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.
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.
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.
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.
**In English. And not translated from Spanish.