5th Jul, 2008

Seeing the world through ham-colored glasses

[For an explanation of what’s going on here, you might read Incognito ergo sum.]

The day I left Albarracín, I was standing at the bus stop, waiting for the bus—and I really mean the bus, as there is only one per day that goes to the provincial capital—when I started chatting with an elderly couple, also waiting for the bus. They were adorable, well dressed and diminutive—I could easily have rested my elbows on their heads, though as you might suspect, this is not considered polite in Spain either—and happy to chat with the loopy foreigner who just won’t leave town. The old man (89 years old, as he announced to me), pointed to some lumpy overhanging rocks protruding from the mountainside, looking a bit like suspended bundles, and said “You know why those are still there?” I politely answered that I did not. “Because they’re not ham!” And he laughed.

Never mind the coatrack, here's the hamrack

Never mind the coatrack,
here’s the hamrack!

This little joke only makes sense (if indeed it can be said to at all) if you know that this region is famous for jamón serrano, the cured ham eaten in endless amounts in Spain. It is the Spanish equivalent of Italian prosciutto, and is much less well-known in the United States, in part because it is illegal to bring it into the country unless you have a special license. Exactly why this is I am not sure, though I suspect it has something to do with the American distrust of food that is not thoroughly cooked and wrapped in plastic. Indeed, jamón (in Albarracín you don’t need to say jamón serrano, because it’s the default ham) can be seen anywhere but in plastic: hanging on walls in restaurants and bodegas, hanging over the bar, lying on the counter in a special ham-slicing brace, even hanging outside a bar as a sign.

I believe that the European habit of displaying dead animals—or large portions thereof—in prominent places like shop windows in order to stimulate the hunger of passersby is one of the things North Americans find most off-putting when they first cross the Atlantic. I have certainly seen many Americans blanch when they see a dead hare or pheasant hanging on a hook. My philosophy is that if you’re going to eat something, you might as well acknowledge where it comes from. Not that most Americans eat pheasant, of course, and not that I have a dead chicken hanging in my living room.

Something for everyone

Something for everyone.

So the ultimate vegetarian’s nightmare must be the Museo del jamón, a chain of restaurants that can be found in the larger cities of Spain. This establishment, the “Museum of Ham”, serves ham in every possible way, and lest the customer fail to understand this, the place is decorated with hundreds of hams hanging in thick curtains everywhere possible, and all the walls are mirrored to boot. The effect is such that a more appropriate name might be “Fun House of Dead Pig Haunches”. Not likely to be a major competitor to Euro Disney, all things considered.

But back to the sierra. Indeed, serrano means “from the mountains”. While talking with my 89-year-old diminutive jokester friend about the area and what a wonderful place it is, I asked whether the Sierra de Albarracín was the sierra after which the ham is named. “Of course!” he said, as any self-respecting individual with a greater sense of regional pride than desire for accuracy would do. I was not fully convinced, but I was happy to be able to share a bit in his love of the place. To be sure, I have spent just under ninety years less in the area, but I understand why he is so happy with it. Pass me the ham-colored glasses!

Responses

The Museum of Ham sounds wonderful. Is there a gift shop?

Will (my hubby) went pheasant hunting once several years ago, and the pheasant was very tasty. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many to be found around here and his dream of a hunting vacation in Kansas just doesn’t have any appeal to me. (Going to Maine this year though for the first time ever.)

Erin, you know, I don’t know if they sell gifts, but it might be a big hit. Imagine a ham umbrella, for example.

Walking around Kansas with a gun doesn’t sound like my idea of a fun vacation either, I must admit. Maine is much nicer in my opinion. In fact, the coast, such as Acadia, looks just like the part of Sweden where we live. So if you go there, you can imagine that you’re visiting Sweden, except your dollars will still have some value there.

One of my enduring memories of my twenty-years-ago (!) visit to Madrid is the Museo del jamón. The sandwiches I purchased from that institution were rather tasty, as best I can recall.

Alex, I’m sure the museum would be pleased by your endorsement. Do you happen to remember what kind of sandwiches they were? Ha ha ha!

I bet you the Museo del Jamon is the reason Kristina doesn’t go to Spain so often.

Though I must say, the French love to put animal fat on everything, including salads. I had a salad the other night that had goat cheese and about a cup of lardons. Kristina mocks New Orleans for not being very vegetarian friendly, but France isn’t either.

Surely the iJam is old news to you, but it seemed appropriate to mention in association with this post: http://ijam.es/

Hey, how about some new posts. What’s up over there?

Ian, thanks for asking. I appreciate it, and I’m happy to say that now you will finally start getting some new posts.

Oh, and the iJam is awesome!

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