I Experience a First in Life – And Feel Sick to My Stomach

I ate Serrano ham for the first time yesterday. It being one of the delicacies of Spain, I should have been thrilled but, instead, I just felt sick. The problem is that I’m vegetarian, and I haven’t eaten meat since I was about seven. It happened quite unexpectedly at a moment when I had my guard down. I think I was so swayed by the restaurant’s modern decor, by the 2-fork Michelin rated sign at the door, and, most likely, by the fact that we were hungry and it was siesta time which severely limited our options that I didn’t give much thought to the fact that there were no vegetarian options on the menu. Surely, in such a nice restaurant they could make something for me even if it didn’t exist on the menu. After all, even in the most casual, smallest of restaurants, I could always find my trustworthy patatas bravas (potatoes with a slightly spicy sauce).

So, without giving it more thought, we confidently entered and took a seat at the bar. And David set to work on researching what I could eat. Looking back, I see that there were warning signs along the way. The problem is I couldn’t see them – or understand them rather – at the time because I lost track of the conversation shortly after David explained that I don’t eat fish or meat. (I haven’t been too interested in expanding my vocabulary to include the different types of meat but I realize now that I really should be.) So I totally missed when the waiter was proposing a “pastel de verduras con foie” in response to David’s questions about what they could make for vegetarians. When David patiently explained the obvious – that I couldn’t eat the vegetable cake with duck liver because I don’t eat duck – the waiter moved on to the next “vegetarian” option. Home-made gazpacho. Yum…. sounded delicious and very safe.

Gazpacho is a very traditional Spanish cold soup that is only made with vegetables. And just for extra confirmation, the waiter assured us that it was made entirely with vegetables. Perfect. As far as I was concerned, I was set and David proceeded to order for himself. Once the order was placed, the waiter was even nice enough to give it some more thought and proposed a roasted bell pepper salad. Sure! Bring it on! I was pleased that he was giving my dietary restrictions such special consideration.

My pleasure lasted right up until that first spoonful of gazpacho but rapidly dissipated with the first sip. Something tasted smokey, foreign, and I quickly tried to discern what kind of vegetable could produce such a taste. It might seem counterintuitive that a vegetarian could distinguish the taste of meat when that vegetarian doesn’t even really know or remember the taste of it, but, as the smokiness spread throughout my mouth, I, though not in the least bit a food connoisseur, immediately knew that something wasn’t quite right. I quickly turned to David and asked him if he was sure that the gazpacho was vegetarian. He assured me that the waiter had assured him that it was all vegetables, only vegetables.

I should have stopped with that first spoonful, but I didn’t. The events surrounding the meal with David clearly explaining to the waiter that I am vegetarian and the dish itself which is traditionally vegetarian made me go against my better judgment and place a second spoonful in my mouth. It still tasted weird, but I was hungry and wasn’t about to waste $3.

About halfway through the soup, amid the dices of peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers, I tasted something chewy. It tasted kind of like a crouton that had been soaked in liquid for a while. Interesting. By the second chewy tidbit, I spit it out to confirm that it was, indeed, bread. Unfortunately, there was nothing crouton-like about it. Instead, it looked disturbingly like ham. David called the waiter over and asked again if the gazpacho was vegetarian. “Yes, only vegetables,” he responded confidently. But when David showed him the ham, his smile turned into a frown and he dismissively said, “Oh, the ham.” Oh, the ham! Where in the world did the ham come from and why in the world didn’t he know that there was ham in the gazpacho?

And within the next second, David was angry, I was sick and the waiter was flabbergasted. And then there was suddenly a lot of talking as the cook got involved, a nearby customer added his two cents, and the waiter was apologizing. The cook offered to make me a risotto. But David wouldn’t have it. If they thought nothing of a little ham in the gazpacho, surely they would think even less of using chicken stock in the risotto. And suddenly, nothing was trustworthy. Who knew if my roasted bell pepper salad hadn’t originally come with chunky pieces of chicken removed just in my honor? David canceled the order and we left, still hungry, still searching for food.

Since it was still siesta time and our options were still limited, we headed for Burger King. And while David ate his burger and I munched on my fries, David fumed at how a restaurant so ignorant of vegetarian diets could have earned two forks from Michelin. Worse yet, proudly displayed on a wall was a frame presented by the King of Spain honoring the restaurant’s achievements!

But while David was surprised, I simply chalked it up to all just being due to the fact that we’re in Spain. I reminded David of our travels to Spain in 2002 when David had ordered the combo plate of fish, fries and eggs and had specifically requested that they put the fish on the side. Even in Spanish, the waiter hadn’t understood the bizarre request and the dish had arrived entirely intact, with the fish sprawled on top.

The truth is that I’ve gotten used to being an anomaly and rarely expect to have anything other than my staple patatas bravas when we go out to eat. And the only reason I had even searched for something else at this particular restaurant was because they didn’t have patatas bravas on the menu. Perhaps such a restaurant should have been more innovative and aware of the huge vegetarian movement taking place throughout the world, but Spain is still focused on meat and fish and can’t quite grasp what it means to do without.

