Spanish Food Idioms


For fans of 17th century literature April 2016 is a seminal month, for it marks 400 years since the death of two literary giants: William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. Although it is commonly thought that both men died on the same day (April 23, 1616), Spain and England used different calendars at the time (Gregorian and Julian, respectively), so the two men’s deaths were actually 11 days apart. Still, the coincidence is striking.

In honor of this anniversary, today’s post looks at a Spanish food idiom that was famously used by Cervantes in his classic work, Don Quixote. This 17th century novel, considered by many in the know to be one of the greatest works of fiction of all times, follows the tragicomic quest of a nobleman steeped in knightly romances to revive chivalry in what he sees as a depraved world.

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

Literal and Figurative Meaning

En todas partes cuecen habas literally translates as “they cook beans everywhere.”*

Yet figuratively, this expression means that everyone, everywhere has problems, no matter what their circumstances. In other words, “it’s the same the world over.”

Why beans? And why habas (fava beans) in particular? In the past, and certainly in Cervantes’ lifetime, fava beans and other such legumes were a major component of poor people’s diets in Spain because they were inexpensive and easy to find. The act of cooking beans like favas thus had negative connotations, representing hardship and the daily grind.

*As translated by Edith Grossman in her contemporary English version of Don Quixote (Second Part, Chapter XIII, page 536).

In context

Today’s expression and similar variations are commonly used in the Spanish-speaking world, often by journalists and politicians in the context of corruption. Just look on Google. En todas partes cuecen habas = there is corruption everywhere.

I liked the contexts given in this article in the Spanish daily El País: “This saying comes in handy when you go abroad and see something that could happen in Spain. For example, when you see a story of corruption on TV, when someone tries to cut ahead of you in line while you’re waiting to enter a cathedral, and, of course, when someone cooks a stew with beans.”

Yet it was Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s faithful “squire,” who uttered perhaps the most famous version in a comical conversation with another squire about the ins and outs of their jobs and masters:  “en todas casas cuecen habas; y en la mía, a calderadas,” which literally translates as, “they cook beans everywhere, but in my house they do it by the potful.”

In the second part of  the expression, “in my house they do it by the potful,” Panza is of course claiming that his house has more problems than the rest.

Shakespeare, a master of universal truths, would certainly have found good use for today’s expression.

To conclude

Besides having died on nearly the same day and (purportedly) penned some of the most influential works of literature in history, Cervantes and Shakespeare share other commonalities. For example, due to gaps in their biographies, both men are infinite sources of debate and speculation. There are even theories that hold that Francis Bacon was the real author of both men’s works.

Theories aside, the genius of Don Quixote and Shakespeare’s plays is undeniable.

Such works are like an “open sesame” into the culture and language in which they were written. Just check out this list of 45 Everyday Phrases Coined by Shakespeare in the English language, and consider the Bard’s ongoing influence on popular culture.

Can we survive without knowing such cultural references? Of course. But in my perspective, life is much richer when we can recognize these connections to the past.

Shakespeare and Cervantes may be long gone, but we can rest assured that wherever we look there will always be a pot of beans on the fire.

6 Ceremony in the Totana Town Hall - Rice

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

Today’s expression: contigo, pan y cebolla

Literal and Figurative Meaning:

“Contigo, pan y cebolla” literally means, “With you, bread and onions.” Figuratively, this is an expression of love and commitment despite hardship, a promise of fidelity come what may. The connotations are largely economic, i.e., with the most basic (and inexpensive) needs in life we can stick it out. In a larger sense, the bread and onions also represent the sweet and bitter experiences in life.

These four simple words in Spanish convey the same idea as the classic marriage vows in English, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer.” To use another English expression, “contigo pan y cebolla” is a promise to stick together “through thick and thin.”

The blog title – why “Bread and Onions”?

I have named this blog “Bread and Onions” for several reasons. The title of course in part pays tribute to the reason I live in Spain: my marriage to a Spaniard.

Beyond the marriage context, I also see this expression as a metaphor for the ups and downs of our daily lives. No matter where we call home, life will always have its sweet bread and its bitter onions, its experiences to savor and to overcome together with family and friends.

Here I share anecdotes and recipes, mostly from Spain, but also from the other places I have lived and traveled. These stories are my bread and my onions.

