A Dish Best Served Cured

So let’s talk ham.

If you’ve never been to Spain, you may be unaware of this, but pork is omnipresent here. Cured, dried, ground, stuffed, you name it. And, while I think it’s amazingly good, the manic national pride in cured meats was bordering on the bizarre from my point of view. Sure, they’re proud of paellas, olives and tortillas (a thick omelette, NOT the Mexican type), but ask any Spaniard what defines their culture culinarily-speaking and they will invariably name off types of ham.

The prices and quality range from free (as tapas that come when you sit down at a cafe) to caviar-esque (for the almost mythic version that comes from pigs in one region who are exclusively fed acorns…if you’ve ever noticed the expression on a cat’s face while they’re kneading and purring and allllmost asleep, then you know what the Spaniards look like when they’re describing this one).

In every grocery store–even their version of Super WalMart–there will be an aisle devoted to it. The giant net-covered legs abound at all social functions, and it is well known that 90% of New Year’s Eve emergency room visits will be ham-related (they’re slippery suckers to carve up). Reading the doctor-prescribed guidelines for feeding my daughter for the first year, I just noticed the line:

After the first year, the child can begin to eat more than the basic meats (chicken, beef, serrano ham).

Why, you ask?  So did I.   I mean, yeah, it’s very good. But how did it become the national ethos? A grad student finally, and rather sheepishly, answered me: vengeance.

To put it lightly, Spain has had a long histoy of troubles with the Moors. When they finally reclaimed their land for good, they stopped all the cattle farming that had dominated and replaced the animals with pigs, making pork their national meat. It was a statement against the Moorish invaders, a way to tell the peoples of both lands where the line was.

To sum up, then: Spain is obsessive about pork because their rivals from 600 years ago can’t eat it. In other words, ham is Spain’s version of a teenage girl slamming the door to her room after a fight with her parents. Will it keep them from coming in? No. Does it feel good, though, like you’re really making a statement? Sure.


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February 2009
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