Later that evening, we confirmed with David’s dad and stepmom that gazpacho never comes with ham. The 2-fork, ultra modern restaurant had most likely thought it ultra fancy and impressive to serve Serrano ham in the gazpacho. There’s a first for everything in life, but I just hope that eating Serrano ham is one first that doesn’t happen a second time.

This is my safe staple whenever we go out to eat

This is my safe staple whenever we go out to eat


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11 responses to “I Experience a First in Life – And Feel Sick to My Stomach

  1. How frustrating! Spain is such a tough place for vegetarians — I definitely felt like I ate mostly potatoes, bread, tomatoes and eggs while I was there. I still find it hard to believe that you can go to a restaurant and find absolutely nothing to it — and that they’re more than happy to just lie about the contents of their dishes.

  2. From the first line of your post, Sara, I thought that you had made a conscious decision to try the ham… What a horror for you! When I was there, a lot of the restaurants offered diced beets as one of the appetizers. Have you found anything like that? Maybe worth looking into (if you like beets!) Not that it would be meal-worthy, but maybe enough to tide you over until you find real food? Just my two cents…

    Thinking of you!

  3. What an absolute nightmare!

    I usually look to your blog for comfort, but now I feel upset, disgusted & sick as well! Please learn the long list of meat products in Spanish quickly – and in time for my next visit!

  4. LOL! That was the funniest post yet. And I can laugh heartily at this since I lived in England and Germany as a vegetarian and then vegan. I feel your pain!

    You are such a good writer. The whole time I was sitting on the edge of my seat wondering, “where will she find the meat?!?!” And the part about the other person in the restaurant putting in their two cents. Classic.

    Yes, I can relate soooo much to this. I offended many many a German at birthday parties, restaurants and family gatherings! They just loved it when I pushed my plate away with shocked anger at the discoverey that the food I had been assured was vegetarian turned out to be made with beef stock. What was wrong with me? Ungrateful American – beef stock is not “meat”, it’s a necessity!

    Then there was the worst time. During my vegan stage when I ate a schmorgazborg of dairy products because I felt too guilty to say no to the huge buffet of cakes and coffees that an elderly family-friend made for me. I was sick for two days.

  5. Oh no!!!! :((( I’m so sorry! Believe it or not as I was telling carlos the story he surprisingly said why would she order that, it has pork in it! A puerto rican thing!! Lol! I’m so sorry!!!! :(((

  6. I love how all the vegetarians understand immediately exactly how horrible that experience was.

    Erin, I haven’t seen any beet dishes which is just as well because I’m not a huge fan.

    Jess, you cracked me up with your own stories of your dietary adventures abroad. I can’t even imagine what it would be like being vegan! You’re a braver soul than I!

    Helen, I had no idea that they put pork in the gazpacho in Puerto Rico. I’ll keep that in mind!

  7. Sara,
    I obviously can relate to what you went through! All I can say is UUGGGHHHHH!!! How terrible your experience must have been! It reminds me of the time (you may remember) when I went to a little restaurant in Idyllwild (can’t remember its name) and all I could find to eat was a plain lettuce salad. Unfortunately, buried under the LAST leaf of lettuce was a piece of ham! Somehow the restaurant must have figured out that its salads would be more appealing if they contained the sslaughtered bloodied entrails from a pig’s carcass!
    Your description made me start having doubts – for a minute – about our coming down to see you in Spain later this year. But only for a minute! I am willing even to risk starvation to see you and David – and can’t wait!
    Your mother does not have similar comments on this matter – but also sends her love!

  8. Sara, I have to agree with everyone that your writing is just so delightful to read…really brings me into the moment. I can’t imagine the horror you must have experienced when you slowly, but undeniably recognized the meat for what it is. What a total nightmare! I hope you’ve recovered from the meaty assault and are well on your way to finding delicious new as yet undiscovered vegetarian options…

  9. What a nightmare!!!! obviously there is no understanding or sensitivity towards people with special dietary considerations. I wonder if they can be trusted to accommodate people with food allergies

  10. Victoria Zimmerman

    Hey, I can totally relate to this (not that I’m happy about it) I’m doing my Erasmus in Vigo, Galicia and as I’m sure you’re aware, us veggies are considered a right pain in the ass. I have to do a thesis for my home university in Scotland and so I’ve decided to tackle Vegetarianism in Vigo, of course this is one HUGE challenge, but the sooner Spain realises that a tuna salad or greenbeans with chopped ham are not veggie friendly, the better. Cheers for the story.

    • It’s so nice to hear that, even though Spain is far from understanding the concept of vegetarianism, that there are people out there who do! I never thought that one of the things I would miss most about living in the States would be the food! Good luck on your thesis, and if you ever make it to Altea, make sure to let me know!

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