Signorina.

Signora Rosa. Such a delicate name. She must be someone’s grandmother, stout and soft with a halo of white hair; this had tricked me into thinking that she would be soft with me. But she is all hard edges. No sooner have I closed the door than she is there on the stairs with that same side-eyed look. Why? It is almost September. Almost a new month. Only cash, she’d said when she agreed to rent me this bright apartment, even though it was caro, caro, caro. Only cash. Up front.

Photograph of Novelist Katie CrouchBestselling author Katie Crouch (Men and Dogs; Girls in Trucks) has a new book out. Abroad is a quick-moving, high-action read that plays out both our best and worst fantasies of being a young, beautiful foreigner in Italy. Her characters are so perfectly drawn, so wonderfully vivid, you might just confuse them for people you actually know (or have read about in the news!).

The Chelsea Dilemma: An Investigation into a Forgotten Citizen

There has to be something called reality in order for us to come to its rescue.  – Jean-Luc Godard

Mario Fattori is downtown. Paper cup of coffee. Dead Visa Card. What to do?

It is late and he needs a room. But the Chelsea Hotel is as closed to him as the mouths of the desk clerks in the lobby. Outside the neon has crapped out in the cold January winds : the sign above the entrance reads ‘ho…chel…’ A few residents snigger by and into the elevator, shouting the new abbreviation to the boys behind the counter. Their voices cut back and forth through Mario, jovial and jabbing.

Some coffee sloshes over his fingers as he tries to explain his situation again. A waste of time, a waste of coffee, he thinks. They forget him; they want to forget him. Why?

The Crucifixion

By Irene Zion

Memoir

It happened when
she was five.
She went to a convent school
in Italy.  
Her teachers were nuns,
shrouded in black habits
with white wimples.

It must have been a holiday. 
Her brother was home 
from school in Switzerland. 
He was eight and a half. 
Her father was home too
and that was rare.

Her mother was there,
but she didn’t see her very much.
The little girl ate meals inside
and went to school,
but otherwise, she stayed in the yard
outside with her dog.
She was not allowed inside
during the day;

her mother was cleaning.

She was asleep when the

screaming awakened her.

Her daddy was yelling and
her brother was howling.
She opened her bedroom door
and crawled out to see
what was happening.
She had learned to keep down low
and be quiet
so she wouldn’t be noticed.

Her father was beating her brother.
Her brother was mewling
and trying to get away,
but he couldn’t.
Her daddy was extra strong
when he was angry.

She saw the figure of a cross
leaning against the wall
in the dark shadows.

Her daddy was going to crucify
her brother on the landing
of the staircase between
the ground floor and the next.

It only surprised her a little.
She expected such things.

She crawled back to her room
and slipped into bed. 
She never thought of going for help.
What happened, just happened.
There was nothing anyone could do
to change things. 
All things were predetermined,
inevitable.

She covered her head
with the sheet and the blanket
and she sang songs to herself
to muffle her brother’s screams
until she went to sleep.

She woke up in the morning
and remembered with a
jolt
that her brother was dead.

She went downstairs and saw
when she passed the landing
that the cross had been removed,
all evidence cleaned up.

She was an only child now.

She walked into the kitchen and saw
her dead brother sitting at the table.

She stared at him.
Her brother did not look at her,
nor did he speak to her.
He simply sat at the table.

He was a holy ghost.

She touched him,
and she could feel him
with the tips of her fingers.
She was surprised that
she could feel a holy ghost.

Sitting down at the table,
she studied her brother.

If he were a holy ghost,
that was one thing,
but
if he had come back from the dead,
that was
momentous.

Now she was thrilled.

She waited to discover
which it would turn out to be.

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.

ROME, ITALY

The Trenitalia queue at Termini station twists all the way around a glass bookstore past the escalators and out the front doors into the sun shining on scuzzy Via Marsala.

It is ten times longer than the line for the Sistine Chapel and much less ebullient. People are sitting on their suitcases, listening to their iPods with faraway looks, combing through their guidebooks, crowding the Info kiosks, making distraught calls and snapping at each other. The trains are all booked until Thursday and so are the buses. The people in line today are buying tickets for three days ahead. Travel within the country is near capacity but there is some space. So you can sort of move around Italy but leaving it is difficult. Getting all the way back home is not an option for some of us.

