Culinary Warfare or How to Make a Spanish Omelette without Eggs

Those who know me in any capacity have had to endure, at one point or another, my evangelical devotion to food, not only as a source of nutrients –please, I am not that practical– but also as a means of constructing communal and personal identity. In particular, I tend to gravitate towards the familial values passed between the generations of matriarchs and the rituals of home cooking. It was David M. Kaplan who once said, “Food has social meaning and significance beyond its nutritive function; it is also expressive […] Food preparation and consumption are bound to beliefs, practices, laws of nations and cultures. Food and culture define one another,” and I’ve taken his words to heart. What entices us, what sustains us is the symbolic way food connects us to what’s important. After all, do we not mark the milestones of our lives with food? The birthday cake. The highly allegorical Passover feast. Even the proverbial chicken soup that accompanies every illness and heartbreak. Infinite in its nostalgia, food is nothing without its context, and, for me, the context is life itself.

It should come to no surprise that on this rainy Friday, when the skies are muddied and the house woefully frigid, I am fiddling about the kitchen in a fit of domesticity, attempting to make a tortilla de patatas, a Spanish omelette, undoubtedly one of Spain’s most iconic dishes consisting of eggs, potatoes, and olive oil. Oddly enough, the addition of onion sparks heated and passionate controversy. But I learned to make them with onion, and I do as I’m told.

My initiation into Spanish cooking is cursory at best; while studying for two weeks in Valladolid, I used to watch my host grandmother María Luisa prepare meals during the early morning and lazy afternoon. Her recipes avoided all the pretensions of restaurant food. No dish exceeded five ingredients, using mostly common pantry items such as flour, bread, and rice. And every meal came with a traditional red salad of tomatoes dressed in olive oil and lemon juice. But what caught my attention the most was the way she made her omelette: without egg. Instead, she added a slurry of flour and water to the potato mixture, much like a crepe batter. It wasn’t until I looked over the interviews in the documentary La Sauceda, de la utopía al horror, in which one testimony spoke of government sponsored rations, did I realize that María Luisa’s cooking, inherited through her mother, came from a time of nation-wide scarcity in the immediate post-war years.

The use of flour instead of eggs, while currently a fashionable vegan alternative, was not a bastardization of the traditional omelette, but rather a conscious change born of necessity. The recipe gained popularity through prominent food writer Ignacio Doménech Puigcercós’ Cocina de recursos (deseo mi comida), one of the few, if not the only, major comprehensive cookbooks produced during the interim period. Published in 1941 as a guide to navigate the Ministry of Commerce’s ration system, which started in 1939 and spanned over a decade, the book offered suggestions on how to make the most of one’s rations. This included over 20 ways to serve canned ox meat, the use of semolina or polenta in place of basic staples such as eggs and rice, and a “life-saving” porridge of weak grains and water. Ignacio prefaced his book with a personal creed of the period: “In times of misery, of scarcity, what’s essential of all cooks is an ingenuous sensibility to make do with whatever one can find, and with that prepare food that is tasteful to the palate.” His prose spoke from experience. Ignacio conceived the book as a means to narrate his personal difficulties finding food in Barcelona between 1937 and 1938.

And the conflict years were certainly filled with strife. As scholar Michael Seidman observes in his essay “Quiet Fronts in the Spanish Civil War,” by the first year of the war the Republicans, soldiers and civilians alike, already faced the devastation of dwindling food supplies. Morale faltered greatly, and the population suffered from diseases caused by vitamin deficiency. The average Republican soldier’s diet consisted of 2000 calories when 2500-4000 calories were needed during active and cold periods. One account on November, 1937, reported the 37th Mixed Brigade’s rations to include 20 grams of meat, 40 grams of oil, 20 grams of sugar, and 10 grams of salt compared to the Nationalists’ daily rations of 200 grams of meat, 60 grams of oil, 50 grams of sugar, and 15 grams of salt. Michael notes, “Nationalists were better fed […] Franco’s quartermasters made special efforts to supply their soldiers with regional dishes, alcoholic beverages, and hot meals during periods of cold and bad weather.” As a consequence, it wasn’t unheard of for Republican troops to ravage small plots of land to sustain themselves, plots that belonged to equally starving Republican peasants. Michael continues to state, “Toward the end of the war, the social divisions in many villages were reduced to two categories: those who had food and those who did not,” a situation that only deepened under the initial Franco years.

