Thursday, February 23, 2006


[Note: This is an essay that I published in Expatica Spain a few weeks ago. Hope you like it, Lisa.]

How does one reconcile a candy that he loves with a branding campaign that he shouldn’t? Well...that’s my dilemma with the Spanish candy, Conguitos.

Conguitos are nothing more than chocolate-covered peanuts. That may not seem revolutionary. Chocolate-covered peanuts are, after all, well-represented in the candy universe.

But I find Conguitos to be irresistible! Perhaps it’s because the chocolate isn’t too sweet. Perhaps it’s because the peanuts are remarkably crunchy. Or perhaps it’s because the level of my gluttony is disproportionate to that of my body weight. Whatever the reason, I devour Conguitos with the ferocity of a UIUC fratboy on a microwaved burrito-run.

What? You’re still not sure what Conguitos are? Then let me give you a hint. They are those candies featuring the cartoon of a pudgy, full-lipped Pygmy on the bag.

“Ahhhh!” you shout. “THOSE Conguitos!”

Yes, THOSE Conguitos. Now you understand my dilemma. The candy is brilliant, but the packaging is—shall we say—likely to evoke different responses from different consumers.

Amusing throwback to a simpler, more innocent era? Or blatantly racist? Sorry, but I’m not here to pass judgement. Each person must decide for himself.

I will say, however, that my reaction upon seeing a bag of Conguitos for the first time was one of disbelief. Why? Because if these candies were placed on a store shelf in my home country (the US), a tsunami of angry protestors, opportunistic politicians and salivating Fox News cameramen would engulf that store’s parking lot before the day’s first employee coffee break. But that’s the US. Spain is obviously different, and I was intrigued as to why.

So I went to Conguitos’s corporate website to brush-up on the history of this candy that I love so much. And I learned that Conguitos have been around for more than forty years—as has its featured cartoon character, which the website refers to as “our mascot.” [Yikes! I can feel the US-based readers squirming again.]

The website goes on to mention that, “our mascot has also evolved and slightly changed in order to adapt to the present day.” My God! I wonder what he looked like in the original artist’s rendering?

In 2000, a white-chocolate version of Conguitos was launched. I don’t know if this was done in an effort to appear even-handed or because the market demanded the new flavor. I can tell you, however, that the “mascot” for the white-chocolate version looks, quite disturbingly, like the fruit of a coital relationship between the original Conguitos character and 1970’s rock star Edgar Winter.

With this historical context in hand, I began to formulate a theory as to why the brand has endured. But I needed to support it with a bit of primary research. So I sat down to lunch with a colleague in Madrid. She is a thirty-something Spanish woman—well-travelled, highly-educated, politically-active and unafraid to speak her mind. I asked whether she found the Conguitos cartoon...odd? [Confused silence.] Perhaps even a bit...offensive?

She crinkled her brow and shrugged her shoulders. “Of course not.”

But it was more than a mere, “Of course not.” It was the type of incredulous “Of course not” that I’d expect to receive upon asking if it were, perhaps, OK to attend her grandmother’s funeral while dressed as Wonder Woman.

Then she asked why?

“Well,” I continued, “it seems to me that Spain’s growing wave of immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa might find that little guy to be a bit insulting.”

She stared-off into the distance for a moment and then said, “Oh! I never really thought about it. I mean...that Conguitos cartoon has been around since before I was born.”

Which is exactly what I suspected. The Conguitos character is the Iberian equivalent of the Aunt Jemima Waffle lady in the US—an image that might immediately strike an outsider as being provactive, but is so thoroughly engrained in the culture that it’s all-but invisible to the natives.

But as I said earlier, I’m not here to pass judgement. And despite my uneasiness with the branding, I’m certainly not going to stop eating Conguitos. To be honest...I’d eat them even if the product were renamed “Ameriquitos” and featured the caricature of a morbidly-obese, sunburned tourist wearing khaki shorts, boat shoes without socks and a baseball cap turned backwards.

In my candy universe, few things transcend the pleasures of a chocolate-covered peanut.

Monday, February 20, 2006


Before I begin, let me make an important statement. The story that I’m about to tell is true. 100% true.

That said...I spent the weekend in the Mediterranean coastal town of Javea (pictured above); located between the Spanish cities of Valencia and Alicante. I was there because the Madrid Hash House Harriers held an “Away Hash” that was attended by nearly one hundred Hashers; some of whom flew in from Germany, Switzerland and England.

Our Saturday run took place near a large orange grove in the middle of nowhere. Before the run began, we gathered ‘round for a briefing and were informed that we would—at one point—be passing through the scenic grounds of the Fontilles Leper Colony.

