Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Pig's Elbow

I was on the lam in Madrid and ducked into a bar for lunch. The place was a sea of cured ham legs hanging from the walls and ceiling.

I used to complain that every American city had the same inventory: Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, Bed Bath & Beyond. It hardly mattered where you lived because every town was the same. I romanticized European cities, where diverse people ate diverse foods prepared in traditional ways. But the thing about an illusion is that it’s an illusion. In Spain, instead of the same companies selling the same thing, you have different companies selling the same thing: every bar and restaurant in the land has a selection of little piggy legs dangling overhead. It’s like sitting down to the table beneath a pork burlesque show. Wow, look at the knees on that one!

This was typical Spanish fare. The "menu del dia" would give me three courses, and this one included a bottle of wine! And not a bad price either.

I made a pass through the list of options. I don’t speak Spanish, but after a year-long course as an undergrad in ‘89, a tour through Europe in ‘93, two summers with Peruvian sheep herders in Idaho (’05 and ’06), and now two plus months in Spain, I can get along just fine.

The first course was easy. The elderly couple seated nearby had chosen the shrimp in a garlic butter sauce, and it looked very fine. I chose that. Then for the second course.

Hmm, I thought, running through the options. I don’t know what this one is. Or that one. The "chuletillas de lechal." Little chops of some sort, with fries. Probably lamb, or maybe pork. A safe choice. But I bet everything was good.

Might as well just pick one, I thought, trying for spontaneity. Perhaps the "codillo estilo Aleman?" Must be German. I’ll have that.

As it turned out, it was German. At least that one word I got right. “Codillo,” I learned later, means “elbow,” so this was a dish of pig’s elbow, German style, with side dishes of boiled potatoes and brussel sprouts. When it arrived, the steaming elbow stood at least eight inches off the surface of the plate, all covered over with a thick layer of hearty boiled fat, which separated and fell away when I touched it with my knife.

Almost everyone can locate a moment when an expectation was not satisfied by reality. If the difference between expectation and reality is extreme, several things happen: a sour emptiness floods into the stomach making you feel queasy and unsociable; time is suspended, and what is likely seconds goes on for days; and the happiness you sat down with drains from your face only to be replaced by a violent surge of heat and blood swirling with regret. This is how I felt when the codillo estilo Aleman appeared in front of me.


  1. So, what was the problem here? Just grab that pig by the elbow and start gnawing away! :)

  2. Looks like pretty healthy eating to me. Didn't your mother teach you better than that?

  3. If only that group of loud Mexicans that went with you on the Green could be there to tell you what it was before ordering!