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.
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.
There are no introductions to Ortega’s recipes, no photo spreads. Instead, only a titled defined by the dish’s main components, an ingredients list, and brusque directives. I filled the apartment with smoke while frying eggplant rounds. I’d spent the day delivering my resume to schools around the city. I’d done well in my TESOL course, but being an American meant my chances of being hired were next to nothing. With the (disastrous) adoption of the Euro in 2002 came the European Union’s rules about employment. Unless a case could be made otherwise, companies were mandated to hire EU citizens. Gone were the days of Americans easily getting work.
For the béchamel sauce the recipe instructed dan vueltas rapidas con unas varillas. Give rapid turns with some . . .sticks? I looked around the kitchen—no sticks. Most of my UK friends had already found teaching jobs; the Aussies worked illegally at British pubs that didn’t pay well but came with meals and the occasional tip. None of them spoke Spanish even half as well as me. I checked my doorstop of a dictionary. Varilla—(thin) stick; twig, wand; rod, bar. By the time Nerea got home the eggplant slices were oily and limp, the béchamel abandoned. I asked her about the sticks. She looked at me, then pulled the whisk out of a drawer.
The more complicated the recipe, the more detailed the instructions. Ironically, this made cooking easier. Someone suggested offering private lessons, so I made a flyer, complete with a picture of Bill Murray in a bathrobe under the heading Lost in Translation?. I got one bite. It had now been a month, and Nerea was convinced that I must be as clumsy in my job search as I was at cooking Spanish eggplant recipes. I’d worked in a restaurant before, so she decided we should start there instead.
Our routine: Nerea would coyly hold out my resume, now translated into Spanish. When a manager showed interest, I stepped up and explained that it was I who was looking for a position. He in turn would immediately say no. Nerea started scowling after the sixth refusal. She explained to each cornered soul that I spoke two languages, had worked in an American restaurant and could relate to tourists. I chimed in that I would take any job, even dishwasher. At the fifteenth place, she wouldn’t take no for an answer.
When we got home, Nerea went into her room and cried.
An eggplant should be surprisingly light for its size, the skin shiny and taut around the flesh. Friends suggested moving to Eastern Europe, but I stubbornly remained in Barcelona. I was already failing in a country where at least I knew the language—what would happen to me in a place where I couldn’t even say hello? Then Nerea burst through the door to say she’d heard of an opening in a school 45 minutes outside of the city. I taught 15 hours a week (prep time not paid for) and received €350 in an envelope at the end of each month. I was the only teacher who spoke English. My room at Nerea’s cost €200, so that left me with €150 for all other expenses. Definitely not enough for my credit card bill. Meanwhile, British friends legally teaching the same course load made €1,200 a month. My béchamel sauces were whisked perfections, but by now I mostly subsisted on eggs, yogurt, toast, and oranges.
The best times were evenings when I sat in the living room’s deep windowsill, smoking cigarillos and listening to Nerea’s jazz collection while watching rain fall through the streetlamp’s chalky light. I live in Barcelona, I’d think to myself. This is real.
The worst time was when my credit card stopped working because I couldn’t pay the minimum balance. My tourist visa had also run out. Waiting in the Metro after work, I noticed a man on the opposite platform, his profile descended from Aztecs. Both of us stuck out; both probably illegal. I could only afford to buy one transparent piece of jamón serrano for this recipe’s filling, but I tasted its ribbon of salt throughout.
Tortilla is to Spain like macaroni and cheese is to the USA: it’s cheap, filling, and comforting, with tarted-up versions served at restaurants. We were eating breakfast on March 11 when ten bombs went off in four commuter trains during Madrid’s morning rush hour. The country froze. The government claimed it was the work of Basque terrorist group ETA, but as information rolled in it was obviously the act of Islamic extremists. The government, an ally to the US, had joined the war in Afghanistan two years before despite strong public opposition.
The next night, as we again sat glued to the news, a great wave of sound started up at the top of the street. I had never heard anything like it—a roar of noise made up of thousands of small clangs. Nerea ran to the kitchen, reappearing with pots and wooden spoons. She shoved one of each into my hands, then threw open the window and started banging vigorously on her saucepan. Kitchenware bristled out of every apartment window; an ambulance slowly cruised along, alarm sounding.
It’s a people’s protest! Nerea shouted over the din as I gawped. We are calling bullshit on the government! Down below, and old man gleefully beat the crap out of the streetlamp with his umbrella. The next day the people voted the reigning party out of office.
I no longer needed help haggling; I had my favorite sellers. I had an Irish boyfriend, Malachy, and I continued to fill out immigration paperwork that went nowhere. I met friends for coffee and the occasional drink. But I found myself again leading a double life. I couldn’t afford to stay in Spain, even as it appeared I was finally succeeding there. Malachy and I half-jokingly discussed me marrying him in order to get an EU visa. I don’t remember if he ever got to try my cooking.
(that is, sliced extremely thin)
In June I flew back to Boise, staying with a family friend until I worked enough catering gigs to afford a studio apartment. I moved on to Ortega’s other recipes, brooding about my failures. Determined to try again, I started volunteer teaching at a nonprofit for immigrants and refugees. Their stories were much worse than mine. Most had kids. None of them would have left their home country if their lives hadn’t grown impossible due to war, poverty, or religious persecution. Most tried not to be too bitter about the fact that their dreams of an American Life had been just that, dreams.
Eventually I finished my degree, spending five years teaching English. When I finally ventured abroad again to work in Vietnam, before I left the US I arranged a contract with a school that processed my work visa, offered insurance, and paid well. And then began studying up on fish sauce, once again a novice. Looking back, what strikes me is that I wasn’t interested in attempting paella, or squid in its own ink, or other hallmarks of Spanish cuisine. I was trying to get a handle on the most humble recipes—those forgettable, necessary meals of daily life. I thought my entrance into adulthood would be writ large, but it turned out it was contained in small acts, like paying bills on time and making a meal I was proud to serve others. As poet Joyce Sidman writes, “Eat your successes. Eat your mistakes. That way you’ll always be full.” After all, even Ortega failed occasionally: her Macarrones a la Americana calls for two cans of mushroom soup and a coffee spoon of curry powder.
Kelly Morse is a poet, translator, and nonfiction writer from the Pacific Northwest who currently endures lake effect snow on the shores of Lake Superior. You can follow her at: @kmorsewriter.