Several changes in my daily routine indicate that summer has officially ended – the thin blanket that was sufficient up until a week ago is no longer enough; my fingers and toes are constantly cold (and my nose has become an icy instrument of torture); this morning, I pulled out my down vest, my favorite way to stay cozy and warm while I work at home; I have begun to crave slow roasts or stews that warm the kitchen and my belly…And just like bulky sweaters and turtlenecks have replaced the tank tops in my bedroom drawers, autumn fruits, like pomegranates and oranges, have taken over the kitchen shelves.

As counterintuitive as it may sound, I’d say it’s the perfect time to make a refreshing cocktail with a fresh orange twist, the Aperol Spritz. Like its boozier cousin Campari, Aperol is a bitter and herbal Italian apéritif whose intense blood orange color jolts the senses as much as the flavor. The intriguing ingredients include bitter orange, rhubarb, and herbs like gentian (also in Angostura bitters) and chinchona, a source of quinine. Aperol becomes a balanced yet invigorating Spritz by adding bubbly and dry prosecco, a splash of soda and a slice of fresh orange. This might sound like a summer refresher (which it can be), and that’s exactly the point –  an Aperol Spritz can brighten any cloudy day.

Aperol Spritz

Another part of the Aperol allure in my mind is its elsewhere quality. Whereas a beer does not typically transport me from my living room, the distinct taste of an Aperol Spritz sweeps me away to thoughts of vacation and lively sidewalk cafés in Italy. It evokes happy personal memories, too, of my first encounters with the drink on a trip to Milan for a good friend’s wedding. I inevitably think of my first refreshing sip on a steamy late May afternoon in the Milan Centrale train station beneath the monumental columns and vaulted ceilings commissioned by Mussolini. I also get to relive the wedding reception, where I had my second Aperol Spritz while grazing from the genius “archipelago di antipasti,” a series of themed appetizer “islands” (i.e. tables), such as the cheese island and the cured meat island.

Milan Centrale

Someday soon I’ll be ready for a stew and for hunkering down. But the oranges on my shelves are calling me. For now, I’d rather have something that awakens the senses and enlivens a wintry day.

Early Oranges

Aperol Spritz

You can’t go wrong following the basic formula given on Aperol bottles: ice – 2 parts Aperol – 3 parts prosecco – a splash of soda – a slice of fresh orange.

The recipe lends itself to tweaking, however, depending on your perfect balance of bitter and sweet. For example, I forgo the soda as I see no need to dilute the flavors, and I squeeze in a bit of fresh orange juice for its natural sweetness and acidity. Manolo and I also use the Spanish bubbly cava instead of prosecco, for the sake of convenience and price. Purists may disagree, but I think that either prosecco, cava or champagne makes a delicious and invigorating Aperol cocktail.

Cheers!

Asking for a doggy bag in European restaurants has long been a faux pas for savvy American travelers not wanting to appear, well, too American. I don’t remember where exactly I learned that doggy bags were frowned upon on this side of the Atlantic, but it certainly wasn’t through requesting one myself. I had somehow already been convinced of the potentially mortifying consequences by the time I arrived in France for my junior year abroad. Self-conscious and 19, I avoided anything that might result in being snubbed to an even greater extent by the French waiters. When my parents came to visit, I recall making it known that they were not, under any circumstances, to ask for their leftovers to go.

I am happy to say I no longer care so much about what foreign waiters think of me, and waiters in Spain tend to be less intimidating in any case, but I still have yet to ask for a doggy bag in Europe. It’s just not part of the culture of eating out, at least in France and Spain.

This may be changing, however, if a recent ad on Spanish TV is any indication. In the ad, sponsored by San Miguel non-alcoholic beer, LA Lakers player Pau Gasol casually asks his waiter, “¿Me lo puedes poner para llevar?” (Can I get it to go?). The server, not the least bit perturbed, promptly delivers Gasol’s leftovers in a handy container labeled with the campaign slogan, “No lo tiro,” literally meaning, “I don’t throw it way,”  akin to the “Too good to waste” slogan of a similar campaign in the UK. Gasol’s novel action spreads like wildfire on social networks in Spain, a hopeful projection of the campaign’s results. But will the doggy bag really catch on so easily here?

(Check out the ad. This link will send you to YouTube.)

