioned truths are self-evident, I once touched Bruce Springsteen’s ass, and a pinch of salt.


When we become one again, after one more line, will you be mad at me?

A little…  No.


My memoir, BAROLO, about my illegal work in the Piemontese Italian food and wine industry was recently released.  Check it out!

BAROLO is now in stock and available here:

At the end of Via Crosia, at least a kilometer past the Macelleria, but before the vineyards, the street’s rose cobblestone is cracked with anthills. Surely these bugs are, right now even, communing under the town, perhaps under a single block, waiting to bore holes through the bathtubs of Barolo, Italy.  In one of these homes (we can only hope), someone will be washing for work—an Elena or Francesco, Valentina or Beppe—dreading the sight of silver tray, meat case, trade show badge, and tractor. By the time the ants reach the white-green tile, this person, whoever they are, will recall their breakfast if only with their throat: the buckwheat flour, egg, and water gelling inside them to spawn something entirely new.

At least a kilometer away—maybe even more—the temperature drops one degree over the grapevines and the wind brushes them into hair. The last of the colony, having just dined on a white truffle crumb, folds full and thorax-first into the anthill. Signaled from the front of the line, the last ant knows that at least a kilometer away, someone is afraid to bathe, can’t afford to fix the hole in their tile. This person, whoever they are, can not wash away breakfast’s hold, lest the ants, with the water, rise from the drain like palm fronds, slow in destroying the foundation, but surely building something—the spindle-laddered metaphysica of the flightless insect, perhaps. Yes: they rise, craving the mask of spiders, a banana tree sprouting in fast forward to bite cacti-like at the soft dough ends of Italian toes.

Breakfast will reassert itself with the fundamentals. Everything must evolve: the eggs, the hens that laid them, the naked stomach snapping back on its food, and fear. That too.