I’ve been travel stranded before, mostly by blizzards. It’s useless to call the airline or cop an attitude. Find a hotel room and call home (in that order). Rome has more hotel rooms than frescoes but a lot of people who’ve checked out and gone to the airport find they need to turn around and come back. So I’ve been moving around each day to a different hotel. It’s kind of fun to have to do that.

Being stranded in Italy is like getting locked in a closet with a person you want to kiss badly at a party you need to be leaving.

I understand people have babies to get back to, medical school board exams, job interviews, sick relatives and other urgent matters awaiting them. But if you have none of that, the volcanic ash cloud has handed you a magnificent gift. With a guilty glee, relinquish a credit card and go with it.

The bulk of the tourists in Italy seem to be French and Spanish. Though they arrived by low cost carriers like RyanAir they are opting to get home by train since flights keep getting cancelled. It feels like the only people truly stranded are the English speakers – Brits and North Americans. We aren’t going anywhere. Possibly the Brits will get back by warship from Spain if things don’t improve by the weekend.

The English speakers bitch in small clusters wearing grim expressions and waving away sellers who want them to buy hop on/hop off bus tours of Rome for twenty euros, special price for you.

Through all this, the stazione Termini homeless people go on sleeping and a smiley promo team hands out sample size cans of Coke Zero and police in handsome uniforms chase fake bag sellers from Morocco down a shady alley. A scoop of chocolate gelato falls off a German man’s cone onto his white Lacoste shoe. Church bells pong from a dozen different directions simultaneously and two pigeons battle over what appears to be an exceptionally dusty crust of pizza.

Life stalls for some and chugs along for the rest and you can’t cry for too long because there’s so much to see and it will all be over soon.

So when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Find a table in the sun and order something to drink. Take it all in.


My parents sentenced me to a life of literature when they named me after an ancient Greek monkey in a Lawrence Durrell play and then had the nerve to tack on the middle name Esmé. “Love and Squalor” is not only a nod to my namesake short story (R.I.P. Salinger) but a reminder of two ingredients that too often go missing from contemporary fiction. In this column, I’ll try to include the kinds of prose that give publishing houses migraines: story collections, translations, fiction set abroad, and works that defy genres. Basically, books that like to travel as much as I do.

Dessert

By Matthew Gavin Frank

Travel

In Alba, Italy, rain and a market. In my hands, the white greased paper that once held an entire rotisserie rabbit. Its bones clack together as hooves, a horse in the distance. I clutch this paper coffin to my chest, as if for warmth, and scan the piazza for a garbage can. My hunt for refuse carries me into the covered pulse of the marketplace, and I have to blink to focus. Now unburdened by my desire to eat a whole animal, I am able to assimilate this lovely and special chaos. There are hundreds of vendors—fruit stands, fish stands, meats and cheeses; rounds, bricks, entire civilizations of cheese, octopus, persimmon. I toss my trash in a can beneath a string of blood sausage.

“Hey! Hey!” I hear someone shout.

The voice opens like the lid of an ancient hope chest, rides its dusty remnants and long dead dreams on the rain. If I were to look inside this voice I’d expect to find centuries-old taxidermy, owls with shellacked eyes and sawdust in the feathers. I hear it again, this time in triplicate.

“Hey! Hey! Hey!”

I have no reason to think it’s directed at me, but I turn to face a tiny knuckle of a man, dressed all in white, head so perfectly circular it could have been designed with a compass.

“Hey! Viene qua!” the frump calls from behind his fruit stand.

I turn and point behind me, my forehead certainly a mess of wrinkles. People cascade in circles, not one of them standing still. I turn back and touch my chest.

“Io?” I ask.

“Si, si,” he creaks, “Tu.”

I move forward and, as if stepping on a hidden button in the cobblestone, I activate this man to produce a baseball-sized fig from his fruit pile, bust it in half with his thumbs, and shove both bowled sides into his mouth at once. As if a magician waiting for applause, he, less than a second later, waves the cleaned purple fig skins at me as theatre curtains.

“Wow,” is all I can muster.

He holds a fat palm open to me. I freeze into position. He turns and retrieves another intact fig, this one even larger. Again, with his cigar-stub fingers, he breaks the fruit in two, its swampy sweet cilia waving yellow at my nose like a sea anemone. Soon, his hands are in mine, wet with warm rain, rolling the fig halves into my drenched palms.

“Prego,” he offers, but it could easily have been, “Abracadabra.”

