Lessons from the Hoof
My Spanish love affair began as a far cry from love at first sight. The thought of indulging in the famous Spanish cured ham that now has me salivating, at first induced repulsion and left me bewildered. Although I remember our first encounter like it was only yesterday, three years have passed and many valuable lessons have been learned since jamón Ibérico came into my life.
As I stepped into the kitchen of my host family my first day in Seville, I was overwhelmed by everything, with all senses on high alert. I heard the clanging of pots covering up the syllables that I desperately needed to understand the unintelligible gibberish spoken between my new family members. I smelled the odd aroma coming out of a stew on a low boil, and felt the cold air sweeping in the open window that Madre always kept open while cooking convinced that it was only way to control her hot flashes (which of course I learned later once I could understand her). We sat down at the little kitchen table only to delight my sense of taste as I spooned the warm and creamy vegetable stew down the hatch, accompanied with freshly baked bread to sop up every last drop. And then when I stopped to contemplate the fact that I was such a cultured and valiant young woman for not even asking what I was eating, my sixth sense kicked in. Something was ominous about the odd shape at the end of the table covered by a red and white polka dotted kitchen cloth. And as I began to inspect a little closer, I thought I saw a hoof. After performing the head shake, blinking maneuver, I not only discovered that yes indeed, there was a hoof sticking out of the cloth, but it also had a healthy plume of wiry hoof hair attached.
Confused as to why a hairy hoof would be found upon the table rather than in a stable, I tried my hardest to come up with a few words and hand gestures to illicit an explanation from my new and possibly barbaric host family. After an attempt at communication, Madre lifted the cloth and exposed a greasy, pink and seemingly raw leg of what I assumed once belonged to a pig. Smiling and undoubtedly pleased with my inquiry, she brought out a long and sharp knife (which with the newly discovered vulgar habits, made me a bit concerned) and began slicing bite size pieces off the slick top with the precision of a surgeon. After the performance that was met with ooo’s and ahh’s from the remainder of the family, she actually handed me a pink piece cut so thinly I could see through the translucent fat along the sides.
Being a Texan and raised with an appetite for hearty, meat-filled meals and a pride for being flexible to at least sampling somewhat uncommon foods, I should have been ready to give it a try and yet, I was more than a little hesitant. My lack of enthusiasm must have been apparent as my Spanish family began throwing a piece or two into their mouths and making the typical sounds of food well enjoyed. With a nervous laugh and a deep breath, I grabbed a slimy piece and took it down with a gulp, not even tasting it. They rejoiced as I feigned satisfaction. I decided to avoid this jamón situation from recurrence at all costs.
The chilly January gloom turned into warm April afternoons walking along the river and cool evenings with new friends in the many bars along the tangled and cobblestone streets deep within the heart of Seville. The once unintelligible babbling had been conquered but the fear of the ubiquitous jamón hanging from every ceiling in every bar, had not. To make matters worse, my new Spanish boyfriend’s family was in the jamón business and made a game out of incorporating this foul delicacy into every meal. Suddenly the fear of offending his family (gracious manners being yet another Texan trait) was overtaking the fear of the putrid pork. At my first big family meal, I gave in. While his jovial father assured me this hairy and dirty pig leg was of the upmost quality, I tried to keep from gagging. I put on a charming smile and laid that monstrosity of cured meat on my tongue. As I acted out the savoring of this jamón, to my shock I realized that I wasn’t acting. I actually enjoyed this filthy delicacy. I fell in love that night with the salty, tender and fatty pata negra. I couldn’t stop popping slices into my mouth. I couldn’t get enough. I only slowed down to wipe the grease off on my jeans and slosh down some cold beer. My life had changed forever.
Whether it was my love for jamón, Spain, or my boyfriend, I stayed in Seville for another two and a half years teaching English to children, teachers, archeologists, and anyone else who would contribute to my jamón fund. Like all good things, jamón came at a price, but I felt that I almost owed it for teaching me a very valuable lesson: eat everything! (Well, at least try everything once or maybe twice in my case). And furthermore: do everything! And from that pivotal moment on, I took advantage of every day and every meal.
In the those next two years, I could be seen trekking across the north of Spain on the historic, religious pilgrimage, El Camino de Santiago, eating pulpo (octopus) at every hole-in-the-wall along the way; sitting at a beach café digging little wormy cañaillas out of their homey shells; taking a long lunch with friends under the warm Sevillano sun munching on caracoles (snails), dressed up in my flamenco dress eating fried fish whole during Feria: celebrating Spain’s World Cup victory with a BBQ full of blood sausage, and sailing the Mediterranean sucking the heads of any crustacean I could find. Even though I found new loves, jamón, that gourmet fare that once inspired anxiety, would always have my heart.
Like any tragic love affair, it couldn’t last forever. I finally left my beloved Spain after three years of adventures in more than just food. But jamón and the lessons learned would always be with me, and as a matter of fact still are. Upon my teary departure, that same boyfriend’s father who promised me top-notch quality sent me away with a big hug, and of course, a suitcase full of contraband jamón.