Every cookbook is an attempt to minimize failure. Each recipe tested, instructions polished until they form a crystal ball through which one can see the perfect future meal. Simone Ortega, the author of 1080 Recetas de Cocina, or 1,080 Recipes, claimed that she herself made each dish three times before committing them to print. That is the magic and promise of a recipe: if you just follow the steps you can have what you want. And yet.
I was late to my own graduation party, which was fitting since I hadn’t technically graduated. Untying my apron as I walked up the front steps, I both admired and despaired at the work my mother had put into decorating. The event doubled as a bon voyage party: I was using the dregs of my student loans to take a TESOL teaching certificate program in Barcelona. And never come back, I told myself as I entered the house.
Earlier that week I’d marched in my robes, knowing I’d blown chemistry, the last class needed to finish my Spanish literature degree. I was alternately too ashamed and too proud to tell anyone. My mother had already grown impatient with my lagging grades and extra semesters. The recipe of college had not turned out quite right, despite her admonitions to just jump through the hoops: I was a dough she couldn’t make rise.
February in Barcelona is cold and wet, but I reveled in the escape from Idaho snow. I rented a room from a small, fierce Catalan woman named Nerea, took my TESOL course seriously, and set up language exchanges to improve my Spanish. But secretly, I thought the true way to prove I belonged was to learn how to cook the cuisine of my adopted country. Nerea suggested 1080 Recetas de Cocina, showing me her own splattered paperback. However, just the thought of 1,080 recipes intimidated me. At 23, my repertoire of “food cooked from scratch” consisted of brownies, guacamole, cheese omelets, and the occasional soup. My crutch was premade food, but in 2004 Spain there were no boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese to be found.
1080 Recetas was not my mother’s Joy of Cooking. The first page focused on wine pairing icons which accompanied 1,006 of the recipes, including breakfast dishes. Next followed a seasonal daily menu that listed three courses for each lunch and dinner. Then the measuring instruments: to scale drawings of three spoons, each increasingly larger than the last: cuchara de moka, cuchara de café, and cuchara de sopera. Laying various cutlery against the picture to get a sense of proportion (there being no measuring spoons like I was used to in the US), I concluded that those of mocha were two teaspoons, coffee that of three teaspoons, while a soup spoon held approximately a tablespoon’s worth of olive oil. For measuring greater amounts there was a drawing of a squat wine glass and a water glass; a whisk and a dutch oven rounded out the implements.
In the end, I decided to start with Ortega’s eggplant recipes. All of them. What did I know about eggplants? Absolutely nothing, but they gleamed enticingly. If I learned how to cook them, if I understood their essential properties, their eggplantness, then surely I could succeed in this new life.
Berenjenas al Ajo: Eggplants with Garlic
The thing about Barcelona’s famous La Boqueria is that it is still the people’s market, despite being a tourist destination. Nerea and I headed straight for the back, avoiding the entrance stalls. Past fishmongers with their flounders wide as manhole covers, past darkly varnished bars with their old men sipping gin. Out of the market entirely, to the delivery area where Roma women sold vegetables from baskets. You could haggle there, and if they liked you the sellers would add a nosegay of herbs to your bag.
I was running from my past in a country that was doing the same. When 1080 Recetas was first published in 1972 during the sunset of General Franco’s regime, a married woman could not hold a job or a bank account without her husband’s signed permission. Driving a car was equally off limits for all but the most obstinate and privileged of the female sex, as was an advanced education. When the dictator finally died in 1975, young Spaniards were eager to catch up with the rest of the Western world. They didn’t want to be trapped in the kitchen as their mamás had been for the last 35 years. When Spain joined the European Union in 1986, 1080 Recetas was in its 25th reprint.
Nerea helped haggle for the garlic and eggplants, plucking the flat Italian parsley (I’d only seen the curly kind in the US, languishing on the edge of plates) out of the bouquet garni. Although I was one class short of a B.A. in Spanish, specialized cooking vocabulary alternately amused or confused me, heightening my ineptness in my roommate’s eyes. Ortega’s first directive: Se lavan las berejenas sin pelarlas y se les quita el rabo. “Wash the eggplants without peeling them and get rid of the tail.” Then there was the question of oven temperature, or rather the lack of it. None of Ortega’s recipes give precise temperatures; at best she tells you to “heat up the oven”. I overcompensated for this lack of specifics, and my aubergines were burnt, shriveled things.