Editors' Choice

Stalking Asparagus

by Jann Huizenga

The secret to life can be found in a wild Sicilian plant.

"Ne ho travato uno!" crows Signor Battaglia. "I found one!" Six pairs of female eyes turn his way. Signor Battaglia, a Sicilian from Central Casting, stands rooted like the ancient carob behind him, his wooden cane planted firmly on a carpet of capers. His left fist hoists a trophy of wild asparagus. He's found the first shaft of spring and is waggling it happily, as a pup wags its tail.

Signor Battaglia is huge—more giant than man. If he were a literary character, he'd be the bawdy Gargantua. In miniature, he could be one of those zaftig Hummel figurines you find in Bavaria. His green loden coat drapes his paunch like a cape, and a matching Tyrolean hat is cocked at a rakish angle.

"Molto erotico!" he grunts, raising his thick, droopy brows and examining the stalk. Signor Battaglia has a Vesuvian preoccupation with what he delicately calls "the man's attribute," despite a recent heart attack and a failed kidney.

"Scusa, Papà," groans his daughter, Giò, divorced for four years, "but I don't even remember what one looks like. Give me that!" We laugh as she pulls it from his grasp. In addition to my sister, Linda, who's visiting for a week, Giò's best friends—Mona, Antonella, and Rosaria—are here, and all their kids.

Sicily is all abloom, and we're on the outskirts of Ragusa in a steep-walled Eden called the Valley of the Lost Men. It is Signor Battaglia's secret world, where he escapes on Sundays to forage for wild edibles. Weekdays he works as a tailor, one of Ragusa's last clothiers. His shop, full of dark wool suits and elegant tuxedos, is just a block from my apartment. Giò told me that when her father opened the place twenty-five years ago, he tried magia bianca, white magic, hoping to bend the world to his will and get rich. The witch told him to "go and get holy water from seven different churches, shake it all together in a bottle, and sprinkle it around the shop." But the occult practice yielded nothing, Giò says, "except a stinky new carpet smell. Nothing else happened—you can see we're not wealthy!"

When I ducked into his shop recently to say ciao, he waved me into the back of the store, away from his clients, with that peculiar Sicilian motion that looks like "go away" but means "come here." He showed off the shrine he's built to his youth: a corkboard full of yellowed postcards from all over Europe, signed by Helgas, Julias, Olgas, and Claudettes—sweet souvenirs, he purred, of his youthful dalliances in touristy Taormina, on Sicily's eastern coast. He shrugged. "There are no more real men."

I looked at the postcards and nodded. I didn't tell him about all the tomcats who've filled his shoes in Taormina, basking in the sun in her lovely piazzas, slinging salty pickup lines. Instead I admired the poster of funghi taxonomy on the opposite wall, which led to an invitation to join him on one of his Sunday excursions to forage for wild edibles in the Iblean Hills. In true Sicilian style, the occasion has evolved into a whoop-de-do with a dozen people.

We're all playing a funny kind of Where's Waldo? with asparagus. "Look! There are five right ahead of me," Signor Battaglia says. He stops dead in his tracks to let our eyes focus. But the grass is high, the vegetation thick and tangled, and we are asparagus-blind. He scowls and sighs with mock impatience, then inches forward to touch each tender green shoot with the tip of his cane. We erupt in surprise, and someone scampers over a rock wall or wades into a bramble bush to pluck the waist-high spears with a satisfying snap.

We spend the whole morning on our treasure hunt, like Pan with his nymphs, frisking through the sunshine-bright field studded with rocks, clumps of wild mint, giant blue agaves, hyacinths, anemones, lilies, and yellow daisies, gradually enlarging our asparagus bouquets. Sicily exhales so many scents in spring: almond trees drooping with sweet blossoms, pungent patties left behind by the odd blond cow, dark cellar smells emitted by the drystone walls—the only sign of civilization—that crisscross the valley. Our attention wanders as we gossip about former President Berlusconi and how Italian men are rushing into plastic surgery. Our paterfamilias cuts us off. "Ragazze, concentrate!" he barks. "We need enough asparagus to feed twelve!" The whole point of this exercise is to make lunch solely from what we forage, and Signor Battaglia is hell-bent on stuffing his large wicker basket to the limit.

