One of my last jobs in the US was in a mid-range clothing store. As a sales associate, I were encouraged to create a “personal connections” with each of the customers. This usually meant engaging in surface level conversation.
One day, while I was stationed in the fitting room, I made mention of my upcoming move to Spain to a woman trying on jeans. She smiled and told me that she too had lived there while she was in her early twenties. “You’ll love the city,” she said “But the food isn’t great.” I gave her a tight smile back; one that was throughly professional and insincere. All the while thinking, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, lady in the fitting room.”
Turns out she was a oracle. At least in part.
I don’t know. Oregano, maybe?
She was wrong about the city. I didn’t like Madrid at all. But she was right about the food. I hated it.
Often times, I’ve looked back at moment and felt somewhat mystified about how someone who didn’t know me, could point out my main qualm with the city so well. Thanks, lady in the fitting room, I should have listened.
To be fair, aside from paella from the infamous restaurants in Ironbound section of Newark, I had never eaten Spanish food. I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I emerged from the plane. I imagined that it would lie somewhere between Latin American and Italian food. Rice and beans, but maybe with a little saffron or thyme. Or some other of the many flavors I had come to associate with the Mediterranean. Familiar and flavorful. Not necessarily spicy, but rich nonetheless.
As you can probably guess from the title that was not what I found. And I’ve complained about it to anyone with ears and apparently undeveloped tastebuds. Exasperated, they’ve often asked me what I expected. To which I would reply, “I don’t know. Oregano, maybe?”
By the time I moved to Menorca, I had adjusted the more subdued flavor of Madrilenian food. I had also travelled quite a bit and realized the regional nature of Spanish culture and cuisine. I soon realized that it was best to eat food most commonly associated with each region.
It was a great relief to my tastebuds to discover such culinary delights such pulpo in Galicia and paella in Valencia. The former being octopus bathed in paprika, and the latter better the famous rice dish made yellow by saffron. I had also tried pinxtos, in Basque Country and tapas in Sevilla. Both of which were amazing and, dare I say it, actually seasoned.
It wasn’t the best food that I had tasted in the world, but at least an effort had been made. And it was still miles beyond the bocadillos calamares in Madrid. Where it was acceptable to fry calamari rings, put them on a piece of bread, place it on the customer’s table and walk away. Without the courtesy of a garlic aioli sauce to help moisten your mouth.
I’m in love with the pulpo!
Here in Menorca, I’ve yet to truly sample the local fair. Past experience in Madrid has still left me somewhat scarred. So, I often cook for myself and avoid eating out. I hadn’t given much thought to Spanish food until recently.
Last Monday, my pedicurist remarked that my freshly painted fingernails matched the color of my kindle cover. I noticed that her hand matched the color of my foot exactly. As if God had dipped us both into large vats of MAC’s NC45 foundation before sending us out into the world.
She pressed me to find out where I was from and how I had ended up on the island. I told her. She told me that she was from Colombia and that she had moved Spain with her son and mother. Then she asked me something else.
“What do you eat in America?” I told her as best I could about the various types of food found in America–too much of which is deep fried. She nodded and then she lowered her voice and asked, “What do you think of the food here?” she asked with a sense of expectation that it was clear that she was talking about more than just the food. “I don’t like it.” I told her. “Me either” she replied. “In my country the food has more flavor.”
I couldn’t believe it. I was having the “these white people don’t season their food right” conversation in Spain, in Spanish with another woman of color. It was one of the most validating and hilarious moments of my life.
When she was done, she suggested that we hang out some time. I agreed, hoping that maybe she’d show me how to make arepas one day. I was also delighted at having found a kindred spirit, and dedicated user of sazón.