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Food for Thought

One day, Jordi’s gran said to me, “Pero mira que gorda que estás!” (look how fat you are). I was moritifed. For her though, it was the ultimate compliment. In her eyes I was healthy. I had enough food to eat.

Meal times and food are sacred in Spain and Catalonia. Of course, food is important everywhere in the world, tirelessly shaping the rhythm of life. But eating as a ritual, a sit-down sociable event that connects people is of particular importance here.

Undeniably pragmatic, a lunchbox of a sandwich and an apple simply won’t do in the Mediterranean. The main meal of the day is served anywhere from 13:00 to 15:00, depending upon where you live. In Barcelona, lunchtime is at 14:00 but in central Catalonia, where I live now, people eat at 13:00. At weekends this tends to be later.

Lunch is a three-course affair, the primer plat, consisting of vegetables or a salad or maybe even pasta or rice, followed by a meat or fish course. Finally, there is fruit or yoghurt, and if you are dining at a restaurant, a dessert like crema Catalana (crème brulée) or flam (egg custard).

At home, meals are normally prepared from scratch using raw ingredients; people choose to soak their own lentils or beans overnight rather than buying them pre-cooked in jars or tins. La hora de dinar, lunchtime, the most important meal of the day, is sacred, and if you aren’t able to go home, to your own house, your mother’s or your aunt’s, then the next best thing is taking your three-course meal to work in a carmenyola, a tupperware lunchbox. Beware, as you will probably have to queue up in front of the microwave along with ten co-workers who are also waiting to heat up their own home-cooked festival.

On accidentally leaving their lunchbox at home, people might pop into the local bar to order an entrepà (sandwich), better if the filling is hot like an omelette or sausages, viewed as a guilty treat by others in the office as sandwiches are known to be fattening, or at least not wholesome like the vegetable-meat/fish-fruit combination.

For people from the UK, meal times are one of the hardest things to get used to in Catalonia, partly because eating a full meal rather than a sandwich at lunchtime is simply not something the English are accustomed to, and also because everything else grinds to a halt. Shops close, from 13:00 until 15:00 or sometimes even 17:00, and streets are suddenly deserted; there is no point in ringing a company between 14:00-17:00 as most of the time the phone will remain unanswered. It’s traditional and rigid but at the same time reassuring and anti-capitalist. It’s about living.

Really, it is unsurprising that food is so important when looked at in terms of Spain and Catalonia’s relatively recent pasts, and the impact of the Civil War from 1936 to 1939. Wars wherever they take place leave behind scars. Now, there is only a handful of people left to tell the tale of the years referred to in Spain as ‘la miseria’.

Early morning pensioners shuffle to corner shops, bearing the weight of these memories; figures dressed in Sunday best for local mass still suffer nightmares about turbulent days of the past. From 1936 until 1939, Spanish citizens turned against each other in a civil war, the impact of which was so hard hitting that the aftermath still ripples through today’s society, almost eighty years later. The enemies in this war were within the same towns, the same streets and occasionally the same families. This past sits painfully in the collective psyche like a recently formed scab that breaks open with the slightest political movement.

For people who experienced the Spanish civil war and post war years, what represented a more immediate source of horror was the daily battle for food. Individuals that had previously been more or less comfortable were plunged into poverty, while families that had been intact often had to learn how to survive without fathers or husbands. For up to seven years during and after the civil war, food shortages both in the city and the countryside made life extremely hard.

The grandma of my partner Jordi, Josefa Iranzo, now resident in Collbató, twenty kilometres from Barcelona, is originally from Alcañiz in Aragon. Frontline fighting that took place in the 1938 Batalla d’Ebro was only kilometres away from Alcañiz.

During the war, Josefa’s mother and seven children fended for themselves after their father had to leave the village to fight. Josefa was only seven years old and her mother and siblings had to defend themselves against the pillaging and scavenging of troops. What she remembers still haunts her in old age, “They took everything, time and time again. They stole the pig, crops, clothes, the sewing machine and even the mattresses from the beds.”

The family survived like so many others by eating what they could find. Rabbits were hunted and what crops had been overlooked by troops were made use of. Edible herbs and grass that grew in fields were boiled and mushrooms found on top of hay bales were oven baked and eaten. During these times, it was common practice amongst many families to breed barn rats for eating and some people even ate cats. Once the fighting had ended, the post war years were characterised by the family’s shortage of food.

For a foreigner dining in a household in Catalonia today, the portions of food served up can seem worryingly large. Viewed in the context of Spanish history, however, the tradition of eating well and eating a lot is understandable. The fact that repercussions of past physical suffering are still felt today is not always obvious to people that were born elsewhere. For those who lived through a food shortage lasting for ten years, ensuring that people eat more than enough is an essential part of daily life.

It is, then, partly due to the years of ‘la miseria’ that the culture of eating well is so important here. Going without food is not to be tolerated within the family household, and the women of the post war generation feel it is their duty to prevent loved ones from experiencing the hunger they themselves once faced. One day, Jordi’s granny said to me, “Pero mira que gorda que estás!” (look how fat you are). I was mortified. For her though, it was the ultimate compliment. In her eyes I was healthy. I had enough food to eat.

Jordi's gran, Josefa (Pepa)

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