"Could've saved ourselves a load of trouble," carps Mona, tart-tongued as ever. She laughs her bell-bright laugh. "Vendors in town are selling big asparagus bunches for less than five euro!"

Signor Battaglia scowls and unleashes a volley of delightful profanity. I pull up some wild fennel with a spicy anise odor and toss it into the basket. We also grab fistfuls of cicoria, wild onions, and a tender grass with a spicy zip. The capers underfoot won't be ready to harvest until summer.

"Only americane in the Mushroom Zone!" he shouts, motioning for Linda and me to follow him under the umbrella pines. "O, stupendo!" he cries while demonstrating how to slice off a meaty mushroom cap—big as a pizza—so that another will spring up in its place. We put the musty-smelling treasures into the basket, clumps of black soil still clinging to them. This sure beats shopping at Albertsons.

"When I retire a few months from now," he says later, "I want to take you all over Sicily. I'll be your guide, show you all the beautiful places." Then he plucks two magenta orchids with hearts of emerald.

"Prova," he says. Try.

"Is it safe?" I hope he's not handing me hemlock.

He puts his hand on his heart and closes his eyes, the Sicilian way of saying you're absolutely trustworthy. Then, "Would I poison you? Prova!"

So I pop the blossoms into my mouth, sucking the nectar from them—and from the moment. Signor Battaglia rewards me with his big, infectious grin.

Less than a year later I will leave the same wild orchids at his grave because, Giò says, they are the flowers he loved best.

***

Black clouds brood, and when a foggy mizzle descends, we squeeze back into the tiny Pandas and caravan back to Giò's apartment, where Signor Battaglia, with a flourish, dons a white apron and commandeers the kitchen like a pasha. We fling open the French doors, exposing traffic noises and a long balcony, where Giò sun-dries her laundry and tomatoes. We, his dutiful concubines, lay newspapers out on the Formica table and do the prep work: Linda snaps the woody ends off the asparagus, Rosaria washes dandelion leaves, Antonella gently brushes dirt from the mushrooms, Mona cuts fennel for the salad, and I strip the outer leaves from the grassy plant and pull out the tender white cores. Signor Battaglia, meanwhile, is busy boiling up cauldrons of water for the pasta, swirling olive oil around several pans at once, juggling and whisking eggs, criticizing our prep work, talking on the phone, cracking jokes, tossing back wine, as if he has the arms of an octopus. He does everything with sprezzatura, that Italian flair for making life look easy. I bask in his warmth and good humor; indeed, all of us do. He has a genius for making us happy.

Giò and Mona prepare lunch for the children. Like most kids I've met in Sicily, these eat nothing but plain pasta, doused with a little olive oil or pulp-free tomato sauce. Giò says that to vary their meals, she just changes the shape of the pasta, from farfalle to farfallini to farfalloni.

"Mangia, angelo," says Mona to her son, Lorenzo, as she shoves a spoonful of pasta into his cherubic face, "so your pipi will grow grande e forte."

A silent look passes between Linda and me. Her wide eyes signal that her psychologist's antennae have picked up a strange signal.

"Mangia, amore mio," echoes Giò to her wild child, Jordan, "so that your pipi will grow grande e lungho. You want it to be as big and strong as daddy's, don't you?"

Giò turns to us with an abashed grin. She's bicultural enough to realize an explanation is in order. "This is what we tell boys in Sicily to make them eat."

Eureka! Another piece of the Great Sicilian Puzzle kerplunks into place. I feel like Archimedes, who, after his epiphany in the tub, ran naked through the streets of Syracuse, our neighbor to the east. Nourished by mamas in kitchens all over the island, this pipi cult could explain the crotch-clutching, lover-boy attitude of the average adult Sicilian male. Last week a cocky clerk in Modica sold me chocolate biscotti, concluding the sale by rubbing his fingertips around his puffed-out chest and declaring, "I am Z Lover!" When even a toilet attendant at Agrigento's Doric temples is so secure in/fixated on his manhood that he offers to make babies with you as you exit the stinky gabinetto (Sono un dono della natura, Signora! I am a gift of nature, Madam!), you have to wonder what's going on in the culture.

