Stuff That Scared Me Silly, Sicily

February 9, 2013

As we tooled around Sicily this week, a theme emerged: scary sights.

Spotted in the Ballaro market in Palermo: goat heads. What is the home cook to do with these? Are they meant for lunch, or…?

Goat heads in Palermo market, copyright Jann Huizenga

Wikipedia says, “In Sicilian witchcraft it is customary to leave a fish head on the door step of one’s enemy to ward off malicious intention. The practice dates back to at least 1308, when Dante referenced it in his epic, the Divine ComedyIn a more serious feud, escalation of hostilities can be signaled by the appearance of a goat head or horse head.”  

Below was the Dantesque vision that greeted us as we entered Mazara del Vallo. I can’t say for sure what it is.

Side of Beef in Sicily, copyright Jann  Huizenga

And in the Mazara fish market, the catch of the day was a creature the size of a very large pizza, with eyes instead of olives, and a laughing mouth.

A fisherman at the fish market in Mazara del Vallo, Sicily, copyright Jann Huizenga

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47 comments to Stuff That Scared Me Silly, Sicily

  • I have just the person for those goats heads LOL x

  • “almond cookies, chocolate eclairs, marmalade-filled croissants” to help you get over your fear? Yes, I feel your pain. The pain of trying to get your jeans done up in the morning!

    • Jann

      Precisely, louciao. I’m on a real roll with the sweets at the moment, which creates a most unwelcome roll around the waist.

  • Anasthasia

    Reminds me of the movie “The Godfather”. After the horsehead scene I couldn’t watch any more. Please go back to photographing muddy roads or anything else PLEASE. I love your pictures but……………

    • Jann

      OK, Anasthasia–thanks for the feedback. I’ll try hard to stay away from such stuff in the future, or at least give readers an early warning!

  • “there are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer”
    great photos great viewer comments

  • Anitre

    Skinned goat head recipes certainly aren’t in any cookbooks sold in the tourist shops. I’d be interested to learn how they’re used. I wonder if that’s the Arabic influence. I’ve seen those heads whilst traveling around north Africa, too. However, those big pigs remind me of the family pig roasts back in Michigan. Where’s the garlic and rosemary… Yum!

  • vicki carol

    I would have to become a vegan if I had to kill an animal for food. I just couldn’t do it. I guess that is why we have butchers. They hide all the ugly tasks. Think I will go fix a bowl of veg soup for lunch today.

  • Hey, Goats’Head Soup; don’t knock it ’till you’ve tried it…and you can even dance to it! I will never forget my first encounter with two cows, peeking out from behind the fly strips in a butcher’s shop, wallflower-like as they stared distractedly toward the street and passersby. Just the heads…

    • Jann

      Oh, my, Sandra–it must be good soup if you can dance to it! (And my husband just told me about the Rolling Stones album–ha!!!!)

  • You can keep the fish, but give me the description any day! x

  • Did you happen to lose weight on that trip?

    • Jann

      Well, louciao, sadly no. To get over my fears, I had to eat as many sweets as I could–almond cookies, chocolate eclairs, marmalade-filled croissants.

  • Tolana

    Ugly sights for sure! However, I’ve become used to these things living on South Korea. I see halved pigs’ heads and hanging pigs or sides of beef regularly. Most disturbing is the live dogs and cats for sale in cramped cages — to be beaten to death and eaten (adrenaline improves the flavor, supposedly).

  • Twenty six years ago I was in Hong Kong and wandered my way into a meat market (the food kind, not the ‘pick up’ kind). Each floor was a little more gruesome than the last. Finally, I came out on to the 4th floor face to face with a pile of skinned cow heads, complete with horns, eyeballs, and tongues hanging out. Let’s just say I put my camera away, turned around and ran down the stairs and out onto the street followed by the laughter of the Chinese men I left behind in the market. My stomach isn’t so squeamish anymore but I still don’t think I would be buying a skinned anything-head anytime soon!

    • Jann

      Wow, Diane. I can see you’re still a little traumatized by that Hong Kong experience… Four floors of horror show!!!