“Ha ha,” I thought to myself. “Nice try, but I’m not buying it.”

And so...the run began. Forty-five minutes into it, we passed through an old stone gate and into a large, walled complex of columned buildings, intricate ceramic works and wide lawns. We ran down a tiled walkway and around a corner. And as we rounded the corner, who do you think was there to greet us?

A smiling old man in a wheelchair. Waving to us with his right hand. Which, I should mention, was missing all of its fingers.


a.k.a., “The Fairy Princess with Fangs.”

And, no...I am not responsible for this “ensemble.”

It’s true that I dressed her in the fairy princess outfit. But I turned my back for a moment, and then found her like this.

I’m so proud! I’ve no doubt that she will author a fantastic blog of her own when she grows up.

Thursday, February 16, 2006


[Note: This is an essay that I published in Expatica Spain a few weeks ago.]

I travelled to Edinburgh, Scotland a few weeks ago, and experienced the unique pleasures of haggis. And as the black, peppery essence of pureed sheep guts cascaded across my tongue, I had a striking thought—Europeans seem to eat all the stuff that Americans throw away.

It’s true in Scotland, and it’s certainly true in Spain. And to prove it, I’ve compiled a list.

Now...some folk may use this list as a roadmap for identifying foods to avoid. Others may use it as a treasure map for foods to seek. I’m fairly certain, however, that everyone will use it as a checklist for tormenting unsuspecting friends and family visiting from abroad.

Let’s go!

- Cabrito (Goat): I don’t know why people are repulsed by goat. It is, after all, just an ugly lamb without the afro. Cabrito is a revered delicacy here in Castilla-LaMancha, where it is roasted in a wood-burning oven in the style of suckling pig or lamb. All of my guests who have tried it...loved it. As do I.

- Oreja de Cerdo (Pig’s ear): I suppose the philosophy “Waste not, want not” inspired the first Spaniard to eat a pig’s ear. Either that, or he mistook it for a nacho. Whatever the reason, its popularity has spread throughout the country. Many bars offer pig ears as a snack; the most common preparations being deep-fried or braised in a tomato-based sauce. No matter how it’s prepared, I find pig’s ear to be a chewy, flavorless mouthful of cartilage and goo.

- Percebes (Barnacles): These little shellfish plucked from the icy waters of Galica are worshipped by shellfish lovers throughout Spain. Percebes (pictured above) are ugly critters. They look like a newborn space alien. But alas, they taste much better than they look. Briny, chewy and flavorful...eating percebes are like eating the sea. Just try to be in the restroom when the bill arrives.

- Sesos a la Romana (Batter-fried Brains): I often saw these offered as a Menu del Día second course when I lived in Barcelona. The flavor of sesos is irrelevant. Why? Because the texture—which I can only describe as that of a incompetently-prepared soft-boiled egg—is all that you’ll notice. Believe will send even the strongest man diving for a waste bin. Please Mr. Waiter...bring me any organ. Just not THAT one!

- White Asparagus: Don’t get me wrong. I love white asparagus! But let’s just say that...some people have trouble getting past appearances. Do yourself a favor. Skip the mayonaisse when serving these to the uninitiated.

- Kokoxos (Hake cheeks): Who would’ve thought that fish cheeks would taste so good? Who would’ve thought that fish had cheeks?!

- Peine de Gallo (Rooster comb): Can you believe it? Some people eat the red, spikey hunk of rubber that grows on top of a rooster’s skull! Why? How? What chemical imbalance caused the first person to gaze at that unsavory-looking appendage and think to himself, “Hmmm...I wouldn’t mind a plate of that.” Quite honestly, I can only think of one other comb that I’d be less inclined to put in my mouth—and that would be Paul Wolfowitz’s.

The above examples are just a fraction of the list that I compiled. The word limit set by my editor prevents me from elaborating on such vittles as morcilla (the Spanish haggis), callos (the Spanish menudo), huevas (a compressed block of dry, sandy-tasting salmon eggs), angulas (those exquisite baby eels from the Basque Country) and most famous of all (although I’ve yet to find any bar or restaurant that offers them)...bull’s nuts.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not knocking Spain’s fringe cuisine. I am, in fact, quite fond of many of the foods that I’ve listed above.

Besides, every nation has its own examples of food items that are greeted with horror by non-natives—even my home country, the US. If you don’t believe me, then fly to Chicago and buy yourself a sack of White Castle hamburgers. You might soon find yourself yearning for a plate of brain.

Monday, February 13, 2006


Yesterday afternoon, I went Hashing in the mountains north of Madrid with the Hash House Harriers.

We gathered in a circle before the run began, in order to receive instructions from the Hares (i.e., the two guys who laid-out the running trail earlier that morning).

