The Tabasco Effect

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My wife and I are good tourists. We don’t attempt too much because a vacation should not be like spring cleaning. We go by bus, train, and on foot, and we see what we are pretty sure deserves to be seen. We have no regret about missing the rest. If something desirable, like attending a bullfight, requires foresight and organization, we tell ourselves it’s pretty good on television also.

Mostly, we follow the natives when they are having fun, and we sit in interesting places to see life flow before our eyes.

That’s what we did last year, first in Seville, a beautiful city by any account and then, in Granada, also interesting but a more demanding place.

The world – with the exception of the Native Americans – owes Spain the Americas, North, Central and South, and consequently tomatoes, potatoes, corn, nearly all the variety of chilies that bring tears to your eyes, and chocolate. Spain also invented tapas – the gastronomical concept, the variety of dishes, and the social ritual.

Tapas are a modest but unmixed blessing. They are sundry small dishes you consume with wine, in place of dinner. The Spanish have invented a verb, “tapear”: the custom of walking from open-air bar to open-air bar, usually with friends, drinking a glass of wine or two and eating a dish of tapas or two in each establishment. It’s an ambulatory activity. You don’t sit down to eat tapas; you stand or you wedge yourself on high stools, elbow to elbow, congenially, with strangers. The tapas scene is a great pickup scene, perhaps the only pickup scene in Spain. Walking round from bar to bar prevents you from getting drunk too quickly, and it staves off worries about DUI.

Much Spanish sit-down food is conventional and on the heavy and bland side. But tapa dishes always have character. They can be anything at all. There might be dried salami, or regional cheese, or squid and other seafood prepared in exotic ways, even simply souped-up potatoes. Every bar offers a range of tapas, but each has its own specialties. In one, it will be shrimps in garlic; in another, smoked ham from the proprietor’s own half-wild pigs.

I am old enough to remember the days when tapas were a concrete expression of Spain’s forced abstemiousness. Under dictator Francisco Franco, the mean-spirited and pious victor of the ’30s civil war, poverty in the Spanish middle class reached down to Third Wodd levels. There was almost no discretionary income among ordinary people. A cup of coffee in a public establishment was a Sunday luxury for many Spaniards. Bars would bring in customers for their wine, the poor man’s luxury, and induce them to forego dinner at home by offering free side dishes, tapas. The tapas then were often seasonal and an expression of specific regional poverty. A long time ago, in the backcountry of Catalonia, far from the

There is a natural law: the fewer the worthwhile sites, the more pleasant the inhabitants.

 

glistening and charming Costa Brava, I had an unforgettable tapa dish of snails cooked in duck fat. The snails were from the vegetable garden outside and the fat probably leftover from a roast. It was delicious! Tapas are not free any more, but they still constitute a summit of Spanish civilization, an instance of the great virtue of making something attractive out of next to nothing.

Spain seems prosperous now. Elegant young women in short skirts rush around in the main commercial streets of the largest cities at noon. Yet the impression of ease of living is shallow. And the country has not been prosperous for long. Some effects linger of its interminable grinding poverty. The shadow of the sinister Franco is everywhere if you know the story. Franco was a bitter winner. He kept shooting his former enemies in prisons, many years after they had ceased to be a political threat. I suspect that the fascist regime kept Spain deliberately poor for 40 years in the midst of ever-growing European incomes, because dictator Franco thought poverty made the people virtuous. His was a kind of Catholicism you encounter seldom in Europe outside of Poland. It’s illustrated by holy pictures of weeping Madonnas and of savagely realistic Bleeding Hearts of Jesus.

Structural vestiges of former poverty persist in many forms of employment. The Spanish treat as plum positions many jobs that would go to near-starving young artists in New York, and to Third World immigrants in Munich. Often, menial but well-paying jobs are jealously guarded by older men. Tapa bartending is an example. It’s a job that requires a good memory, to keep tab, and fast action: every order must be satisfied instantaneously because there is a tempo to the tapear promenade and there is another tapa bar next door, and another across the street.

In the tapa bars, the waitstaff are almost entirely men in their late 50s to mid-70s. I am guessing they secured their jobs after long apprenticeships, perhaps busing tables or working in the kitchen. They are in no hurry to relinquish their pinnacle positions because there is no chance they might earn as much anywhere, any time. Besides, the mental habits acquired during a harsh Franquist childhood probably never quite leave you. Where there is no economic growth, employment security seems everything. That’s what you learned at 12; that’s what you believe at 60.

The old tapa-men tarry until they can’t see so well any- more, while the unceasing demands of the customers seem to get less bearable by the year (although customers are probably, objectively, pretty much the same from season to season). Mostly, it’s a standing job, and the men’s feet hurt like hell. For all these obvious reasons, tapa bar-tenders are almost invariably sullen or surly. They will ignore you on purpose, fail to acknowledge your order (but fill it faultlessly), throw your dish on the counter with contempt, and pointedly refrain from thanking you for the (non-obligatory) tip you hand out.

One especially ugly old guy took a dislike to me because he detected a French accent in my Spanish. That was very annoying on a personal level, since I am inordinately vain about my Spanish. Or perhaps, it was just a lucky guess on his part, because he did not like something else about me, maybe my face, or my wife, or he just needed a scapegoat at the exact moment when I showed up. At any rate, if you are in a tourist-dependent industry, it’s not completely rational to show antipathy for citizens of the country that is the main source of tourists visiting you! For Spain, that would be France.

