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A Writer's Life in Rome & Tuscia

How Not to Eat a Sea Urchin

The fisherman was clad in ragged cutoffs soaked in sea water, the only garment, I believe, he owned. His tangled hair, shoulder- length, had been streaked by sun with strands of almost hennaed blond. The setting: an islet off the coast of Crete whose only inhabitants were wild goats; whose only structure, four poles erected on the beach, thatched with twisted boughs of wild thyme. There beneath its fragrant yet insufficient shade our companions on this excursion were laying out a picnic on a tattered, tar-stained sheet.
We had set off at dawn from a nearby village across water as smooth as oil. Seven of us packed in that little boat, the Eleutheria, without a single life-jacket: my friend, Pandelis; his fishing partner, Vanghelis; Vanghelis’ wife, two sons and mother-in-law who looked askance at foreign girls in scanty tops spending their summers here. While Vanghelis and the boys secured the boat, the women unpacked the lunch: tinned sardines, home -pickled olives from their trees, like tiny, shriveled raisins; tomatoes; slabs of goat cheese; thirst-quenching cucumbers; green- fleshed melons. Beer, water, and the ubiquitous raki.
Pandelis turned to me. “Come . We get food. ” With fishing knife strapped to his waist, a bucket swinging from one hand, he led me teetering along a slippery shelf of rock above the tidal line. When I lost my footing and splashed down into a pool, he jerked me up with stern warning.
“Watch out! There may be …..” he paused, searching for the English word, “Morays. Your toes --- their lunch,” then grinned, waiting to see the effect of his announcement.
The crevice in the cliff wound down to a grotto where low tide had exposed row on row of glistening purple sea urchins. He plunked down his bucket to observe them with approval. “A man not starve here,” he said. Unsheathing his knife, he pried a first specimen free, sliced it through, and held it out to me . A black and orange gelatinous mass quivered in its spiny cup. Stooping to the water, he dunked it once, swirled the tip of his knife inside it, then scraped the slimy contents into the palm of my hand . “Freshest food in Greece, “ he said. “Taste.”
I never cared for sea food except scallops when I was younger. Even the sight of the shucked oysters my father relished used to make me nauseous as a child. How was I going to refuse food from a Greek for whom hospitality is sacred? If only I had a slice of lemon.
He frowned at my hesitation. “Eat,” he commanded.
I pushed the salty, spongy stuff into my mouth, then spit it out, unrepentant.
Producing a hip flask from his back pocket, he offered it to me. The searing taste of 40 proof raki removed all trace of the offending substance. I wiped my lips with the back of my hand.
Pandelis shook his head in feigned disgust. “You will never be a Greek.”
End
This essay originally appeared in Alimentum Literary Journal, Winter 2012
http://www.alimentumjournal.com/current-issue/
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