Food and Hospitality

Don Harris | November 2011

If you ever get to visit the fascinating port of Cádiz that guards the Atlantic approach to the Mediterranean in Southern Andalucía, the first place to go is an astonishing public market, which features rows upon rows of fresh catches from the Atlantic Ocean. You will see burly fishermen slicing enormous steaks of swordfish; other fishing families have artistically arranged their merluza so that the slender fish bare their needle sharp teeth while biting their own tails! The last time we were there, a young fisherman was entertaining passersby with lilting songs from the sea as he sliced fillets of tuna!

Get there early, as the people in the market start winding up things at about noon. It is a memorable experience which will never be suggested in any travel book – even the beautiful town of Cádiz, on a peninsula surrounded by beaches, is hardly ever mentioned because it is a little off of the beaten path of tourism. There is an underground garage along the beach close to the cathedral, which is the perfect place to park your car, as the market is only a few yards walk through ancient cobblestone alleys.

Ruth, I and our boys lived in the neighboring port town called El Puerto de Santa Maria in the early 1970s, where I have fond memories of visiting our local municipal market every Saturday morning – hardly the scale of the Cádiz market, but equally friendly. I enjoyed interacting with our honest neighbors who were standing in their stalls every day to offer us the best they could find. I would see amazing freshly picked green vegetables right out of the garden; lots of local berries and fruit; wheels of local cheese; slabs of fresh locally sourced meat; and an astonishing display of the fruit of the sea – whether it be fish that swam in the ocean last night, or an array of shellfish and other sea creatures -- many of which were still alive! 

To this day, I remember the cheerful face of a woman whom I called the ‘spinach lady’ because her stall was always piled high with the most elaborate greens in town. Not far from her were amazing fruit stalls where the owners spent a long time each day meticulously building symmetrical pyramids of blood oranges and clementinas. One of my favorite scenes to watch was a farm lady who kept retrieving tiny snails who were wisely crawling away to freedom from her bowl.

One of those Saturdays I forgot my wallet. I was embarrassed when I realized there was nothing in my pocket to pay the fisherman for a beautiful swordfish steak he had just carved for me. He immediately sensed my distress and said, “Take the swordfish with you. You can pay me when you return to the market some other day. By the way,” he continued as he reached in his pocket for a 1,000 peseta bill, "take this money so you can finish your shopping!" 

Amazed at his generosity and trust, I finished my shopping errands without having to return home empty handed. My trip included an obligatory stop at the churro lady’s stand, where she served me sizzling hot churros in a newspaper cone for 50 pesetas.

Of course, I am describing the joys of what we now call a farmers market in America, where the produce and meat we buy are from the real human beings whom we get to meet and know. We begin to appreciate the cycle of the seasons, as well as the crops and the farmers. It is the natural way of preparing for meals, and that is the secret to the food we enjoy in Spain. There we enjoy simplicity of flavors, fresh seasonal vegetables and fruits, and a reliance on generations old recipes, which conform to the seasonal cycle. 

We have one time a year in America when we pause from our usual buying habits of packaged food from far away places, and follow the same seasonal approach as they do in Spain. That is on Thanksgiving Day, our traditional harvest meal. The dinner has a special meaning in American folklore because it marks the time when the first grateful settlers gathered around a common table with some of their native neighbors, and thanked God for the harvest that saved them from famine.

Our traditional American menu that day is straightforward, in many ways following the simple, honest traditional cooking in Spain that lets the ingredients shine. The centerpiece is a large turkey, simply cooked and served, much as lamb or suckling pig is presented in Spain. The golden roasted turkey is surrounded with local squashes and potatoes. In areas that are more rural, side dishes of pickles and preserves made in the kitchen earlier in the year may also be served. Cranberry sauce, made with cranberries grown on Cape Cod by the Pilgrims, is a standard garnish. Finally, we top off the meal with another American treat: pumpkin or apple pie. Every one of the ingredients on the table is available in the fall, harvest time, and is served in a straightforward manner, showcasing its natural flavors.

Our American Thanksgiving meal, with its focus on community, family and honest seasonal foods, reminds me of many meals that we enjoyed in Spain that featured local products and hospitable company gathered around a table. It is a way of hospitality that extends to all social interactions, not only one ceremonial time of the year.

Sometimes when Ruth and I go to Spain, our neighbors here in Williamsburg will ask whether our trip is for business or pleasure, but that is an unanswerable question because it is not appropriate to categorize hospitality. For example, I have known one man for over ten years. Our initial contact was at a trade fair where his company was seeking to export Jamón Ibérico. Now, every time Ruth and I, or our sons, pass through Córdoba on our various trips, he will take us out to dinner with his wife and three boys. We will enjoy meats and vegetables from the local countryside with a businessman who welcomes us as if we are family.

The Spanish culture revolves around the community rather than the individual. It is all about gathering around a table together and enjoying each other’s company, whether is for café con leche or a big paella. The catalyst for this vital interchange is honest food – amazingly fresh, simply prepared. In some ways, they try to capture the essential spirit of Thanksgiving Day every day of the year.

May you and your loved ones enjoy a loving Thanksgiving Day together, celebrating the hospitality of your family and friends.

Su amigo,