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Madrid Is Meat

Learning Spanish Culture Through Its Food

Spain's capital city houses hundreds of ham vendors with products from all over the country. My introduction to Spain's meat mania was El museo del jamón (The Museum of Ham).

From the outside, I could see legs and shoulders of ham the length of baseball bats dangling from hooks. Sandwiches of various meats lined the case facing the window. Inside, scents of jamón serrano (mountain ham) and coffee combined.

After tasting strips of the nutty, crimson ham and sampling my first sidra, hard cider, I toyed with the idea of giving the meat back to the waiter because it was too salty and rich. But my reason for studying abroad was to immerse myself in the culture. I decided to leave alimentary inhibitions behind and welcome the unfamiliar in order to learn as much as I could about how the Spanish live.

I had studied Spanish language and literature for seven years before traveling abroad. My knowledge of Spanish authors, however, did not prepare me for daily life in a European city. Knowing the symbolic meaning of the fighting cock in Gabriel García Márquez's El coronel no tiene quien le escribe means little when buying chicken at the carnecería. I had to learn by doing.

Learning Spanish Customs

Sila Moreno, a small, wiry woman of about 75, introduced me to several Spanish culinary creations and customs while I lived with her in northern Madrid. Despite her age, this grandmother of four spent hours preparing comida (lunch) in the cramped kitchen of her 3-bedroom apartment. She kept rosemary, dill, thyme, and parsley on her windowsill, which looks out onto other people's drying sheets, shirts, and underwear.

At first, Sila implored me to stay in the living room as she prepared and served the different courses. While I salivated, Sila swayed to the music from her ancient radio. Originally from Córdoba, a tiny town in southern Spain, Sila had danced flamenco at town festivals. Years later, she retained the spirit of the south, despite her arthritic hands and impaired vision.

After about a month of living with my abuela española (Spanish grandma), I was invited into her kitchen to help prepare the meal. I felt as if I had become a part of her family, despite my Russian Jewish roots. I welcomed the chance to learn about life in Spain before Franco.

Of course, not everything Sila prepared left me begging for more. My friends later congratulated me for having the chutzpah to sample her calamares en su tinta, purple-and-white baby squid in their ink. A Whopper didn't sound so bad after that rubbery meal. After I admitted my dislike, her grandson Javier told me that his grandmother felt insulted and would never make it again.

Language Learning and Paella

Although Sila was my main source for Spanish customs, I met others who introduced me to dishes of other regions.

My intercambio (language-exchange partner), Rafa Paláez, who met with me each week so we could practice our respective languages, treated me as his sister. He invited me and my friend to share paella-a dish traditionally made by men-with his wife Ángeles and two sons. A bookish computer programmer by day, Rafa transformed into a master chef at the stove. After donning his apron, he adroitly added spices, seafood, and rice to a pan about two feet in diameter. Whole shrimp, squid rings, mussels, baby crabs, and chorizo sausage gave the dish its girth.

Rafa gave me a golden mortar and pestle to remember the fresh, fragrant cooking of España. Sitting on my kitchen counter next to a Spanish cookbook, they remind me of the aromas of that afternoon and the power of food to bring people of different traditions together.

This power surrounded me everywhere I traveled in Spain.

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