Within this context, Ignacio sought to convey and define the national suffering caused by the conflict, focusing on ingredients such as adversity and endurance. That’s what made Ignacio’s work so resonant with the home cook; he wrote about war in terms of the kitchen. In her essay Ignacio Doménech: el cocinero escritor, Joan Montserrat named Ignacio’s book as a distinct contribution to gastronomic war literature, proposing the alternative title “Chronicles of a Hungry Cook in Times of War.” The brilliance of his work comes from the intersection between politics and food. Adopting the luxury restaurant as an allegory for the State, Ignacio plays with the word “sofisticar,” which could mean “to make sophisticated” or “to falsify/to fool.” Those who started a sophisticated restaurant under the pretense of (what they deemed) luxury dining only sought to perpetuate a sense of self-gratification precisely because they appealed to themselves and not the populace. Similarly, a State that refused to acknowledge the people with the hopes of legitimizing some rigid definition of what was or wasn’t Spanish would only marginalize the people. In this sense, Joan concluded that Cocina de recursos was a book about suffering, only surviving Franco’s censorship because of its culinary merits.

I will also mention that Ignacio’s book wasn’t the first time cookbooks were used as a means to define national identity. Lara Anderson writes in her essay Comercial Success or Culinary Legacy: Turn-of-the-Century Spanish Culinary Nationalization that by the end of the 19th century, Spanish food writers started to break away from their dialogue with French chefs and explore what they considered national cuisine. Accounting for the regional diversity, Spanish writers had to confront the task of unifying or classifying Spanish food. There were two main approaches: promoting regional cuisine at a national level, effectively introducing the foreign into the home and rendering it, over time, homogenous; and classifying regional dishes as a derivative of a common mother dish. The latter had the (unintended) effect of enforcing the central and peripheral relationship between the State and the autonomous regions. Once Franco came to power, he standardized Spanish cuisine and national identity, to whatever degree of success one wishes to describe, by halting all external dialogue and rejecting regional diversity, which perhaps explains the lack of culinary literature during his regime.

However, underground cooking communities such as the txoko in the Basque Country would serve to foster innovation and maintain communal identity. What’s more, Spain is currently considered a gastronomic powerhouse, a trend originating from the rekindling relationship between France and Spain with the translation of 1960’s French nouvelle cuisine to suit Spanish palates. The result is almost 2 decades of vanguardia cuisine that capture the playful wit and impulsiveness of Spanish cooking with a fusion of modern trends and traditional flavors. Mango ravioli with the countenance of egg yolk. Savory cotton candy wisps. Nitrogen-frozen cocktails. It’s all fetishized indulgence, fashionable gastroporn –I invite anyone to convince me otherwise, but as an unapologetic consumer, I will not yield– yet the new modernization has propelled Spanish food into international relevance. It is a conversation that I suppose is a lot more productive than the tyranny of the cookbook, one that explores the permeable nature of national identity and allows the food to evolve according to the people. After all, as Australian writer Maggie Beer comments (echoed by Nigella Lawson): “Cooking is all about osmosis – a mental note made about a flavour combination or a technique, a memory of a dish.” And that memory, that identity, is what compels us to eat. As for an ordinary student such as myself, I will stick to my Spanish omelette as I’m reminded of my host grandmother. And in return, I offer an eggless recipe, shamelessly pilfered from Minimaleats.com because I forgot to jot down María Luisa’s notes: http://bit.ly/1hgZ5Rh. Happy eating.

Vegan-Spanish-Omelette-Recipe-minimaleats.com-vegan-omelette

Courtesy of Minimal Eats

Ingredients:

  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 800 grams of potatoes
  • 1/2 onion
  • 16 tablespoons gram or chickpea flour (almond flour was commonly used under Franco’s rule, which, coincidentally, was also used in medieval times to thicken stews)
  • 16 tablespoons water
  • Salt to taste

Instructions:

  1. Peel the potatoes and wash them. Cut them in half lengthwise. Then, slice the potatoes in pieces approximately 3 mm thick. Peel and chop the onion into small pieces.
  2. In a non-stick frying pan, heat the olive oil on medium high heat, add potatoes, onion and salt to taste. The oil should almost cover the potatoes. Cook over about 20 minutes or until potatoes are soft. Stir occasionally. Remove the potatoes and onion from the pan with a slotted spoon.
  3. In a bowl, place 16 tablespoons of gram flour and 16 tablespoons of water, add salt and beat by hand with a fork. Pour in the potato onion mixture. Mix all together.
  4. Place one or two tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan and heat on medium heat. Pour in the potato onion mixture and cook over medium heat for about five minutes. Place a plate over the tortilla and turn it around and cook the other side for about another 5 minutes. Turn the tortilla again if required until it’s totally cooked.

Comments

  1. Hello Michael! Your research sounds fascinating! I am impressed by your connection of food and historical events. It would be interesting to see how recent immigration trends have affected popular cuisine in Spain.

  2. Thank you for reading and commenting! It would definitely be interesting to see how recent immigration trends have effected popular cuisine in Spain, or even the globalization of foods. What was once regional has now, in a sense, become available to the masses. I still think that the current Spanish culinary trend shows signs of scarcity, but of course, more research is necessary. I hope anything I found was interesting to you!

  3. My Spanish friend once made this omelette but I remembered there were some eggs involved. Anyway, loved it! (Love anything related to food/culinary! 🙂 People sometimes forget how food significantly influence cultures.