Seasonal Food In Spain: Feasting On All Creation

Seasonal Food In Spain: Feasting On All Creation

One of the pleasures of eating is knowing when to eat, as I recalled often when in Spain. By this I do not mean the time of day as such, although I doubt I could eat a lasagna for breakfast. Instead I refer to those occasions when certain foods have traditionally been available. Today, thanks to innovations such as refrigeration and transportation infrastructure, we can enjoy foods all year-round that were once considered rare treats for our ancestors. Yet there seems to me to be a greater good, beyond that of healthier ingredients or supporting local businesses, in enjoying what we eat at the time and place in which we are meant to eat it.

There is a beautiful scene in the BBC mini-series “Cranford” in which Miss Smith presents her hostesses, the spinster Jenkyns sisters, with a crate of Spanish oranges as a thank-you gift. While familiar with the fruit, its comparative rarity in early Victorian England made it such a prized commodity that, for small-town residents like the Jenkyns, hot-climate produce was viewed almost as a luxury item, reserved for the Christmas stocking or special occasions. In the film, the dour Deborah Jenkyns commands the ladies to retire to their respective rooms, in order to consume their oranges in restrained silence. The camera subsequently shows us Deborah’s younger sister, Mathilda, sucking out the juice from the fruit with childish glee. However it is Miss Deborah, a tower of almost Calvinist propriety, who ends up savoring the first slice of her orange with the kind of sensual pleasure that only a gourmand can truly recognize and appreciate.

The specialness of a food or a dish is meant to be part of the reason one consumes it, no matter how good it may taste when eaten outside of its usual context. Canelones, the rolled pasta tubes stuffed with meat and baked in a béchamel sauce, are available in Catalonia any time of year. The fancier canelones de festa major, on the other hand, were traditionally served on December 26th, St. Stephen’s Feast Day (a public holiday in Barcelona), using the leftover meat from the Christmas soup the day before, along with special ingredients such as a fine brandy or shavings of black truffles. Eventually the custom of making these slightly more special canelones spread to other feast days on the Church calendar, such as the Feast of St. Joseph. On my last night in Barcelona then, dining at the venerable 180-year-old Set Portes restaurant, I ordered canelones de festa major as one of the courses, rather than the regular canelones that were also on the menu, because it was the vigil of the Feast of Corpus Christi, a feast day which Barcelona still celebrates with great pomp and many ancient customs.

On two occasions I went outside the rules a bit by having a xató – a Catalan salad typical of the beach town of Sitges, made with escarole, tuna, anchovies, and a sauce that is roughly a variant of romesco, among other things – even though technically the season for this dish had ended the month before I arrived. The salad is cool, crisp, briny, savory, and sweet, resulting in a veritable explosion of flavors. Despite my being slightly out of season, that at the Mare Nostrum restaurant in Sitges was probably among the best I have ever eaten, while the second time I ate the salad it was fine, but nowhere near comparable.

When I arrived in Madrid, other seasonal and off-season choices awaited me. It was the beginning of cherry season, and on a scorching hot day I thoroughly enjoyed an extraordinary chilled gazpacho at the Madrid country club a few miles outside the city, where cherries were used as the base for the soup instead of the tomatoes most of my readers are probably familiar with from the Andalusian-style gazpacho. The sweet and sour soup glowed like a rich, dark ruby, albeit only for the few short moments that it glittered in my dish before I consumed all of it with gusto.  

Although the season for white asparagus had ended a few weeks before, I nevertheless still managed to savor the last of some gigantic white asparagus spears having the diameter of a bratwurst at the Cerveceria Santa Ana, a famous old brewery just across the square from one of Madrid’s most prestigious theatres. On the other hand, I had also arrived a little too late for artichoke season. Few people love an artichoke more than the Castilians; there is even a rather grand 18th century fountain in Madrid’s Retiro Park dedicated to it. It did not surprise me then, that the fried artichoke I ordered as a starter for lunch one day at a rather UHB restaurant in the north end of the city was okay, but nothing special.  

