Spanish Guts

Spanish Guts

Spanish Guts

By Brett Allan King

Food: A Taste of the Road (Travelers’ Tales)

A vegetarian voyeur learns what it means to eat with his eyes.

TEN TO MIDNIGHT AT THE TEMPLE OF INTESTINAL LOVE — AND NOT enough bread. Our waitress-madam-priestess blushes at denying us an Iberian sacrament, but we are famished and forgiving. We have dodged icy Castilian winds and a “closed” sign to consume the air-conditioned, grease-laden Muzak of Freiduría Nely. Unaccompanied entrails it shall be.

Years in Spain will put hair on the chest of any vegetarian. In a land where dusty pig legs hang in bars and carrion means window decor, my stomach and I were forced into manhood.

Those first months in public markets meant a straight shot for the vegetables and a “get thee behind me, Satan!” whenever meat marred my peripheral vision. Gradually, though, I’d venture in with the dead things. Emboldened, I could soon bear the spectacle of untamed, middle-aged señoras shoving and sparring over prime cow heads, dead piglets, tongues, eyeballs, and snouts. Though still the recalcitrant herbivore, I began to discover repressed ocular passions in spectatorial strolls through the carnicería, where inevitably some old butcher would be hacking away at a hunk of flesh, splashing blood and bile all over postcards of the Virgin Mary.

Then I saw the light. In the bars and backstreet restaurants of Madrid, I finally came to understand Dr. Freud’s connection between sustenance and sexuality. Through years of gastronomic intercourse with so-called “Latin lovers” of food, I gradually learned that mastication is nothing short of sensual, and that those who eat merely for nourishment are little better than culinary eunuchs.

Anxiously awaiting Nely’s oral pleasures, Rolando gloats to Luis about a luscious bocadillo he once conquered. His kiss-and-tell look turns to lust when the waitress finally brings out the plate of guts. Callos, entresijos, finas, negras. So many names and so few clues as to what fried things lie before us.

“They’re from down about here on the sheep,” says the plump, middle-aged server, caressing her hips and smacking her lips, “and are they ever tasty!”

“I don’t know about this,” mutters Luis, nervously. “I was up forsome tripe, but…I’m gonna need some bread.”

Rolando plucks an intestine from the common plate and sticks it in his mouth. “Kinda crunchy on the outside…soft inside,” he ponders. “Greasy but delicious. Mmmmm. The crunchy part’s the best.”

“Clare wouldn’t forgive me if she knew what I was eating,” he laughs. His English girlfriend has threatened to leave him if he doesn’t diet.

Luis’ original inhibition appears to evaporate as he slurps up a greasy gut like an unwieldy strand of spaghetti. Juice dribbles from his chin. This is not a time for intellectualizing taste sensations, but for submitting to them.

Susana, his vegetarian girlfriend and my ally in flesh rejection, looks on in disgust as the two men finish their foreplay with the food chain and reach for a second alimentary tract. Luis pokes one of these plumper intestines with his fork, and a white pus oozes out.

“Only a girl from Madrid would let her boyfriend eat these things,” he declares.

“Mmmm. It comes with its own sauce,” jokes Rolando.

“Heavy,” shrieks Luis. “It’s the soul of the animal coming out
to greet you, saying ‘Hi, I want you to eat me.'”

Rolando gobbles down another gut and repeatedly nods in approval. Words are useless. At the next table, a dapper young man and his blond date get closer and closer. They ignore the sole small intestine remaining on their platter and look playully into each others’ eyes.

Amidst subtle munching and moaning, our discussion quickly turns to eros—and the sexual connotations of a Spanish verb.

“As usual, food brings us to sex,” muses a ruminant Rolando, “I have to tell you this. . . Some things are delicious and some are exquisite. This was delicious, but not orgasmic.”

“I don’t know…l almost came with the sheep,” retorts Luis.

Just as Rolando sops the grease off his plate with the last precious chunk of semi-stale bread, there is a tap on the window. José and Rocío are outside, late as usual. The two join us and we all stand to exchange kisses. Enough with  pleasantries—Luis is insatiable and they are starving.

In minutes, we are foraging for delicacies amidst the copper glow of Lavapiés, brick streets trapped between ochre walls and decaying, balconied walk-ups. An ancient, dingy wisp of a man glares at us and feeds chopped liver to an alley cat. The neighborhood is a militant testimony to the Madrid that was. The only MacDonald’s to open here was said to be closed by apathy. What self-respecting Lavapiecero would trade blood sausage for Big Macs?

Susana and Rocío talk food.

“Pig fetuses?!” shrieks Rocío, “that’s gross. A good pig’s ear—-now that’s good eatin’.”

José and Rocío stand shattered before a closed Bar Castilla. He’s been boasting about their callos a la madrileña (boiled tripe) for weeks. “Maybe we can find an Extremaduran bar around here—they dish up a mean lizard.” We recall the indigent Extremaduran who was fined for eating a near-extinct reptile, smothered in onions. Spaniards outraged by the injustice done him raised the money to pay off his fine.

Fluorescent and neon lights beckon our migratory menage-a-six to window shop the open bars of Tirso de Molina Plaza. One, with chopped octopus in the window, is virtually empty. But Bar Mariano (with a soccer ball for the ‘o’) is blessed with noisy diners and a window display teeming with culinary delights. Guts on a stick? No, we’ve done that. Brains? Maybe. We are intrigued by the neatly arranged row of raw sheep heads, cut lengthwise into perfectly symmetrical halves.

