Paloma Díaz-Mas (Madrid, 1954) has built one of the most original works of recent literature in Spanish, all of it published in Anagrama. After historical novels or, better said, they play with history as The dream of venice or The abduction of the Holy Grail; autobiographical stories like What we forget or Like a closed book or the essay What we learn from cats, just published The bread that I eat, an original story where, through food (specifically a stew), he reconstructs both his personal memory and the history of Spain. In addition to a writer, Díaz-Mas, who resides in Vitoria, has been a university professor and researcher at the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), specialized in oral literature and in the lost world of the Sephardim. This interview was conducted by videoconference.
Question. How did the idea of telling the history of Spain and also your own personal history come about through something as everyday as a stew?
Reply. My intention was not to tell the history of Spain, nor my own biography, but to make a reflection taking food as a common thread, because it has many cultural implications. The idea was to also reflect on the process that makes the food reach our table. I don’t know the truth how I got to that Japanese idea of itadakimash, which is the word that is said before eating, as thanks to the food itself and to the people who have made it possible for it to come to the table. It gave me the opportunity to raise the whole question of the process and of all the people who intervene until the food reaches us.
P. María Ángeles Pérez Samper published a book not long ago, Eat and drink, in which he explained that Spanish cuisine is a summary of all the civilizations that have passed through Spain or through which Spain has passed. Do you agree?
R. I think it happens with all kitchens. Gastronomy or eating habits are the result of a series of influences over time. That can be said of any country, region, city, human group … To trace these influences a bit is also to trace our origins. The kitchen is a series of accumulated knowledge, of things that are incorporated. How we eat is the consequence of processes and influences.
P. Their book starts with a Japanese word and one thing in which Spain and Japan, like Italy or France, are similar is that they take food very seriously. Are you interested in countries that do not care what they eat?
R. Gastronomy is the product of a mentality and we are more akin to cultures that pay attention to what they eat, the quality of the ingredients, their variety, that kind of thing. I would not say that I am more or less interested in them, but I would say that this attention to the variety of food and what is called taking food seriously also indicates a related mentality. Countries that take gastronomy seriously can better understand each other. Countries that take food less seriously go very practical, productive. That attention to food also has a component of knowing how to enjoy life, of turning something that is necessary into a pleasure.
P. Do you think that old traditions of Spanish recipes are being lost, that the transmission of the spoon culture of the Mediterranean diet has been broken?
R. It would be a huge loss for our own culture, but above all for health. Two things come together. On the one hand, a certain loss of cultural tradition and standardization of culture in general, which also includes culinary culture. Junk food, ready meals, all that world of standardization, which allows you to eat the same in the United States or Japan. Then there is another element that has contributed to that: poor working conditions. When the hours are abusive and lengthy, when people need two or three hours a day of public transport to get to and from work, in addition to an eight-hour workday, those kinds of things have caused a lot of tradition to be lost. to stew. Also due to reconciliation problems. It is not that people have given up for not making spoon dishes, it is that they neither have time nor opportunity, because their work obligations prevent them from reconciling. This also influences your health. There has never been so much obesity in Spain.
P. In his book, he talks about how our relationship with bread has changed, from the industrial pistol of the 1970s to the 300 types of bread currently offered in any bakery. Do you think there has to be a middle ground?
R. I prefer that there are 300 types of bread than there is only the gun. There is also a problem: delicious sourdough breads are more expensive than industrial breads. It is important that there is some accessibility to good quality products. There was a time when it seemed that the artisan bread, of higher quality, was going to disappear because all the breads that they sold you in the stores looked like cardboard. That interest in eating higher quality breads has been recovered.
R. Does the relationship with bread reflect a profound change in society, because in Spain, for example, it is no longer the basis of food?
P. When I was little, the relationship with bread was different from that of the previous generation, for example. It is true that there is a fundamental change: in traditional societies bread was the basis of food and food was fundamentally bread with something. Instead, now you eat something and if anything bread.
P. Does food have to do with the sacred?
R. In all cultures there are dietary patterns marked by religion. In Christianity there has been this kind of sacralization of bread and wine, in other cultures it may be the prohibition to eat some animals or not to mix certain things. All religions have had a culinary element. That makes a lot of people’s minds. Food is a fundamental element in life and religions tend to organize and direct the lives of the faithful who follow that religion. One of the elements in which they have to channel is what is eaten, what can be eaten, what foods are sacred or have high regard.
P. Is cooking always an act of love as you affirm at the end of your book?
R. We cook to share. People who live alone have a hard time cooking. Cooking for just one is a pain, it’s too boring, too much effort for so little result. People who live alone end up buying prepared food. We tend to eat accompanied and share food. Convivium it was as a banquet was called in Latin and that’s where the word coexistence comes from. Those who live together are those who eat together fundamentally. Eating is an act of coexistence.