Homage to La Cocina Española? Where are the Books?

Sometimes odd thoughts come to me while I’m stirring a pot of soup or crying over chopped onions.

Perhaps you’ve experienced something such as this, triggered by some sort of catalyst. Like a chemical reaction, once it sparks, there’s no going back.

In the latest instance of these mind games, one such catalyst appeared in the form of arroz con pollo (chicken with rice). Found almost everywhere these days, arroz has become one of the most familiar dishes of Spanish cuisine, basically a simpler version of paella. Some purists might argue with that, though!

And the other catalyst?

Two books, one by an eccentric Englishman and the other, crafted by an Irish writer who exiled himself briefly to Barcelona.

George Orwell, born in British India, to an English father and a French mother, gravitated toward Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War. And produced Homage to Catalonia.

Colm Tóibín, on the other hand, crashed into the world of literature about Spain with Homage to Barcelona (2002), followed by a novel, The South (2012).


Arroz con Pollo, with Amontillado (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

My mind darted from thinking about what size pan to use – I don’t have a paella pan – to a few questions, triggered by Mr. Orwell and Mr. Tóibín, both of whom turn fine phrases when it comes to food.

“Where are the Anglophone writers who’ve written about Spanish food culture in the same way M. F. K. Fisher or Elizabeth David did about France? Or the way Mary Taylor Simeti told stories about Sicily? Why are there so few similar books about Spain?”

The answer, my friends, is not blowing in the wind.

Yes, I’ve found several general, and very informative, cookbooks featuring Spanish cooking, some focusing on regional cuisines. Several came about due to the efforts of publishers such as Phaidon. Others exist because their authors gravitated to Spain for one reason or another. Marriage, work, escape, adventure, the bohemian life.

But the literary works I’m seeking just aren’t there. Not much in the way of books that invite you to lie on the couch in front of a fragrant crackling fire or swing in a Mayan hammock and read until your eyes redden and the Sandman sprinkles magic over you.

I’m puzzling over this, wondering what it is about Spain, what unappealing cultural quirk or trait might answer my question.

“Why ARE there so few literary works about Spain and its food?”**

And here I throw in a bit of conjecture.

History might bear a certain amount of blame. Despite the wealth generated by its New World acquisitions during the 16th- and 17th-centuries, Spain’s infrastructure remained rather primitive. That, plus the extremes of geography, worked to make Spain less attractive as a stop on the Grand Tour. Young aristocrats – mostly male, many English – sojourned largely in Paris, Rome, Venice, and others parts of Italy. Naturally, they ate. And they wrote about their adventures – culinary and otherwise – when they returned home, producing an inspiring body of literature, antecedents for modern travelers and writers. In conversations over gleaming silverware and glasses brimful of sparkling wines, they told stories of their adventures. Some even hired French chefs to keep alive their continental culinary experiences.

Francis Basset, 1st Baron de Dunstanville (Portrait by Pompeo Batoni)

Even a cursory glance at this map illustrates some of the probable geographical difficulties travelers faced in mountainous Spain. Even today, many roads go north-south. To go east-west, for example, only the E70 close to the north coast connects in an almost-straight line.

Grand Tour Route of William Thomas Beckford in 1780 (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s no more difficult to learn Spanish than it is to learn Italian or French. And I want to say right now that Spanish is not easier than French! The pronunciation and spelling may seem easier, but the grammar and vocabulary, well, no. So I rule out the language barrier as an obstacle to Anglophones writing about Spain. I will say, and again this is sheer conjecture, I suspect that there’s been a certain amount of prejudice against Spanish culture, antagonism thanks to the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War. The dislike of Communism and the silent cheering of America’s government at Franco’s victory when the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939. Then came neutrality during World War II, despite Franco’s seeming embrace of Hitler. After the war, Spain struggled , isolated by Franco’s dictatorial iron-fist policies.

When Franco died in 1975, it was as if Spain woke up with the kiss of a prince. In a way, that’s exactly what happened. Juan Carlos Alfonso Víctor María de Borbón y Borbón-Dos Sicilias (Juan Carlos I) took back the throne in 1975.

Spain blossomed. Today its food is among the best in the world. Millions of tourists now visit every year, their peregrinations a modern version of the Grand Tour.

So, again, I ask, “Why ARE there so few literary works about Spain and its food?”**

You tell me.

*Some close contenders, however, are Matt Goulding’s Grape, Olive, Pig (2016), Chris Stewart’s Driving Over Lemons (2001), and Michael Paterniti’s The Telling Room (2014).

**In English. And not translated from Spanish.

5 thoughts on “Homage to La Cocina Española? Where are the Books?

  1. Yes, gender issues could be a reason for a relative scarcity of works written by Anglophones, whether temporary visitors or expats. As I tried to say, my focus here is not on Spanish writers, and indeed there are many works on Spanish food written by people who call Spain their mother country.

  2. Janet, yes, Spanish writers have done a great job of writing about their food culture. But my question was, and still is, why haven’t Anglophones written about like they have about Italy and France?

  3. You pose an engaging question. I never realized there was any dearth of writing in English about Spain and its food. Richard Ford (Gatherings from Spain), Washington Irving (Tales from the Alhambra), and George Borrow (The Bible in Spain) are a few words from earlier centuries are frequently quoted.

    In the post-war period in which Elizabeth David and MFK Fisher began exploring the flavors of France, Spain still had not recovered from a devastating civil war. It was el “tiempo de hambre,” a time of great hunger, even starvation. Under a repressive dictatorship, there was little occasion for a joyous celebration of food. No wonder few travellers and writers explored here.

    The Anglophone writer who best portrayed Spain and food is undoubtedly Gerald Brenan, whose book South from Granada, published in 1957 covered his life in a village that began in 1919 and picked up again after the war years. An adjunct to the Bloomsbury Group, his writing was certainly literary. He delved deep into the kitchen.

    Other writers, literate, if not literary, are the anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers (People of the Sierra) and Ronald Fraser (The Pueblo—A Mountain Village on the Costa del Sol).

    As you note, the geographical divide—Spain is farther from Britain (but less far from France which had numerous writers on Spain)—is a factor. And political issues in every epoch. But, perhaps the lack of literary works in English is because Spain itself has so many writers whose work portrays so well life and food in Spain.

  4. Are you referring to no or few food-related literary works written by visitors or by Spanish writers? I am not sure but I think there are a lot of gender issues here. Women in the kitchen and men concerned about other subjects. I don’t recall there is much writing about food until recently in Latin America, either. Related, there also are gender differences in literacy, so the pool of women readers and writers was small.

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