A few months ago, while reading a local arts magazine, I came across a regular feature about cinema – ‘Films that could never have been based in Spain’. The film under discussion was ‘Silence of the Lambs’. I read with growing incredulity an argument that Hannibal Lecter could never have been a Spanish character, because in Spain the meat is so good and there are so many great meat dishes that he would never have had to resort to eating human flesh to get his kicks. But of course, Lecter was driven to torture, mutilate and devour his victims because he couldn’t get his hands on Jamon Serrano and chorizo. How stupid of us not to realise this! Nothing to do with sadism, abuse, perversity or horror; it’s purely a matter of vegetarian politics. The scary thing was that the article was not written tongue in cheek.
They do have a point, though- there are soooooo many delicious carnivorous dishes in traditional Spanish cuisine- to name just a few apart from Serrano ham and all the varieties of chorizo, there are pigs’ trotters, fried blood (Lecter would like that one, I’m sure), Zarazos de Cuenca, which are strips of pig intestine wrapped round cocktail sticks until you have a little figurine like a model sheep made of elastic bands, cocks’ comb soup, sheep’s lungs, bulls’ tail, bulls’ balls, sweetbreads, suckling piglet, milk-fed lambs only just ripped from their mothers’ wombs, and the madrileño specialities tripe (‘callos’) and ‘cocido’ , which is a kind of stew made with chick peas, beef, chicken, ham, belly pork, chorizo and black pudding (though a bit sparse on the meat front, that one). Yes, if Lecter had had all that to choose from, surely he’d never have ripped anyone’s cheeks off, fried their brains, or eaten their liver.
As you can imagine, vegetarians are looked upon here with a mixture of pity, incomprehension and suspicion. It can’t be fun being a visiting vegetarian in Spain. There are only so many potato omelettes and 70s-style salads you can eat (a salad here is like something your granny used to make- limp lettuce and crudely-chopped cucumber, tomato and onion hurled disdainfully onto a plate). I have lost count of the times I have asked waiters on behalf of visitors
‘Does it have any meat in it?
‘No meat at all? It’s vegetarian?’
‘Is that your final answer? You’re absolutely sure?…’
only for the dish to arrive with a sprinkling of chopped ham on top. When challenged the reply is always a shrug and the protest,
‘But it’s only a bit of ham, it’s not meat!’
There is also a tendency to overlook meat stock in ‘vegetarian’ dishes, as if they wouldn’t notice, or as if it’s a matter of one-upmanship to see if you can try and slip one by the stupid veggie, after all they’ll never know the difference. Another stock response here (pardon the pun) is,
‘But they can pick the meat bits out’.
The general attitude that all vegetarians need to do is try Spanish meat products and they will see the light, is so pervasive that it crops up unashamedly in tv adverts. There was a recent advert for a chain of restaurants or a brand of luncheon meats, featuring a family with a wan-looking teenage vegetarian son. First there is dinner at home, an uncomfortable affair (for the rest of the family) where he turns down meat dish after meat dish, and is handed his plate of beans or whatever his poor, long-suffering mother cooks up for him. The next shot shows him in the process of converting into a healthy carnivore, thanks to the delicious produce on offer by said restaurant or brand of hams. Finally the family are reunited at home again, all round the table tucking into a big meaty meal, with the son asking for seconds, and all the family laughing at the hilarious notion of vegetarianism.
If you say you don’t eat meat or you don’t approve of the cruelty to animals involved in getting it, you are seen as some kind of namby-pamby, pig-hugging communist ponce. Most children will have seen the annual traditional slaughtering of the pig back at the village, hunting is seriously big in rural areas, and bloodsports are popular. A child who finds any of this upsetting is likely to be given extra helpings of gristle, or sent to a therapist. This attitude is perfectly illustrated by the following story about town planning, told to me by a student of mine.
At her village the slaughterhouse used to be on the outskirts of town. As the town expanded and grew, like so many settlements here in the past few decades, a new secondary school was needed. So they built it right over the road from the abbertoir. The woman told me that as a child mornings at school were punctuated by strange squealings and screams from across the road that she never thought to ask about. In the afternoons when they left for home the street used to be literally running with blood. She said she was seriously distressed when she found out the noises were in fact the pigs being slaughtered daily; it had just never ocurred to her what those strange sounds actually were. And it had never even ocurred to the town planners not to build a school directly opposite the abbertoir. Hannibal, eat your heart out. Or someone else’s….