“I thought he was making a side dish” – Food as pleasure, as identity

bilingual bilingualism multicultural espanolita food

WARNING: Many photos of delicious Spanish food accompany this post. Do NOT read hungry. (You have been warned.)

“I thought he was just going to make a veggie side dish,” my mom reacts as the food continues to stream in from the grill outside.

“Well, you know D.,” I respond. “He loves food, and he loves to cook.”

“I know, but he didn’t need to. We have plenty of food.”

“Yes, but, he wanted to,” I reassure her.

bilingual bilingualism food culture tradition christmas espanolita

It’s Christmas day.

D., E., and I are at my parents’ house, together with one of my sisters and her family. In keeping with our family’s decision to simplify this Christmas – only buying presents for the grandchildren – my mother decides to put a roast in the slow cooker, freeing herself from hours of slaving in the kitchen over the stove. Time not spent in the kitchen is time spent with her family. Decision well made, for sure.

bilingual bilingualism food tradition culture espanolita christmas

Yet, my last-minute invitation to a pair of friends who, I find out, are going to spend Christmas night alone, throws a small wrench in our plans.

“Don’t worry, mom; they offered to bring a side dish,” I assure her, having sprung her with the news just hours before dinner.

Overhearing our conversation, D. refuses to impose such a culinary requirement on our guests and plans an impromptu trip to the nearby H Mart, a local Asian market.

“I’ll make un plato de repollo y pimentón,” D. announces. (Translation: paprika-infused cabbage. Yes, it’s as fancy as it sounds.)

Sounds perfect, I think, especially since I won’t have to do the cooking. (I count myself one lucky mujer, having married a man whose passion is cooking. Thank you, Lord!)

food bilingual bilingualism culture christmas espanolita

D. and I, together with E. and my two little nephews, pile into the car and make the ten-minute drive to the store.

Two pounds of gambas (shrimp), ten vieras (scallops), one pound of pork belly, and the aforementioned head of cabbage later (not to mention the grilled salmon samples we stuffed our faces with), we head home.

No lo pude resistir, admits D., as he walks through the door past my speechless mother.

bilingual bilingualism espanolita food culture tradition christmas

As author Michael Pollan writes in his food manifesto, In Defense of Food,

How a people eats is one of the most powerful ways they have to express, and preserve, their cultural identity.

For a Spaniard, food is not just a cultural marker. It is also, and more importantly, a way of life. It is not just about what kind of food to eat, but also how it is prepared, with whom it is shared, and what it can teach us.

Although there are always exceptions to any generalization, the American views, for example, a pork chop, in terms of efficiency: how much time does it take to cook?, how many calories? is it gluten-free? was this pig humanely raised?


On the other hand, a Spaniard views the same pork chop in terms of pleasure. From the selection of the fattest cut in the market to the wafting aroma of the marinated spices that permeate its juices to the “madre mía qué buenas están estas chuletas” sung at the table to the debate over which country boasts the best pork, food is life.


bilingual bilingualism espanolita food culture tradition christmas

When on the subject of food and Spain, I  often joke with my American friends that you can throw any type of insult at the rey or primer ministro, but don’t you dare criticize their olive oil. Uh-uh. No way. Ésa es tierra sagrada. To speak of their food is to speak of their culture, their identity. Ellos. (Them)

D.’s offer to cocinar a side dish for our Christmas dinner was not his response to a need, but rather an offering of love and his co-participation in our meal.

bilingual bilingualism food espanolita tradition culture

As I later reflected on D.’s trip to the market and his three-hour time spent standing in the cold chatting with our friends, I was reminded of one of my favorite books on food – The Supper of the Lamb.

To conclude, I echo Father Capon’s culinary prayer and dedicate it to my daughter, E.:

“O, Lord, refresh our sensibilities. Give us this day our daily taste….Take away our fear of fat, and make us glad of the oil which ran upon Aaron’s beard. Give us pasta with a hundred fillings, and rice in a thousand variations. Above all, give us grace to live as true men….Deliver us from the fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve thee as thou hast blessed us – with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine. Amen.”

11 thoughts on ““I thought he was making a side dish” – Food as pleasure, as identity

  1. I LOVE this post. As an Italian transplanted in the US, I also struggle with the need/want dichotomy. And gambas, vieras and pork belly?!?!?! That’s heaven in my vocabulary.

    Happy New Year!!


    • Happy New Year to you, too! Thanks for stopping by the blog! I’m from DC and we just left it after living there a long time. What a great place with lots of great restaurants. Food, yummmm!! Audrey


  2. What a fantastic post! I love learning about how food is viewed in different cultures – and I admire that, for a Spaniard, food isn’t just about the items on a table, but “how it is prepared, with whom it is shared, and what it can teach us.” Here’s to food, family, friends – and sharing it all together. Happy New Year!


  3. LOVE your musings Audrey. So well expressed. Especially love that you guys made an H-mart run. Their free samples are the best! Next time I visit, I think a D-made Spanish tortilla is in order! 😛



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