But really, I don't get it. These pipi-centric mamas, Giò and Mona, are the same MI who rail against the machismo of the Sicilian stallions. Just another paradox of Sicilian life.

Signora Battaglia, a short, histrionic woman who is a seamstress by training, has arrived just in time for the feast, as have more family friends. Giò bids us to the table. Although we're thirteen, she's set fourteen places. "You can't set if for thirteen because the thirteenth person will die." Nor are unmarried women authorized to sit at a corner—especially not with their legs twined around a table leg—as this will doom them to eternal spinsterhood. We play a mad-scramble game of musical chairs to arrange ourselves in accordance with Sicilian superstition. Signor and Signora Battaglia preside over the table at one end, perched on high stools since we've run out of chairs.

"Buon appetito!" people chorus.

We dig in, gabbing and chewing and clucking with pride at what we've just foraged from the earth: wild mushrooms—perfectly fried in peppery oil—wild fennel salad, asparagus frittata, and weeds. Mmh. Che buono! The flavors are shiny and true. It's as close as you can get to ingesting Sicily's sun, soil, wind, and rain.

As we gorge, Signor Battaglia, like an actor from opera buffa, gets back on his soapbox, shouting, "Asparagi sono per la passione, Asparagus is for passion, to make us men strong! Yes, I feel—"

Signora Battaglia slaps him upside the head. "Madonna! Stop eating so much. The doctor said you shouldn't."

"But we have osptiti americane!" he bellows, slapping her right back, in a Moe and Curly routine. "It would be rude not to eat!"

Throughout the meal, Giò scolds us for not eating enough. "Only Antonella honors my table," she says. It's true that asparagus-thin Antonella has eaten like an ox, as they say here. Dusk is falling, and so are her eyelids. She has to hold her head up with an empty water bottle. Lunch, Sicilian style, has occupied the long divide between sunup and sundown, about eight hours. Slow Food? When it comes to Sunday lunches, Sicilians are the ultimate slow pokes.

Signora Battaglia, though, is still chattering in Sicilian at breakneck speed. "Mom, at least speak in Italian," begs Giò, trying to rein her in, "so our guests can understand." Instead, Signor Battaglia takes on the role of interpreter, but mistranslates so egregiously that we're soon in tears. This bunch is wonderfully bonkers—good at laughing, good at living. They seem to know what Luigi Barzini calls the "exhilarating Italian secret...that life can be made into a work of art." They have a lot to teach me.

Throughout the next month, a billboard-pulling truck cruises all over Ragusa Province announcing the closure of Signor Battaglia's shop. The promised discounts grow bigger by the week. One morning when the truck stops on my piazza, I snap wide awake to the blasts of noise from its megaphone. When I stop by the emptying store, Signor Battaglia gives me a bighearted hug and chatters about our future trips around Sicily. I see him for the last time in October, at his home. He tells Giò and me about his desperate childhood in Catania during and after World War II, describing how he foraged for scraps of bread and meat in back alleyways. The way he tells it makes us howl with laughter. He has a stroke in November and dies in January. All of Ragusa turns out for the funeral.

When I return to Sicily the following March. Giò has landed a job teaching English in a secondary school, a lifelong dream she realizes only after her father's death. A hip hop clothing boutique has replaced his shop. Almost a year to the day after our asparagus hunt, Giò invites us all to dinner. She has defrosted the last of the asparagus her father foraged the previous spring in his paradise on earth, the Valley of the Lost Men. She prepares a frittata di asparagi the way her father taught her. We drink to his memory, wipe away a tear, and self-consciously spear a forkful, as if it's sacramental. The asparagus is still delicious, and nothing...nothing...is the same.


Jann Huizenga has lived in Sicily on and off since 2002 and is at work on Kissing Sicilians: My Life in Ragusa, Sicily. This story won the Bronze Award for Most Unforgettable Character in the First Annual Solas Awards.


About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




Read more from Editors' Choice, Jann Huizenga

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