I am well aware of how I mangle the Italian language. Somehow it all works out, although sometimes different from what I expect.
I am prone to thinking that I do pretty well in an Italian market. I know the food words. So I wonder how people see me? Do they strain to make sense out of what I babble, despite my confidence that I know what a cow tongue is and how to prepare it? Are they glad when I take my change and make for the door because they are tired of listening and translating my babble into something they can sell me?
Last weekend we went to Chinatown in San Francisco. I had some great pig feet in a restaurant there. When I ordered the dish the waitress looked at me quizzically, like she didn’t understand if I was someone who understood what would be on the plate when she brought it. I had to assure her that my friend and neighbor Armando in Italy was prone to dropping off some of his preserved pig feet for my cooking pleasure.
After happily consuming the hacked-up feet in a thick, sweet, purplish-brown sauce you cut with a good stream of this red vinegar they provided, Martha and I headed over to the bird place. You see, even in San Francisco, which has a large Italian contingent, you can’t just go to a butcher shop and get a piccione or some seppie. For that you’d need to go to Chinatown. The Chinese are the last people who haven’t narrowed their diets to the extent that Americans have. Good for them.
We originally wanted a duck. But then we saw some squab. So we picked one up. It was a whole piccione just like in Italy, with its head and feet still attached. Compared to Italy and specialty butchers in the US, it was cheap.
But there was a problem. The guy minding the store kept telling us, “whole squab” while pointing at the package.
Then we went to pay. He pointed to the bird. “Whole squab” he said again. Or at least that’s what I thought he said. It really sounded like “ho squab” but I added the “l” sound in my head because I expected to hear it.
It stuck in my mind that he was saying this simple phrase as if I was missing something. I shrugged it off. He was hard to understand. The thickness of his accent was nearly the thickness of the sauce on my pig feet. It needed to be cut with something.
So I went home and seasoned the squab and sauteed it. Then I shoved it in the oven, just like I do in Italy.
35 minutes later I extracted it out of the oven and it looked beautiful. Or at least as beautiful as a pigeon can look without its feathers. The juices were a little pink. Well, fine, it had to be done, so I stuck it with a fork, right in the breast.
Well, I mean I stuck the fork, just not in anything much. Actually, I think the tines bent all funny like Albert Einstein’s hair. That squab was like a brick. You could have made a deconstructed Italian favorite outta it, “brick under a squab” or something.
Then it dawned on me. The man at the bird store was saying, “old squab.” I hadn’t listened. I had presumed to know.
A week later and some of it is still stuck between my teeth. I can’t wedge it out, even with my mother tongue. Dammit.