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a mediterranean meal
By Margo Fallis 2007

Selina grated a cinnamon stick into a bowl overflowing with bread dough. The aroma of ginger, nutmeg, and other spices floated out the kitchen window. On my way to the local market, I had no choice but to stop when the smell reached my nostrils. “Is that cinnamon?” My nose twitched and wrinkled as I sniffed the air. “Selina must be baking bread today.” Tantalizing and pulling me towards the house, long, magical fingers of steam lured me with their spicy scent. It was too much to resist. The window was wide open. I stood on my tiptoes and peeked inside. Selina stood with her back to me. The plump figure, dressed in black cotton cloth that hung to her ankles, hummed an old Italian love song. Her head, covered in a black scarf and tied with a knot under her graying hair, bobbed up and down with the rhythm of the tune.

I nearly knocked over two flowerpots as I gaped at the rising bread. They clanked together, but didn’t seem to distract Selina. I noticed a crack in the pots that burst with blooms. Bright red geraniums grew from thick green branches and the fuzzy leaves tickled my legs. In the other pot were orange nasturtiums with yellow centers. I looked down just as a fat, lime green caterpillar crawled across one of the flowers. I was tempted to pick it up, but was anxious to get back to watching Selina working in the kitchen.

Trying to be more careful, I pulled myself up, balancing on the sides of the large flowerpots. I noticed that branches of rosemary and thyme, and other fresh herbs, had been tied with string. Someone had hammered a nail in the wall and hung them to dry. Red peppers, shriveled and wrinkled, lay in a wire basket.

Selina turned and caught me in the act. “Ramon, what are you doing out there? Come inside and keep me company!” She winked and gave me a wicked smile. I felt my face turning red with embarrassment. Selina rubbed her dough-covered hands on the apron that was tied at the side of her waist. “Come inside,” she called.

I pulled myself up onto the ledge and slid down onto the black and white tile floor. Flour stuck to the bottom of my feet as I walked towards Selina. “There you are. I’ve got some sardines for you. Papa brought them home this morning from the market, just for you.” Ever since I’d come to Selina’s bed and breakfast in Naples, or Napoli, as the natives call it, I’d had a fondness for the tiny fish. Selina made sure I had some brought in fresh daily.

I stood beside her, watching as she mixed the bread. She pounded it with her round fists and kneaded it firmly. “Papa brought me some grapes. They’re plump, deep purple, and have few seeds; just the way I like them.” I turned my head and looked at the grapes. “Eat your sardines, Ramon,” Selina laughed.

She set the bowl with the rising dough on the window ledge and covered it with a damp cloth. Satisfied, she picked up a block of cheese and began to grate it. “Parmesan,” she smiled. “For supper tonight. I’m fixing Papa and I spaghetti with tomato sauce. I have some fresh honey for the bread.”

I gobbled the sardines and licked my lips. I could hear the seagulls squawking outside. The fishing boats must have just arrived with their daily catch. I moved to the window and gazed between the whitewashed houses down to the seashore, spotting Papa’s boat. “He’s here,” Selina called. “Ramon, go and welcome him home. The Mediterranean was rough for the fishermen this afternoon.”

I made my way down the cobblestone street to greet Papa. He was busy hauling the fish off the boat. “Ah, Ramon, you’ve come to see me. Did Mama send you here?” he laughed, picking up a crate of fresh orange roughy. Silvery scales covered with slime slipped out of the crate and dripped near my feet. “Stand back. I’ve got fish, oysters, mussels, and a special surprise for Mama.” I licked my lips. It smelled so fresh. “I didn’t forget you. Did you enjoy your sardines from this morning? I’ve got some octopus for your supper tonight,” Papa said.

I walked next to him as we made our way uphill towards home. “Mama! Come and see,” Papa called. I followed him into the house and the door slammed behind me.

“What did you bring?” Mama asked, her eyes filled with anticipation.

The old man shuffled through the door and put a brown paper bag down on the counter. “I caught it myself. When I saw it, I thought, Mama will enjoy this!”

Selina pulled the tuna out of the bag. “Papa, my favorite!” She reached over and kissed his leathery brown cheek. “Oh, and you brought octopus too. You’ll like that, won’t you, Ramon?”

I sat on a stool in the corner of the kitchen watching them at work. Selina put the bread in the oven. She chopped the octopus into bite-sized bits and tossed them into a heavy black skillet. They sizzled in olive oil as she filleted the tuna. Papa washed up and chopped a sweet onion, a red pepper bigger that was bigger than his fist, and three cloves of garlic. The smell in the kitchen was overpowering. My stomach growled, waiting with anticipation for my evening meal. Selina filled a bowl with green olives. Everything looked delicious. I could hardly wait.

Plates of steaming food were piled high and placed in an orderly fashion on the table. Papa spread creamy butter onto the hot slices of bread. I watched as it melted into yellow liquid. The green-colored pasta was drained and tossed into a large bowl. Selina’s favorite was spinach pasta. Tomato sauce, thick with fresh and fragrant herbs, was ladled onto the pasta. Selina doused the grilled tuna with more olive oil and put it on the plates. I drooled as the octopus slid out of the skillet into a bowl. I sat in a chair next to the table, waiting for the feast to begin. “Ramon, you know you can’t sit at the table with the rest of us. Here’s your bowl. Come! Enjoy,” Selina said. “Papa, I wonder when Ramon is going to remember he’s a cat, not a person,” she laughed.

I gobbled down the octopus until my belly was full and then found my old and worn, yet comfortable blanket in the corner of the kitchen and fell asleep. “Ah, Napoli! A cat could ask for nothing more.”

a mediterranean meal - italy