Stories About Spain
¡Muchas Gracias, Penelope!
Written by: Don Harris
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!
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"I first met Penny and Louis at NYU in a day course they gave on the food and wine of Spain. I fell in love: 1. with Spain and 2. with the food of Spain, when I had a traveling fellowship from Columbia U School of Architecture. Her cookbooks are well worn from using them, and still, I think the best of those that followed from other authors. I traveled nine times on their gastronomic tours of Spain. Penny and Luis are dear friends who have contributed so much to my life. Penny will be missed, but her legacy is timeless."
"Our families were lovingly woven together for over 80 years. Penny complimented our lives as one savors a glass of wine with their traditional Spanish meal. I will never see, smell, taste the same. "
"Thank you for your beautiful remembrance of Penelope Casas. I received a copy of "The Foods and Wines of Spain" as a gift 10 years ago, after my first trip to Spain. It has been my constant resource for reproducing some of those delicious foods and fond memories. May Penelope rest in peace."
"Thanks to Penelope's "Foods and Wines of Spain," we enjoyed a wonderful two-week vacation in Spain, following her Itinerary #1. Spanish food remains our favorite and I cherish all of our Casas books. I look forward to many years exploring the recipes in her books."
"I was given a gift of the 1982 edition of The Foods and Wines of Spain, and my family enjoys several of the recipes. I have shared copies of that book and Tapas with my daughters and daughters-in-law. Like Penelope, I am a New Yorker who married a Spaniard, and both my little mother-in-law and Penelope were my tutors in Spanish cuisine. We also enjoyed the 1996 edition of Discovering Spain, and made a point of visiting places and restaurants recommended therein on more than one trip. Thank you, Penelope. Descanse en paz."
"When I was in the USMC I did 3 Mediterranean cruises. I probably spent close to 8 months all told in Spain at various ports. I fell in love with the wines and food and people of spain. Penelope Casas cookbooks, when I found the first one on Paella was a godsend at last I had the recipes etc to make good Paella, I have copies of all of her books. She will be missed. Vaya con Dios "
"I always feel such an affinity for your posts. We too discovered Spain through the military, Paul was located in Navarra at a communications site.We were married in Bilboa in 1970 and our children were both born in Spain (different tours!) We return regularly to visit our beloved Spain and many friends there. Deepest condolences on the loss of your friend. Such friends are to be treasured and their loss cuts deep. Your life was made richer by knowing Penelope. Saludos!"
"Thank you for the tribute to Penelope. She was a big influence in our household. We bought her books including La Cocina di Mama. We use her recipe for Pan con Tomate, and we have visited several of the places in Spain mentioned in her book. Penelope, we will miss you."
"My husband was assigned to Torrejon AB Spain in the mid 80s. At one of my first Wives Club events, I was told Penelope Casas Food and Wines of Spain was a must have. I bought the book and have thoroughly enjoyed it over the years, not only for the recipes, but for the information on the regions of Spain. My favorite recipes from her book are Paella, Tortilla Espanola and Flan. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family."
"I have cooked from Penelope's books for many years. In the Food and Wine of Spain I made my own Butifarfa, now I purchase it from La Tienda. In May of 1992 I had the pleasure of taking a cooking class at Hayday in Ridgefield with Penelope. The menu was sautéed chorizo, fried stuffed mushrooms, roasted vegetable canapés, black rice with garlic mayonnaise, golden fruits and strawberries in saffron scented sauce. It was a great evening. I made one of her recipes for paella this past week. She was a great teacher and writer. My biggest regret is that when I visited Spain it wasn't on one of her trips. I used her book to pick out restaurants. I too was married in 1964. Will think of her every time I open one of her cookbooks. (I have them all.)
"I traveled throughout Spain with Penny and her husband, Luis when they were doing Culinary Tours. Without exception, those tours were wonderful. The food was estupendo, we saw and did things relating to food, I am sure no one else has done since. There was a core group dedicated to Spain and the Casas', especially Penny. She was truly a wonderful person."