As you can see, the ad is not just for doggy bags, but is part of a larger campaign promoting responsible consumption in general (of food, alcohol, energy, etc.). This idea of responsible consumption has implications for both the individual – eating less for one’s health (obesity is an increasing problem in Spain) – and for the greater society – there is an alarming quantity of food wasted in developed nations, Spain included.

Not a crumb left behind

I am a regular doggy bag user in the US, which is often the result of restraint, knowing I can get two meals out of one. In Spain, however, knowing I won’t be taking any leftovers home, I approach eating out with a feast mentality.

Manolo has taught me a Spanish expression for this approach – “antes reventar que sobre,” which literally translates as, it’s better to eat until you burst than have anything leftover. Tellingly, this is known as the “ley del pobre,” or the poor man’s law, meaning the eat-everything-now mindset is actually rooted in times of anxiety-producing hunger, which have been sadly common throughout much of  Spain’s history. Seizing the last crumb makes sense if you don’t know when the next opportunity to eat will be.

Fortunately, such acute hunger no longer prevails in Spain (although poverty is on the rise in the current crisis). Nevertheless, the so-called poor man’s law still holds sway when a group of friends gets together for a meal.

This exuberance is part of what makes eating out in Spain fun, and also what makes it difficult to imagine the doggy bag ever becoming an institution here, at least in terms of holding back. And in any case, the US offers proof that the doggy bag in itself is not a remedy for overeating.

Too much thrown away

Expanding waistlines, however, are just one front of the nolotiro campaign, whose principal aim is waste rather than weight reduction. Even though it may seem contradictory to the eat-it-all mentality described above, food waste is in fact a growing problem in Spain as in the rest of the developed world. A recent EU study found that up to 50% of edible food is wasted along the supply chain in member nations, consuming both comestible and financial resources that are sorely needed elsewhere. (According to a Natural Resources Defense Council Report published in August 2012, the figure is 40% in the US.)

The amount that gets left on consumers’ plates in restaurants is a small yet not insignificant fraction of the total food wasted in Europe (much more restaurant waste in Spain is the result of oversupply – perhaps driven by the feast mentality…). On this front, the doggy bag, because it is novel, may work here, at least as an attention-grabbing symbol, raising awareness about the issue of food waste in general.

It certainly has caught this doggy bag veteran’s attention. As I result, I realize that I can make more of an effort to reduce food waste at home, by not buying too much food, for instance, and by eating or freezing what I have bought before it goes bad. I don’t know that I’ll be asking for a doggy bag in Spain any time soon, however. I have come to enjoy a good feast every now and then, down to the last crumb.

Additional Information:

In January 2012, the European Parliament set the goal of halving food waste by 2025, and 2014 has been declared the “European year against food waste.”

For now, the official nolotiro doggy bags are only available in participating restaurants in Madrid and Barcelona.

For information on the US front, check out Wasted Food, the website of Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland.

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Summer tends to linger well into the fall in Murcia, and this year has been no different.  The Segura River valley where the city is located heats up like a sauna in July and August and does not easily yield to cooler temperatures come September. Weeks after the fall equinox, highs in Murcia remained stubbornly in the 90s. Once again, it has been a veranico del membrillo – a quince summer.

This expression, a version bearing the Murcianized diminutive ico (in other parts of Spain, the saying is  veranillo del membrillo), is the equivalent of an Indian Summer, when unseasonably high temperatures assert themselves in early autumn, just when ripened quinces are beginning to appear in the markets.

Up until several years ago, I admittedly would not have known a quince had I seen one. This curious fruit was certainly not a Florida childhood staple, although it would not have been out of place on my grandmother’s New England table. In my mind, the quince evokes Colonial America and sensible Yankee desserts, preserves and ciders. Its roots, however, extend much further back. In fact, many botanists believe Adam and Eve’s Forbidden Fruit may have actually been a quince.

Even if it was one day a sinful temptation, the quince nonetheless fell out of favor, at least in the US. Its irregular shape and hard and astringent flesh that must be cooked to be eaten made it an outcast in a grab-and-go world.

Yet these are the precise qualities that have contributed to a quince renaissance in recent years. The humble quince has become a lovable poster child for champions of slow food and opponents of perfectly round fruits without character.

In Spain, quince has remained relatively common over the years. Here, it is typically cooked down with sugar to make concentrated blocks of dulce de membrillo, quince paste. Slices of the sweet jelly are the perfect foil to salty and tangy sheep’s milk cheeses like Manchego.

