Monday, June 21, 2004

A CHICKEN IN EVERY POT

My sister Nina is not an adventurous eater. Her philosophy toward food can be summarized in five words: “Chicken good; all else disgusting.” To be fair, she does enjoy prime rib, Italian sausage and the occasional crab leg. I suspect, however, that she views these foodstuffs not for what they are, but rather as a form of genetically modified chicken.

Nina and I have had penetrating telephone discussions about our positions at opposite ends of the eating spectrum. Such discussions tend toward the following:

“What are you doing?” she’d ask from her home in Illinois.

“Just finishing dinner,” I’d respond from my home in Spain.

“What was for dinner?”

“Rabbit.”

[Pause]

“You ate Thumper today?”

“No. We ate Thumper last week. Today we ate his cousin.”

“That’s disgusting.”

“It’s not disgusting. Rabbit tastes really good. You should try it.”

“Right. I’m sure you’ll say it tastes like chicken.”

“But it DOES taste like chicken.”

“You say that about all disgusting foods.”

“Fine. It doesn’t taste like chicken. It tastes like frog legs.”

I had long considered it my brotherly duty to open her eyes, mind and palate to the wide array of food experiences that await even the mildly adventurous. I’d neglected this duty for years, however, because she was a reluctant participant. Plus she had a tendency to yank the shorthairs on the back of my neck when annoyed, and I wished to avoid this fate. But alas, an opportunity arose through which we both could be redeemed. She and her husband came to Spain for a visit.

Now she was on my turf. And thanks to a recent haircut that rendered those tempting shorthairs un-yankable, I confidently launched into a well-crafted plan of action. It began with a tour of Barcelona’s largest and most famous fresh food market, La Boquería. Here she was bombarded with stall after stall of lustrous fruits and vegetables. Each morsel oozing with that magical perfume found only in produce that has been picked when perfectly ripe. She marveled at the fish stalls. Glistening whole fish in diverse shapes and colors, all clear-eyed and smelling of the sea, were neatly arranged on mountains of crushed ice. She stared transfixed at the shellfish stalls sporting heaps of succulent percebes (barnacles), cigalas (Dublin Bay prawns) and navajas (razor clams) recently plucked from the icy waters of Galicia; the likes of which have never graced the shelves of A&P, Price Chopper or Safeway. She stood nose to snout with cochinillo (suckling pig) from Segovia, cordero lechal (suckling lamb) from Aranda and cabrito (kid) from Alcarria. Fresh meat that had not been sandwiched between a Styrofoam tray and a sheet of bar-coded plastic wrap? What a concept! I sensed her growing enthusiasm toward the bounty that lay before her, and wisely decided to forego a visit to the offal stall. A morning’s worth of accumulated enthusiasm might evaporate at the first sight of lamb’s brain.

Having fed her eyes at La Boquería, it was time to feed her tummy. We thus embarked on a rolling feast through Barcelona’s smoky tapas bars. Nina’s world began to expand. She delved into espinacas a la catalana (spinach with pine nuts and raisons), a dish that epitomizes the mixture of sweet and savory that is a hallmark of Catalan cuisine. She expressed profound love for the grilled green onions known as calcots, whose tender hearts are pulled from the charred outer husks and dipped in a nut-based Romanesco sauce. She sampled mushrooms, fava beans, flans and the grappa-like digestive called orujo. But she refused to budge at jamon ibérico (Spain’s famous cured ham), salt cod or the aforementioned cochinillo. This was troubling. She was a good sport up to a point, but that point ended where the “critters” food group began.

To overcome this hurdle, I asked for and received her husband’s blessing to serve a special meal on the eve of their departure…rabbit stew. Rabbit is the perfect meat for an unadventurous eater. Its flesh is firm, white, mild and lean. And yes, Viridiana…rabbit DOES taste like chicken. It even looks like chicken when cut into pieces. As such, I stealthily prepared the stew, brought it to the table in a steaming earthenware pot, and heaped a generous ladle over a Nina’s bowl of Valencian rice.

“What is it?” she sniffed.

“Oh…chicken stew,” I non-chalantly answered while sipping a glass of Rioja.

She inspected the bowl with exacting precision. Hmmm…carrots, onions, mushrooms and chicken-esque chunks of white meat. All seemed in order. She slurped the tomato and white wine broth, nibbled on a small chunk of the meat and then, visibly relaxing her shoulders, emptied the bowl and requested a second. At meal’s end, she asked the unthinkable.