  • A piggy in that truck!Is my guess!

  • Love this Jann. Edible spells and tasty talismans. Only in Sicily! I’m sure the goatshead, like everything else, is delicious in the rights hards. You’ll have to fish for an invitation and tell us all about it…xx

  • Joyce LaGow

    Tom: from my father’s region in Italy, it would be “fazul” but I bet it’s all dialect and dependent on the region.

  • Joyce LaGow

    I’ve seen fish like the one in the photo in markets on the Amazon–can’t remember what the family is. If it’s the same type of fish, really good eating but lots of bones! :-)

  • Joyce LaGow

    I don;t know what the goats’ heads are used for in Sicily, but here in Panama, pigs’ heads, in our area of the province of Chiriqui, are used to make a a delicious soup. It takes two days to make. The last step is to toss in the head of a freshly-killed pig. In the resulting soup, you do get bits of brain and other matter floating around. We had the privilege of being part of the preparation and were there while our friend’s uncle, who owns a farm and who had just slaughtered a pig, brought in the head. and that’s why our friend Maritza was making the soup–because of the scheduled slaughter.

    My father was from northern Italy, and he loved tripe–yes tripe, which I loathed and sent our Panamanian friends into hysterical laughter when I told them I wouldn’t eat mondongo (Panamanian version of tripe) and why.

    Peasants don’t waste food. In most of the world, that’s the way it is–you make use of everything. Th chinese have made that into culinary art.

    I think what’s hanging in the back of the truck are headless pigs–sure looks like it, anyway.

  • Jann, I’m afraid the sight of the goat heads have added to my insomnia! hee hee! Oh my goodness, those photos are scary! I’m still giggling over whatever is in the back of that truck! :)

  • –I’m Scaaaaaaaaaaared, Jann!

    It’s like a scene out of Hostel or Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

    I feel sorry for those pets!

    Love to you, my sweet girl. xxxxx

  • How I loved hearing about all the superstitions. xxpeggybraswelldesign.com

  • I was taken aback the first time in Palermo with these sightings…but just for a second or two. My grandmother from the Alessandria area married a man raised in Sicily (born in Greece) and I suppose because of his peasant childhood she learned how to cook every part of everything, from land or sea! I recall in the late 50s hearing distrusting remarks of concern about the packaged meats from the supermarket in our New Jersey town. They went “up to the farm” (upstate NY) to get everything we ate, which often included body parts of goat, like what you have photographed. I believe the head and hoof, etc became part of stews served over polenta and broth bases for the pasta va zule or pasta fazul, which BTW I would like to know which terminology is “correct”.

    • Jann

      So interesting, Tom. Thanks for these stories. Just saw some news about England–a company making ready-made frozen lasagna, etc was really using horse meat, though the packages said beef. Hard to be sure exactly what you’re eating!

  • Yikes! I think, if we saw ALL meats like this — raw, bare, dead — none of us would eat meat, ha! Those goat heads are particularly unappetizing. Do they use them for stews or soup, or is that a delicacy I’ve never heard about?

    • Jann

      Yes, Debbie–it’s enough to put you off all animal products. According to the comments here, the goat heads are for soups…

  • I think that most Sicilians probably know how to make something delicious from a goat’s head. For people who still know how to use every part of an animal, nothing is wasted.
    My husband, who raises two pigs every year, says the second photo is of two pigs hanging together. He “gets the pigs ready” for a trip to a meat market but has not done all the butchering himself yet. That IS his goal someday soon.
    I enjoy your photos, scary, or not. Thank you! The superstitions you talked about could be pretty scary, too. Yikes!

    • Jann

      Caterina, thanks for this comment! OK, you solved the hanging animal puzzle!! And you’re right, if an animal has to be killed anyway, let us use ALL the parts of it and not waste a thing.

  • Joanne

    Hi Jan,
    Twenty two years ago, my husband and I were walking through the Ballaro Market and to my shocking surprise, I too came face to face (about 6 inches) with skinned goat heads that were standing upright. It was frightening but overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the market.

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