Quince became an important crop in Murcia in the Middle Ages under Arab rule, and centuries later contributed to the growth of the still significant canning industry in the city. Even though quince production has declined here over the last several decades (largely coinciding with the fateful construction boom), the fruit has not lost its power to conjure up hot fall days in the expression, el veranico del membrillo.

Little by little, the seasons are indeed shifting. Murcia’s imposing summer has finally begun to give way, allowing crisper air to seep into the night, which the sun labors to chase away with dwindling strength. Yet if experience proves me right, the heat will return at least one more, prolonging the quince summer.

Summer’s last stand calls for quince paste. Cooking down quinces into concentrated and sweet dulce de membrillo is a means to preserve the taste of warmer days for the inevitable winter to come.

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Dulce de Membrillo – Quince Paste

The basic steps of this recipe are relatively straightforward – peel and core the quinces either before or after cooking; boil until tender; puree the peeled and cored fruit; mix with sugar and cook over low heat until concentrated; then pour into a mold and cool. But, as I learned through trial and error, timing can significantly influence the results.

Most recipes I came across in local Murcian cookbooks had a lot of gaps, presumably to be filled in with experience. For example, El Libro de la Gastronomía de Murcia suggests cooking the pureed fruit and sugar for 15 minutes, which was enough to make a tasty quince sauce (akin to apple sauce) but not enough to make a concentrated paste. I kept cooking and stirring for 30 minutes more and achieved satisfactory, and sliceable, results.

I have since researched different cooking methods and have come across wildly varying simmer times, from 8 minutes to several hours. I am still experimenting to find the version I like best. In any case, far worse things could happen than to end up with a delicious quince sauce.

I encourage you to visit Janet Mendel’s recent blog post on quinces for her complete and easy-to-follow recipe for dulce de membrillo. Mendel uses several techniques I am eager to try, such as adding some of the quince poaching liquid to the fruit puree and lining the mold with plastic wrap for easy removal. Mendel’s post also includes a lovely story about quince paste in Spain and a savory quince recipe with lamb inspired by several Mediterranean dishes.

To determine the amount of sugar you need, measure or weigh the cooked and pureed fruit and add the same quantity of sugar. I used three quinces, which was enough to fill a 5.5 x 4.5 x 1.5 inch aluminum container.

Quince

Sugar

Cut the quinces in half and place them in a pot and cover with water. Bring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer until the flesh is tender and easily pierced with a fork, after about 30-45 minutes. Completely drain and, once the quinces are cool enough to touch, peel and core them.

Puree the fruit, then weigh or measure it and mix it with an equal amount of sugar in a heavy saucepan. Cook over medium low heat until the puree is reduced nearly by half, stirring frequently so it does not stick to the bottom of the pan. Pour into a rectangular mold and cool. Properly concentrated quince paste will keep in the refrigerator for up to several months. Serve thinly sliced with an assertive cheese such sheep’s milk Manchego.

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Click here for an introduction to the Spanish Food Idioms series.

Today’s expression: dar(le) la vuelta a la tortilla

The phrase literally translates as, “flip the tortilla,” referring to the swift and committed action it takes to turn a Spanish potato omelet over in the pan. Yet figuratively, to dar la vuelta a la tortilla is the equivalent of turning the tables or the tide, i.e. reversing a situation, often in favor of the underdog. It can also mean to completely change your opinion, as in do an about-face. I have found that this expression is more commonly used in writing than in daily speech, and it often appears in sociopolitical contexts.

In Context

I first encountered this idiom in a pamphlet on a message board at the University of Murcia. ¿Quién da la vuelta a la tortilla? it asked in bold letters, “Who will flip the tortilla?” Intrigued, I read the subheading, “Men, women and gender roles in the collections of three regional museums.” This was not some cooking event as I had first imagined. Instead, the workshop aimed to provoke critical thinking about gender in society through art, with the ultimate goal of turning the tide. Dar la vuelta a la tortilla, explained the pamphlet, meant, “something needs to change.”

By this time, I had been living in Spain for nearly two years and had made more than one potato tortilla (with varying degrees of success). I had never heard the idiomatic expression before, but immediately got it, as would anyone who has attempted to flip a still partially goopy Spanish omelet. This risky endeavor demands decisiveness and speed, not to mention confidence in your equipment (a truly non-stick pan and a plate large enough to cover and flip). You cannot let your opponent (the omelet) feel your fear, or it’s all over (i.e. runny eggs all over the hot burner).

