Why this Iberian Joy of Cooking is likely to disappoint.
The most memorable cab ride I ever took occurred along the mundane route that connects the Madrid airport to the city center. My boyfriend and I had just arrived on a transatlantic flight, and the driver, noting our accents and taking us for first-time visitors, decided to educate us in the pleasures of his native land. The conversation quickly turned to food. Spanish seafood, we were told, was easily the best in the world. The tomatoes? We did not know the tomato until we tasted a Spanish tomato. His voice grew increasingly emotional as he continued. The chorizo! The cheeses! By the time he got to the jamón, he was quivering with zeal. When he dropped us off, there were tears in his eyes.
His passion fits perfectly with today's romanticized vision of Spain, a country whose reputation for flamenco and matadors has only recently expanded to include shellfish and cured meats. Ever since famed Spanish chef Ferran Adrià made it onto the cover of the New York Times Magazinein 2003, the country has been the object of fierce culinary desire. Not just for the high-end stuff for which Adrià is renowned—liquid-nitrogenized raspberries and centrifuged squid ink—but for the quotidian as well: the sturdy housewives who argue over the ripeness of melons, the old men who toss back glasses of red wine with breakfast. We live in a world that fetishizes food, and these days, Spain wears the black leather and stiletto heels.
The publishers at Phaidon hope to capitalize on that craving with an English-language version of the Spanish cookbook 1080 Recetas de Cocina. (This isn't the first time Phaidon has updated a foreign classic. In 2005, it brought forth an English version of "the Bible of Italian Cooking," The Silver Spoon.) Written by French-born Simone Ortega, who married into the family of renowned Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, 1080 Recetas is precisely what its title indicates—a no-nonsense collection of more than 1,000 recipes, with a few helpful hints on menu planning and skinning a chicken leg. First published in 1972, it has sold more than 2 million copies and remains the classic cookbook that most every Spanish family owns—an Iberian Joy of Cooking.
Phaidon's English version is handsome. Updated by Ortega and her daughter, Inés Ortega, it is a fat, hard-covered volume—indeed biblical in its proportions—with whimsical illustrations by Barcelona designer Javier Mariscal. The book offers a comprehensive introduction to favorites of the Spanish table (gazpacho, paella) and to less celebrated delicacies (stewed tripe, fried eggs). Still, I suspect that many readers will be disappointed.
The problem is not with the recipes themselves, which, for the most part, retain the clarity of the original. The problem is that 1080 Recetas does not lend itself easily to fetishization. The book is the definition of pragmatic: Its numbered recipes are directed at a beginning cook who is concerned with keeping costs down and perhaps a little overwhelmed at the prospect of getting three meals a day on the table. To that Spanish woman, Ortega's voice—calm, clear, and only rarely given extravagant adjectives like "delicious"— must have been comforting. How else to explain recipe No. 10 for tuna canapés?: "Drain a can of tuna in a bowl; mash with a fork; stir in the mayonnaise; spread mixture on bread."
In Spanish, 1080 Recetas embodies the simple, thrifty ethos of an author who was, after all, writing in the waning years of the Franco dictatorship. It was published only in paperback and has never, until 1080 Recipes, had photographs—only the occasional ink drawing or butchering diagram. Ortega writes that she tries to avoid the "bombastic" names often attached to regional dishes—the Nun's Sighs and Stop-a-Mule—in favor of straightforward ingredient lists. On the rare occasion when a whimsical title does slip in, it goes unexplained. But don't you want to know why chunks of fried cod are called Little Soldiers of Pavia? Of course you do: Fetish feeds on the charming detail. (It's because they take on the color of the uniforms worn by the Spanish soldiers who won the battle of Pavia in 1525.)
Ortega's intention was not to write a Spanish cookbook so much as a book for Spanish cooks. Some of the recipes betray her French origins—there's lots of cream—and others come from that bland netherworld known as "continental" cuisine. She is not above using precooked pasta in her cannelloni (though she draws the line, in Spanish if not in English, at store-bought tomato sauce), and she insists on canned peas for her paella. Never once do the words extra-virgin modify her olive oil. The monthly menu planner that appears in the Spanish version features suggestions for dinner (an example from January: Brussels sprouts in béchamel; cold cuts; apple compote) that are neither particularly Spanish nor, for that matter, particularly good. This is not, in other words, Anya von Bremzen's gorgeously photographed and exuberantly researched New Spanish Table or Penelope Casa's lyrically written, regionally based Delicioso!
Plus, there is the problem of adapting the book for English-speaking audiences. In the interest of protecting tender American sensibilities, the new version tames some of the earthier passages. The section called "Variety Meats" still has recipes for calf heart and lamb testicles (and includes the best drawings of the book—disembodied tongues, peeled sheep's skulls). But if the book refuses to bow to the squeamish, it is less brave when it comes to the moralizing. The note that accompanies the recipe for liquor-spiked Fried Bows—"especially appropriate for children's afternoon snack"—has disappeared in 1080 Recipes. A few beloved recipes from the Spanish version, like chicken with garlic (pollo al ajillo), are missing. Instead there is a recipe for chicken quesadillas, the culinary equivalent of the Mexican sombreros sold in Córdoba souvenir shops. In the Spanish version, there is only one kind of snail, and it is the kind that my neighbors in Asturias pull from the cemetery walls and tote home in plastic shopping bags. (The same kind, incidentally, that I once spied attempting a mass escape from a pair of large pots sitting on the stovetop at Adrià's El Bulli. Live, in other words.) The English translation helpfully offers instructions for cooking canned or frozen snails, just as it conscientiously includes hints for killing a lobster without hurting the animal. As if a country that spears bulls for sport cares about a crustacean's pain.
1080 Recipes is authentic—it shows you (definitely in the Spanish version, somewhat less in the English one) how to cook what Spaniards really eat, down to the dreadful canned peas in their paellas. That authenticity, however, is not the same authenticity of foodie fantasy. Aware perhaps that recipes for Brussels sprouts in béchamel may not be exactly what American gourmands, fresh from the forums of Egullet and eating tours of the Basque Country, crave, Phaidon includes a special chapter of complicated recipes from big-name chefs like Santi Santamaría. Yet it feels a bit forced. After all, you can dress a melon-thumping señora in corsets and heels, but you can't change that what she really craves is a good tuna canapé.
Lisa Abend is a freelance writer based in Madrid, Spain.