I was lucky enough to be invited on my first trip overseas at the tender age of 17. One of my best friends from school, Michelle, was also an only child (yay us!) and her dad wanted to visit distant relatives in Northern Spain. Somehow he worked out the details with my Mom, and we were off. While I know memory is mutable, I will share the most vivid ones from the trip and leave it up to Michelle and Dick to correct me, or allow me creative license, as they see fit.
It’s So Old
I remember being very aware of the deep historical record on display before me – from the architecture in Madrid, to the landscape in the countryside as we drove North – I really got how young America was, and how wide and shallow our roots back home. In Spain, I witnessed farmers plowing (with animals pulling the machinery!) around the smallest of ancient brick walls out of respect for the memory of the building that once stood there. Americans would have dynamited the shit out of it and put up a strip mall.
The Great Gear Grinder
The only cars available to rent were manual transmission – something I didn’t even know existed til we arrived. The challenge was that the adults, Dick and Helen, had limited experience with stick shifts – and there was no way Michelle and I were going to try to figure it out. I think maybe Helen had a gentler touch, but Dick was definitely the self-appointed primary driver. Regardless of his ability. I love this man, and he will forgive me for telling the story this way, but it was a rough experience riding in the back seat of a teeny Euro car, careening around the tightest corners, flying along streets on which people’s front doors allowed them to spill out right in front of us (no sidewalk!!! WTF???), bumping up maddeningly steep roads, with the Great Gear Grinder at the wheel. I think Michelle and I were mostly terrified during the days when we had to put some miles on the car. But we made up for it at night in our room, creating new episodes in the legend of the Great Gear Grinder from America who practically dropped the trans everywhere he went. We laughed til we almost puked or wet the bed. It was a great release.
The Meal That Changed Me
When we arrived in Oviedo, we hosted the entire Menendez clan for dinner at our hotel. Michelle and I spoke rudimentary French – I don’t recall if Dick and Helen spoke Spanish. I remember a lot of gesturing and smiling and hugging. We all certainly tried our best to communicate. It was most fun with the small cousins, they were totally up for many games of point-and-say-the-word. They loved laughing at our terrible Spanish. For this meal, Dick went all out and catered a remarkable feast – the best the hotel could prepare. I only remember the champagne and caviar from that night – first time for each. After dinner, the family invited us to their place the next day. And that’s when it really got good.
The family lived in the country – hard core country – rough, hardscrabble landscape, with little storage buildings up on stilts. Imagine a 1960s film about a Mediterranean countryside, shepherds and cowherds walking with staffs and moving animals across the land. Amazingly beautiful. That. And, if I’ve got this right, the family worked all night and day to make the meal that I will never forget.
There was bread unlike anything I had ever seen. It was shaped like a UFO, round and moundy in the middle about as big as I could put my arms around, with a smooth dark brown crust. And the inside was white as snow with the tightest, most tender crumb, like angel food cake. Stunning. Moist. Scented like the fresh cut grass. I have looked for images or recipes everywhere in order to find out what that miraculous manna was and find out if I could attempt to replicate it. I may have made the whole thing up.
There was a soup, a thin and light tomato-y broth, with pale beans as big as a man’s thumb and corn kernels the size of nickels. It was creamy and fragrant and heartwarming and tasted of the earth and love. There was homemade sausage and rice pudding and other wonderful dishes that have melded into a jumbled blur at this point.
We ate other wonderful dishes on our trip that I will never forget and was so glad to have as part of that experience – blood sausage, cafe con leche, roast suckling pig, and a steaming hot broth ladled onto baby eels that you suck down really fast – all of them have a special place in my food memory. But THAT soup and THAT bread at THAT table. It lit a spark in me that makes my heart flame roar just thinking about them. And I’m sure it’s not the ingredients that get me – it’s the way they were so lovingly prepared, the manner in which they were harvested and served, the family that brought out their best for their extended American family and the skinny, naive, kid from Brooklyn who realized she won the lottery that Spring in 1983.
Thank you Dick and Helen and Michelle. Thank you, Mommy. Thank you Menendez family. From the bottom of my heart.