I have a devil in me, so I did not even try to stop myself from torturing the mean old guy for a half hour. I told him how I would alert all my friends in Paris who planned to travel to Spain, send them to his establishment, tutor them on how to place difficult orders in French, and generally encourage them to act haughty and supercilious toward him, as only the French know how to do. And he, of all people, knew for sure how stingy French travelers are, I reminded him!

Obviously, if you are a good tourist, much of your impression of Spaniards is going to come from tapa bar attendants and also from museum guards and shop owners. Museum guards everywhere are not a joyous or lively kind. It’s their function to be suspicious, including and especially of small children. Most shop owners are okay, but, they are only Europeans after all. Europeans in general are rarely pleasant, except maybe on vacation. Passersby whom you stop for directions are usually kind enough, but they are not as excited about your being in Spain, or in Paris, as you are. You get used to it. You don’t go to Europe for the smiles but for the sites. There is a natural law operating there: the fewer the worthwhile sites, the more pleasant the inhabitants. I am thinking that residents of Kansas City and Cleveland are much nicer than San Franciscans and New Yorkers, God forbid!

Incidentally, the crabbiness of Europeans is less often personalized than American travelers like to think. To speak English with a French accent in America, as I do, is to be asked 20 times each year why “the French hate Americans.” They don’t, honey; they are just not very nice, “Irma la Douce” notwithstanding (that’s the old movie). Europeans in general just don’t enjoy everyday life as much as Americans do. There are good reasons for this, but that’s another story.

Being experienced tourists, my wife and I treat crabbiness like the weather. It makes things less pleasant, but it’s part of the package, and there is not much you can do about it. (Except that every so often, we make it a challenge to force someone to smile.) You get used to Euronastiness; you learn to ignore it most of the time.

That summer, we were making our way to Morocco, a country of smilers. In mostly austere Granada, we had bumped into a young Moroccan with intelligent eyes, engaged in some harmless street hustle. He gave us advice in French on crossing the Med to his country. He said to avoid the big port of Algeciras. He told us it was a mess in that season because tens of thousands of Moroccan expatriates from Europe were going home in their semi-viable, overloaded old cars, piled up high with crying children and old grandmothers who were terrified to use “Christian” bathrooms. He advised us to go through Tarifa instead. It’s small-town, 30 minutes by bus from the Algeciras train station. From Tarifa, there is only one Tangier ferry a day in each direction, and it takes no cars. Sweet and simple.

We got off the train with our reasonable baggage in Algeciras and immediately separated from the dusty Morocco- bound tribe of travelers. We caught the small local coastal bus and got off in Tarifa, at the end of the line, since we had neither specific plans nor a place to land.

It was early afternoon. We had no reservation, as usual. We each picked up our bag and crossed the deserted street into a cafe to have a cup of coffee, possibly a snack, and regroup and inform ourselves. The young people behind the counter, a boy and a girt greeted us merrily. The girl even inquired whether I wanted more sugar in my coffee. That was unusual in itself. European cafe personnel are more likely to defend their sugar against customer predation.

The young man had bleached hair and a good tan; he looked more edgy than most young Spaniards I had seen, yet he was wholesome. He chatted up my wife in bad but cordial English, asking where we were going. No, he said, he did not have a specific hotel recommendation, but he would go next door where they had the local paper. He described on a napkin map where everything was within the walled city and the advantage of this location over that. We made a preliminary choice. It was hot; we had our bags with us; we did not want to walk. Finding a taxi at siesta time seemed difficult. The bleached guy saw me fumbling with my cell phone. (Yes, I had purchased the European service; no, it did not do me much good. If you give a chimp a piano, you are not necessarily going to get a symphony.) He told me to rest easy; he would call the first hotel of our choice to see whether it had room. Everything went well. He found us a room in a pricey but very pretty place in the old walled town.

The same evening! I was reflecting on the contrast between the mean old guys in the big city tapa bars and the friendly! smiling! helpful young people in Tarifa at the cafe near the bus stop. A blurry image was hovering at the edge of my consciousness. After a while! it came into focus: a small bottle of Tabasco. There had been Tabasco on all the tables in the cafe. There is no Tabasco produced in Europe! there is no Tabasco produced in Spain. It’s made in New Orleans! by a single family-owned company. It’s one of the few American vices that have never spread abroad.

I made inquiries from the merchants around the hotel. What kinds of tourists came to Tarifa! a small and apparently obscure town?

In the summer, mostly travelers to Morocco, smart travelers (like us). In the winter! there are high, steady winds across the straits of Gibraltar. Many foreign windsurfers come then, especially muchos Americanos, muchos!

Americans don’t care about strange food. Many pretend to! but only at home. That’s why we have so many bad Thai restaurants. Abroad, they want three things: pizza, tacos, and cheeseburgers. They are disappointed with the first, with good reason. They expect Tabasco sauce with the second and often with the third. You manage a restaurant in Europe! you want repeat American customers (best tippers in the world), you supply Tabasco sauce.

One thing leads to another. You have a lot of American customers because of the Tabasco. They are friendly, jovial, caring, and mostly kind. It rubs off on you. Pretty soon, you have morphed into a miracle: a nice, pleasantly disposed, helpful worker in the Spanish restaurant industry. Your life is sunnier; the malevolent ghost of Francisco Franco begins to dissipate. You are the light of your grandfather’s heart. Life is good! thanks to America.

The Tabasco effect: one of the best ways to export the best of American culture. We could probably have a Tabasco-borne diplomacy if we wanted to.

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