I want to match his magic, so I shove both halves into my mouth. The music of the fruit shrieks soprano with cherry and yeast, the texture of limp comb teeth. This is a fig to resurrect the dreams of a great-great-grandmother. This is a fig to make her a little girl again, stretch her hair from stiff gray to blonde braided pigtails. I think of the tango and pull the stripped skins from my mouth. The frump actually applauds, laughing.

“Bravo! Bravo!” he bellows.

I laugh knowingly with him, having shared in his secret bag of wizard’s tricks.

I reach into my pocket, expecting a string of scarves, but produce only my wallet. When I flash a few coins, he shakes his head, a bowling ball on shoulders, and turns to help another customer, a middle-aged woman with a faux-snakeskin umbrella.

I feel large, and somehow filled-out, rounded, fat-handed, aged and neckless. This is a market without illusion. The magic here is real. Over the reptilian umbrella, I watch the man hoist a watermelon into the air.

 

This piece originally appeared in Brevity and was reprinted in Creative Nonfiction (The “Best of Brevity 2005” issue).

In Alba, Italy’s rain, my hair flattens wet against my skull. Hugging the shopfronts of Via Vittorio Emanuele, I see a white triangular peak in the distance. It could be anything—a downed mountain bowing to commune with this street, the cobblestone river that carved it—except, glowing with rain, it looks to be made of canvas. I know.

I know. It is October. This is Alba. Simple arithmetic: October + Alba = Truffle Fair. Math never smelled so good. I thank the wet heavens for this day off. I am in Italy’s Piedmont region to work the seasonal wine harvest, sleeping in a tent in the garden of the Il Gioco dell’Oca bed-and-breakfast. But today, I am relieved of my grape-picking duties, and the white truffle beckons.

The truffle is an underground fungus of the tuber genus (some call it an underground mushroom), found beneath the bases of oak, linden, poplar, elder, willow, and wild hazelnut, where they establish a symbiotic relationship with the tree. They enjoy a cool soil about eight to ten inches below the earth’s surface. The truffle’s roots are as strong as its perfume. They are incredibly thick and intricate, surrounding the “fruit” or “gleba” with a cortex called a “peridio.” These characteristics vary greatly among the varieties of truffle, distinguishing each gem to the scrutinizing eye of the truffle hunter.

Truffles themselves are surrounded by legend. A famous Italian tale from the Piedmont regionclaims that truffles make their homes in the graves of dissipated gnomes and that their often-irregular shape is a result of the heartbeats of soon-to-be-sleeping plants. Truffle hunters, or “trifolau,” have always had their quirks and secrets, and their own fair share of lore. Often disguised as a man and his dog strolling an autumn hill at night, the trifolau are reputed to walk with lighter steps than the rest of us, and speak only with necessary words. The truffle-sniffing dog or “tabui” is calmer at night (hence, the typical night hunt); also, the night protects the trifolau and tabui from the imploring eyes of others. (Pigs can also be used to detect truffles, but dogs are preferred since they are less likely to eat the reward).

This peak in the distance is the demure cap to Alba’s famed truffle tent. Polar, bearish, the fur on the back of my neck stands up.

Soon, I am at its entrance and, ducking my head like a linebacker preparing to unleash a bone-crunching tackle, I dip my white face into the seas and come up with a salmon, flapping into U, inverted-U, U, inverted-U in my jaws.

Umbrellas woosh open and closed around me, people entering, people leaving. What an indulgent invention the umbrella seems in a tent so connected with the soil—with these personal hand-held awnings, nobody gets wets, and in turn, nobody dries off.

I shudder from the waist up as a dog shedding a rain-sheen onto a business suit or two, and survey this white vacuum of aroma and taste and commerce. Row after row of truffle vendors chat with a clamorous array of buyers, displaying their wares that they dug from deep earth oak tree bases with the aid if their sniffing dogs. And now, these black and white delicacies, the essence of earth and epitome of fungus, lie platter-lit under glass containers, exhumed by the merchants to be held, like their children, to the noses of probable patrons. This is the second coming through a kaleidoscope.The dirty gray rock-like truffles, so much like figs, play their cards close to their chests until the glass container is lifted and aroma spills the room like oil.

There is something in the contained stoicism of a red-bearded man in the tent’s west corner that makes me want to buy a truffle from him. He, unlike the operatically effusive majority, seems to share the wise hermit nature of the truffle itself. He knows. That’s all.

