The Purple Horse
Mercato Centrale: the ongoing farmers’ market in the heart of Florence. The first floor reeked of spectacular meat delicacies like cow intestines, horse meat, and other mostly unidentifiable items, so being a vegetarian, I naturally fled this area of the market (except on days when I needed to make a stop at one of the bakeries, which was often—why had they thought to keep them on the same level as the meat? The thought of it is unpleasant!) and headed straight upstairs to the produce area.
Learning the names of my favorite fruits and vegetables in Italian quickly became one of my favorite pastimes, and I prided myself on being able to tell the vendors what I wanted to purchase without using any English. Of course, my phrases were simple, and if they were impressed that the silly American girl was using Italian and wanted to talk to me further, which sometimes did happen, I would freeze regarding what to say next. Often I could understand what they were asking or telling me, but was just unsure of a response, so I’m sure I came as a disappointment when I would just begin to shake my head and mutter my apologies or even pull out the dreaded phrase: “Non parlo Italiano.” Oh, it felt like such a failure when I had to do that! But I was trying, really I was, and as long as I had planned out exactly what I would say, and as long as they responded back exactly as I thought they would, and as long as they didn’t dare try to take the conversation any further, this silly American girl would walk away feeling on top of the world.
One day, I spied some heads of red cabbage at a produce stand in the market and knew I wanted to buy one to use in that night’s dinner. I turned with my back facing that particular stand and pulled out my pocket dictionary. I looked up the word for cabbage: cavolo. Taking a breath to prepare myself, I casually walked over to the stand. I started by saying that I wanted to buy five or six mushrooms. The vendor, who was quite friendly and was even singing and dancing about, happily obliged and tossed some funghi in a bag for me, making a little show of it.
He looked at me inquisitively as if to say, what else? I then asked for purple cabbage. It dawned on me awhile later that while the cabbage is technically purple, in the culinary world it is referred to as red. It dawned on me immediately, however, that he had no idea what I was talking about. I said it again, smiling this time, as if that would clear things up. He looked at me again with the same perplexed expression, now appearing somewhat amused. I said it a third time, pointing at the cabbage. A lightbulb went off in his head (most assuredly related to the pointing and having nothing to do with what I was saying), “Radicchio!” I learned later that this was a specific cabbage variety.
Walking away after the transaction was completed, however, I began scratching my head. Even if it were a specific type of cabbage with some fancy name, and even if I had used the wrong color, surely he would have known what I meant if I had said cabbage correctly. I turned my back again and pulled out the dictionary, glancing over the page for similar words. Cabbage, cavolo. Horse, cavallo. Is that what I said? Cavallo? I ran over the conversation in my head. I had said cavallo! And not just cavallo, but cavallo violo, or purple horse. I had a hunch they weren’t even selling horse meat of that variety on the first floor. In fact, I would have probably needed to make a trip to the Land of Oz for that kind of delicacy.Paying for my purple horse! Photo by Casey.