¡Muchas Gracias, Penelope!

Don Harris | September 2013

I am grateful for my friendship with Penelope Casas, who was a friend to our family for nearly twenty years. I am especially thankful for the wisdom and gentle encouragement she provided during the formative years of La Tienda. Penny died recently after a seven year struggle with leukemia and I will miss hearing her friendly voice on the phone. 

Penny was a groundbreaking cookbook author who introduced millions of Americans to the traditional foods of Spain. Over the years, Penny took time to personally reply to the questions of hundreds of Spanish cooking enthusiasts through her open-ended feature 'Ask Penelope' on LaTienda.com. 

I find it fascinating how the paths of our lives intersect with like-minded people over the years. Most of the time we pay no mind, but now and then we recognize that our interests are in harmony with those of another and it is these unanticipated patterns that make life rich and meaningful. Such is the case of our two families and our shared love for Spain.

I came upon Spain quite by accident. In 1964, Ruth and I were married in Long Beach, California - but just three months later the Navy sent me on my first Mediterranean cruise as a newly commissioned naval officer. I was a chaplain to the officers and men of a destroyer division, ministering to about 1,000 sailors aboard four ships. Our first two ports of call were Mallorca and Valencia, and from my first steps ashore I felt an uncanny affinity for the Spanish people. The subsequent hours and days I spent on liberty strolling the pier side streets confirmed that I had found a spiritual home.

I suspect Penny had a similar experience when she arrived in Madrid three years before then. As a young college student she traveled to Spain as part of Vassar College’s 'junior year abroad' program and immediately fell in love with the Spanish people - and not only Spaniards in general, but also a handsome young medical student from Madrid named Luís. 

One thing led to another – Penny returned to Madrid the next year and her romance with Spain (and Luís) continued to flourish. There were some frustrating moments for the young lovers, because in the interim Luís was called to serve as a medic at the Spanish army hospital in Melilla, a Spanish enclave off the Coast of Morocco. But, of course, true love always wins out. 

They married the following year in Madrid and spent three happy and rewarding years living in Spain before moving to New York City, where Luís completed his medical residency in urology, and Penny began to write. She took every opportunity to spread the word about the unique cuisine and culture of her new-found Spain. At that time Americans had virtually no awareness of Spain, especially since the country had been politically isolated after the Spanish Civil War and World War II.

Penelope was on the vanguard, and I am convinced that it was in part because of her writing and advocacy in American publishing circles that Spain today is acknowledged as a premier resource for gastronomy. Her very first cookbook, The Foods and Wines of Spain, has become a classic – and is in its twelfth printing. Her definitive book, ¡Paella!, encouraged millions of Americans to undertake what is now one of America’s most popular dishes. My wife Ruth used Penny’s book to prepare four paellas for our son Jonathan and Stacey’s wedding rehearsal dinner! Spanish food and culture was her life’s work: in fact, just a few days before her final hospitalization, Penny sent the galley proofs of her magnum opus to her publisher: a book of a thousand of her favorite recipes.

Penny and Luís lived a happy marriage of 49 years (we were married in 1964, too!) and spent much of their time together revisiting their beloved Spain. They were a perfect complement, she with her innate curiosity and consuming interest in the foods and wines of Spain, he with his native knowledge of the culture of his motherland.

As Penny’s reputation grew, through her appealing and authoritative cookbooks, and informative articles in The New York Times and other major publications, she was invited by NYU to teach a course on Spanish cuisine and to lead gourmet culinary tours throughout Spain. This in turn led to their own intimate tours, personally arranged by her and Luís, which were enthusiastically embraced. The participants formed an informal community of aficionados of Spain, with many couples returning year after year. Out of these experiences Penny wrote Discovering Spain, an absorbing narrative of their many delicious and fascinating forays. And this is where our two stories intersected in a meaningful way.

Although my first introduction to Spain was visiting a port, I resolved to share my enthusiasm with my wife by exploring the highways and byways of this magical country. A few months later, Ruth and I set off on our own in a tiny Seat 600 rental car and only a smattering of a Castilian vocabulary. Each year we explored a little further, and now it is over forty years later! It would have been a lot easier if Ruth were a native Spaniard, an advantage Penny enjoyed with Luís – but then again, with Discovering Spain in hand we were guided by Penny’s descriptions of her trips and adventures.

Regrettably, New York and Virginia are hundreds of miles apart, so the chance to sit down for a meal together has been limited. Nevertheless, I treasure one time when my son Tim and I shared a meal with Penny and Luís at La Nacionál in the Chelsea area of West Village. Part of the unassuming building is a social club founded in 1902 to serve the flood of immigrants coming from Spain. We could see old timers talking over coffee and beer while watching the futbol games on TV, while others were in a corner playing dominoes. Our destination was downstairs to La Nacionál, a simple restaurant where we spent the evening enjoying honest, unpretentious Spanish fare. It felt as if we had been transported back to Spain.

In a way Penelope Casas has been our spiritual companion and mentor since the beginning of La Tienda. I hope that we can continue the course she has set: to share with you the depth of the Spanish culture; the strong family based roots; and the simple yet wonderful foods which Spain offers for our tables. What an inspiration she has been! ¡Muchas gracias, Penélope!