"In April, my husband ad I spent two weeks touring Spain and it wasn't near long enough. We fell in love with the beautiful country and the cuisine. Upon returning, I purchased "Delicioso, The Regional Cooking of Spain. I read it like a travel guide with so many wonderful recipes and photos. This is sad news for a great many people like me."
"When her book The Food & Wine of Spain was published, I was living in NY and it became an instant hit in our house. To this day I still have it and treasure it as the closet thing to the Bible of Spanish cooking. God bless you Penelope, am sure they will have another great chef in heaven. "
"Sorry to hear of her passing. I have enjoyed her books immensely (got "The Foods and Wines of Spain" 25 years ago and still use it regularly)."
"She was also the best abuela ever <3"
"Una magnifica historia, felicidades por su Empresa es una verdadera lastima que la Sra. Penelope haya fallecido pero creo que en el cielo nuestro creador queria paladear un buen plato de Paella como solo la Sra.Penelope lo sabia hacer, y por eso la llevo a su reino. Saludos."
"Dear Elsa, What a wonderful reply!!! "
"What a moving, informative and wonderful tribute to Penelope Casas. Thank you for sharing!"
"Wow!...she sounds like an amazing & very interesting lady....R.I.P."
"If you're going to Spain for the first time or twentieth, there's no better book than Penelope Casas' to bring you the true essence of the Iberian Peninsula with all its beauty and richness. Ms. Casas' suggestions have shown me some of the most unique and wonderful treasures of Spain. Cannot thank her enough and cannot recommend her book more. "
"What a beautiful tribute to the memory of Penelope Casas. I worked as a food writer and food PR consultant my whole career so knew of her groundbreaking cookbooks. This story also brought back my own memories of Spain because I, too, spent my junior year abroad (1965-66) in Spain and the flavors and tastes I savored there are among my lasting memories, ones I still try to replicate in my own cooking...and can thanks to products I'm able to buy from La Tienda."
"We are delighted to be able to bring the best of Spain - we were inspired by Penny. By the way our family lived in Ft. Collins in the mid-70s. We had formed an intentional community offering a values clarification retreat called CREDO for migrant workers and local people. I designed it when I was a chaplain on active duty in the USN."
"Estoy muy apenada por la muerte de Penelope, ella fue casi mi maestra para aprender tantas y tantas recetas de Espana. A pesar de ser espanola, cuando vine a Estados Unidos no sabia mucho de cocina. Sus recetas y introducion a ellas son faciles de seguir y siempre salen bien. Tengo casi todos sus libros.Muchas gracias Penelope por hacerme una autentica cocinera espanola. Te eschare de menos."
"I married my American wife, whom I met during her Junior Year Abroad in Spain, in 1975. We moved to the US, and all was good except that I missed my country's, my mother's cooking. Then Penelope's first book came out, and all was fine again with our lives. Whenever I got a yearning for some Spanish food I'd open her book, and there it was: the recipe for what I wanted, clear, well written, obviously well tested, with suggestions for substitutes for hard-to-find ingredients. Never once was I disappointed. I wonder if she knows, if any cookbook author can imagine, that their work can bring such joy to other people's lives. I hope she does. "
"She will be missed, I love her book, The Foods and Wines of Spain. She has been my guide in cooking Spanish food for so many years. May she rest in peace."
"I too was highly influenced by Penelope's books. It was through her that I was reconnected to the cuisine of my parents who emigrated to Cuba where they met and married. I was able to emulate the foods that my grandmother so lovingly prepared. My grandfather was from Galicia where he met my grandmother. When queried about the reason for marrying my grandmother his reply was "she is Basque and they are the best cooks in Spain." Thank you Penelope."
"Your stories are always so touching. I love them. I can see how much you truly love Spain. I am from the Canary Islands, off the mainland. But your love and tales always take me home. Thank you. I love your shop. It's a little bit of home in America."
