Saturday, January 7, 2012


One of the hardest things to get used to here in Spain, as with any country, is the food.

I wouldn't say my diet in the states is very healthy, but I take note of what I am eating, and I eat a pretty decent variety of foods.

For example, during the week I went home for Christmas, I can tell you what some of my meals included:
home-made pizza: crust, tomato sauce, green peppers, onions, sausage, pepperoni, asiago, parmesan, mozzarella, spices
potato soup: soup made with potatoes, cheddar, onions, cream
christmas dinner: ham, turkey, caesar salad (tomatoes, cheese, lettuce, etc), cookies, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, hot chocolate, cheddar potatoes, hawaiian bread roll
korean BBQ: skirt steak, radishes in vinegar sauce, bean sprouts, and literally a gazillion other random things that I don't normally eat but ate anyways
Thai restaurant: Sushi (crab, tuna, rice, seaweed, avocado, etc), beef, red peppers, rice, onions, edamame,
meatloaf dinner: green beans, meatloaf (ground beef, ground pork, vegetables, ketchup, bbq sauce, tomato sauce, etc)

and this wasn't in my trip home, but instead before my trip here:
Thanksgiving dinner: potatoes, turkey, stuffing (cranberries, raisins, giblits [yes, GIBLETS], onion, celery, spices, more stuff I can't remember...), green beans (mushroom soup, green beans, crunchy onions), cranberry sauce, gravy, sweet potatoes, etc.

Ok, you get it. You don't want me to list my entire diet. And I won't. I simply want to make the point that I eat a lot of different things. I am not super picky. Like every normal human being, there are things I really cannot eat without gagging (seafood [but i like fish], chewy meat, gristle on meat), and things I prefer not to eat but will eat (mushrooms, very salty food) and things I am allergic to, or at least told I was allergic to, since such a young age that I still don't bother to eat them on their own (oranges, orange juice [although I really really like ).

But of course, in the setting I am in, I come off as a picky eater. Because guess what? Being on the Mediterranean Sea supposedly allows for very fresh and very good (so I am told) seafood. Like these little seashell things that are the size of a quarter, octopus,  clams, mussels, squid, squid ink (yeah, that's a thing you can eat, even though it's supposedly poisonous in large doses. Bon apetit.), shrimp, baby shrimp, eel,  and cuttlefish. Yes, cuttlefish is a thing people eat.

Don't you want to eat me?

Some of this may sound appetizing to some people. Like calamari, or shrimp. My parents love those. But I just hate being tricked. Not on purpose, but when you see a dish and it looks and maybe even smells appetizing then find out it's something you hate, it kind of makes me sick. Like this:
That's not spaghetti. That's some baby eels you're lookin' at. Yum...?

But what I am getting at is that the food here, to me, an outsider, seems very much the same. Cheese. Bread. Ham. Not this ham:
This ham, although familiar, goes in the previously mentioned category of foods I choose not to eat, but will if I must, like mushrooms.

No, not that ham. This ham, also known as jamon iberico or jamon serrano:

Yes, this...thing is sitting on our kitchen counter as we speak. And Spanish people across the nation drool when the word jamon is merely mentioned.

It's actually uncooked ham, but it's cured, like beef jerky. So you'd think I'd like it because I LOVE me some beef jerky. But this jamon is very salty. Like licking a brick of salt. That's slimy with fat. That white stuff on the edge of the ham (as well as in that pile of sliced meat) in the photo? That's fat. And there is plenty to go around.
So what else...cheese, bread, jamon, rice (paella), fish, blood sausage (yes, sausage that has blood in it. Again, I eat that too.), calamari, shrimp, pork chops, and other meats.

I love meat. Let me just declare my love for meat, as gross as that sentence sounds. I could never become a vegetarian. I love red meat. Steak: skirt steak, filet mignon...other steaks, they are all good to me. Beef: oh my god, if you gave me a pile of ground beef (that somehow was immune to expiration) to eat for the rest of my life, I could probably live off of it. Tacos, meatloaf, burgers, stuffed green peppers, lasagna with meat sauce, meatballs, etc. I could find a new way to cook it every week, and it would be delicious.

I also eat white meat, but not so much (much to my mother's dismay, as well as my arteries'). I love a turkey sandwich, roasted turkey, or turkey pot pie. Chicken: although I prefer it off the bone, I still like it. Asian chicken dishes, roasted chicken, jerk chicken, chicken fajitas, etc. Pork I am not too keen on, but I'll still eat a pork loin that's on my plate. I prefer my pork in the form of pulled pork sandwiches. Oh my. Pulled pork sandwiches. With extra BBQ sauce. On an onion roll. With crispy onions on top.

Whoa, sorry. I just got pulled into a day dream of pulled pork sandwiches there. I digress.

So I eat meat. But here, the meat is not the variety of which I am familiar. Instead it's a lotta that jamon (eaten almost 3 times a day, I swear), as well as good old gristle. If you don't know what gristle is, it's because you throw that part away, or your butcher cuts it off before selling meat to you. It's the really fatty part of meat. Like on a t-bone steak, that white chunk along the side. The reasons why it is icky to eat? It's not only gross (because essentially you are just eating a huge chunk of animal fat), but you are eating a flavorless piece of the unwanted part in a dish. Really, I am ordering a steak. Not fat. Thank you.