“Alright, now,” announces José, “who’s game for half a sheep’s head?”

Rolando looks eager. Luis is reluctant.

“Sheep’s head for three?”

The two nod.

“Sheep’s head for four,” Rocío grins.

BY THE WAITER,” warns a sign on the wall.

“One ear!” the waiter bellows toward the grill, writing our
order on the back of a cigarette carton, “Half a sheep’s head!”

We see pajarito (little bird) on the menu. “Probably sparrow,” whispers Susana.

“One pajarito,” I say, with a straight face, as though I habitually munch on bite-sized Tweety birds.

“Oh, no. We can’t serve that anymore,” laments our pudgy, white-haired waiter. “It’s completely forbidden.The police came in here and looked absolutely everywhere—even the cellars. It’s sad, because many people ask for it. Would some chicken wings do it for you?”

Well-dressed couples and frumpy old taxistas stand amidst the used napkins and cigarette butts tossed to the floor. Intense fluorescent lighting douses tapas lining the stainless steel bar. “GOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAALLLLLLL!!l” The soccer match blares from the TV set mounted on the wall, in direct competition with the incessant bleating of the slot machine. Macho waiters toss plates and bluster over the din of clanking silverware and a boisterous clientele. A tiny soul with sportcoat and tennis shoes parades silently up and down the bar, a toothpick jutting from beneath his bushy growth of a moustache.

We eavesdrop on nearby diners as they speak of roast lamb, but our hearing is intercepted by an ear. The gigantic pig ear has been grilled, chopped, and doused in hot sauce. Rocío is ecstatic. Carnivores clutch forks and jab into a mouthful of porcine appendage.

“It’s like it’s alive,” ejaculates Rolando. “It’s great, I mean the cartilage. You bite into it, you think you’ve broken through it—and then it bounces back at you…this is what you call exquisite.” He sighs with eyes rolled upward, half-talking and half-savoring his greasy bliss. “Me corro viva!” he yells, feigning female orgasmic frenzy.

A tall brunette in spiked heels, heavy mascara, and black leather short shorts traipses into the bar. She is accompanied by a pock-marked man with greased-back, shoulder-length hair. They hold hands and French kiss as a waiter slices them some ham and cheese to go. It is 1:38 a.m. and she is wearing sunglasses. Brandishing a sword-like loaf of flour-caked bread, they duck into the night.

The man with the toothpick devours an egg sandwich as an equally silent friend joins him for a café con leche. “Real Madrid won!” rise hysterical cheers at match’s end. The two are oblivious to the news, gesticulating with all the fury of deaf-mute Mediterraneans.

The sheep’s head has been bathed in scathing oil before reaching our table. Admiring its intrinsic beauty and sensuous curves, José squeezes a lemon and bathes the crispy cranium in its juice. He yanks the crooked incisors out of the animal’s jaw and attacks with his own, chomping into its jowls as if they were the inner thighs of Aphrodite. He squints his eyes at me, nods his head and puts his forefinger against his thumb to indicate ecstasy.

“With those teeth, it makes you wonder who’s eating whom,” says Luis.

“José, you look like a cannibal!” cries Susana.

“You’re supposed to suck on it,” he assures them.

“What’s this?” asks Rocío, grabbing a fork. “The brain?” With an easy flip of the utensil, she plucks out the entire cerebral hemisphere. “Not the whole brain?!”

With the grace of one well-versed in European table manners, she daintily isolates a chunk of golden grey matter, slices it off with her knife, and pops it into her mouth with overturned fork. She grimaces. “Oh, yuck! It’s horrible!”

“It’s really soft, yet dense, with the same texture throughout,” adds Jose with the objective, authoritative voice of cerebral connoisseurship.

He stabs his fork at yet another ovine morsel.

“The eye, the eye!” come the cackles, almost in unison. Any takers? He almost puts it in his mouth, but the mind is stronger than the palate. There are no objections when he returns it to the platter.

Rowdy soccer fans down beers and crash into one another as a Chinese woman wanders through the bar with roses for sale. The frenetic counterside companions continue to scream in their earnest silence.

“I’m full,” declares Rolando, smiling. “I’m fulfilled. I’m realized.”

Susana puts her arm around him and gives him a peck on the cheek.

The rest of us kick back in the greasy afterglow of their feeding fienzy, staring at the plateful of gnawed bones and oily napkins before us. Only one eye—the sheep’s—stares back. Rocío begins to yawn off as José reaches over and kisses her. She lights up a cigarette.

The younger, puritanical me would have shuddered at the sight. But years in Spain have transformed me. This herbivore was party to sexual bonding over body parts—if only in a voyeuristic sense—and savored every minute of it. The new me savors the tortilla española with sensual twists of the tongue and finds his petite mort in a plate of patatas bravas. I still don’t need a sheep’s brain to keep me warm at night, but maybe it’s only a matter of time.

I ask Susana if she’ll be able to kiss Luis after all this.

“I’ll have to think twice about it,” she warns.

I remind her of the tiny ceramic sign at Nely’s: “Neither in bed nor at the table is there room for shame.”

Copyright by Brett Allan King and/or publication in which story first appeared
Do not reprint without permission

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