"Thank you, Estelle. Las Canarias is one place we have not visited yet. How long ago were you last there? "
"Lovely evocation. Thanks so much. A tiny and pedantic correction from a guy who thinks too much about these things: La Nacional was founded in 1868, though it didn't move into the building at 239 West 14th Street until the 1920s, I suspect."
"Hola Jaime, How nice to hear from you again. We visited the other Jim in Cangas de Onís again in March. Thanks for the correction. Is there an interesting account of La Nacional? It sounds as if it would be a fascinating account."
"Maravilloso escrito sobre Penelope Casas y su gran pasion por Espana y su gastronomia. Tengo el primer libro que Penelope escribio y siempre me ha sido una gran ayuda cuando he intentado hacer algun plato clasico de otras regiones espanolas. Siento mucho el fallecimiento de una persona que incontables veces al leer o preparar sus recetas mentalmente me volvia a mi querida Espana. Clara"
"Muchas gracias, Clara."
Reflexiones en Español
Soy muy afortunado por mi amistad con Penélope Casas, que ha sido amiga de nuestra familia durante casi veinte años. Agradezco especialmente los conocimientos y el estimulo siempre amable que nos ofreció durante los años en los que pusimos en marcha La Tienda. Penny falleció el pasado lunes, tras siete años de batalla contra la leucemia. Echaré de menos oír su voz amiga al otro lado del teléfono.
Penny fue una autora de libros de cocina revolucionaria, que logró acercar la comida tradicional de España a millones de americanos. A lo largo de los años, Penny sacó tiempo para responder personalmente a las preguntas de cientos de entusiastas de la comida española en su sección de consultas “Ask Penelope” (Pregúntale a Penélope) en LaTienda.com. Podrán ver algunas de sus mejores respuestas en http://www.tienda.com/reference/askpeneloperesponses.html
Me parece fascinante como, a lo largo de los años, los caminos que toman nuestras vidas se cruzan con los de personas con ideas afines a las nuestras. La mayoría de las veces no nos damos ni cuenta pero ,de vez en cuando, reparamos en que nuestros intereses están en sintonía con los de otra persona y son precisamente estos encuentros imprevistos los que hacen que la vida sea rica y significativa. Este es el caso de nuestras dos familias y de nuestro común cariño por España.
Descubrí España prácticamente por accidente. En 1964 Ruth y yo nos casamos en Long Beach, California. Tres meses después, la Marina me envió a mi primer viaje por el Mediterráneo como oficial recién nombrado. Era el capellán de los oficiales y soldados de la división de un destructor, teniendo a mi cargo a unos mil marineros a bordo de cuatro barcos. Nuestras dos primeras escalas fueron Mallorca y Valencia, y desde que di mis primeros pasos fuera del barco, sentí una asombrosa afinidad con los españoles. Las horas y los días siguientes que pasé en el puerto y en las calles colindantes me confirmaron que había encontrado un hogar espiritual.
Sospecho que Penny tuvo una experiencia similar cuando llegó a Madrid tres años antes de todo aquello. Siendo estudiante universitaria, viajó a España con un programa de intercambio del Vassar College e inmediatamente se enamoró de los españoles, pero no sólo de los españoles en general, sino también de un joven estudiante de medicina llamado Luis.
Una cosa llevó a la otra – Penny volvió a Madrid al año siguiente y su romance con España (y con Luis) siguió floreciendo. Hubo algunos momentos difíciles para los jóvenes amantes, como cuando Luis fue llamado a filas para ejercer de médico en el hospital militar de Melilla, un enclave español en la costa de Marruecos. Pero, ni que decir tiene, que el amor verdadero siempre triunfa.
Se casaron al año siguiente en Madrid y pasaron tres años de felicidad en España antes de mudarse a Nueva York, donde Luis completó sus estudios médicos de urología y Penny empezó a escribir. Aprovechó la oportunidad para divulgar la cultura y la gastronomía sin igual de su recién descubierta España. Por aquella época, los americanos no tenían prácticamente conocimiento alguno de España, especialmente por el aislamiento al que se vio sometido el país tras la Guerra Civil y la Segunda Guerra Mundial.