All in all my food experiences were such that, the seasonal choices were always a hit, while the off-season choices were a mixed bag. This reinforces the often-repeated concept in travel writing that eating in a traditional, seasonal fashion lends greatly to the experience of travel. By sticking to what should be eaten when he finds himself where he is, the traveler can adapt to, and hopefully better understand, the rhythms of life in the place in which he finds himself.

By the same token, whether you are a frequent flier or an armchair tourist, the foods you choose even at home have a deeper meaning than the mere consumption of calories. Without giving much thought to it, we have created a society in which foods that were once viewed as special, have lost much or all of their significance. Certainly there is nothing inherently wrong about the fact that we can go to the supermarket and pick up fruits and vegetables out of season. Nor is there any real reason why we could not cook a Thanksgiving-style turkey in April, if we really wanted to.

Yet as these sorts of things are so often of a piece in our society, I do wonder whether making all kinds of foods and dishes available all year round is a reflection of the way in which we have come to avoid the seasonality of life, including our own. The natural world, in which we ourselves must be included, has an inescapable structure and pattern to it, from birth to growth, maturity to death. When something created is no longer considered to be something special, we risk not only becoming ungrateful for the bounty of Creation itself, but of imagining that we ourselves exist outside of it.

One hallmark of a true appreciation of the life we have been given can be found in those fleeting moments of pleasure that we all find in eating good food enjoyed in its proper season. By trying to live more in the place and time in which we find ourselves, we have a better chance of savoring a hint of the goodness of what Creation was originally intended to be, and what we believe it will be again one day. Until that day let us feast as best we may, but always in due season.

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Nine Inch Nails and the Attraction of Nothingness

This past Saturday evening, as happens from time to time, I returned home from a late night of pub karaoke feeling pretty wired.  I sang three songs that evening, and was still somewhat jittery from the experience.  Those of my readers who have done any performing or public speaking know that there can be a kind of shakiness and high-alert feeling you carry around with you, even an hour or two after you’ve stepped out of the spotlight.

Because I was very much awake, I turned on the television to find something to watch until I felt ready to go to bed. I happened upon “Austin City Limits”, the PBS show featuring live concert performances from Texas’ capital of weird, and a performance by the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails.  Much to my surprise, I sat down and watched the whole thing from start to finish.  I came away strangely impressed by what I heard, but glad that I have been able to choose a different way to confront the deeply human concern we all share over nothingness.

Back in high school, when Nine Inch Nails – or “NIN” – first became popular, I was never attracted to their music.  NIN was a very different sort of group from the metal hair bands and pop-rap acts of that time, even though they went on tour with Guns N’ Roses, of all people.  My musical choices tended to be less on the full-out-sensory-assault end of the spectrum, where acts like NIN tended to congregate, and more on what the British refer to as the “shoe-gazing” end of things.  So when I sat down to watch this concert, I had no clue what to expect.

For starters, I was blown away by how engaging the band was.  NIN frontman Trent Reznor – who looks better now at nearly 50 than I remember him ever looking in his 20’s – is a dynamic, charismatic performer, reminding me of a more techie, introspective version of punk legend Henry Rollins.  His bandmates and back-up singers were, like him, all intense, focused musicians: and they had to be.

The music itself was unbelievably complex.  There was hardly anything melodic about it, even when there were actual choruses.  There were unexpected rhythm/volume/pitch changes, and unusual combinations of harmony and dissonance.  This was combined with a lyricism which, while unfortunately often scarred by profanity, expressed a very deep understanding of very human things: pain, loss, etc.

In a brief interview, Reznor commented that the band’s new album, from which the concert took its material, was probably the closest he had ever come to creating a musical composition based fully on dreams and stream-of-consciousness thinking.  That certainly came across during the show, particularly in its semi-conscious waking and nightmarish moments.  However there was also something else going on.

There is an underlying tension in all of mankind regarding the fundamental question of meaning versus nothingness.  How you choose to answer that question is going to have a significant impact on how you treat yourself, other people, and the world you live in.  And this debate, this exploration of whether there is any meaning out there, is something Reznor and his band tapped into rather powerfully in this performance.

