Dancing in the Fountain: Being a vegetarian in the land of jamon
As Karen McCann learned the hard way, being a vegetarian in Spain means very little when faced with the Spanish love of ham.
Whenever we introduced Spanish friends to our dog, Pie, they took one look at her fulsome beauty and commented, “Tiene una buena boca” (literally “she has a good mouth,” meaning a hearty appetite). It was true. The only thing Pie liked better than food was more food. Pie loved to eat, and eat she did, often and with great enthusiasm.
The Spanish have a similar attitude toward dining, managing to fit at least five meals into every day: first breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, tapas, possibly dinner after that, and on very late nights, hot chocolate and churros (fried dough) in the small hours of the morning. And while a few salads and vegetable dishes may appear on the lunch or dinner table, at most meals, especially those taken away from home, meat is the star of the show.
Sevillanos went through some very lean years after the Civil War and are still celebrating the fact that they can afford to dine on meat — especially their favorite, pork, and most especially the famous Spanish jamon (ham). Made from pigs raised in cork and oak forests and killed in a village festival every winter, served at virtually every occasion from breakfast to a royal wedding, jamon is the cornerstone of the local diet. Which made it pretty difficult for me to confess, during my early days in Seville, that I was a vegetarian.
I didn’t have anything against meat; I’d eaten it all my life and enjoyed it. But during Rich’s corporate years in the Midwest, when we were dining out three and four nights a week with board members and business associates, I simply couldn’t face the pressure of making my way through the huge quantities of beef or lamb staring up at me from my plate.
My nerve finally broke one night at the home of two heart surgeons, who served me a steak the size of my head, an entire baked potato piled with sour cream, and green beans oozing around in a lake of butter. “Margarine is so unhealthy,” our hostess confided. I gamely picked up my knife and began sawing away at the beef, but I knew I had met my match. I finished less than a quarter of the meal, despite what my mother taught me about good girls and good guests eating everything on their plate.
After that I gradually let it be known that I’d become a vegetarian. And although this caused my poor hostesses no end of consternation and fuss and entailed my eating countless packaged garden burgers hastily unearthed from the depths of their freezers, it was less stressful (at least on me) in the long run.
That is, until I arrived in Seville and found out about the Spanish love affair with ham.
Sevillanos consider ham one of the fundamental ingredients of life, on the short list with air and water. Spanish jamon is nothing like the fleshy pink meat Americans put in their sandwiches. It’s akin to Italian prosciutto but with a flavour far more robust, its colour a richer, more marbled burgundy, its texture both toothier and more tender.
When I first walked into a tiny tapas bar and saw two rows of whole pig legs, trotters and all, suspended from the ceiling by ropes, I couldn’t fathom how a small place could sell so much meat. On the countertop, a partially carved leg rested in a wood and metal cradle, and I watched the barman produce a dagger-like knife and slice off pieces so thin I could practically see through them. A bowl of ham scraps stood nearby, ready to sprinkle over everything from spinach to eggs to shellfish.
I soon learned it is almost impossible to avoid ham if you’re eating out in Seville. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Five hundred years ago, when the Spanish Inquisition was bent on purging the country of Jews and Muslims, whose dietary laws prohibited pork, eating ham was one of the ways you publicly demonstrated you were serious when you said you’d converted to Christianity.
Today it’s one of the ways you publicly demonstrate you’re adapting to Spanish life. Explaining that I was a vegetariana drew even more stunned disbelief than my attempts to order té con leche instead of coffee.
I held out during the years we were vacationing in Seville every spring, watching Rich and everyone we met rave about the exquisite ham, chorizo, skewers of spiced chicken, and other popular local dishes while I was eating my hundredth meal of bacalao (salt cod) and espinacas con garbanzos (spinach with garbanzo beans).
When we began living full-time in Seville, I kept finding myself in situations where refusing to eat meat would have caused great offence to our hosts and embarrassment to our Spanish friends. And what I ate out of social necessity, I found I truly enjoyed; the ham and other meat dishes were delicious and, thankfully, served in small, manageable portions. I began to think of myself as a “flexitarian,” meaning mostly but not strictly vegetarian. Sometime during our second year of living in Seville, I crossed the line and began eating ham of my own free will whenever Rich and I went out to breakfast.
Karen McCann / Expatica
Karen McCann moved to Seville in 2004 and writes about her expat experiences in her new book, Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad. "I loved this book,” wrote Lonely Planet. “I must have laughed aloud at least once in every chapter... The advice in the book is terrific." Wanderlust has taken her to more than thirty countries, including many developing or post-war nations where she and her husband volunteer as consultants to struggling microenterprises. Today, she spends her time writing, blogging, painting, exploring Seville, and traveling the world.
Photo credit: Boca Dorada (jamon).
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