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.