19 Sep 2014

la boqueria + an ode to food: the thing that nourishes us, binds us, sustains us


You learn about a country by eating its food. And I’m not talking about the starred Michelin restaurants and hosts who stand for hours on end clutching menus–all in hopes that you’ll be seduced enough by their calls of pasta! pizza! paella! to come through–rather, I’m talking about putting on comfortable shoes and weaving your way through frenetic markets. I’m talking about how to ask for vegetables in grams and kilos as opposed to ounces and pounds. You fall in love with a country when you can see it through the eyes of the people who breathe its air every day, who treasure cuts of meat that make others writhe in disgust. Notice how people talk about their food, how they prepare it and preserve it. Ask them, even if you can never imagine eating lamb testicles or tripe, how they season it (dried or fresh herbs, encrusted in a brick layer of salt?), when they eat it (holiday, family gathering, a quick shoveling between their two jobs) and with which foods they pair it. Suddenly, two people are not one and the other, but they’re two halves of one whole because they’re talking about the thing that sustains them, nourishes them, that thing being food.

Whenever I land in a country, I immediately seek out its markets. I’ll learn simple phrases about the weight and cost of food. I’ll watch locals pick over the produce, the way they organize their bounty, and their gentle, or in some countries, brusque, art of negotiation. In Provence, market proprietors treat their wares as if they were high finery and the negotiations are informed, respectful. In Cambodia, stall owners often sleep under their stalls because the journey home is too exhausting and expensive. In Taichung, buyers bark their orders and negotiate to an extreme, but still there is this informal mutual understanding of respecting pride and face. Watching the art of food commerce and conversation, in this way, I’m the other, an interloper intruding a private space. It’s only when I move past observation and curiosity to participate that I feel as if I’m actually part of the country, its rhythms, ebb and flow. I’ve become part of the exchange that binds people, and I leave a country with a deeper, more meaningful understanding of how people eat, how they live.

I love Spain. I feel very attached to Barcelona. Maybe it’s because Spanish is one of the few languages I understand well and speak decently. Or maybe because their ham is aged for 5 years while prosciutto is aged for 18 months. Or perhaps it’s the fat, violet figs and curved cubes of coconut that issue their siren call, but never have I loved a market as much as La Boqueria. Once a church located outside of the walls of Barcelona, free from the King’s tax and protection, La Boqueria became a humble trading place for the poor, and now it’s the largest open market in Europe. Here you’ll find spices, scores of artisanal and simple sweets, cuts of fish I’ve never seen, and the innards of animals in all their rich, sanguine glory. Maybe I should have visited the Picasso Museum, but instead I keep coming back to the market, the simple symphony of food and the people who adore it, need it.

Today I booked one of the best tours I’ve taken to date, with Food & Wine Tours. The tour was billed as a 3-hour tapas tour, but it was so much more. Our exceptional tour (with the exceedingly knowledgeable and kind, Nico, who made a point to accommodate my gluten & dairy sensitivities) started at the market, but over the course of over four hours, we stumbled upon a wedding, a Ukrainian opera singer, whose voice will make you shudder and weep, and hot chocolate so thick you need a spoon to consume it. We wove in and out of back streets and alleyways from La Rambla to the Gothic Quarter, and ate our weight in tapas and pinchos. Food somehow opened a window for our small group to talk about politics, money, children, our respective homelands, and it allowed us to laugh at the Catalan holiday tradition of caga tiÓ. Have you heard of this? Brief parenthetical. You will appreciate this.


In Catalan, but not in all of Spain, there is no Santa Claus. However, there is caga tiÓ, a shitting uncle/log. Yes, shit. As the story goes, families wished for fertilizer so that they would have abundant crops. Crops meant money, food, and comfort for the family. So children were taught over time to “beat the shit” out of a log for abundance. Three hundred years ago this would’ve meant fertile land, but now it’s a shitting Shakira, a Hello Kitty that poops pink—now, it’s children surrounding a log with sticks in hopes that beating it will “poop out” sweets, toys and the like. Abundance of a different kind, I guess.

