Spanish food pretty good if it doesn’t kill you

Amie Van Overmeer

I haven’t eaten meat from a pig, cow or lamb in several years, but in the interest of experiencing Spanish food, I decided to ignore my aversion for meat. Now I regret ever letting on that I enjoy eating a hunk of animal flesh because if “you are what you eat,” then I have definitely become a pig. There’s not a part of the pig that’s left out of Spanish cooking. Pork loin, pork roast, tenderloins and hot dogs are just the beginning. The more exotic pork dishes — the ones I do not order — include “delicacies” such as pigs feet or roast suckling pig, which is an entire baby pig (eyelashes, baby pig tongue and all) laid out on a plate for the diner’s culinary pleasure. Meat eating is a scary experience in a foreign country, and it especially is in Spain, where meat is a staple for every meal. I never know what I’m eating, and asking what it is doesn’t seem to bring any clarity. I get vague answers, like “meat” or “pig,” which I’ve usually already figured out at that point. It’s almost impossible to order a vegetarian meal in Spain; vegetarian seems to mean “lots of fish” or “only a little meat” in Spanish. Luckily, I can eat just about anything, which is how I’ve managed to eat tuna pizza and baby squid tentacles. One Spanish custom that tests my gag reflex is keeping bones in all the meat. It doesn’t matter if the meat is in soup or casseroles; there will be bones. Generally I like to keep all my meat boneless and skinless; I prefer to not have reminders of where the meat came from. The more food has been prepackaged and precooked, the more I like it. Unfortunately for me, preprepared foods stuffed with preservatives aren’t common meals in Spain. In fact, the more reminders of how fresh the food is, the more Spaniards like it. Fish are served with heads, skins and tails to show that they are a fresh catch. Shrimp, my favorite food, are served with their pointy heads intact. Their beady little eyes stare at me before I rip their heads off, reminding me of how much I enjoy the pre-peeled version. Some Spaniards don’t have the same qualms with the heads as I do, though; I’ve seen people pop an entire shrimp in their mouth and then pull the head out similar to the way I’d eat sunflower seeds with shells. Spaniards also don’t seem to have the same level of germ phobia that runs rampant with Americans. Once any kind of food including meat, seafood or eggs, has been cooked, Spaniards will leave it sitting out on the counter for hours until it is time to be reheated for dinner. Words like “e. coli” and “salmonella” flash through my head as I’m chowing down on my nuked meals, but I haven’t died from food poisoning yet, so I assume it’s safe. This doesn’t mean that my meals are always edible. I made the mistake of telling my Spanish family that I like seafood, which was like playing Russian roulette with my meals. It’s dangerous to say what I like for fear of what might show up on my plate. One day my roommate got the consistently safe and reliable chicken, while I had little sardines with bones, skin and tails staring at me. Another time my Spanish mom took me out to eat for seafood, only to have me try crab brains cooked in a wine sauce. To make dining even more difficult, mad cow disease is cropping up all over Spain, so even a simple hamburger is not a sure bet. There have been two or three cases of mad cow in my province alone, which makes me shudder every time I’m served lasagna. Everyone assures me that the meat I have eaten has been carefully tested, but I don’t trust the levels of hygiene. On several occasions, I’ve seen people who work with food come out of the bathroom without washing their hands, which makes me wonder about the entire food industry. The only redeeming quality about mad cow disease in Spain is its name — vacas locas. Contracting a disease that translates to “crazy cows” just doesn’t seem too serious. Besides adjusting to cleanliness standards and types of foods, the meal times tend to leave me hungry and craving high-calorie, high-fat, prepackaged snacks at about 11 a.m. Spaniards eat a light breakfast of muffins or crackers with hot chocolate or coffee. Lunch, the biggest meal, which usually consists of two plates of food, isn’t served until 2 or 3 in the afternoon. A light dinner isn’t dished out until about 9 p.m. Right about now, I’d shave my eyebrows for a Mountain Dew and Easy Mac dinner, but the scary meat and bouts of hunger are worth the trade-off of extremely healthy meals. Almost everything is cooked in olive oil, and much of the food has very little added fat. Don’t get me wrong, there is some great food in Spain.The fresh-grown olives and Clementine oranges are heavenly, and the fresh seafood (even with the bones and shells) beats anything that can be found in the Midwest. And when I do find something I like, such as the salads, vegetables and fresh-baked breads, I can eat as much as I want. It makes the daily mystery meat and me ODing on pork almost bearable. Amie Van Overmeer is a senior in journalism and mass communication from Rock Rapids.