It is the roughness I love in Spanish food. The tangle of squid’s tentacles, the glassy-eyed fish and bulbous, potent olives. It is earthy, almost gritty, a cuisine that requires attention—fingers peeling shrimp, extracting olive pits from your mouth and prying mussels from their shells. And throughout there is a hint of excess; the manzanilla is bright and brittle on the tongue, the cured queso de oveja is hot and salty, and the salami sweats too much. It is as if nature and cuisine are in a battle, the latter fighting a relentless heat that would reduce milk and meat to putrid swill. In this battle, the Spanish attack with old ingenuities of preservation: sharp brines and salty cures, sweet syrups and fierce spirits. Today, although modern technologies of refrigeration and chemical preservatives may have rendered these old excesses technically unnecessary, they still define the character of Andalusian fare. It is a guttural, riotous cuisine.
My particular love of Spanish food comes not only from its superficial qualities. Rather, like so much else, my hunger is not for the olives but for the people with whom I share them, for our conversation and friendship, and also for the memory of other olives, pits now long buried, and of other friendships. The word “companion” comes from the Latin companio, literally meaning “with bread.” Companions are those with whom you break bread and it has long been acknowledged, perhaps since the first barbecue, that shared food binds people together.
Last weekend I took a trip to Jerez with three friends. It was a warm few days, full of sunshine and sea salt in our hair, of long lazy afternoons on the beach and equally languid evenings wandering about, stopping frequently for a plate of shrimp or pitcher of sangria. One night we decided to eat in and prepared a feast artichokes with lemon butter, sole baked with tomatoes and onions, thin green peppers roasted with olive oil, salt, and pimentón, and a large vegetable stew. It was a simple feast, constrained as we were by an unfamiliar kitchen and and a bare pantry. Yet the food was good and I ate with abandon.
We sat around a cramped table in the tiny courtyard. The sun had left, sauntering off behind our existential curve and sweep of earth, leaving a soft, attenuated hue in the air like the dust kicked up by a thousand retreating footsteps. We sat around talking and picking idly at the food, our conversation wandering between serious and silly in that easy way it does among friends, between the progress of our tans and the future of food, between love and lust and stupid mustaches. I picked up an oily, fragrant pepper and ate it whole, struck by that bittersweet thought I often get late at night over the debris of a good meal. I thought about how these contented moments sit like islands in an ocean of breadcrumbs—remnants of our sacrifice to the gods of conversation. And I thought about how these moments are sweet because they bind us together and bitter too because in that very binding there is the prospect, cruel and inevitable, of being broken.