Food opens every door, and I can’t help but think that my tour tonight wasn’t just about tapas, it was a journey through a few streets in Barcelona but in a way that I hadn’t previously experienced. The story started with a meal you held in your hands and morphed into a virgin who survived thirteen martyrs, the precarious Spanish economy (how does cutting education and healthcare in this world of European austerity make any sense?!), and a brief conversation with Nico about how having a seven-month-year-old daughter changed him in ways he never conceived. Food creates a sort of intense intimacy, and when I came back to my apartment and surfed the web to find people cataloging their possessions instead of cultivating new experiences, of feeling their connections, seeing the world, I sometimes feel that I speak a different language with those who live in my own country. Sometimes I feel subsumed by people who so assiduously seek to acquire and consume objects rather than creating, building our own private house, brick by brick.

Isn’t that what we should desire: compulsive curiosity instead of casual complacency and obsessive acquisition? In the past twenty years my travels have brought me to Russia, Thailand, Bali, Spain, Fiji, France, Italy, England, Prague, Cambodia, China, Australia, Mexico, Denmark, Belgium, Korea, Ireland, and India, and I feel richer for it. Even when I feel there is so much more I need to learn. When you cultivate honor and respect for something as fundamental as how someone eats, you see them as human, a deviation from your familiar, but human nonetheless, and that base level of compassion somehow extends itself to the larger divides that previously seemed impenetrable. While I’m not saying that food will solve the world’s problems, undo religious wars and political divides, I am proposing that we find small ways to see the human frailty in others; we cultivate empathy. So while people might shriek over the first picture at the beginning of this post–wild gooseneck barnacles, which are an expensive delicacy in Spain–I was captivated by the risk people take with their lives to farm these particular breed of barnacles, which are not affixed to harbor ships and rocks, instead they’re in roiling surf in certain seas. I also had to smile as I’ve developed a strange obsession to barnacles, an image I’ve been using a lot in my novel to signify unhealthy attachment. So while I may not want to get a sack of these, I can appreciate and respect those who will pay a princely sum to feast on these crustaceans.

Tomorrow I leave Barcelona for Granada, Seville and Cordoba, and I can’t wait to plant my bags and wander through Andalusian markets!

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  1. jenny wrote:

    I miss barcelona so much looking at your photos!! I have been following your blog a long time… and love the food journey you have been on. Keep it up!

    Posted on 9.19.14 · Reply to comment
    • Thanks, Jenny! I’m so humbled to hear that my photos have so such a wonderful effect. 🙂 Warmly, Felicia

      Posted on 9.20.14 · Reply to comment

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  • As you guys know, I am BIG on education. My goal for this year is to share as much education and free resources on freelancing, marketing, and writing as possible. I'm even switching email list providers (moving to ConvertKit) so I can send you better emails related to what you're interested in. Don't care about the brand stuff, but want to know more about writing? I GOT YOU. When I sell resources, I want them to be relatively affordable. So, I'm starting small with a MONSTER guide on freelancing. I originally thought this was going to be 100 pages. Well, it's 150+ pages with 40% of NEW content I'm writing RIGHT NOW. Templates, how-tos, personal stories, resources, and everything you need to know about getting started, getting clients, onboarding them, managing them, and dealing with them when they drive you bonkers. .

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  • In this era of competitiveness and self-serving "entrepreneurs," it's rare to come across a peer who is generous with their work and their heart. Rarely am I moved by people, but today I was on the receiving end of an act of kindness that I had to share. 
I contacted a peer in the marketing space, a woman whom I revere and admire. She's young, smart, passionate, hardworking, and knows more about marketing than most people I've encountered in my two-decade-long career. 
I wrote her wondering if she was selling educational materials she created a few years ago-- an education that helped me refine my acumen. She replied and sent me the materials FOR FREE. 
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Who does this? Who extends their work and kindness so generously? I came away inspired. Inspired to share my knowledge--as much as I can--for free.

So many people paint consultants, marketers, educators and course providers with a broad brush. Yes, there are hoards of incompetent hustlers. People who don't do what they teach. But there are those who are bright lights. And today I was reminded of that. 
There are good people out there and I can still be surprised by kindness.
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  • With the exception of the cruelty that is tax day, I’m toasting some professional wins. I’m creating a comprehensive ebook on freelancing—the ultimate guide before I go the course route. Hit the link in my bio to subscribe to my email list to get all the details! I’m excited about this one because I’m rocking the baby steps before marathon approach.
Inspired by one of my professional heroes, @byreginatv, I removed 2,000 people from my email list and it felt glorious. Don't be tethered to a vanity metric. If people aren't connecting with you, the numbers are meaningless. I'd rather have a smaller, engaged audience of people who are into my vibe and work than the ability to shout out a high subscriber count. #foodforproverbialthought.
I’ve got new book recommendations up on my personal blog: http://www.feliciacsullivan.com if you want to devour some excellent reads.

