Food is a huge part of my conversations with my host family. I don’t live with them, like most au pairs do, so they take a lot of care in worrying about what I’m eating for breakfast and lunch since I only eat dinner with them during the week. The girls are in school during the day, so I only work in the afternoons and evenings when they’re out of school. Since Adrianna (one of the moms I work for) is Sicilian with limited English-speaking skills, and my Italian/French language knowledge is still a work in progress, these conversations usually involve a lot of descriptions of words, hand gestures, and drawings to try and figure out what food she is talking about.
Our longest conversation revolved around that weird purple vegetable: the eggplant. In British English, the eggplant is known as “aubergine.” But in American English, “aubergine” is a word for the color of the dark purple eggplant, not the vegetable itself (and, to be honest, I had to look that up and have never used the word aubergine to describe a shade of purple). But, apparently, everyone in the UK thinks everyone in the English-speaking world also calls an eggplant an aubergine, so the English teachers in school taught the children that the word aubergine is the unified English word for that oblong purple vegetable.
Now imagine Adrianna—who has been taught that everyone knows the word aubergine—learning that her American nanny has never heard the word in her life. After we filled a paper with different shapes of eggplant and multiple shades of purple, we laughed at our odd hand gestures and confusion with the word. Finally, after correcting Adrianna’s mispronunciations of the word “purple,” and translating both “aubergine” and “eggplant” into the Italian word “melanzana,” we figured out the word debacle; we still laugh every time we eat eggplant.
I also learned how to make a Sicilian eggplant sandwich, or panino in Italian, which people in Southern Italy use as a replacement for a prosciutto sandwich. Prosciutto (a cured ham made from pork legs that is famous in Italy) is most famous in Parma in Northern Italy, and though Sicilians have other cured meats, this eggplant is a common summer substitute. With a little preparation, it’s also easy for you to make this Sicilian-style sandwich at home:
1 medium eggplant cut into ½-inch thick disks
¾-1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 slices focaccia, ciabatta, or Calabrese bread
4 slices of young Caciocavallo cheese*
¾ cup arugula
Salt the eggplant disks and then place in a bowl and thoroughly soak in olive oil for one hour. Season with salt and sauté until tender on an iron-cast or non-stick skillet. While eggplant is still on the skillet, toast the bread until light to medium brown. Layer cheese, arugula, and cooked eggplant onto one side of the bread, finishing with the second slice of bread. Once assembled, you can grill the panino or use a panini press for those characteristic markings! It also melts the cheese for a little extra taste of Sicily.
*Any soft sheep’s milk or goat’s milk cheese will do, but this one is relatively easy to find at your local co-op and it’s from Sicily!