After receiving the obligatory pre-run instructions about where the trail begins, when to expect the water/beer stop, etc., the Hares hit us with an eyebrow raiser:

“Please stick together and make a lot of noise when you enter the valley during the last five kilometers of the run, because it's crawling with wild boar hunters...and they're using high-powered rifles.”

:-O we descended into “the valley of death” an hour later, the runners all bunched together and—with notably increased frequency and fervor—began yelling the standard Hash House Harrier call.

“On on! On on! On on...!”

At which point, I had a troubling thought: “On on!” sounds uncomfortably similar to “Oink oink!”

Friday, February 10, 2006


[Note: This is an essay that I published in Expatica Spain a few weeks ago.]

Eating in Spain’s central plains region is a vegetarian’s nightmare. If there’s an organization here in Castilla-LaMancha that goes by the acronymn PETA, then it probably stands for “People for the Enjoyment of Tasty Animals.”

Sure, we have wonderful, meatless delicacies like Pisto Manchego, Queso Manchego and Alcárria honey.

But the reason why cookbook author Penelope Casas called central Spain the “Region of the Roasts” is clear. Roasts are the gastonomic celebrities in these here parts. Particularly, the “Three C’s”—cordero (lamb), cochinillo (pig) and cabrito (goat).

Each of these roast dishes have similarities. The animals destined for the dinner table are young—weaned only on mother’s milk and slaughtered at a tender (pun intended) age.

Cooking preparations are likewise similar—not to mention, simple. The animals are rubbed with lard, sprinkled with salt and laid to rest in a shallow, earthenware baking dish. They are then roasted in a wood-burning brick oven until medium-well done. Toward the end of the roasting time, the browned drippings are deglazed with water to make a thin “gravy” and the lot is usually served with roasted, sliced potatoes. There are, of course, variations—with some chefs adding garlic, onions, white wine and other subtle ingredients—but the basic preparation’s basic.

Quite often, restaurants require you to order an animal by the quarter (i.e., half of a half of the carcass). This is where the real fun begins, because it’s a crap-shoot as to which part of the animal the waiter will bring to the table. Sometimes a leg. Sometimes the ribs. Sometimes the [gulp!] head. My personal preference is the rear leg, because there’s a lot of good eatin’ there. But then’s always fun to get the head, because it allows you to gross-out the ladies at the table by eating a hunk of brain.

And in anticipation of your question, brain tastes...OK. But its texture is absolutely disgusting.

The specific region in which I live (“la Alcárria,” near Guadalajara) is famous for its cabrito. I always insist that my visitors from abroad try roast cabrito—a request that is, more often than not, met with howls of protest...if not downright disgust. This is understandable. Most non-Spaniards who’ve eaten goat did so in a curry house—and then paid the price the next morning.

But I’ve been pretty successful in convincing my guests to taste LaMancha’s preparation of the animal, and the end-result is usually the same. They love it. How could they not? Cabrito’s flavor is milder than lamb’s, yet more interesting than pork’s.

Yes, Castilla-LaMancha loves its roast animal flesh—and the US-style girth of many of my fellow townfolk will attest to this.

But then again, what did you expect from a region that considers a glass of beer to be a vegetable side-dish.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Spain has many positive attributes, but its music isn’t one of them.

Try as I might (and admittedly, I haven’t tried very hard), I’ve acquired neither a taste nor a tolerance for the schmaltzy Latino pop or barking flamenco that blanket the Iberian airwaves.

So for the past six years, my ears have had just one humble request—Psychedelia. Just a little taste of Moby Grape! Or a smidgen of Electric Banana! Or even a few bars from Ant Trip Ceremony!

And then—just when I’d resigned myself to a lifetime of misery at the bile-churning vocal chords of Enrique Iglesias—I found it! The holy grail of late ‘60’s psychedelic music! And it was sitting there all along in my iTunes software.


Technicolor Web of Sound is an Internet radio stream—originating somewhere in the US midwest—that plays the widest, grooviest, most far-out selection of ‘60’s psychedelic music I’ve ever heard.

If you, too, are a fan of this genre, then you MUST do the following:

- Go into your iTunes software and click on “Radio.”

- Then click on the “Classic Rock” category and wait for the menu of streams (about 23 of them) to drop down.

- There! At or near the bottom of the list, you’ll find the TWofS stream. Click it! Dig it! Live it!

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Ladies and gentlemen! I don’t know if you saw the latest comment under my Bash the Haggis post, but it reads as follows:


My name is Ed and I had Bash the Haggis built a couple of years ago. I'm chuffed that you are all enjoying it.

Best wishes from sunny Edinburgh,

ps I've never managed to break the 840 mark myself.