Penélope estuvo en la vanguardia, y estoy convencido de que es en parte gracias a sus escritos divulgativos en los círculos editoriales americanos, que España es reconocida hoy en día como fuente primordial de la gastronomía. Su primer libro de cocina “The Foods and Wines of Spain” (Alimentos y vinos de España) se ha convertido en todo un clásico, y va ya por su doceava edición. Su libro definitivo “Paella” animó a miles de americanos a llevar a cabo lo que ahora es uno de los platos americanos más populares. Mi esposa Ruth usó el libro de Penny para prepara cuatro paellas para la cena de ensayo de la boda de nuestro hijo Jonathan con Stacey. La gastronomía y la cultura españolas fueron el trabajo de su vida: de hecho, sólo unos días antes de su última hospitalización, Penny había enviado a su editor las pruebas de su obra magna: un libro con mil de sus recetas favoritas.
Penny y Luis tuvieron un matrimonio feliz durante cuarenta y nueve años (nosotros nos casamos también en 1964) y pasaron mucho de su tiempo juntos volviendo a visitar su querida España. Se complementaban perfectamente: ella ,con su curiosidad innata y su incontenible interés por los alimentos y vinos de España, él, con su conocimiento nativo de la cultura de su tierra natal.
A medida que la reputación de Penny iba creciendo a través de sus atractivos y fidedignos libros de cocina y de sus artículos informativos en el NYT y otras grandes publicaciones, fue invitada por la NYU a dar un curso de cocina española y a hacer de guía en tours culinarios gourmets por toda España. Esto a su vez llevó a una serie de tours privados organizados personalmente por ella misma y por Luis, que fueron acogidos con gran entusiasmo. Los que participaban de aquellos tours formaban una comunidad informal de aficionados de España, contando con muchas parejas que regresaban año tras año. Además de estas experiencias, Penny escribió “Discovering Spain” (Descubriendo España), una narración absorbente sobre sus muchas deliciosas y fascinantes incursiones. Y aquí es donde nuestras dos historias se cruzaron de manera significativa.
Aunque mi primer contacto con España fue visitando un puerto, decidí compartir mi entusiasmo con mi esposa explorando las carreteras y los caminos de este país mágico. Unos meses después, Ruth y yo nos poníamos en marcha con nuestro pequeño Seiscientos de alquiler y con sólo unos conocimientos rudimentarios de español. Cada año íbamos un poquito más lejos y ahora, ya han pasado cuarenta años. Habría sido mucho más fácil si Ruth hubiese sido una española nativa, una ventaja con la que Penny contó gracias a Luis, pero aun así con “Descubriendo España” en nuestras manos, Penny nos iba guiando por medio de las descripciones de sus viajes y aventuras.
Lamentablemente, Nueva York y Virginia están a cientos de millas de distancia, por lo que las posibilidades de sentarse a compartir mes han sido limitadas. Sin embargo, recuerdo con gran cariño la vez que mi hijo Tim y yo comimos con Penny y Luis en La Nacional, en la zona de Chelsea en el West Village. Parte del edificio sin pretensiones es un club social fundado en 1902 al servicio de la marea de inmigrantes que provenían de España. Pudimos ver a veteranos hablando mientras tomaban café o bebiendo cerveza mientras veían un partido de futbol en la tele, a la vez que otros jugaban al dominó en otra esquina. Nuestro destino estaba escaleras abajo en La Nacional, un restaurante sencillo en el que pasamos la noche disfrutando de una comida española sin pretensiones. Parecía como si nos hubiesen llevado de vuelta a España.
En cierto modo, Penélope Casa ha sido nuestra compañera espiritual y mentora desde los orígenes de la Tienda. Espero que podamos continuar con el camino por ella emprendido: compartir con todos ustedes la profundidad de la cultura española, las profundas raíces familiares y la sencilla pero maravillosa gastronomía que España les ofrece. ¡Que gran inspiración ha sido! ¡Muchas gracias, Penélope!