What is about food that can make one so homesick? Tomato soup and grilled cheese will always make me think of cold winter nights in Indiana. Corn on the cob elicits feelings of nostalgia for backyard barbecues and Fourth-of-July celebrations. And a tomato brings back memories of the family garden: eating it whole, warm and juicy from the earth. Food is family, food is culture, food is home.
Melanie Glover knows this quite well, having married a Spaniard, moved to the US, and subsequently learned to cook her husband’s favorite foods from home. He missed home, and thus she brought a little bit of his childhood to their new home by learning to make paella and ensaladilla rusa and beef soup. In her new ebook, Fusión Cultural: An American’s Journey through a Spanish Kitchen and Back (only $3.99 on Amazon!), she details this process—and provides a few recipes along the way.
Having also married a Spaniard, I identified quite well with her journey: from not knowing much about Spanish food all the way to being quite enthusiastic about it! I came to Spain loving cooking and tomatoes, unlike Melanie, but I too had to learn to like new things. And I did! I now love olives, merluza (hake), and hearty red wine.
Melanie was gracious enough to answer a few questions for me about her book. Take a look!
Melanie at the Barcelona Cooking School in Barcelona, Spain
Why did you first visit Spain?
I first visited Spain in 2005 as part of a study-abroad program through my university. I stayed for three months and knew I had to return. I left at a point that summer in which I felt I was at the peak of learning, and I desired that learning to continue. I returned to Spain for a month after I graduated from college in May–June 2006, at which time I met my Spanish husband, Álvaro!
Kaley: Sounds like we had a similar experience!
What were you first impressions of Spanish food (likes, dislikes, curiosities)?
When I first visited Spain, the food really didn’t catch my attention. I remember having a hard time getting adjusted to the differences in food, actually. My señora (the woman to whose home I was assigned to live for three months) promised that manzanilla [chamomile] tea would help my restless stomach, and it did for a time. But when I started dating Álvaro, he and his family opened my eyes to the wonderful Spanish gastronomy. Being from Extremadura, they taught me all about embutidos. I’m not sure how I lived without cured Spanish ham and cheese before then!
As for curiosities, I had always wondered about octopus before I tried it in 2009. But I didn’t like it because of the texture. [K: Me neither.] I have liked rabo de toro [oxtail] but disliked pigs feet—too chewy!
How did you meet your husband and what was your first meal together?
I met my husband in 2006 on a bus traveling from Madrid to Cáceres, his birth city. We were seated next to each other. He offered me a mint, we struck up conversation, and we spoke the entire four-hour bus ride! We kept in touch, and we started dating when I went back to Madrid in 2006–2007 to study. We married in 2009, and we’ve been living in Dallas, Texas, since 2010.
As I describe in the book, our first real meal together was at his apartment in Madrid in 2006 when he prepared baked fish and canapés de salmón. It was so delicious that it completely changed my mind about fish.
What are his favorite Spanish foods? What are his favorite American foods?
Álvaro’s favorite Spanish foods:
- Jamón ibérico de bellota [Iberian ham made from pigs that only eat acorns during the last months of their lives]
- Lomo ibérico [Iberian cured pork loin]
- Queso de oveja curado [Cured sheep’s-milk cheese]
- Mejillones en escabeche [Pickled mussels]
- Langostinos a la plancha [Grilled prawns]
- Tortilla de patata [Spanish potato omelet]
Álvaro’s favorite American foods:
- Barbeque anything (ribs, brisket, smoked turkey, sausage, etc.)
- Tex-Mex and Mexican
What foods do you miss most when you are in the US?
I miss los ibéricos like crazy!
Besides your mother-in-law, how else did you learn to cook Spanish foods?
A recipe in the book, green beans with ham and potatoes
Since meeting my husband and learning about the important of food to him, I have made it a point to learn more about cooking—but especially Spanish foods. I have felt an obligation to keep him well and healthy since he’s left Spain for me. I knew the immigration process was going to be a difficult one because of the cultural differences between the US and Spain, but I didn’t realize just how difficult it would be in the realm of food. I have purchased numerous recipe books (send me an email for recommendations!); I’ve asked my Spanish-language teachers to focus on culinary topics during classes; and I’ve taken numerous cooking courses both in Spain and the US to learn more about Spanish cuisine. I’m not an expert, but they’ve all helped tremendously.
What kitchen tools are necessary for cooking Spanish food?
- Chef’s knife for chopping (garlic, onion, etc.)
- Large, shallow pan for making sauces
Why do you think food helps your husband feel connected to home?
Another recipe, almond chicken
Food is everything to Álvaro. It makes him nostalgic for a place, time, location, people, etc. Food brings back memories that allow him to recall the good times he has had in various places with people he loves. These memories are important for coping with living so far away from family and friends with whom he’s shared wonderful meals all of his life.
If you had to live in Spain, which foods would help you feel connected to the US?
I think I would miss pork or beef roasts with vegetables and potatoes because we ate a lot of these growing up. So I think I’d need to invest in some type of crockpot to replicate these dishes in Spain because that’s what my mother used here. I would also probably eat a lot more hamburgers and steaks to remind me of all of the grilling my family did while growing up in Michigan.
Thank you, Melanie, for giving me the chance to interview you. I love your book, and I’m sure I’ll be replicating some recipes soon!
Does food have the ability to make you homesick or nostalgic? Which foods would when you are away?