SoupsNew & NowSpanishTravelEssay

From Spain With Love (and Gazpacho)

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It’s hard to figure out what to eat in Spain when you keep kosher—even a loose, travel-tailored version, one that allows for warm olives in pools of oil, and odorous spears of Manchego cheese. Ham hocks hang everywhere, aging delectably, ready to be sliced into thin, fat-marbled sheets and draped over tiny plates. I was visiting this new country with my mother, custodian of my reluctant observance of the kosher laws, and I stared greedily at the hooves and haunches of glorious pork as I ate... gazpacho.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

We ate gazpacho in Madrid and Seville and Barcelona, in streetside cafés that served tapas plates by the score, and in restaurants that did the same, but more somberly. We spooned cool gazpacho into our mouths as the street practically steamed under our sandaled feet. We bargained when we were charged for baskets of bread that had arrived unrequested at our tables; we evaded paella at Las Ramblas and in the shadows of Gaudi’s chapels and, despite initial confusion, did not visit the Museo Del Jamón, which turned out to be a chain of charcuteries. It was a blur of a trip—trains, planes, the winding streets of one or another city, a crammed handful of hotel rooms, all squeezed into a week. Throughout, the cool soup buoyed us and calmed our bewilderment and eased the stammer of our broken Spanish. This was something we could pronounce, this was something the two of us could enjoy together, a mother and daughter from a big family, unused to being alone at close quarters for so long.

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There is an art to getting to know a parent once you are an adult, or nearly; I was in college, then. There’s a cautious kind of courting, a formality undercut by years of imbalance in power, and by the ever-present impulse to erupt in anger. There are stories hoarded on both sides, truths one could divulge, but hesitate to. The two of us are as different as travelers could be. Left to my own devices, I wander aimlessly, sniff at the smells of a city, move slowly and cautiously over new terrain. I would have spent this summer week in Spain half-wrapped in a siesta, sipping coffee by day and red wine by night, browsing the streets dreamily, like a library-goer.

She is the sort of woman who has highlighted half the guidebook before the plane has landed, who slices days into sights to see; a week into sub-trips, and those sub-trips into bite-sized bits. She would like to greet the dawn already on her way somewhere. She is twice my age but with seemingly infinite vigor; I am drowsy as a tortoise in the sun. We bickered in pigeon-dotted courtyards of ancient stone, in museums, in a cul-de-sac in Seville, two Jews surrounded by hams in the country of the Inquisition. But when it came to the fine red soup—slick with extra-virgin olive oil, smoky with roast tomatoes driven just over the edge of ripeness by heat—we found fellowship over a cold spoon. Our mouths were stilled from argument, from cutting questions. The clumsy process of reacquainting ourselves with each other felt easier aided by the tang of garlic, the tongue-prick of vinegar, a scattering of salt.

I returned home on the plane alone; she was en route to Vienna, where no doubt the city’s venerable coffee houses would be spurned and replaced by an endless march through art museums. I don’t remember sleeping on the flight, just hanging suspended in that grim grey little city in the air. I was going home to the arms of my love.

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Most of us have a moment in life where we move from the embrace of a parent to that of a lover, though rarely is it quite so literal. We were both twenty. I had been away most of the summer, and was momentarily astounded by the portion sizes at a restaurant lunch on Long Island: such abundance! Mountains of shredded lettuce, boulders of avocado, shaggy fields of cheese; Manifest Destiny on a plate. I don’t believe there’s anything inherently redemptive to travel, especially not the grotesque, consumptive kind of travel wherein cities are summarily checked off a list (“done”), rather than loved or learned from—but as a way to discover contrasts, it can be a very useful exercise. I thought of small bowls that fit in the palm of my hand, filled halfway, cold and perfect. And then I turned back to him, my lover at twenty, with a mouth split-lipped by smiling.

It was our second year together; we were staying at his parents’ house and I was determined to bring them back something from my journey, although my pockets were empty. Back in a land of long lawns bracketed by golf courses, I had nothing to give, but I could plot, with him, to surprise his parents with gazpacho. I hadn’t brought back Spanish fans or keychains from Madrid, and so in lieu of these tchotchkes, I aimed to reproduce what I had tasted, to erase thousands of miles with one plosive moment on the tongue, and bring the baking streets of Seville, for a moment as small as a bowl of soup, to suburban Long Island.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

I plan an elaborate meal like I am fomenting a war: with grand, fiery rhetoric for the cause, detailed plans for the movements of troops, a fierce denial that failure is possible. It turned out that that unctuous thickness came from day-old bread, that the tomatoes were best charred, that it ought to be crowned, as it had been served to me, with an array of roughly-chopped fresh vegetables and a cut-up hard-boiled egg or two. We looked up the recipe together, me sitting in his lap and typing, him bracketing me with two arms, cozy as a parenthetical. I looked back at him and his eyes were teary, this person I loved to the brim of my skin and with every rib and tendon. He said it was because we were being domestic together. He didn’t say much more, but he kissed me. We interlaced our fingers.

Photo by James Ransom

Cooking is a kind of building—mixing ingredients, layering flavors one over another—and this was the first time we were doing it together. Commandeering the kitchen where his mother made her Sabbath meals, we were consciously, if cautiously, taking on that role, playacting as providers, kissing, furtively, over the cutting-board. There was the shadow of a possible future here, under our fingers, in between the tomatoes. I wanted to spell that future out on our tongues, write it out in each red spoonful. What parents give to children, children give to their children, and to their parents, too, in the end. I looked at him, a dish towel slung over his broad shoulder, and knew we had a chance to make light work of it together.

We knew we were going to roast pounds of tomatoes together. We were going to chop raw garlic. We were going to slice purple onions razor-thin, til’ they were translucent; soak bread and squeeze it; populate the blender with a creamy torrent; dot it with olive oil, with green pepper and seedless cucumber, with firm yellow yolks in perfect pieces. What I had learned alongside my mother, I brought back to him, and he, assenting, took it into himself and acted. We were going to give a gift, finer than rubies and redder than any stone, a good, cool, sour bowl on a hot day, and we were giving it together, two hands chopping, ladling, carrying, releasing, two pairs of hands at labor side by side in the kitchen, letting our palms brush under cool, clear water.

What did you make when you cooked with your lover for the first time? Let us know in the comments!