Looking for other idiomatic uses of this expression, I came across a strong and unambiguous example: the politically charged song Que La Tortilla Se Vuelva (Let the Tables Be Turned), released in 1968 by the Chilean folk group Quilapayún, champions of the working class and indigenous Latin American communities. This particular song was dedicated to the Spanish Civil War and rooted in the worldwide chorus of demands for greater social equality in the 1960s. The idiom comes in the last angry stanza of the song (the profanity may shock, but makes the meaning of the expression “clearer than water,” as they say in Spanish).

Cuando querrá el dios del cielo
que la tortilla se vuelva,
que los pobres coman pan
y los ricos mierda, mierda.

When it is the will of the god of heaven / may the tables be turned / may the poor eat bread /and the rich shit, shit.

In this song, we see force this idiom can have in political contexts.

Yet sometimes the idiom comes full circle, returning to a culinary context in which it is both literal and figurative at once. I found an example of such word play in a blog post in the Spanish daily El País entitled, ¿Cómo dar la vuelta a la tortilla? (How can we flip the tortilla?/How can we turn the tables?) by José Carlos Capel, the paper’s culinary critic. Capel certainly knows a thing or two about tortillas, having penned two entire books on the subject, Homenaje a la tortilla de patatas and El Gran libro de la tortilla de patatas.

The article does not so much address the technicalities of flipping as it does the quality (or perceived lack thereof) of tortillas throughout Spain. “Why are the majority of tortillas found in Spanish bars so bad?” laments Capel. Ultimately, the author calls for a tortilla revolution of sorts. The exact form the tortilla takes doesn’t matter (thick or thin, with or without onions, with oil-poached potatoes or crisp fried potatoes, etc.) – just make it good!

Dar la vuelta a la tortilla – It begins at home!

To fully understand this idiom, I suggest making a tortilla of your own if you haven’t already. A lot has been written about how to make a good one, and for many Spaniards, the ideal version is the one they grew up with. The truth is there are many delicious ways to make a tortilla, and it takes experimenting to find your preference. All recipes of course have one thing in common – the decisive flip.

Check out these two recipes from excellent sources for Spanish cuisine:

Now on to all the other tortillas out there in need of flipping!

Pan de Calatrava

This simple dessert, a hybrid of bread pudding and flan, combines the wisdom and thrift of centuries of cooks. As I stir together sugar, milk and eggs and pour them over day-old bread, I think about all the hands that have done the same in the past. In these movements, as clever as they are common, practical ingredients are transformed into a dish that not only nourishes but also gives pleasure. A slice of pan de calatrava is optimism, a reminder that even with little, good can be made.

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I discovered the joys of pan de calatrava in a restaurant shortly after I had arrived in Murcia, where it is considered a local tradition. After a few bites of the silky, cinnamon-infused custard, I would never forget what the words pan de calatrava meant, at least on modern menus.

From then on, I have ordered the dessert every time I get the chance. I only recently decided it was time to learn to make it myself. But before I get to that point, a historical diversion….Throughout my brief personal history with pan de calatrava, I have also been intrigued. Why was this bread from Calatrava typical in Murcia, I wondered? And where was this Calatrava in the first place?

Starting with these questions, I did some preliminary research. My first conclusion is that one resource leads to another, and that the exact origins of the dish will likely remain a mystery. Nonetheless, some aspects of the pan de calatrava story have come into focus, forming a loosely spun narrative in my mind. I am not sure how or even if the dots connect, but here is what I have found so far.

The fact that pan de calatrava can also be found today in parts of Castilla La Mancha, just to the north of Murcia, was the first trail I followed (virtually-speaking). This led me to the historic Calatrava itself, once a strategic settlement along the often-shifting border between Christian and Muslim lands in medieval Spain. Here, in the 12th century, the Order of Calatrava was founded, a military limb of the Cistercian Order that remained active well into the 15th century. The name Calatrava itself, however, has been traced even further back, to the Arabic Qal’lat Rabah, meaning “fortress of Rabah.” This referred to the 8th century nobleman who once held sway here.