To their credit, if one can move past the regrettable language and imagery in some of their lyrics, NIN do so in an almost contemplative way.  Despite the level of sheer noise they can achieve, particularly when expressing anger and frustration, this is not a toe-tapping kind of music, but rather something demanding that the listener actively engage his brain.  Is it pleasant? Well frankly, no: it’s decidedly unpleasant. But is it real? Oh, very much so.

This kind of creative exploration is in fact as old as mankind itself.  Look at the Book of Job or some of the Psalms, study the black paintings of Goya, or read the work of Virginia Woolf or Charles Baudelaire [N.B. whose birthday is today.]  Throughout human history, you’ll find men and women staring into the abyss, and not finding it easy to avert their eyes from the possibility that there may very well be no meaning to all of “this” around us.

I see and understand what Reznor, et al., are trying to say.  And quite frankly, I respect them for saying it.  Here, there is no papering over the hard things in life with a shallow, feckless sort of veneer, as so often occurs in contemporary culture.

Where we part ways, however, is that I am a Christian, and a Catholic one at that. So even as I witness, and at times experience first-hand, the kind of painful emotions which Reznor describes in his music, I choose to find hope and meaning in such suffering.  Rather than simply pointless, cruel occurrences, these are opportunities for me to come to understand Christ better, and hopefully draw closer to Him.

That doesn’t mean I always succeed, of course.  I can complain and moan and…well yes, swear….about perceived slights, abuses, or injustice, when I give in to such feelings.  However I hope that, over time, I’m getting at least a tiny bit better at accepting these things, even if I am very far indeed from perfection.

That being said, one has to give credit where credit is due.  I wouldn’t recommend picking up the new NIN album to listen to in the car on the way to work, any more than I would recommend you purchase a print of “Saturn Devouring His Children” by Goya to hang over the dining room table.  However the fact that a rock music concert caused me to pause, listen, and reflect, is something which for me, does not happen very often at all. And in the end I’m actually rather grateful I had that opportunity.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails performing on PBS'  "Austin City Limits"

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails performing on PBS’ “Austin City Limits”

Life Deserving of Life

Sometimes the morning newspaper sends shivers up your spine, and sometimes it gives you cause to hope that not all is lost.

As I learnt in the news yesterday, recipients of Medicaid in Virginia who find themselves pregnant with a child suffering from a “gross and totally incapacitating physical deformity or mental deficiency,” can undergo an abortion paid for by the state.  A Virginia state senator has now introduced a law to eliminate this state subsidy, and as one might imagine the reaction on the left has been of the usual “war on womyn” variety. Yet in a rather more disturbing statement than usual, Democratic Senator Donald McEachin of Richmond complained that the proposed new law would require bringing “a child tragically incompatible with life into the world.”

What struck me immediately about this statement was that the speaker was no doubt completely unaware that his thinking on this subject comes from a line of thought which arose out of the field of eugenics. In fact, this unconsciously chosen wording is eerily reminiscent of “lebensunwertes leben”, a phrase which is usually translated as “life unworthy of life.” This concept was first proposed in print by the German legal philosopher Karl Binding in the early 20th century, in a book which he co-authored with the psychologist Alfred Hoche entitled “The Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life”.

Binding and Hoche believed that the physically and mentally disabled weakened society, and the goal of preserving and protecting both the health and the resources of society were best met through the elimination of such persons.  Binding argued that an oversight committee or panel should be allowed to decide whether to put to death someone who was seriously mentally or physically impaired.  Moreover, those in possession of their faculties, he believed, should be able to choose to end their own existence with government-sanctioned assistance because this was not an exception to the law against murder, but rather moral in and of itself.  Eventually this treatise in particular and others like it led to the development of Aktion T4, which the Nazis used to kill people suffering from physical and mental disabilities, including children with deformities, Down’s Syndrome, and so on.

