Fusión Cultural: An American’s Journey through a Spanish Kitchen and Back

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.

FUSION CULTURAL

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!

Barcelona Cooking School

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:

  1. Jamón ibérico de bellota [Iberian ham made from pigs that only eat acorns during the last months of their lives] 
  2. Lomo ibérico [Iberian cured pork loin]
  3. Queso de oveja curado [Cured sheep’s-milk cheese]
  4. Mejillones en escabeche [Pickled mussels]
  5. Langostinos a la plancha [Grilled prawns]
  6. Tortilla de patata [Spanish potato omelet]

Álvaro’s favorite American foods:

  1. Hamburgers
  2. Barbeque anything (ribs, brisket, smoked turkey, sausage, etc.)
  3. 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?

Green beans with ham and potatoes

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?

  1. Chef’s knife for chopping (garlic, onion, etc.)
  2. Large, shallow pan for making sauces
  3. Peeler

Lemon peeler

Why do you think food helps your husband feel connected to home?

Almond chicken

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?

It’s Christmas

The lights were blurry as they whizzed by. My cocoa was still too hot to drink. It smelled marvelous, almost magical. Dad switched on the radio, the announcer’s voice crackly and distant. “… Santa and his reindeer were spotted tonight,” he was saying. My pulse quickened and I imagined a tiny silhouette of a sleigh, of eight reindeer dancing in the inky night sky. Santa’s on his way 

From the window our tree blinked. The car pulled neatly into the garage, and we leapt out, eager to enter the house’s glowing warmth. The heat hit us as I pulled upon the door, my glasses fogging up. Four stockings hung above a cheery fire in anticipation of presents. It was finally time to open the first gift of Christmas. I ran into the living room and flopped myself down onto the couch,ready to feel the thrill that the unknown evokes. The present was always pajamas, yes, but the knowledge could not take away my excitement at the prospect of ripping off the red and green paper, of the scent of newness upon the clothes as I held them up.

But first…first, we read from the oversized family Bible with its gold-rimmed pages. In the days of Caesar Augustus… began my mother, stealing glances at my brother and me, our feet dangling over the edge of the couch, our eyes lovingly focused on her for this moment, this one magic moment. The story, although familiar, the phrases well-worn in the deep recesses of our memories, yet the words never lost their magic. For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Savior is given.

Soon enough, it was time. Time to set out Santa’s snack, to write him a letter, to thank him. My hands grasped the pencil tightly, etching the words onto the lined sheet of paper. Thank you for the presents. I hope you enjoy the snacks. In our home, Santa ate snack cakes and Pepsi, not cookies and milk, an eerily similar combination to what my father ate on a daily basis, but my mind failed to make the connection. My father promised to set out food for the reindeer, and off to bed we went, our bellies full of cocoa and anticipation.

Snuggled under the covers, sleep evaded me. The Christmas lights outside twinkled, a tease that told me I still had a good eight hours to wait. I could not help but listen for the distant jingle of sleigh bells, of hoofbeats, of the snack wrapper being opened. I turned over, sighed, and wished for sleep. Sleep never came easily that night. Santa was on his way, could be placing carefully gift-wrapped packages under the twinkling tree this very second, and sleep would not come.

Soon enough, however, light bled faintly through my blinds. Jolting myself awake, I sat up in bed, my pulse once again picking up speed. Was Seth awake? I had to use the bathroom, but dared not leave my room for fear of seeing the surprises awaiting me in the other room. It was a dilemma – to exit or not to exit? My full bladder told me one thing while my mind told me another. And so I waited anxiously. Perhaps five minutes went by, perhaps ten. But I had to leave, could not stay, my racing mind unable to take the  weighted speculation. Seth too was awake, his face lined with the anxiousness I felt. Together we waited impatiently. We raised our high-pitched child voices, stomped around the tiled bathroom, flushed the toilet, all in the hopes of being heard in the other wing of the house. We dared not enter the bounds of the living room, dared not catch a glimpse of the presents awaiting us under the tree, but we longed for our parents to awaken, to venture into our bedrooms and say breathily, “Merry Christmas, my love!” whilst gathering us up in a hug that meant safety, love, and magic. A hug that, in the end, meant Christmas itself.

The presents were never the reason I loved Christmas. They were nice, sure: dolls and sweaters and lip gloss, smelling of everything my girlhood represented. But Christmas, for me, was more than just a box in snowman wrapping paper. It was the smell of cinnamon rolls in the oven, laughter, nose-crinkling smiles, snow falling softly outside my window, mashed potatoes with obscene amounts of butter, spoons on noses at the kids’ table…Christmas could not be contained in a box wrapped in red paper. Christmas was family, was fellowship, was cookies baking in the oven, was the love that my parents and I could not express in words.

To this day, I am unable to say what Christmas means to me. I once heard that when you turn 24, they neglect to tell you that you are still 23, 22, 21 … 1 years old too. So when I wake up this December 25, forgive me for feeling like a child once again, full of hope and anticipation and desire for the magic of Christmas.