Even though I find it hard to imagine warring knights savoring pan de calatrava, it takes no effort to picture a similar dessert on medieval monastery and convent tables, where priests, monks and nuns were not known to abstain from good food. To give an example, based on evidence from 15th century monastery account books from Toledo, Clifford Wright observes in A Mediterranean Feast, “When and if the poor ate meat at the monastery, it was always boiled and tough meat, while the friars enjoyed veal and partridges and chickens stuffed with eggs, saffron, cinnamon, and sugar.”

In that list, we have several ingredients often found in medieval Spanish monastery cooking, three of which – eggs, cinnamon and sugar – very easily could have been transformed by some religious order – and perhaps even the Cistercians of Calatrava, too – into a dessert resembling the pan de calatrava. This would have been a variation on other flan-like puddings in history. Flans, both savory and sweet, have been documented in the Mediterranean as early as Roman times and were also found in Moorish traditions. All of these influences have undoubtedly contributed to the pan de calatrava.

Another mystery is how this dessert “from Calatrava” ended up in Murcia, although the process could have easily involved the convents and monasteries, which have spread many recipes throughout Spain. Murcia, like Calatrava, was long hotly contested territory on the frontier between Catholic and Muslim lands. Not coincidentally, a sanctuary in the northwest corner of Murcia became an important Christian pilgrimage site, where members of different religious orders have often shared tables over the years.

Images of all these people and places from the past now flicker through my mind as I stir milk and eggs together for pan de calatrava. Knowing more about the evocative title certainly flavors the dish. Nonetheless, I am particularly thankful for all the anonymous hands that have continued to repeat this practical and giving bit of history, blending traditions along the way.

Pan de Calatrava – Calatrava Bread

Recipes for pan de calatrava range from the simple – coat the bottom of the loaf pan with a store-bought caramel syrup for flan, mix the rest of the ingredients together and pour them on top and bake – to the slightly more complex – make your own caramel, infuse the milk and assemble the ingredients in layers.

I am going with the slightly more complex version here, because I think it is a few notches better, although the other is good in a pinch. The main inconvenience is that you have to use (i.e. wash) several different pots and pans in the process. (One thing many of those cooks in the past had more of, in addition to time, was hands in the kitchen.) Once it comes out of the oven, pan de calatrava must be chilled for at least several hours and up to a day before serving, which provides plenty of cleanup time.

Serves 6-8

For the caramel: Adapted from Claudia Roden’s flan recipe in The Food of Spain

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

For the rest:

4 1/4 cups milk (1 liter)

1 cup sugar

1 cinnamon stick (If you don’t have one on hand, add a dash of cinnamon to the milk instead.)

1 strip lemon peel (about the size of your thumb)

Day-old bread (something like a baguette), crust removed and cut into 1-inch cubes (enough to form a compact layer in the pan you are using – I used about 3 packed cups)

6 eggs

Baking dishes and pans needed:

1 9-by-5-inch glass or metal loaf pan (This is the most traditional shape in Murcia, but if you do not have a loaf pan, any shape will work as long as it can hold 2 quarts. And the wider the base, the more bread you’ll need.)

1 9-by-13-inch baking dish for the water bath for baking

1 small heavy saucepan for the caramel

1 medium heavy saucepan for heating the milk

To prepare the caramel:

Have the loaf pan handy so you can pour in the caramel as soon as it is ready.

Heat the water and 1/2 cup sugar together in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring frequently until the sugar dissolves and the liquid turns amber in color, like maple syrup. Allowing the amber to deepen too much can result in a bitter caramel. Very quickly pour the hot caramel (before it hardens) into the loaf pan and immediately tilt to coat the bottom of the pan and partway up the sides, too.

To prepare the rest:

Preheat oven to 350 ºF.

Combine the milk, remaining sugar, cinnamon stick and lemon peel in a saucepan and heat over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar has melted and the milk rolls to a boil. Remove from heat, fish out the cinnamon stick and lemon peel and allow to cool for at least 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat 4 cups of water, which you will need for baking.

Place cubed bread in the pan on top of the caramel, making a compact layer. (I have seen recipes that skip this step, instructing instead to stir the bread in with the milk and eggs, which in a way makes sense, as the bread will rise to the top when you pour in the custard. I like packing in the bread first, however, as this helps me know how much bread to use.)

Lightly beat the eggs in a large bowl, then gradually beat in the cooled milk. Pour over bread in the pan. (Like I said before, the bread will rise to the top here, forming what will be the base when you later invert the pan.)

