Words & Photographs by Kristina Gill
A simple moment at a fish cart sheds light on the difference between an old life and a new, powerful one.
The realization that I had changed came on a quiet afternoon, at a restaurant here in Rome. The waiter listed the names of the fish available that day; I smiled and told him I had no idea what those fish were. He offered to show me. But at the cart, I named each fish as he pointed to it, the words rolling off my tongue. He laughed and told me I had it under control. I guess I did, but I was surprised that I could identify a whole fish, something I didn’t recall learning.
I rewound the tape in my head. I reviewed all the experiences I’d had in food shops, and I almost missed what I was looking for—I had to roll my memories forward and backward, the way you search for a specific scene on a DVD. There it was, in my fairly recent adult memory: the fish counter. Lots of ice and lots of precut fillets. Then I rewound much further, to my childhood, when the fish was breaded and in rectangular sticks. I could attribute my previous ignorance to life in Nashville, a landlocked city—but really, I suspected it was more about life in America. We like our food already cleaned for us, just the way we plan to cook it. We like the best parts, whatever we think those are, and we discard the rest.
I’ve heard that when you lack one of your senses, the others become more heightened to compensate. When I moved to Italy, I lost the retail food outlets that I was used to in the United States, and I had to find new-to-me ways to procure and make the food I wanted to eat. Today, in addition to being able to identify whole fish, I know how to trim artichokes, the quick way to remove the middle rib from kale leaves, and that you can use the entire leek, not just the white part. I know how to cut a whole chicken into parts—in fact, I own two pair of poultry shears. I also own fish pliers and tweezers and can remove the pin bones from salmon before making gravad lax. I have a drawer of special tools I never imagined I’d own, and I now think of foods and dishes by season, looking forward to the months in which they will be at their peak. I know that I have to catch fruits and vegetables in their window, or try again the next year. I have learned how to select produce and how to make so many things: curries, dumplings, Tex-Mex, a full Thanksgiving dinner, the perfect burger, all things American and of course Italian. I have conquered savory and sweet baking, dropping by the pastry shop for tips from the pastry chefs from time to time. I have also realized that it is extremely empowering to be able to prepare from scratch whatever I want to eat.
At the fish cart that day, I wondered how I had made it so long without knowing what are, at the end of the day, the most natural things to know. I now think of all of these bits of knowledge as my new “super powers.” While I feel extremely capable and greatly strengthened, a part of me is ashamed at having been so “weak,” but I won’t dwell too long. Instead, I have started to teach my husband what I have learned, starting with the basics.