I have spent three months in Spain and haven’t dedicated a post to croquetas yet. It’s a disservice to you. And to the croquetas.
As my friends and family and anyone that’s accompanied me to an eating establishment (or anywhere with Oreos) know, I love food. And that I tend to eat irresponsibly. Last semester, I frequented Wendy’s thrice weekly, minimum, and I wasn’t buying salads either. I once ordered a barbecue chicken salad and, bewilderingly, received a carton of lettuce doused in barbecue sauce. It felt wrong. But I don’t eat enough salads to be sure.
Old habits die hard. Here in Spain, there are these candies with red, gummy exteriors and sweet, white filling. They taste vaguely like strawberry (“strawberry”). Really, they’re just molded sugar, and I don’t even know their name. But I’m obsessed. Mondays and Wednesdays, when I walk home from the Prado Museum, and some Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, returning from the Complutense, I buy a bagful of them.
Now, I frequently exaggerate on this blog, but this is sincere: I am addicted.
If they’re available in the States, I’ve never seen them. And that makes me nervous. So please, if you find a bulk, wholesale retailer, inform me at your earliest convenience. Direct your correspondence by text, call, email, or carrier pigeon. Thank you. —No. No, hold on, Nolan, you can’t do this to yourself. Let’s try this again. Readers, please, if you care at all about my well-being, I beg you: Ensure I never learn of them. I say this now, in my transiently lucid state. Take heed. Before I change my mind.
But beyond gummies, I have a greater Spanish culinary obsession: croquetas.
Croquetas are the Spanish answer to fried pockets of meat, a staple in every culture: the pierogi, the ravioli, the McDonald’s chicken nugget. Spaniards have many varieties. The typical Madrid croqueta is a creamy bechamel sauce and bits of ham, rolled into a ball, breaded, and fried. (That’s right. My favorite Spanish food is fried. I’m American. Sue me. Litigation —also American.) Each region has its favorite, like mussel or cod croquetas in Granada, Sevilla, and the coasts, but from what I can tell, the most popular is ham. Spaniards worship ham.
Every bar, restaurant, and household serves croquetas. Their presentation is disillusive: a plate that’s nearly empty, save four or six croquetas that occupy a skimpy third of it. Maybe some lettuce shreds as a garnish (a “salad,” if I am to understand salads). But you cut into their crispy coating to release an intoxicating steam that delivers you to heaven. The filing is creamy and salty, contrasting the exterior, satisfying, filling, an ambrosia of fried potatoes. They warm your insides and caress your soul and remind you that life is for the living.
But here’s the thing.
I love croquetas, so much that it would be easy to reduce Spanish cuisine to just them. In reality, there’s so much more. I recently attended a cooking class where we learned paella, Spanish tortilla, and tarta de Santiago. All hallmarks of Spanish cuisine: paella is emblematic, tortilla inescapable. My host mother regularly cooks lomo de pollo or cerdo, or filets of chicken or pork —typical. And during Semana Santa in Sevilla, I ate torrijas every day, a traditional Easter dessert that resembles french toast soaked in honey.
Spanish cuisine is distinct. It is mature. Spaniards consume far fewer “ethnic” foods than Americans because their native cuisine is satisfyingly diverse, more so than ours —and healthier, too. But when I started this post, intent on exploring Spain’s hallmark dishes, I wrote for however long and reviewed what I’d done and wait, gummies and croquetas?
This is a challenge of studying abroad: cultural caricatures. I have only five months in Madrid, barely enough to internalize the basics. Spain has a diverse, thousands-year past, and their cuisine reflects it: Muslim occupation, spice wars, American colonization, intercontinental commerce, a geography and climate that’ve marked it since first human settlement. I can’t appreciate this in five months. Instead, I develop a fragmented perspective that reduces the complexity, distorts it, renders only the most impressionable experiences. For me, culinarily, those are apparently gummies and croquetas.
I fight the reduction. I force myself outside the comfort zone. I taste adventurously and take recommendations and eat everything my host family offers. After all, I am in Spain to experience Spain. But there’s an internal conflict: the desire to diversify (or the fear of not experiencing the fullest), which drives exploration, that clashes with the reaction against discomfort, which encourages routines and reversion to American habits. All compounded by limited time.
Try as I might to “become” Spanish, I won’t. I can’t. In fact, my one study abroad goal had been for locals to mistake me as Spanish. Just once. I put that goal on paper. To my dismay, though, it hasn’t happened yet, and I no longer expect it either. In this case, there are other confounding variables, like my decidedly un-Spanish appearance and sloppy American-and-Latino accent. But there’s also the obvious limitation that, within five months, I couldn’t possibly absorb enough of the Spanish “being” to fluidly imitate natives.
As a result, I remain trapped in cultural caricatures, which portray Spanish culture with an emphasis on novel experiences and which disregard (or, more exactly, remain ignorant of) sizable swaths of the culinary and political and cultural complexity. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating what I can; any effort is commendable. But it disillusions me that my first thoughts on Spanish cuisine were gummy candies and croquetas, because there exists so much more.
Correction: May 29, 2016
A post in April about cultural caricatures and Spanish cuisine misidentified the ingredientes of croquetas as potatoes, cheese, and ham (among other varieties). The ingredients are bechamel sauce and ham.