Poor Little Devil

Clunk! Man. Umberto Falcone’s kinda surprised I’ve tossed the bocce ball anywhere close to the jack. Call it beginner’s luck.

Luck: Guess that’s how this whole sea-urchin thing started too. Though now that I think about it, it really began when Umberto and the guys, Vito and Banny, spotted me hanging around the bocce courts at the Farmers’ mercato here in Little Italy, waiting for Carla. “Come and try,” Umberto said. “Our fourth guy hasn’t arrived yet.” So I did.

As we play, we get to talking about what a heckuva market this is. “It has everything,” I say. “Have you tried the sea urchins yet?” Umberto asks. “We eat them all the time. Very good for you.”

There was a twinkle in his eye, but it didn’t quite register, and I plum forgot all about it until later, after I’d filled up on paninis and found myself down at the market’s other end, outside La Pensione hotel.

That’s when I spot Heidi and her daughter Rosemary chasing a lone spiny sea urchin across their market table. It was spike-walking, trying to escape, poor little devil. “Last one,” Heidi says. “We’re just starting to pack up. Would you like this?”

I look around. Still no sign of Carla, so I say yes.

“For here or to go?” she asks.

“Here,” I say. But I’m not prepared for what happens next.

Heidi grabs the urchin (seems the word actually means hedgehog) with a gloved hand, feels for a soft place to stab, and then, oh, man: cuts out the mouth. It’s a circle of five bony little teeth. The urchin uses them to chew on giant kelp fronds. Suddenly, this is personal.

“These teeth,” says Heidi, holding them up, “are called ‘Aristotle’s lanterns,’ because Aristotle wasn’t just a philosopher. He was also a biologist, and he described these as looking like the bone lanterns the Greeks used back then.”

Now she’s splitting the shell in two. The little guy must be dead, musn’t he? But one or two spines are still moving…She pours out the seawater from inside, then starts separating the greeny and browny-black and orange squishy stuff. I don’t even want to know what the parts are, but she tells me anyway. Some is fresh-chomped seaweed, some waste, and “They call the rest, the orange parts, roe, like eggs — but actually they are gonads. Sex organs. Their whole body is one big sex organ. That’s the parts you eat.”

She lays the orange gonads out on a paper plate, has me spritz them with a slice of lemon, and hands me a plastic fork.

It’s…interesting. I’m thinking sheep’s brains. Sweetmeats. Or, yes, like roe. You could imagine fish eggs. Caviar. Mild, salty tasting. They almost slip down like oysters.

“What do you think of them?” I ask Rosemary.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I can’t bring myself to eat one.”

“These are red sea urchins,” Heidi says. “They’re local food, Pacific-coasters. By eating them, we’re doing the giant kelp a favor, and eating locally means a smaller carbon footprint. Don’t worry, there are plenty more where he came from.”

“Most customers don’t actually eat them here,” says Rosemary. She says they like to take them home and cook them into a chowder, or bake them, or put them in scrambled eggs. Easier to deal with that way.

Turns out that Rosemary’s dad and Heidi’s husband dive and catch the urchins 80 feet down in the kelp beds off La Jolla. There are about ten fishermen who do this. They call themselves San Diego Kelp Bed Products.

So I have to know: how about that “aphrodisiac” claim?

“Well, the local Italians here are mad about them,” Heidi says. “Also, because these sea urchins can live to 100, 200 years, people believe it’ll promote a long life.”

I can’t believe this. It’s Biblical. These little creatures must be the longest-living animals on earth. I’d feel awful eating one of them.

“Don’t feel bad,” says Heidi. “If we left them alone, they’d eat the whole kelp forest because there are no sea otters left to control the population. It would be a desert out there. The limits are strict, so they won’t fish these out.”

Heidi says sea urchins have been on this earth five times as long as us humans. Huh. We probably were these spiky walkers, back in the day. Like, Grandpa! We meet at last!

I slurp the last orange slab of gonads. Hmm…almost buttery, flavored by the salt sea. I hand over $3.50.

That’s when I spot Carla, a little farther up the mercato. She’s at Viva Pops, the organic fruit-and-herb popsicle stand. Carla’s trying to decide between “Lavender Lemonade,” “Peach Ginger,” and “Nectarine Basil.”

“Oh, Ed,” she says. “Just in time. Do you have $3? And which should I choose?”

“Uh, peach ginger,” I say. “But, darling, why don’t we just go home? Wanna tell you about the lanterns of Aristotle.”

“Ooh... The lanterns of Aristotle sounds muy romantica. Say, how come you’re being romantic? You’ve been flirting with someone, right?”

The Place: Heidi’s Urchins, at Little Italy Mercato, Date Street, at India, Little Italy; 619-733-6315; market tel: 619-233-3898
Type of Food: Urchins
Prices: $3.50 per sea urchin
Hours: 9:00 a.m.–1:30 p.m., Saturdays
Bus: 83
Nearest Bus Stops: India and Cedar (northbound); Kettner and Cedar (southbound)
Trolley: Blue Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: County Center/Little Italy, at Cedar and Kettner

Listen to Ed Bedford discuss this article on Reader Radio!

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