Set the loaf pan into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Pour in the hot water until it comes halfway up the sides of the loaf pan. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the custard is set and the top layer is golden (a knife inserted comes out clean). Remove the loaf pan from the water bath and allow to cool for 1 hour at room temperature before placing in the refrigerator to chill thoroughly before serving (ideally at least 3 hours and up to a day ahead).

To serve, run a knife along the edge of the pan to loosen the custard. Place a serving dish (deep enough to catch the caramel) over the top of the loaf pan and with a swift movement turn upside down. Carefully lift off the pan. If the custard does not fall onto the plate, gently encourage it with a knife. And, of course, pour any remaining caramel over the top.

Many restaurants in Murcia serve slices of pan de calatrava garnished with whirls of whipped cream from a can, but I prefer it plain and simple, allowing history to speak for itself.

Why frugal cooking now feels imperative in Spain.

Migas

At a market showcasing culinary traditions in Murcia, a man tends to a pan of migas, a filling dish made with flour, salt, olive oil and garlic, judiciously flavored with bits of fresh sausage and chorizo (more or less, depending on the budget). Such frugal meals born of necessity survive in part because of nostalgia, and also because they make economic sense.

Back home in the States, one hears very little good news coming out of Spain, soccer victories notwithstanding. On my most recent trip to Florida, I was often asked if I had noticed the effects of the economic crisis in Spain. Sort of, I would reply, but the quality of life remained. I thought of the countless times I had been with friends in Murcia walking through downtown past bustling restaurants and bars, so packed that patrons spilled out onto plazas, filling the streets with spirited conversation. “Crisis?” someone would inevitably ask rhetorically. “¿Qué crisis?”, “What crisis?”

But upon my return to Spain in August, I have to say that I can really feel the impact now. Until recently, I personally hadn’t noticed so many specific manifestations. Yet I am beginning to sense more shadows creeping into the good life, cast by growing dark clouds of uncertainty and insecurity.

Now, people in my immediate circle are losing jobs, the stores where they work are closing, they have been forced to go to court to demand late payments from their employers who are months behind. Last week, a friend’s home in a modest neighborhood was broken into. The thieves took everything in gold they could find, worth precious little compared to the sentimental value of the objects.

Just about everyone, it seems (minus those soccer stars, perhaps), has similar stories to tell about someone they know. I hear it in the news, in conversations in markets and on the bus. Spain is a talkative place, and I sometimes wonder whether all these words and stories told again and again might actually be contributing to the dark cloud. And here I am, telling the story.

The truth is that the feelings matter and carry real weight once they are heard and spoken. And as of yet, there is no clear silver lining. I have heard and even said time and time again, “We’ll see what happens…,” as if we are all waiting.

This is not to say you won’t find the bars packed on a Friday or Saturday night. But the uncertain climate permits fewer nights on the town.

These circumstances make me particularly appreciate the frugal ingenuity of traditional Spanish home cooking. The fact that Spain is no stranger to hard times* is reflected in the seemingly endless variety of nourishing and inexpensive dishes made from stretching out the ingredients at hand.

Cooking frugally feels like one way to defy the current crisis. There will be no cloud at my table, but rather a reminder that Spain can indeed pull through.

See some of my past examples of frugal traditional cuisine in Murcia:

Guiso de Trigo – Wheat Berry Stew

Olla Gitana – Gypsy Stew

Michirones – Fava Bean Stew (as with the migas in the photo at the top of the post, the amount of meat added to the beans can be adapted to one’s budget.)

Morcilla de Verano – Eggplant Caviar

And stay tuned for my next post about a thrifty yet rich local dessert.

*For an excellent, in-depth analysis of contemporary Spanish history, I highly recommend Ghosts of Spain by British journalist Giles Tremlett.

I would love to hear your reflections and observations.

GATOR TALES PART II:

Withlacoochee Gator

Ever since I read about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Florida adventures in Cross Creek last spring (recounted in this blog post), I was determined to make a pilgrimage to the author’s former Central Florida home, now a state park bearing her name. Plans began to take shape from Spain through Skype calls with my mother, who shared my enthusiasm. Together, we began to hatch a plan for an Old Florida excursion.

“Then we can go to Stumpknockers and catch a boat down the Withlacoochee River,” added my mom, casually, “and spend the night in Yankeetown.”

