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.
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