I am still recovering from the culture shock that I experienced transitioning from Ireland to Barcelona. After a summer spent shivering, damp, and swaddled in wooly sweaters, arriving in the tropical, cosmopolitan city of Barcelona on Ryan Air (this was an LOL; see Can I Bring a Parachute? in Ryan Air’s FAQs) was like jetting from a basement to a beach. The best way for me to illustrate how deep their differences run is by an amateur’s descent into bromatology: a study of their respective foods. Although Ireland and Catalonia have both been in past or present subsumed by other governments, their food cultures are easy-to-see indicators of their independent and ancient identities.
Irish people and food can be incorrigibly traditional. For instance, every Irish pub advertises glibly a Soup of the Day. “Ooh!” I would think. “How exciting!” Every time I inquired, however, the response was unerringly “vegetable.” Even upon coaxing (“Carrot?” I would prod. “Or leek?”), there was nothing more to be said. Vegetable. Despite the “soup du joir” nod to international restaurant practice, Ireland does it her way. And I must concede that I was won over heart and soul (soup is, after all, good for your metaphysical constitution); after 10 weeks in the country of drizzles, I couldn’t get enough vegetable soup with brown bread.
My hypothesis is that Ireland’s characteristic gastric stasis is related to a history of modest culinary aspirations, fostered by asceticism, poverty, and grey weather. Asceticism dates back to the genesis of the Irish monasteries, 1,500 years ago. I was told that the monks, to discourage bodily pleasure, restricted their diet to vegetables, bread, and hearty beer. Clearly, not much has changed; to speak for myself, this was my diet exactly. Compared to America, where we devote one day a year to a feast of yesteryear, Ireland positively lives in the past.
As to the poverty and grey weather, I think Ireland’s cloudy horizon obscures its culinary vision because its historic lack of tactile pleasures (i.e., an absence of the physical pleasure of sunshine, and physical misery induced by the poverty of the Famine) made its people look elsewhere for pleasure. A people that couldn’t be sure when they would next bask in the sun, or lick their lips after an enjoyable meal, looked for pleasure in the ephemeral. And by the ephemeral, I am referring to a love of music. In a country where the weather made you shiver and food was scarce, music could conjure joy independent of physical hardship.
I know less about Catalonia. Suffice it to say that the worldly city of Barcelona, known for its beautiful weather and plethora of rich food, has seemingly always indulged in its cuisine. Barcelonians in particular have enjoyed the riches and variety conferred upon them by historically being a Mediterranean seaport: fishes, oils, fruits, spices, and nuts grace Barcelona’s markets. I will illustrate this with a sandwich: I got what seemed a fast-food sandwich at Bo de B, a nondescript open-front restaurant-thing in a little side alley in Barcelona. This sandwich was cheap and was assembled in less than 60 seconds, but it represented the best of the many food-cultures that Barcelona borrows from. First of all, it was in a baguette. It was filled with lentils (as far as I know, these grubby little legumes are NOT from Barcelona, the “City of Dreams”), corn (definitely now a product of the American agro-industrial complex), pickled cabbage (…delicious), feta cheese, carrots, onions, and who knows what else.
Anyway, all I wanted to say was that Ireland and Catalonia are beautiful regions full of wonderful people. But the best way to get to their hearts is through their stomachs.
Sarah Trautman is a Carleton College junior who hails from Boston. Her most recent reads are Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, The Secret Life of Plants, James Herriot’s Dog Stories, and The Bluest Eye. @sarah_trautman