“Can I have the recipe?”

“Sure,” I said, and handed her the cookbook opened to page 130.

“Sautéed Rabbit with Herbs?!”

“Indeed.”

She looked at me with the eyes of a jackal. “That’s disgusting!”

“Come on! It wasn’t disgusting three minutes ago when you finished your second bowl.”

“I didn’t know it was rabbit three minutes ago. You are so mean.”

“No I’m not. I’m just trying to…”

“I’m going to be sick.”

The visit ended the next morning without hard feelings. I felt satisfied that Nina had finally pushed the gastronomic envelope, and Nina felt satisfied that she had an amusing story to share with the folk back home.

Nine months later, my wife and I made our bi-annual trip to Illinois to spend Christmas with my family. On Christmas morning, Nina and husband arrived at my parents’ house bearing gifts. She handed me a wrapped square gift box. This was exciting. Whereas a rectangular gift box usually means a shirt, sweater or other boring item, a square one offers the possibility of martini shakers or Monty Python DVDs. I tore into the wrapping paper, opened the flaps and parted the red tissue. The booty lay before my eyes: a bottle of Boone’s Farm wine, a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and a package of Twinkies.

“Good God,” I barked. “Boone’s Farm? Twinkies? Kraft Mac & Cheese? What? Why? This stuff is disgusting.”

“You should try it,” my sister smirked. “It tastes like chicken.”

11 Comments:

At 5:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Se lo mando a la familia Menéndez. Kyle es periodista...
Freddy

 
At 5:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Better than Penelope Casas. I´d like to know Nina´s comment on this...

 
At 10:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My comments on Freddy's comment, which by the way I can not understand. No habla espanol. Or, my comments on the story? I would have been very disappointed if my story had not made your web-log. Now everyone will understand the type of tricks my brother has been playing on me my whole life for his satisfation. (There has to be some drama included!) Although, this was not as bad as the night you put rolled masking tape on my pillow! Anyway, you failed to mention that I also ate a snail (a quite slimy one I might add) during my trip to Spain! I'd say that is adventurous!

 
At 11:18 PM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

I put the masking tape on the pillow for no charge. A waxing at a beauty salon costs $25. And you dare to complain?

Yes, I must admit that you did eat a snail in Barcelona. I have pictures to prove it. If you don't deposit $3,500 into my bank account by 9am tomorrow morning, the whole world will see them.

 
At 3:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To Anonymous 10:08: Affordable on-line classes of Spanish. If interested, please contact me. Visa, MasterCard accepted.

 
At 1:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To 3:03 - no need! We watch Dora the Explorer, it will all come soon enough!

 
At 7:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

to 1:39
Does Dora the Explorer eat chicken and/or snails?
If you want to learn really good Spanish please contact us. I forgot! We take Am.Express too.

Dora, the snail-eater.

 
At 9:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To 7:55 My learning "really good Spanish" would give my oldest brother too much satisfaction. Then he would have nothing to complain about, oh wait a minute, he can always find something to complain about!

 
At 9:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I may have thought about it if you accepted Discover!

 
At 8:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anangapur, 12.15 p.m.(local time)
I see your brother is what we call in India "a complaining-fellow type". But back to Dora, here you can find the first Spanish lesson for free: It´s a poem for kids to practice the Spanish "R" . Read the poem and repeat it fifteen times in front of a mirror and in no time you will see the difference!
"Dora, Dora,
la exploradora
llora y llora
¿Por qué llora Dora?
Pues Dora llora
porque ha perdido
su cantimplora"

Special Offers for July¡ This month discounts for families and relatives. Buying our Spanish lessons on line will give you the possibility of entering your name (Anonymous) in the raffle
"Travel to Spain,
taste its gastronomy again
without pain"

signed: Samarkanda Academy on line. Our motto: "More than sixty years speaking and teaching Spanish."

 
At 8:56 PM, Blogger ironporer said...

As a former US expatriat resident in Spain (Zaragoza area) I was pleased to find your blog. I have enjoyed what I have read immensly so far. You certainly seem to have captured the essence of everyday Spanish life. It took me several years there before I could fully enjoy most all of the food and customs (OK- I still hate morcillas), but now I find I miss it terribly. Maybe one day we can go back!

 

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