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  • Conviviality in Catalonia

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    During the course of my career as an anthropologist, I have eaten elephant’s trunk and hippopotamus steak, pretty little birds and very plain-looking rats, exotic fruit like the stinking durian, and many different species of insect. These were usually offered as a test of interethnic stamina, the reward being the assurance that “you’re really one of us now.” But in each place I have learned more from consumption of the daily staple that is the essential meaning of the word food in most languages: rice in Asia, steamed banana and cassava in East Africa, pounded plantain and yam in West Africa.

    Raised on oatmeal and boiled potatoes in Scotland, I have a high tolerance for plain fare, but I am bound to agree with the African elder who told me long ago that “the only thing that really improves with age is your appreciation of food.” So when I embarked on fieldwork in rural Catalonia twenty years ago, it was a bonus to discover how much good food matters in this corner of Europe—whether you are in a farm kitchen or the world’s top-rated restaurant, being offered a humble bread-and-tomato snack or the virtuoso performance of mar i muntanya, “sea and mountain,” a rich stew of pigs’ trotters, snails, squid, and any other creature that comes to hand.

    For my research on family relations in times of drastic change, I chose the village of Mieres for its apparent ordinariness: a depopulated, unrefurbished rural community, neither sequestered in the mountains nor engulfed by the seaside economy. Set in a valley in the lower reaches of the Pyrenees about an hour from the Mediterranean, the village was visibly in decline. Many of its houses were falling into vacancy, disrepair, and ruin; its fields and meadows were neglected. The younger generation was moving to the towns and cities, and by the early 1990s their parents and grandparents had come to believe with the visceral certainty of their own aging bodies that life in the community as they had known it was coming to an end.

    Mercifully for the village and for me, Mieres has not died, and its regeneration soon became the more cheerful focus of my research. Among the most obvious signs of vitality is the astonishing abundance of festive activity, from religious parades to sporting contests, from civic celebrations of the elderly to parties for the expanding contingent of village children. Food and drink play a fundamental role in all of these events, creating and sustaining social interaction and rebuilding a sense of community.

    This gut response is deeply rooted in the traditions of the region. Out walking one afternoon early in our stay in Mieres, we came upon a classic Catalan scene: a merry throng, glasses raised, kids milling around, and knives flashing over the corpse of a huge pig. In Catalan lore the annual slaughter, the matança del porc, or simply mata-porc, was a close family affair. Nobody, I was told, would want to kill a pig just to feed the neighbors, but since it took place outside the house on the threshing floor or in the street, it was an inescapably public statement of family prosperity, solidarity, and good husbandry. Rich families could do this two or even three times a year, around Christmas and again in March, but poor families could manage it rarely, if at all. Our neighbor Montse, a recently widowed farmer’s wife, described the fun with happy smiles and nostalgic sighs.

    Matança del porc
    Photo courtesy of Museu d’Art Jaume Morera, Lleida

    The animal was strung up by the ankles on a tall tripod, and its throat slit by one of the men (el matador) who knew how. It was bled into buckets for blood sausages, gutted, and then hauled to a big trestle board to be thoroughly butchered. Hams were dried and cured, and sausages of different consistencies and gauges hung up in the kitchen. The offal and enough of the prime cuts to make the event memorable were grilled and eaten on the spot, in what one Catalan author describes as a “pantagruelian feast.”

    The mata-porc remains a visceral, earthy memory of a way of life that has yielded to rural depopulation, formal hygiene regulations, and the cold-shelves of supermarkets. These days, to kill a pig requires a special permit from the municipality, and samples cut from two different parts of the carcass have to be sent to the veterinary officer for inspection. Rural people who have never actually killed a pig take pleasure in shocking squeamish townies with such scenes.

    I asked our neighbors how they felt about the bloody orgy. Amid the indulgent laughter and sanguinary memories, a couple of the women agreed that there could be twinges of regret about butchering an animal that had been cosseted for many months. It was not done thoughtlessly, said Carmeta, who had never killed a pig but was well practiced in wringing the necks of chickens and rabbits. God has put these creatures in our charge for our benefit. But the conversation turned quickly from the tragedy of the lost friend to the technicalities of fattening up (special feed, expensive vitamins and medicines), and then, as always, to ham sliced finely from the bone and lip-smacking recipes for pig’s hock stew.

    In bad times, people have had little more than these memories to sustain them. The epoch of wretchedness extending from the onset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 through to the 1950s, which scarred the lives of more than a generation, is known simply as the misèria. As republicanism yielded to fascism, the agonies of partisanship and suspicion splintered communities and families. My efforts to extract a coherent account of who did what, when, and to whom in this traumatic period have always reduced my informants to passionate near-speechlessness. People don’t talk about it because life was so grim, even for those who were children at the time.

    The most vivid, visceral memory of the misèria is hunger. However much I pestered people for details of the war and its long, miserable aftermath, the conversation always reverted to food. Food production was curtailed by the conflict and squeezed by all partisans, left and right. Hungry families from the towns and cities would descend like locusts on relatives in the countryside. The Republican authorities collected food for resale at a depot in Mieres, but much of it was barely edible (calabashes, maize). People foraged in hedgerows and woodlands, eating whatever they found, where they found it.

    Food is the essence of conviviality in Catalonia, and although its processes are so ephemeral, the sensual intensity of eating together has a binding power that is everywhere apparent in the social life of Mieres. Food pulls strings and ties knots. Witness the huge Sunday lunches that draw scattered family back home to the valley, or to strategically sited restaurants. Food weaves its way through the social fabric inside and outside the home, and it became apparent to me that if I knew more about its meanings I might understand more about social life generally in Mieres.

    So often, recollections of a particular place and time proceed outward from the visceral memory of a particular dish, eventually embracing the company of particular people. One canapé or a freshly picked apple may be all it takes, but the Catalan Sunday lunch, like the mata-porc before it, argues unashamedly that the bigger the blowout, the fonder the embrace.

    A.F. Robertson is a professor emeritus in anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of Mieres Reborn: The Reinvention of a Catalan Community (University of Alabama Press, 2012).

    This entry was excerpted from an article in Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, Vol. 10, No. 1, © 2010 by the Regents of the University of California.

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