I walk to him, the sea of people and their downward-pointing umbrellas rushing from my heels like jet smoke. His red face, unearthed just this morning perhaps, spreads in a bread-and-butter grin.Wordless, he reaches for his platter, left hand bracing its bottom, right hand poised on the container lid. This is potential energy as it should be. Two steps later, the lid is off, the sweet white truffle smell of soil and mushroom, corn husk and asphalt gift-wraps itself bowless over the back of my head, grabs me my the ears like a schoolyard bully. I am thrown face first into this silver platter’s playground dirt. This is not fair. I’m telling on you. I want my mom.

In what sounds to me like a blubbering cry, I ask, “Quanto per uno?”

He waves his chapped hand over the pile, indicating that I choose my favorite. Always the champion of the underdog, I choose the second one from the top, a battered golf ball of a tartufo boasting the elegance of the clubs that hit it. Red-Beard, with a thumb and forefinger, lifts it from its family litter.It wriggles and wags like a puppy. The next thing I know, it’s in my hand. Its touch is gold and scab, bottlecap and skipping stone.

Once a white truffle touches your skin, a strange symbiosis ignites. A purchase is inevitable, even for those with a psychotic regard for self-denial. Rough, dimpled, irregular, geologic, its bloom waits for contact with a truffle shaver and a quail egg, a plate of ravioli, a loin of venison. I’ve never felt the stirrings of fatherhood before, but…

And just like that, he picks it from my palm as a poppy, weighs it, and writes £80,000 on a slip of blue paper. Forty dollars for an entire white truffle—worth about $1,800/lb. in the U.S.—forty dollars for a tongue’s meditation stone that will span a week’s worth of dinners. I want to weep. I want to pray. I want to, and do, hand him the money, and he proceeds to wrap the sweet baby in a fan of white tissue paper, then places it into a tiny paper bag. I hold the bag to my face and breathe as if hyperventilating, as a horse licking the first or last oats from its feed-bag.

Then Red-Beard, perhaps as penance for his namesake’s pirating, perhaps due to my treasuring of his ware, removes a plum-sized black truffle from another platter, wraps it, and hands it to me without so much as a “Prego.” I match his silence, my hands go numb, my hair most assuredly turning white.I am in a place where the purchase of a white truffle gets a black truffle thrown in for free. This place is Alba, Italy. $19.95 for twenty steak-knives be damned. I reach my bagless hand to Red-Beard and he shakes it, his palm rough as cornflakes, eyelids drooping nearly to the corners of his mouth.

Retreating to the tent’s entrance, the other merchants thrusting, then cradling their truffles under my nose, offering their perfume, my eyes begin to water, my breath shortens, my head spins in a wild vertigo. This is sensory overload at its best, the ripe fungal blossom of the tent tattooing itself into my nostrils. I need to take a breath of rain.

And in a step, stutter, step, I am back in it, iron pencil sky relentless in its spewing. I tuck the truffle bag into my windbreaker’s heart-pocket and make for the bus back to Il Gioco dell’Oca, where the kitchen will hopefully be empty, and my tent, most certainly, saturated.

The fluorescence of one room bleeds into another with only minor differences: a blinking flicker here, a snoring hum there. I sit again beneath these flickers and hums, just past 9:00 pm, in thesalamina da sugo workshop, ready for the gentle myth, ready for some anarchy. This is the Salone del Gusto, the Slow Food Movement’s Salon of Taste and, while this is also Torino, Italy, the rest of the world, via its respective culinary delights, trickles in through the cracks in the mortar.

Tonight, a hush falls over Ferrara, a small city in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. Talk of its indigenous salamina da sugo rarely breaches its borders. Perennially crowning the Christmas tables of the Ferrarese, the mysterious and controversial dish remains out-of-reach for the rest of the world.

The salamina was first documented in the 15th century letter from Lorenzo il Magnifico to Duke Ercole II d’Este. Apparently, the first to produce the product were the “porcaioli” of the Trentio and Bormio mountains. Pork artisans. Porcine Michelangelos. (Somebody stop me—I can go all day…).Eventually, they migrated into the Po valley, and then into the area that was to become Ferrara. Not a single discovered document mentioned salamina da sugo again, until 1722. Capturing the artistic heart and palate of writer Antonio Frizzi, salamina da sugo became the object of his poem, “Salamoide.” Frizzi writes, “I mix the pig’s liver with its meat, put an iron on top, and step on the iron.” Frizzi went on further to speculate that the pigs destined to become salamina are born carrying the spirits of all dead women. (Insert your own necrophilia joke here). In tasting it, the headphones proclaim, one has difficulty separating flavor from verse.

