After I decided to study abroad in Spain, I became nervous about what I was getting myself into when it came to the diet I would have to adapt to. At the time, I had been a lacto-ovo-vegetarian for over five years, and I was not at all prepared to eat meat again. With Spain being known for their high consumption of meat, primarily consisting of ham, I was worried that I would be pressured to eat meat again. The many stories of people losing faith in their vegetarian regime while traveling or living in Europe didn’t help to ease my stomach.
On my application I noted that I was a vegetarian, and I was placed with a family who would accommodate my dietary preferences. Accommodate? Well… my Spanish mom tried. When I first arrived, she took me for a walk around the city of Oviedo, which I was soon to fall in love with. We stopped in a café for a small bite to eat; mi madre Española ordered me a vegetarian tortilla patata (a Spanish omelet that includes potatoes and occasionally ham). It was my first encounter with the dish, which would come to be one of my main staples while in Spain (not that I am complaining!). During our meal she asked me which types of fruits and vegetables I enjoyed and which ones I didn’t. She was genuinely concerned about what she was going to be feeding me for the coming months. It was obvious she was not completely convinced that a meat-free diet was a healthy one. She had housed vegetarian students in the past, one of whom I spoke to. This previous student told me that during her time in Spain, she began eating meat again because my newfound mother was not the best at understanding vegetarian needs.
Despite what the other student told me, I found that for my duration in Spain the food that my mom cooked for me would meet if not surpass my already low expectations of vegetarian cuisine in Spain. Mi madre Española cooked vegetarian meals for me that were tasty, yet often times lacking proteins that I should have had. The meals were repetitive, the most frequent dish being toast with melted cheese on it. Any variance occurred with an egg or some extra vegetables. More than a month into my program, she asked me if I was really okay not eating meat. I chuckled a little and confirmed that I was happy without meat – I had been doing this for years, I wasn’t going to quit at that moment. Although we have differences in our preferences, my mom was an amazing cook. She even taught me some dishes that I still cook today, but the idea of vegetarianism to a Spaniard is foreign and comes with much hesitance and confusion.
Although my meals in my Spanish home were mundane, at least they were veggie-friendly. On the other hand, it was nearly impossible to go anywhere in Oviedo for a meal and expect something without meat. At a café, I would hope to order tortilla patata, but the one meal that was commonly vegetarian was often times tainted with ham. Café would have to suffice when I was out with friends. I did try to venture out and try a nice sit down restaurant called Tierra Astur (a well known eatery that served local foods from the province of Asturias). I was greeted with a menu that above all consisted of meat. The one item on the menu, besides dessert, that I could order was a cheese plate…so it was cheese for me, and it was amazing! It was amazing, yet it was not a full meal like the others were enjoying. I didn’t let that ruin my time at the restaurant though, the atmosphere was warm and friendly, and of course the meal was accompanied by sídra (the local drink of choice, cider).
The culture surrounding meat not only differed in its consumption, but in its presentation as well. As I walked by meat stores, it was hard not to stare at the full, skinned rabbits and chicken heads with beaks still attached that they had displayed in their windows. From an American’s perspective of distancing themselves from the grotesquery of raw meat, it was a surprise to see full animal carcasses for sale to bring home for consumption. In the grocery stores, it was standard to see infinite amounts of ham legs hanging lifelessly in the fresh foods section ready to be served as a main dish in one of the many carnivorous families. In many homes, it is custom to keep a special tool that holds a leg of ham (bone and all) horizontally atop the kitchen counter or table. The ham is cured, so it is able to be left out on the counter in plain view as the ham is shaved off for consumption over the week’s time. Luckily mi madre Española didn’t keep one in our home.
Although the Spanish view of meat is much different from what I was accustomed to, I was able to understand the culture behind it. I accepted the meat hanging in the stores for the whole world to see, and the lack of veggie-friendly options at my local cafés. If I ever do decide to eat meat again, I know I will have to try the jámon (ham) that the Spaniards boast of so often.