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Garlic and Olive Oil

My goal is to paint a picture of life in Spain during the seventies and eighties, albeit from a foreigner's point of view. Excerpts are in no particular chronological order.

The Tale of the Slippery Eels, the Bald Priest, and the Milanesa - 1980, Talavera de la Reina, Spain
17 December 2013 @ 02:39

It's 1980 and we've been living in Talavera de la Reina for a just a few days.


I'm a real fuss-pot when it comes to food. I don't like milk. I don't like butter. I don't like cream, and I don't like mushrooms. Nor do I like creamy cheese. You'd think therefore that Spanish food would be appealing to me since it tends to be cooked with garlic and olive oil. It is appealing to me and I gobble it up without hesitation. That is, the food that I cook myself.


When it comes to restaurant food, that's another story.


I'm having lunch with Luria, the Spanish wife of a colleague of my husband's. I tend to order the same things over and over regardless of where the restaurant is, for I've figured out what dishes are free of the yucky things I don't like. Now that we're back living in Spain, it's my old favourites, filete de ternera a la milanesa and ensalada mixta that I order. I look forward to squeezing the slice of lemon you always get. It's really a very happy meal, it seems to me. Luria, on the other hand, orders something that sounds like anguilas. The sound of the word is pleasant to the ear, almost poetic. Not wanting to reveal my ignorance, I don't ask her what anguilas are. The waiter promptly serves us and I tuck in as if I haven't eaten in a week. I don't even notice Luria's dish until I come up for some breath and practically choke on my food.


The anguilas look like worms. Not only that, they look like live worms. They're in a bowl filled with hot olive oil and the anguilas seem to be swimming about catching their last breath, jumping up and down. When Luria places them in her mouth with the skill of Picasso painting some masterpiece they wriggle even more and seem to dangle from her lips. Her tongue slithers down on top of them and she catches each anguila with the precision of a professional fly fisherman up to his knees in thick morning dew. There's no escape. Each anguila slides up and into and then down through the gaping hole in Luria's face. She smiles. She grins. And the tips of the anguilas bid farewell to life itself midst the garlic and the olive oil.


"How's your milanesa?" Luria is bursting forth with joy. I've never heard anyone in the whole of my life ever ask me how my milanesa is with so much exhuberence.


She dives in again and yanks up more anguilas. They too end up leaping about like souls searching for even just a few more minutes of life, before encountering the same doom as the others still sliding their way midst garlic and olive oil down Luria's throat.


"Delicious. Really good." I reply, making sure I'm not talking with my mouth full. "How is your dish?" I don't know why I ask, for it's so obvious Luria is thoroughly enjoying her anguilas.


She nods her head several times and tries to say something, but the anguilas are dangling from her mouth. Her tongues grabs them, and for a second I think she's about to spit them at the innocent-looking priest sitting at the table next to us. I have visions of her doing precisely this. I can imagine the angilas sliding over the priest's bald head, clinging to him for dear life.


"We're just a few anguilas lost in Talavera de la Reina. Holy Father, please forgive us for whatever wrongs we have done. Please."


Anguilas talk?  Who knew?


"They're not as good as the last time I was here."  Luria frowns. Then she starts to laugh. "Look! At the table next to us!"


I gaze again at the priest. Come to think on it, he really doesn't look like the type who'd have anguilas slithering on his bald head. But, there is something odd. Golly. That's a Playboy magazine on his table! Surely not?! I'm surprised to see a Playboy magazine just lying around, never mind lying next to a priest. When I lived  in Spain just a few years ago Playboy magazine was banned. When he notices us staring at him, he very modestly covers the semi-naked lady on the front cover with his napkin.  I look down at my dish and see a knife and fork cutting a large piece of my milanesa. It's Luria!  She's helping herself to the one and only dish that I actually like!


"Would you care for some of my anguilas? In exchange for some of your milanesa?" She asks innocently, with a cheery grin.


"I don't eat food that is still alive." I protest, hoping that I don't sound ridiculous.


She grabs a forkful of anguilas from her bowl and tosses them next to the remaining milanesa on my plate. I don't scream, too much in shock am I. I merely stare at the anguilas, expecting them to wander all over the table. Instead, they just sit there, immobile. I actually feel sorry for them. Poor anguilas. They've somehow suddenly died, right in front of me, adjacent to the slice of lemon that I had squeezed over my milanesa. Death of anguilas. Death by milanesa and lemon. I feel like a murderer.


Luria is busy chewing away at the large piece of my milanesa that she so craftily swiped from my plate. Her eyes are glistening with merriment. I'm not sure if what is thrilling her to bits is my milanesa, the bald priest with the Playboy magazine, or the anguilas that she hopes I'll eat.


"They're dead, silly. Try them. Squeeze some lemon on them." She pokes me in the ribs.


Of course I do what she tells me. I squeeze some lemon on the anguilas - and then I cover them with my napkin.

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