Close encounters of the Sicilian kind

The silky, gelatinous meat was still moving inside its rough wet shell. I shucked it out with a fork after trying unsuccessfully with a toothpick. It slowly peeled off. It was then that I realized what I was doing.

I had volunteered to eat some slimy sea creature I could barely say the name of freshly plucked from the sea. Raw. Still alive. I was having flashbacks of the unsophisticated dinners of my childhood in landlocked Missouri where the only seafood we ate was frozen and unjustifiably called fingers.

But Maria told me to do it.

Maria is the 50-year-old Sicilian mother of a friend of mine, who I was visiting at her parents’ home in Siracuse, Sicily. Her father, a fisherman, took us out on their boat with the whole family. We snacked on Maria’s homemade stuffed focacce, fruit and the aforementioned raw shellfish.

Maria had eagerly fished several uccuni, a type of sea snail, from a bag of collected shellfish her son had tossed onboard, grabbed a fork, and handed them over. Up to this point, I was equally as eager. I might have even given her the idea. But then I hesitated. I remembered the many times mollusks had made me sick in the past few years – first it was mussels, clams once or twice, I think some octopus didn’t sit well either.

I looked at Maria with her smiling sun-kissed cheeks. She was showing me how to pry it out of its shell. I looked at the poor slippery thing hanging from my little fork. Bottoms up. I slurped it down, coughing as the taste filled my mouth.

“Wow,” was really all I could manage. Keep it down, I told myself. It tasted like a gulp of seawater, only this I couldn’t spit back into the sea. It didn’t chew well. It slowly worked its way down my throat, the saltiness lingering in my mouth. Maria beamed as she handed a shucked patella, a smaller shellfish they had collected, to her 6-year-old granddaughter.

If there’s anything Italians love as much as their food, it’s talking about and sharing it. I get fed wherever I go. I ask what something is and it sparks a never-ending conversation that ends with me being force-fed. I’ve become quite good at using my accented Italian to ask all doe-eyed what something is, giving a person the opportunity to proselytize about a dish or ingredient.

Maria was no exception. That night we had the rest of the patelle. This time Maria cooked them and added them to pasta with a sauce of other things, begging the question, can Maria work miracles? There were also some grilled shrimp and baked fish. All things that might have scared me, but I knew I could trust Maria’s magic fingers.

Sometimes, however, I get in over my head and find myself in front of a plate of offal sautéed in red wine (lamb heart) or the encased meat of an animal most consider more friend than food (horse salame). But generally these choices prove rewarding.

I don’t think I will be trying uccuni again, although other raw sea creatures have not been ruled out entirely (here’s looking at you, sea urchin). One thing is certain, I won’t be eating frozen fish fingers anytime soon.