Editor-in-Exile: The Social Side of Spanish Cuisine
Issue   |   Wed, 08/31/2011 - 16:05

What exactly is “American” food?

Taking a look at this week’s Val menu, the tacos are from Mexico, the lasagna from Italy and even General Tso’s chicken, which I refuse to recognize as Chinese, gets its name from a Chinese general who is probably turning in his grave at the idea. Having spent the past few months spoiling my taste buds with delicious Spanish cuisine, I’ve been racking my brains for a typical American dish to introduce to my Spanish friends, who usually laugh and tell me they’ve already had hamburgers. Finally, I came up with the answer: barbecue! That most American of foods, as American as you can be, really, without being a Superbowl commercial or the Fourth of July. Practically bleeding red, white and blue.

I was wrong.

Last weekend, a Spanish friend invited us to lunch at her family home, in a tiny village in the Riojan countryside where the people know her as so-and-so’s daughter and so-and-so’s granddaughter and spend their Sunday afternoons lounging in the sun in the central square. We pulled up to a beautiful house, which was, like many large houses in La Rioja, surrounded by grapevines as far as the eye could see. While the family wine business had stopped with her grandfather’s death, my friend and her family showed us “the cave,” the underground cellar where they still store wine made 50 years ago from the family grapes, and the vat where the process started every year with the treading of the grapes.

On the lunch menu was barbecue, Riojan style, which I must admit after stuffing myself, extinguished my last hope for American cuisine by being incredibly and distinctly delicious. Spanish meat is in itself more tender and flavorful, as they take much more care in the raising of the animals, which are then butchered at a younger age.

But what makes Riojan barbecue so uniquely tasty is the fact that it is cooked upon the branches of the grapevines. Instead of throwing the grapeless branches away after the harvest, the people of Rioja save them to cook meat, leaving the pork chops, sausage, chicken and even blood sausage (surprisingly good if you don’t think about what it is) with the light, sweet flavor of the grapes tempting your taste buds beneath the salt and spices thrown upon the flames.

Meals in Spain are an important affair, with all stores closing from two to four in the afternoon to observe the timeless lunch tradition (with or without a siesta to follow). While I make up for the rapidity of eating by sheer volume of food ingested, Spaniards believe that food should be savored slowly, bite by bite, in between good conversation and even better wine. That particular lunch, complemented by three different types of Riojan wine and a bottle of champagne, lasted for more than two hours, and by the end, we were all searching for a good place to stretch out for a nap in the sun.

While the Spanish are not as known for their cuisine as their famous northern neighbors, it’s not for a lack of culinary tradition. Here in Logroño, it is customary to go out for pintxos (more commonly known outside northern Spain as tapas). In practically every city I’ve been to, the tapas bars are always in the smallest, narrowest streets of the city that you probably wouldn’t dare to frequent at night were it not for the sheer volume of people. There are less than 50 bars in less than four blocks in the city, and each has its specialty, including shrimp and pineapple on a stick, lemon-champagne sorbet and my personal favorite, thin slices of Spanish ham baked on top of bread faintly touched by tomato.

For about five Euros, you eat better than you would in a far more expensive restaurant, and what’s more important, you spend the time talking and laughing with your friends in the street, surrounded by dozens of people also there to revel in the food, company and early summer air.

On a warm night, it seems like the entirety of Spain is out on the street. One particular night, when the world skipped straight to summer, I went out with friends at around midnight, and just before we arrived at one of the main streets, I was literally struck by the sheer noise coming from around the corner.

All I could see were tables filled with people of all ages, from kids in junior high trying to impress each other to grandparents with their canes, and waiters scrambling around desperately trying to keep all the orders straight. They didn’t seem to care really what they were drinking, but simply that they were there, together, enjoying the simple joy of a cold beer and friends.

What I really love about Spain is not the food, though that is undeniably delicious and has resulted in extra pounds that I hope Val will help me shed next semester, but the atmosphere that comes with it. While they really do enjoy their tapas and wine, I think the Spanish use them more as an excuse to come together, as a family enjoying barbecue in their countryside home, as friends on the street hopping from bar to bar, and as a community joined together by a common sense of the simplicity of happiness.

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