Now before anyone assumes that this is simply an example of Godwin’s Law, be assured that this line of thought has real-life consequences even today. For example we also read in the news yesterday about two 45-year old twin brothers in Belgium, who were euthanized by a physician because they learned that they were going blind. The two men had been born deaf and lived together all of their lives, and when faced with this diagnosis they could not bear the idea that they would no longer be able to see each other – this despite the fact that both of their parents and an older brother, at least, are still living, and that their conditions were not fatal.  I find this a rather expansive definition of “pain” under fundamental concepts of law, but will pass over any further comment on this horrible story other than to say one wonders what Helen Keller would have made of their arguments.

Yet amidst all of this selfishness and death, for ultimately that is the underlying philosophical principle and economic basis for both abortion and euthanasia, there is life.

The most beautiful thing you could have read in the newspaper yesterday was the story of the short, blessed life of a little boy named Lucian Johnson. Lucian’s parents were informed by physicians, when his mother was about five months pregnant, that their unborn son’s brain had not formed properly. As a result, it was doubtful that he would survive to term, and even if he did, Lucian would never be able to walk or talk, and would require constant, 24-hour medical care. Under the circumstances, doctors recommended that he be aborted.  Instead, after seeing her son on real-time scans and ultrasounds, his mother Katyia Rowe decided that it was her responsibility to care for her Lucian, regardless of how long he might live.

Because they had no idea how much time Lucian would have to live, Katyia and Lucian’s father Shane Johnson decided to give their little boy everything they could in utero. They would talk to him and play him music, and learned that he liked when Katyia would take a shower, since he would jump about when the water from the shower head would spray on Katyia’s belly. And while all of this was going on, as if the circumstances of preparing for the death of your child at any moment were not difficult enough, due to the nature of Lucian’s disabilities Katyia herself had to undergo six painful procedures to drain her amniotic fluid during the last nine weeks of her pregnancy.

What is remarkable is that these two rather ordinary people exhibited far greater intelligence, common sense and compassion than many of the most prominent voices in our society.  For both of these young people simply accepted the fact that all life matters, and since they had been given the responsibility for another life, that was the end of the discussion, whatever the doctors or courts or scholars might say. “Needless to say we were heartbroken,” Shane admitted, when they learnt about Lucian’s disabilities and poor chances for survival. “But we continued and accepted that whatever problems there may be, together Katyia and I could face anything and we would do anything for Lucian.”

Katyia’s reasoning with respect to why she did not abort her son was equally straightforward, particularly for someone who admitted that she had never wanted to be a mother.  She simply accepted that role when it was placed upon her, even when she learnt about her son’s disabilities and the prognosis for his early death.  “If he could smile and play and feel then despite his disabilities he deserved to enjoy whatever life he had left, no matter how short,” she observed. “Just because his life would be shorter or different, didn’t mean he didn’t deserve to experience it.”

How it is that these two parents, an office worker and a security guard from an English provincial town , neither married to each other nor experienced parents before this, could demonstrate a far wiser, sound rationale for their thoughts and actions than say, elected leaders from the corridors of power, or deep thinkers from the towers of academia? I will leave it to others more qualified than I to try to explain. My short answer would be that ultimately, human life recognizes that other humans are also deserving of life, in whatever form that life happens to arrive on this planet, or what happens to it the longer it is here.

Despite what those concerned with their electability, tenure, fundraising, and advertising space happen to be pushing this week, our numbers do not periodically need to be culled in order to somehow benefit society.  That is for cattle, not for people, and those who advocate treating people like cattle are in fact the ones who reek of what wafts about the stable-yard, at best, or indeed carry a distinct odor of sulfur, at worst.  And even then, even among those utterly convinced of their own brilliance in their unmitigated ignorance, neither we nor they are animals or devils.

In fact, we are creatures capable of remarkable acts of selflessness, who can bring a severely disabled child into this world and make the nine short hours that it spends here full of love, care, and true compassion. And once those nine hours have gone, we can make certain that child, who may never actually achieved anything in the eyes of the world, will be remembered and cherished. That, gentle reader, is a life fully compatible with life.

Rafaello
“Head of a Cherub” by Raphael (c. 1507)
Kunsthalle Hamburg