“Can you repeat that?” I asked, taken aback, jotting down the words that felt more foreign in my mouth than Spanish.

Throughout the months leading up to my trip, the words Cross Creek, Stumpknockers, Withlacoochee and Yankeetown continually circulated through my mind, and, like a magical incantation, conjured up the essence of Florida.

Lurking in these visions was the gator.

Part of this vision was culinary— I imagined I would certainly have another chance to eat gator after my dashed hopes on the shores of Lake Jesup (see last post). Yet the gator in my mind was not at all how one might envision the lobster, for instance, on an impending trip to Maine.

While this makes me think I should learn more about the lobster, and should make the effort to be in awe of all animals that end up on my plate, it also highlights the fact that it takes no effort to fear the gator.

Let’s face it – the gator is first and foremost a potential predator. Growing up in Central Florida, surrounded by lakes, I learned early on that even land is not safe, as gators can overcome humans both in and out of water. From an enclosed back porch, I’d spend hours watching for and often spotting the many resident gators in the lake behind my father’s house. I admittedly never felt entirely secure in the backyard pool.

At this time, gators were on the list of Endangered Species but steadily recovering, and my childhood was marked by their increasing presence rather than decline. They were removed from the list in 1987, when I was 13. This likely explains why I don’t have any early memories of eating gator, and helps to explain why food is often the last thing I think of when considering this imposing reptile.

With all these former gator impressions swirling around in my head, I set off with my mom on our two-day excursion into Old Florida. The mosquitoes tried hard to get my attention, but the gator remained the ever-present, true protagonist of the journey.

A photo tour of our trip:

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings House

The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home in Cross Creek. Rawlings, known for her culinary skills, was particularly proud of her gator tail steaks.

The Yearling Restaurant

The Yearling Restaurant in Cross Creek, named after Rawlings’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, opened in 1952 while the author was still alive. Some of her specialties and favorite dishes are on the menu, like sour orange pie, prepared like the key lime version but with local sour oranges instead.

Cracker Platter

I didn’t have to wait long to get my chance to eat gator, which was featured, no surprise, on the Yearling menu. We ordered the Cracker Platter, which included fried gator bites as well as fried green tomatoes, frog legs and, rather mysteriously, portobello mushrooms. Conclusion: I cannot fully refute the common perception that gator tastes like chicken, although the psychological effect of knowing it is not chicken undermines the comparison in my opinion.

Withlacoochee River

A view of the Withlacoochee River from our riverside efficiency in Yankeetown. This close to the Gulf of Mexico, the river maintains a steady flow in one direction or another depending on the tides. Wildlife abounds along this largely undeveloped river and swampy stretch of Gulf coast. From the back porch, I heard constant splashes from jumping fish and spied one midsize gator zipping by on a current.

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Despite the beauty of the surroundings, the interior of our riverside lodgings reminded me that “Old Florida” is not all charm, which is part of the adventure.

Rainbow Springs

A refreshing dip in the 72 ºF headwaters of Rainbow Springs

Rainbow Springs

…without forgetting who’s around.

Capt. Mike's

We picked up Captain Mike’s Lazy River Cruise after a lunch of perfectly cooked peel-and-eat Gulf shrimp, meaty conch fritters and peanut butter pie at Stumpknockers Restaurant on the Withlacoochee River (these words maintain their magic even if they now roll off my tongue with ease). Captain Mike has been guiding pontoon boat trips down the tranquil and largely undeveloped Withlacoochee for fifteen years, leaving what he refers to as the St. Petersburg, FL “rat race” far behind.

He is fine-tuned to any movement along the banks, and his commentary draws from a deep well of tales and facts about human and natural history along the river. We saw egrets, ibises and immature blue herons, and learned how tree frogs lay their eggs on the tips of leaves so the they fall into the water as they hatch. Our hopes for seeing a big gator were thwarted by two roaring airboats piloted by teenage boys, rupturing the evening calm. But Captain Mike, well-aware of his guests’ anticipations, knew all the spots a gator might be.

Withlacoochee Gator

On the home stretch of the cruise, Mike spotted this young gator sunning in the diffused evening light. The gator did not seem fazed by the paparazzi-worthy eagerness of the eight camera-wielding passengers, striving with our lenses to capture the spirit of Florida.

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