Dispatch #2 from Madrid: Food is identity.

Some adopt the attitude that food is all about energy and believe it should be viewed as such. I don’t understand those people. Food is about so much more than just molecular reaction. Food is identity. Here in Spain they are rightfully proud of the food that identifies them. Specifically, they are Jamon-proud.

They slice the Jamon into rice-paper thin slices and claim that they can tell what a hog was raised on by the taste of the cut Jamon. I will have to take their word for it. I gave up eating meat at the start of the year.  And, yes, that includes the American version of Jamon called bacon.

I didn’t give up meat for any particular reason. It wasn’t for religious or health or any other pressing conviction, so I don’t mind if others eat meat. I’m not one of THOSE people. The only time I judge people over food is when they insist they don’t like chocolate. I will judge a person by the chocolate they don’t like.

Here in Spain, chocolate is like milk in the US – it’s a source of comfort and good health. In the afternoons, well-dressed Abuelas gather at local hangouts and visit with each other over a cup of warm melted chocolate. It is not a sweet chocolate like we have in the US. It’s a creamy confection to be sure, but not like having a cup of Hershey’s warmed up.

Eating and drinking are communal activities here in Spain. I love that. My daughter Shelby has a girlfriend whose mother is Latin. She says that  Sobre la Mesa is one of the things she misses most about her own childhood.

Lingering over the table.

It is a tradition common to many cultures, this Sobre la Mesa. Regrettably, it is becoming less common in the US, where a goodly number of people now eat in their cars commuting to and from work, or in front of their laptops or hand-held devices. It’s all about the fuel and less about the lingering and listening.

Technology has cut into our lingering over the table. Nowadays it seems, Americans mostly linger over a screen illuminated. That makes my job as a writer all the more difficult. I can no longer eavesdrop on conversations for inspiration. Y’all aren’t talking to each other the way you once did.

It’s not surprising at all to me, then, that so many writers found inspiration here in Spain. People here are far more social than in the US. They stroll around the neighborhood, greeting the local merchants, eagerly swapping stories with each other over a glass of wine, a loaf of bread, a selection of cheeses. Here in Madrid, there are entire streets dedicated to the writers. Imagine!

And over at the Museo Reina Sofia, crowds were rightfully drawn to Picasso’s moving and disturbing Guernica. It’s emotional toil reminded me of the weeping out of Syria, out of Palestine, out of refugee camps in America where children are held illegally in cages by a wannabe-demagogue and his band of disrupters.

But it wasn’t Picasso’s work that held my attention. Instead, up on the 3rd floor, was a temporary exhibit of the Peruvian revolutionary Jose Carlos Mariátegui, who fought against the rising threat of fascism. He believed in the power of literature to free a people. Speaking of revolutions and the people who inspire them,  Mariátegui reportedly said, “A book by Joyce will always be more valuable than one by any neo-Zola.”

There’s a reason the Spanish word for book is “Libro.” Cervantes’s novel Don Quijote de la Mancha remains one of the most translated books in the world, second only to the Holy Bible.

The practice of reading democratizes a people and its country. Why do you think that the first thing demagogues and tyrants alike do is seek to control what people read? Because he who controls what you read controls what you think. That’s why Trump has been so successful in eroding the country. He tells his base what to think and because they refuse to educate themselves otherwise, they turn to him as their one true informer.

Keep people distracted. That’s the key to control. Don’t let them become aware of the threat you truly pose. For goodness sake, don’t give them time to read, to digest, to think for themselves, or to discuss with others. Divide the people. That’s how you remain in power. In America.

Reading. Discussing. Digesting. Thinking. Socializing. Drinking. This is the way people take control of their lives here in Spain.

And walking? Did I mention walking? So much walking. Six-and-half miles yesterday. Eight-and-half miles today.  Do they make any shoes comfortable enough for all that?

Walking, according to the locals, is how one offsets the lingering at the table. Both pursuits enrich our lives, and the life of our nation.


Karen Spears Zacharias is author of BURDY, Mercer Univ. Press.





Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.

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