"That red part looks gross, but gimme a big plate of that white stuff!"--Spaniard

The dishes I eat are mostly composed of mystery meats. Today, for example, at lunch we ate something that looked like overcooked skirt steak. Overcooked as in "hey, leave it on the grill for another few hours, it's still not carcinogen-y enough!" And in the end what was served looked like thin crispy slices of skirt steak, but not crispy as in "mmm, pan fried!" but crispy as in "this fell through the grates of the grill and stuck there until it landed in the pile of ashes, but I dusted it off a little and here you go!"
And upon placing it on my plate, my host mom's mother told me "You have to chew it a lot!" Which is always what you want to hear. How much you need to chew meat. Because let's face it, America's cuisine portrays the best meat as tender meat. Which means fatty, yes, but fat that somewhat melts away and isn't 90% of what is on your plate.
So I ate it. And chewed. A lot. And it tasted like burnt...gristle. Oh my god, just before the gag reflex started kicking in, I bit down on some hard piece that had to have been a bone. I stealthily slipped the tooth-sized white chunk out of my mouth and into my napkin as I grabbed my bread and took a big bite to mask whatever I was eating. And then drank water. Thank god I am used to taking big vitamins which prepared me for the mouthful of burnt gristle I had to down without chewing. And my host mom's mother asked me how I liked it. I said, "Well, it's...different."

Notice how I haven't mentioned veggies that much? Well, that's because they don't show up on the dinner table too often. Or the lunch table. It is very common to have fruit for dessert, and my oh my how people eat their fruit (my coworkers often bring two or three small oranges to eat after lunch). We have salads once in a while, but usually with some seafood in it (which I don't mind, because if it's absolutely icky, like baby eel, I can pick it out). But only once in a while. Other than that, we eat onions and garlic quite often (what is garlic? An herb, probably, not a vegetable. Oh well). And I had grilled asparagus on Thursday night. Only 3 pieces though, since it was shared and a small portion.

Mayonnaise is a pretty common thing here, too. The first time I tried cuttlefish, it it was wearing so much mayonnaise that I thought it was just a plate of plain mayo. And the other day I had salmon with a nice bread crust that tasted quite soggy. Why is it so soggy? It didn't have a bread crust, that's why. It just had a thick layer of mayo that had gotten slightly crisp in the oven, enough to look like breaded fish. But it was pure mayo.

But hey, I am changing. I used to hate all seafood before my first trip to Spain. But now I eat hake (I know you are like "What is that?" It's a white fish. And tender, not chewy, like cod. And they love it here.) as well as cod (chewy at times, but I eat it). I don't know how I would've survived if I didn't eat any cod. It was practically the main course of everything we ever cooked in my cooking class in San Sebastian. And I already mentioned the thing about blood sausage, which I eat, but prefer not to. But I will at least eat SOME of it, which is a huge effort:
Extra black means extra bloody! Mmm!

And remember that cuttlefish that you imagined on your plate earlier in this post? Well I ate cuttlefish eggs today for lunch. They tasted like and had the texture of cod. And they looked like...well, like this:

Looking at this picture kind of makes me want to vomit.

So I am definitely making an effort. Hey, today I had burnt gristle and cuttlefish eggs! And I ate quail eggs the other day, and I eat foie gras when it's on some tapas (foie gras is another thing they eat a lot of, and it is overstuffed duck liver). And pate, but it's not a favorite (pate, for you people who still haven't thrown up by the various things mentioned in this post, is a paste made of meat and fat. Like...peanut butter, but instead of peanuts, it's meat!).
And today I ate rabbit, but I don't consider that something ridiculously gross because it's meat. And it didn't have a lot of gristle.

Meat-gristle=happy and not hungry Melissa.

And yes, there are things I like that Spaniards eat. Tortilla (egg omelet with potatoes) is wonderful, as well as fried eggplant with caramel sauce. And patatas bravas, or chopped potatoes with a red sauce and garlic sauce. And some beef stew my host dad made a couple weeks ago. And paella. And rabbit. And chorizo. Etc.

But I am not the only one who doesn't eat everything. Everyone here, even the Spaniards, have dislikes. They are only human. There were family members at lunch today who didn't want calamari. Others who didn't want rabbit. But if I don't want something, it is misread as "ugh this foreigner hates ALL FOOD!" which is the part I hate, and feel most self-conscious about.

And what also surprises me is the "weird" things the kids will eat. Yes, weird is a loaded word and is subjective. Clearly I am imposing my own food standards on them. But in the states, a typical kids meal is a hot dog, or mac and cheese, or buttered noodles, or pizza. Maria (age 6) was eating octopus tentacles at lunch today. And all of the kids fight tooth and nail for a plate of freshly cut jamon (literally. It can get pretty ugly). It surprises me because stateside, the kids will eat noodles and would never DARE to eat something that looks like an octopus. Another thing I find odd is when I made pancakes, and Maria tried one and couldn't finish it because "it was gross" and she "didn't want anymore." It's a pancake! It barely has flavor! It's a basic starch. If you eat bread, how could you not like pancakes?! Although, maybe they think the same with me: "She eats tuna and hake, but why won't she eat any more of these cuttlefish eggs!?"

The reason I dislike seafood is the texture. It grosses me out to eat a slimy mussel or a chewy piece of cuttlefish. Or shrimp. Blech. This is similar to why I don't like alcohol: it tastes nasty. But when I mention that, it's no big deal. But mention a dislike for fish and suddenly it gets ugly.

Ok, so I ended up talking more about my entire diet here. But I had to get the point across.

And perhaps going into this post, you thought you were very open-minded about food. But there had to be at least one thing mentioned that grossed you out. Or maybe something else that grosses you out, that wasn't mentioned here. Now just imagine that you were served that gross thing every other day. And that you felt insecure because you don't want to impose, but at the same time your stomach couldn't possibly stand eating cow eyeballs for the 8th day straight. Maybe now you know how I feel.

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