The Austin Chronicle

A Place, a Time, a Memory

The Meaning of Thanksgiving

By MM Pack, November 24, 2000, Food

How to Cope in Catalunya

Every American who's lived abroad has at least one coping-with-Thanksgiving story. Here's mine. A decade ago, I spent more than a year in Barcelona, that ancient and worldly capital of Catalunya, for centuries a proud autonomous kingdom, and now the northeastern province of Spain. By a quirk of great fortune, I did not have to work that year. I caught up on reading and sleeping, wandered the streets amidst the surreal architecture that fills that sixth-most-dense city in the world, and, aided by Colman Andrews' Catalan Cuisine, absorbed the culinary vernacular of the region.

Learning anything there was not an easy task for the communication-challenged me. I understand that English is much more prevalent now, but in those days, my high school Spanish wasn't much help in a place where the mother tongue is Catalan, a Latinate language that is linguistically closer to the medieval Occitan of the troubadours than to the derivative Castilian Spanish I'd learned in Texas. Fortunately, everyone in Barcelona also knows Castilian, and as soon as people realized that I was hopelessly confused by their musical and sibilant Catalan cadence, they would kindly switch to kindergarten Spanish for me.

As any Catalan is quick to tell you, the culinary traditions of the province are as different from the other regions of Spain as is the language and literature. But like the rest of the country, the rituals of shopping, cooking, and eating consume a major chunk of everyone's life. The daily shopping rounds were a slow and meticulous process, and I often wondered how people with jobs ever found the time to buy anything.

All that time I spent in Barcelona's markets and shops was where I learned about the foods of the region -- how to buy a rabbit (conill) still wearing its skin, how to tell if the striped snails (cargols) in a hanging net bag were alive and kicking, how to convert a stiff plank of salt cod (bacalla) into a succulent stew. Standing in interminable queues, I eavesdropped on extended conversations between the careful consumers and their equally opinionated purveyors, as they discussed at exhaustive length the best way to prepare a cut of lamb (xai), to dress a grill of baby artichokes (carxofes), or to sauce a cuttlefish (sepia) with its own black ink. Although Catalan generally sounded like Martian to me, the food words eventually began to come clear, and while patiently waiting my turn, my understanding grew about the available and abundant regional ingredients.

Which brings me to the question of Thanksgiving dinner that year. While turkey (a New World creature) is available in Catalunya, it is primarily a Christmas specialty dish. Somehow, turkey just didn't suit my idea of how to celebrate that uniquely American holiday on the other side of the world in a completely different culture. I wanted to eat something that spoke to me of where I actually was. The Pilgrims feasted on wild turkey at the first Thanksgiving because that's what they found to eat in their new home. Having journeyed in the opposite direction, it seemed fitting that I try to do the equivalent.

One cold day in November, I considered the possibilities as I walked to Sant Antoni, my neighborhood market. Upon my arrival, I found an astonishing and totally unexpected transformation. The usual panoply of fresh vegetables had all but disappeared from the market stalls; they had been replaced by vast mountains of wild mushrooms. The air was redolent with the damp and earthy scent of the mountain forests from whence they came.

This was my abrupt and happy introduction to a cultural phenomenon that occurs every November in Catalunya, when, for the few brief weeks of the season, mushroom mania seizes the region's inhabitants.

Bolets, rossinyols, ciurenys, rabassoles, cama-secs, fredolics, rovellons, moixernons. The variety of wild mushrooms range in color from grays and whites to brilliant blues, bright oranges, and bleeding reds, and from the size of softballs to tiny slender threads. And they all cost small fortunes. Nonetheless, in an annual and time-honored ritual, Catalans celebrate the season with a single-minded solidarity; they react to these earthy morsels with fervid desire and, as long as they last, purchase and consume them with passion and fierce intensity.

These prized wild mushrooms, although consumed in great quantities, are invariably prepared in the simplest of fashions, either lightly grilled, or sautéed with a bit of olive oil, garlic, salt, and parsley. When sampled, the taste is mysterious, ancient, and unmistakable. You know you are consuming a wild mushroom, unique from any other food, and you know that it came from the earth. This is food that tastes like nothing but itself, and in November in Catalunya, it is the best food in the world.

You can probably guess what I prepared for Thanksgiving dinner that year. And, till yet, not a November goes by that I don't longingly remember the great annual Catalan mushroom mania.

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