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!