When you’re traveling around to sightseeing spots, guidebook in hand, or even asking for directions or about a road or entrance, you can always get by with some kind of words or gestures—and you shouldn’t have much problem even at a ticket counter as long as there’s a chart there. Tours usually have guidebooks or voice guides available in multiple languages, and machines selling public transportation tickets, for example, have multilingual instructions. And checking in and out at a hotel front desk is largely a matter of following standard procedures.
“It’s amazing how convenient international travel has become,” you’re likely to say to yourself as you flop down on your hotel bed and relax. But inevitably, you start to get hungry.
You pick a restaurant and head out, but your problems begin as soon as you arrive and sit down. Even if you’ve done your research on local specialties in advance, you’ll quickly find that you’re hardly prepared at all.
Surely you’ve had the experience of being faced with a huge list of menu items that you have no idea what they’re made with, so you start looking around at what everyone’s eating, then back to your menu, and on like that. These days, app technology is advanced enough that it’s fairly easy to read a foreign menu, but as soon as they hand me one, I start feeling like I’ve been given a time-limited decoding assignment and start getting anxious and stressing out. The pressure is even more intense when the Italians at my table start silently reading their menus without a word. For some reason I fall into a solitary panic, as if there’s a ticking bomb in my head waiting for someone to say something like “Oh, this one’s good,” or “You’ve got to try their XX”.
Is it just me?
Italian food is full of regional variation and prepared using a wealth of traditional techniques unique to each area. That may be why the menus here are full of words I don’t know. One example is the different types of pasta. There are the familiar ones—penne, fusilli, capellini, tagliatelle, farfalle—but the reality is that there are some five hundred types of pasta in Italy.
Then one day, I encountered a type of pasta with a name that makes you wonder where in the world it came from. After living in Italy for twenty years, I can’t say that words I don’t know never appear on menus, but I could usually get a general idea—whether a word was likely one of the five hundred types of pasta, or what kind of spin the chef was likely putting on which regional preparations—things like that. So the things I asked the wait staff had gradually changed as well.
The strange pasta name was strozzaprete. It means “priest-choker”.
How would you imagine that the name of this pasta came about? Was there some evil person that strangled a priest with it? Is it because you make it by twisting it around a wire and it comes out in a curled shape? Or because it was so delicious that priests would choke themselves on it?
The usual explanation is that many years ago, the people in the Romagna region were fed up with the intense communist rule that was advocated by the priests in those days. Add to it that the priests were gluttons for fine meals, so the name was intended as a cynical comment about a shape that would choke the decadent clergy as they stuffed their faces with food.
It’s pretty interesting that a pasta with such a dangerous-sounding name doesn’t have a clear origin, don’t you think?