In (a personal) context:

Tying the knot in Spain

I got married in Spain in April, 2013 in a sweet little ceremony in a small town in the Region of Murcia. Neither my husband nor I wanted a big wedding, so we hardly planned at all. The idea was to sign the papers on “the big day” and then gather our friends for a party a couple of weeks later. I wasn’t expecting anything else.

I was just happy we finally had a date. When I think back to our wedding, one of the things I most remember is the seemingly interminable waiting. We handed in our marriage application in September, 2012, and I thought we would be married by Christmas, but in the end it took seven long months with almost no news before were finally approved.

Why did it take so long? There are certain questions we will never have the answer to. As we waited, I often imagined our file collecting dust somewhere deep in the bowels of the Civil Registry. I fantasized about flying to Las Vegas, and I had frequent conversations in my head with the judge in charge of our case, a conservative and curmudgeonly man on the verge of retirement with a reputation for making decisions based on his personal beliefs. “Who are you to tell me if I can or can’t get married?” I would ask defiantly. No answer.

The fact I am a foreigner added an extra layer of paperwork to the process, which would have been quicker for two Spaniards or had we married through the Church, despite the fact that Spain is a secular state. At our “first appearance” before the judge in February, my husband and I had to prove we were not marrying for convenience by filling out questionnaires about each other’s families, work, hobbies and favorite foods. I imagined the judge poring over our answers with a red pen in hand, looking for any discrepancies that would send me back to America.

Our answers must have been convincing enough, however, because we finally got the go ahead in April. By this time, my residency permit had expired and Mateo was on his way, so we needed to set a date quickly. Had we wanted to get married in the city of Murcia (where civil marriages are only performed on Fridays), we would have had to wait until October, over one year after we’d handed in our application.

Luckily we had enchufe (connections), one of the best ways to speed up the Spanish bureaucratic machine. My husband’s boss, a member of the town council in a nearby village, helped push our papers through and got us a date on the following Monday in his village’s town hall, where he himself would preside.

The event that emerged spontaneously thanks to the contributions of friends and family was touching and nearly perfect. (It would have been even better had my family and friends from the States been there, too. This was the biggest downside of not planning ahead….)

My friend Paqui called the day before the wedding to insist that I get dressed at her house, that she had the bouquet thought out and that I was not under any circumstances to go to the wedding in the same car with my husband-to-be. She also brought flower petals and rice to throw once we were man and wife. I hadn’t even thought of such details, which sounded a little silly to me at first, but in the end I appreciated the added bit of ceremony and tradition, making me feel more like a bride on the big day. We weren’t just signing any old papers after all, we were getting married! After so many months of feeling like my wedding was trapped in the papers in someone else’s hands, I needed to make the day more personal, less of a bureaucratic routine.

My husband’s boss, a natural orator, delivered a speech peppered with philosophy, humor, Kahlil Gibran poetry and cariño (affection). This was far better than a randomly assigned judge in the city going through the motions.

Then came the vows, and the time to say, “I do,” which I first said in English, and then had to repeat in Spanish (Si, acepto) in order for the words to be legally binding. This technicality I didn’t mind.

Si, acepto!

Bring on the bread and onions!

 

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Hello world! I have decided to start back after so much time away with a Spanish food idiom that encapsulates the last few years of my life in which many big, good things have happened, making me feel truly lucky.

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

Today’s expression: nacer con un pan debajo del brazo

I have often heard it said in Spain that “un bebé nace con un pan debajo del brazo” – “a baby is born with a loaf of bread under his arm.” In this day and age, the figurative bread in this expression represents the feelings of good fortune and happiness typically associated with the birth of a new child.

Yet the bread here also has financial connotations, as we can find in certain expressions in English. Another Spanish bread idiom, “Ganarse el pan,” “to earn one’s bread,” means to make a living, as a “breadwinner” does in the English-speaking world. Indeed, today’s idiom is thought to have originated in times when a new child  meant a new source of income or household labor in the family.

In context:

In case you hadn’t guessed yet, I have selected today’s expression because it has special meaning my personal life. Yes, the biggest, luckiest thing that has happened to me since I last wrote has been the birth of my son, Mateo. He was born on Halloween in 2013. Seeing and holding him for the first time, I more fully understood the meaning of the “pan debajo del brazo,” “the bread under the arm,” of a newborn baby.

 

IMG_2244This is one of the first pictures we took of Mateo in the hospital, over two years ago now!

 

Soon after Mateo was born, several friends said to me, often with a wink and a nudge, “A ver si viene con un pan debajo del brazo,” “Let’s see if he has come with bread under his arm.”