Often invoked as an incurable aphrodisiac, the salamina (or salama, as it is often called) was a popular meal at wedding banquets and brothels. The dish was reputed to soften the skin and add life to the blood of newlyweds, as well as prepare the “ladies of the night” for their customers. Here, tonight, call me Madam.

The night outside Torino’s Lingotto building stretches its legs, brothel-less, blows its yawn over the old Fiat factory, and the edifice itself seems to settle in a post-tasting bliss. This is the last workshop of the day, and it is run by representatives of the Slow Food Movement, their Italian taking the form of culinary protest. The translation whistles flute-like into my ears, discussing this nearly extinct breed of sausage, stirring the Slow Food Movement to educate the masses in an attempt to lift it from certain death.

This salamina is commercially-illegal. The Slow Food Movement had to hew through bureaucratic barbed-wire just to get this workshop off the ground. It is virtually number-one on Slow Food’s endangered foods list, holds a top-shelf position in their Ark of Taste.

The dish begins with the grinding of the “less noble,” but more flavorful parts of the pig: liver, tongue, belly, shoulder, chin, top neck, throat lard, cheek, thigh. The ground meat is then coupled with an array of spices—types and amounts differ with each producer. Typical spices include salt, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, and garlic. Red wine (approximately two liters per ten kilograms of meat) is added to the mixture—usually a Sangiovese, Barbera, or Semisecco del Bosco Eliceo.Certain producers also add rum, grappa, or brandy.

The mixture is then packed into a pork bladder, tied with twine, and traditionally divided into eight segments. In a well-ventilated, dark chamber, at about fifty-degrees Fahrenheit, the salamina is hung to ripen and age for at least one year. During this time, the salamina is periodically brushed with olive oil and vinegar.

Once sufficiently aged, the salamina will bear a protective coating of white mold. Prior to preparation, the mold is rinsed away and the cased meat is soaked in lukewarm water for at least twelve hours. After the soaking session, the salamina is placed inside a cloth bag which is then tied to the center of a long wooden stick. The stick is draped across the top of a large stockpot, so that the salamina bag is hanging in the middle, away from the pot’s bottom and sides. The pot is filled with water, and the salamina cooks for about four hours at a low simmer. Once ready, the salamina is cut from the bag and gently removed from its casing with a spoon. The salamina’s wine is released during the cooking process, yielding a viscous and spicy sauce.

Three types of salamina line the plate in front of me, each cresting a small mound of mashed potato.The first is anarchic; Slow Food’s own farmers producing their ideal version, sans governmental regulation. It is pink and brown, and dripping with its internal, natural “sauce.” The next is a small farmhouse version, produced, as it has been for Italian centuries, against the rigid health department standards, left to hang for months from pig-sty rafters. The truffle of the barn. The final slice is an industrially-produced, commercially-regulated sausage that does its best to mimic salamina da sugo.The Slow Food Movement wants us to know the difference.

We lift our forks in choral unison and, slowly, like the simultaneous bowing of fifty veiled heads, bring them to our plates as we are instructed to taste the first. Upon biting, the salamina oozes smoky gravy into our mouths, collecting a texture somewhere between ground meat and rose-oil. If this sausage were a cheese, it would be baked brie. Just by chewing together, with our arsenal of taste-buds, we march on Roma with torches ablaze.

The farmhouse salamina a little less sweet, but just as runny, scampering over the tongue like a mouse, feet soaked in licorice. Together, we burp terrestrial elegies. The industrial version is tasty, but common, a mere smoked sausage injected with hormones and cardboard crumbs. We sneer. We save the whales.

We have tasted, the thin, black-haired representative declares with a snap of his fingers, what may be the last barely legal taste of salamina da sugo, ever. After this Salone del Gusto, the book may very well be closed. I imagine an Underground, gathering in windowless attics, reading by candlelight, ancient farmland recipes, and passing samples of this banned foodstuff. We will weep over the crushing of pleasure in favor of the illusion of health. We will smoke banned cigars, drink banned liquor, and toast to anarchic sausage. We, and the salamina, will survive in the basements of the world.

This black-haired representative of Slow Food widens his eyes and stares, cultishly, into the ceiling’s holy, but fleeting fluorescence…

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.

Raffaele says those home for the summer never order water at Il Fosso. Instead they ask for empty bottles and take them out to the spring where the water comes cold and sweet. He says it reminds them of their former lives.

He says in the evening serpents glide across the road, that there’s snow in winter, that here it’s not people you meet but characters.