On behalf of all the regular irregulars here at the Virtual Tapas Bar, I’d like to raise a wee dram and propose a toast.

All hail Ed! The man who has done more for Haggis Diplomacy than anyone since Robert Burns !

Thanks, Ed!

Monday, February 06, 2006


...The Salivator!

Congratulations to Frau Christina the Mausi, who effortlessly rattled-off the Grand Prize winner in my “Name that Smoker” contest.

And if that were not enough, she *also* suggested the Second Place-winning name: “The PorkMeister.”

The PorkMeister will be called upon to assume full smokification duties if The Salivator cannot fulfill its obligations for reasons of illness, death or scandal.

Honorable mention goes to ChicagoKarl for his contribution, “Pepe le Q.”

The “If at First You Don’t Succeed Award” goes to Euro-Trac, who submitted no less than 87 entries—many of which were lifted directly from “The Partridge Family.”

Thanks to everyone who participated. And to Mausi...I’ll see you and the three boys at Easter.

PS: A Tupperware container full of Haggis Meatballs goes to the first person who can identify the dude pictured above. And yes...he *is* relevant to this post.

Friday, February 03, 2006


Our leiderhosen-wearing, handlebar-moustached, apple-cheeked Bavarian friend ChicagoKarl “tagged” me to participate in a meme.

Memes are a good way to fill blog-space; particularly during days when your brain isn’t up to the task of generating original content. Today is one of those days.

So, without further ado (whatever the hell “ado” means)...

- Busboy at a country club restaurant: This was my first job. Here’s a bit of advice for teenagers who’ve been offered a busboy job at a posh country club restaurant—be sure that you’ve dined in a posh restaurant at least once in your life before accepting the job.

- General jack-of-all-unskilled-trades at a steel foundry: From painting to parts counting to shovelling sand off the roof to keep it from collapsing. I even got to wear a hardhat every day. Now, I wear a skirt.

- Marketing guy in the corporate headquarters of a business forms manufacturer: You may not know this, but most chicks don’t find business forms sexy.

- Attorney for a telecom equipment provider: Did I say telecom? I meant low-carb tongue depressors.

- Enter the Dragon.
- A Christmas Story.
- Any of the Pink Panther movies.
- Woodstock.

- Utica, NY
- Hermitage, PA
- Naperville, IL
- Barcelona and Cabanillas del Campo, Spain

- The Twilight Zone.
- Lazytown.
- Get Smart.
- Any of Michael Palin’s travel documentaries (e.g., Around the World in 80 Days; Pole to Pole; Full Circle; Hemingway Adventure; Sahara; Himalaya).

- “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller.
- “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson.
- “Travels with my Donkey: One Man and his Ass on a Pilgrammage to Santiago” (aka, “Spanish Steps” in Europe) by Tim Moore.
- “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole.

- Alberobello, Italy.
- Anchorage, Alaska.
- Patzcuaro, Mexico.
- Calgary/Banff, Canada.

- Chicken or lamb vindaloo.
- BBQ’d spareribs.
- Ramen noodles (the real stuff...not the type you buy for ten cents in the supermarket).
- Thai Salads.

- All of the blogs listed on my sidebar.
- BBC News.
- The Virtual Weber Bullet.
- New York Times.

- Jogging anywhere that’s warm, sunny and has little traffic.
- Eating Indian food on Devon Street in Chicago.
- A sauna in Lapland during an aurora borealis with a glass of vodka in my hand.
- Don’t care, as long as I’m with my daughter.

- I’ll follow Mausi’s lead, and tag any bloggers reading this who are experiencing a “bad brain day.”

That's all four now.

Thursday, February 02, 2006


It has been brought to my attention that every BBQ pitmaster must give his smoker a name. smoker doesn’t have a name. But I’m opening the floor for suggestions.

There are no restrictions as to the gender or raunchiness of the name. The person submitting the winning entry will be treated to a multi-course BBQ dinner that may or may not include Haggis Churros, but will surely include one or more wee drams of Cardhu whisky. Oh yeah...airplane tickets are not included.

If *nobody* suggests a name, then I will choose it. How? By writing the names of the sixteen of you who regularly post Comments to this blog (i.e., Ang, Mausi, Beep, Granny Jo, Lady Di, Euro-Trac, Hippo, Big Finn, Franje, ChicagoKarl, Fran, GC, Harsh, KickShoe, Iron Man and The Original CowPie) on separate pieces of paper, dumping them into a hat, and drawing one.

That's right. Unless somebody comes up with a clever suggestion, I'm going to name my smoker after one of you. You don't want that to happen, do you?


You must, must, MUST go to this website and try this game!!!