These friends were wishing our family well in all realms, yet I got the sense that they were especially wishing us financial luck. Perhaps this would be the year for us to win the Christmas lottery, for example, or, more realistically, for my husband to get a better contract.

For the past several years, you see, we had been living under a cloud of contract-to-contract uncertainty. But the year Mateo was born my husband got a prestigious five-year research position (in Spain, mind you, where good contracts are hard to come by these days). This is just one of the many ways in which we have been lucky since Mateo came into our lives. (more…)

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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!

Introduction to the Spanish Food Idioms Series:

Inspired by the “Edible Idioms” in French series on Clotilde Dusoulier’s blog Chocolate & Zucchini, I have decided to start the New Year with a new a series on food idioms in Spanish. My focus will be on food idioms used in Spain, where I live and where I have been learning the Spanish language. I would love to hear others’ experiences with food idioms in Spain and in different Spanish-speaking countries, as well.

I find idioms in general fascinating, especially as a learner of a foreign language. In my experience, beginning to understand the colloquial expressions of a place is an essential part of feeling more integrated in the culture. Grasping the figurative meaning of the words in an idiomatic expression is like sharing a wink with the speaker – you are on the inside.

I find culinary idioms particularly fascinating (surprise, surprise), and see these expressions as a means to more deeply understand the history, culture and emotions connected with different foods in Spain.

There is of course another leap to take between understanding idioms to actually using them correctly, and the process can lead to some funny mistakes. This series will thus be a (potentially treacherous) adventure into the figurative realm of the Spanish language through idioms involving food.

Let’s dig in!

Today’s expression: con las manos en la masa

Con las manos en la masa

The phrase literally translates as, “with your hands in the dough.” If you catch someone con las manos en la masa, it is similar to catching them “red-handed,” or, to use the culinary equivalent, “with their hands in the cookie jar.” In all cases, someone has been caught in the act of doing something, usually bad to a greater or lesser extent, at least in the context.

“Imagine a baker we surprise at work. Could he deny he was making bread?” asks Alberto Buitrago, professor of Spanish at the University of Salamanca, in his Diccionario de dichos y frases hechas (2009). The proof, as they say, is in the pudding (once you get started, it’s hard to stop…).

As is the case with the equivalent English expressions, con las manos en la masa is often used in the context of crime. For example: “El ladrón fue pillado con las manos en la masa.” “The robber was caught red-handed.”

However, the expression has come full circle and is also frequently used in culinary contexts in Spain, in which it is both literal and figurative at once (though your hands may be literally covered in dough, the figurative connotation that you are up to something is always present). I think of all the times Manolo has surprised me in the act of making yet another batch of buttery cookies, a guilty pleasure, con las manos en la masa.

In an Internet search for different uses of this expression, I came across a popular cooking show called Con las manos en la masa that ran on Spanish Public Television (TVE) between 1984 and 1991 and is considered a forerunner of the genre in Spain.

When I mentioned this cooking series to friends In Spain, several for whom the 1980s were formative years spontaneously started singing the eponymous title song, a rousing ode to traditional Spanish food performed in duet:

 

The woman’s opening line sounds like a confession, largely due to our expression of the day: “Siempre que vuelves a casa / me pillas en la cocina / embadurnada de harina / con las manos en la masa.” “When you return home / you always catch me in the kitchen / covered in flour / con las manos en la masa.” We get the sense that she’s up to something other than just making an ordinary loaf of bread.

This hunch is confirmed in the man’s response, which tells us the woman has been experimenting with nontraditional cuisine, which is a tad unsavory in the context: “Honey, I don’t want refined dishes, I’m coming from work, I don’t feel like Chinese duck. How about some gazpacho, with cucumber and garlic….” It turns out she’s been taking classes at…gasp!… the Cordon Bleu.

This exchange might sound questionable through a feminist perspective, but ultimately, the mood is lighthearted and that craving for tradition speaks to both men and women, which for me comes through in the joined voices of the chorus, an impassioned list of favorite traditional Spanish dishes: “Papas con arroz, bonito con tomate, cochifrito, caldereta, migas con chocolate, cebolleta en vinagreta, morteruelo, lacon con grelos, bacalao al pil-pil y un poquito perejil….” No fancy dishes for us!

All of these references belong to the connotations of the expression con las manos en la masa in Spain today. I am beginning to feel more complicit already.