Finally, aided by a new friend, I’m going to my first Quilt chat this week. The Wing isn’t my vibe and it’s can’t rationalize spending the money and Quilt is my scene. I’ll likely be chatting about this in my newsletter as I’m FINALLY in a place where I can network in a non-smarmy setting.
Here’s to an excellent start to the week!
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  • This year is shaping up to be my best yet, and I’m happy to have made it out of the dark country. I’m writing work that means so much to me. I’m reading 2 books a week. I’m tackling challenging, but thrilling projects. I’m collaborating with brilliant, beautiful friends. And I’m calm, centered, and focused. It too a long while and a breakdown to get here, but I’m grateful for my small patchwork of a family who always checked in, hired me when I desperately needed it, and didn’t flee when things got tough. Sometimes you need to feel the weight of your sadness to unburden yourself of it. Here’s to yummy lunches and the best year yet!
  • Over the past two years, I’ve been toying with teaching. I’ve taught marketing to creatives at USC. I’ve taught creative writing in New York. I’ve mentored employees and friends. I love learning and sharing what I’ve learned, and forpeople I know and love I often do it for free. 
So, what’s stopped me? Honestly, the machine that’s become the online course industry irritates me. Webinars that waste time. Who wants to watch a 45-minute infomercial? Not me. Or how about the fake fan love and Instagram platforms that are transparently transactional? Courses that are a million dollars, taught by people who haven’t done the thing they’reteaching beyond their own privileged platform. And did I mention that everyone looks the same? The super stars are white, well educated, and bragging about their seven-figure incomes. 
I mean, COME ON. 
Listen. I’m half-white, privileged as fuck, well educated, but I definitely don’t make seven figures. And I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated with freelancers who call themselves brand strategists (aka, predators posing as house pets) making bank, yet they lack the experience, education, and discipline. But I’ve learned that complaining does nothing if you’re not creating, if you’re not putting out the thing you want to see in the world. I spent two months creating an 8-step tutorial on how to build a brand platform because I was tired of people not having access to education and opportunity because they couldn’t drop $1,500 on a brand-building course.

Then I thought about how I need to stop complaining about the shady machine that is the online course space and put out the education I want to see in the world, made accessible to people who don’t look like me or have the fancy-pants Ivy League degrees I have (which have driven me to paralyzing debt, but that’s a whole other bag of sad tricks). I’m planning two courses: one on getting into the freelancing game and another on building your brand and finding your customer. Interested? Sign up for my email list (link in bio), where I’ll keep everyone posted.
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  • It may only be 5:48am, but I woke to amazing news. I’m toasting with coffee and a scone this morning. I’m partnering with brilliant friends and marketers (eh-hem, @luciaioevans) on incredible projects, my pipeline is healthy, my mental health is aces since I got off all personal social media. Granted, I won’t be able to see humans for the next two months as I’m locked down with some major projects, but I am not complaining. I’m ELATED. It’s all happening!!!! Yay! Finally!!!
  • You guys. I’m having an incredible fucking year. I’ve published tutorials, thought leadership and essays I’m proud of, I’m working with incredible clients who are breaking ranks, I’m partnering with brilliant people on projects, my pipeline is healthy, my mental health is getting back on track, and I’m reorganizing my business so I can run it more efficiently. Sometimes you have to applaud the wins, especially when they’ve been earned.
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  • What a day! Ive been floored and humbled by the tens of THOUSANDS who viewed my 8-part brand building series on medium (link in bio)! I’ve heard from four university professors who want to incorporate my work as assigned reading, the people who were grateful not to have to spend $2K on some wack course taught by an “expert” whose only success example is their personal brand.
Today, I had a day of interviews that culminated in a presentation to the executive team. After it ended, several people asked if I’d considered teaching because I just delivered a master class on brand strategy.
It feels good to know your stuff but still have the hunger and drive as a student!
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