Emily and I had reached the end of our time in Spain, which included our week in La Alberca, a weekend in Barcelona, and a couple scattered days in Madrid.
Monday, after our wild Sunday night in Barcelona, we had to catch an early flight back to Madrid. In the morning’s haze light, the city looked a little rough. The party had clearly gone on late, and now as we hustled our way through the alleys and squares, we were practically the only ones awake. Well, there was at least one other early riser.
Our flight lasted just over an hour. After dropping off our bags in our third hostel in four days, we set off to meet up with Tim, a new friend from Pueblo Ingles.
During my final one-on-one conversation with a Spaniard at La Alberca, I had been informed that, while the food during the week had been good, if I wanted to experience a truly authentic Spanish meal, I had to try “cocido.” I, of course, wanted to try authentic Spanish cuisine, so I asked her where to get it. She gave me the names of a couple of restaurants that served the best cocido, one in Barcelona and one in Madrid. I asked her what it was and she tried to explain in her improved but still developing English. I understood it involved meat, vegetables, and a broth.
“So, it’s like a stew?” I asked.
“Uh, sort of.”
(In retrospect, all I can think of is the “What’s tequila” scene from The Three Amigos.)
Having convinced Emily we needed to try this (though she had lived in Spain for a semester during college, she had never experienced this particular culinary treat), and already planning to meet Tim for lunch, we agreed to eat at Malacatín, a restaurante in the Embajadores ward of central Madrid, about a ten minute walk south of the Sol Metro stop.
Tim was waiting outside when we arrived, so together we entered Malacatín. One row of booths on the right and a bar/counter on the left allowed a narrow passageway to an only slightly less narrow dining area with a smattering of tables. A waitress greeted us with an uneasy smile, likely already anticipating how our meal would progress. We asked for a table and she sat us in the booth nearest the door, Emily and Tim sitting across from me.
Since it had been my idea and I kind of knew what I wanted, I let the waitress know we didn’t need her menus, we’d be sharing the cocido. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that Tim was vegetarian and so the vaguely understood “meat meal” we were about to partake in wasn’t going to work for him. He took a menu. Emily and I were to share this experience on our own.
The first course of what would turn out to be three arrived almost before we had time to settle in. Delivered in a large silver bowl set in the center of table, the hot broth was served with a heap of garbanzo beans and onions. Emily and I ladled out what turned to be a pork-based broth into our own bowls and then each tried a sip. It was savory, delicious. Mixing in the beans and onions, we ate our unadorned soup while Tim waited for his meal that, because it had to be prepared separately, took longer to arrive.
After ten minutes of slurping garbanzo soup,the waitress returned with the next course, heaping helpings of cooked vegetables and potatoes and something that looked like Carmex pressed into a gelatin mold. No one touched it.
We didn’t know whether the vegetables were intended to be eaten separately or tossed into the broth, but it seemed like it made the most sense to mix it all together. I felt self-consciously like a tourist – as, of course, we were – but so far the meal was enjoyable. Our table nearly overflowed already and the third course hadn’t even arrived yet. We tried to consolidate as much food onto one plate as possible in preparation for the final course.
When the waitress returned, she had the – and no other name could do it justice – Meat Course, laid out on two large plates. The first held an assortment, including brisket, chorizo, and pigs feet, while the other offered baked chicken and the leathery, furry visage of a pig. Wilbur’s head had been set on our table, its face staring at Emily and Tim, while I stared at the the gaping opening of its former neck, a bone jutting unhappily at me.
The head was roughly the size of a soccer ball and still sported eyebrows and hair on its chinny-chin-chin. The eyes had been removed but otherwise the face was intact, staring accustorily at a table of Anglos who were in over their… um, head.
Emily’s expression morphed into pure disgust as she faced the full brunt of the pig’s gray visage. With stomach turning, Emily’s appetite vanished and her meal was abruptly over. She spun the face away so now our lunch stared at me. For his part, Tim sported a mix of horror and bemusement at the introduction of our newest guest, his unadorned vegetarian option suddenly looking like a fine feast.
More than anything, I felt embarrassment. This had been my idea and I was trying to project a stoic acceptance, but something about the blackness and coarseness of the pig’s hair was unaccountably disconcerting. I was ready to call it quits, too, but I felt as though someone had to make at least a small dent in the mounds of meat or it would be highly disrespectful.
Reaching around the pig’s head, I tried some of the brisket (good) and the baked chicken (bland) but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. We had to make our exit.
Emily stepped outside, ostensibly to make a call, but mostly to get some air, leaving Tim and I to close out our bill. I debated asking the waitress to wrap up the leftovers – we could gift the food to someone on the street, maybe? (Imagine being the person who opened up the bag to find a head looking up at you.)
We sat indecisively for about five minutes until Tim noticed another table finishing their meal and getting ready to leave. They had also ordered the cocido and were now parting with a largely untouched meal. Feeling reassured that it wasn’t unforgivably rude to leave behind an embankment of meat (or, at least, we weren’t the only rude ones), we requested our bill.
We paid for our meal, assuring the waitress that we were absolutely stuffed, and walked back out into the sunny, porkless afternoon.
Look, I admit it, a heartier person than me would have at least tried the head. Good on them. I get wanting to try new things, and I can certainly appreciate doing something just for the crazy story… but I still got a story and I didn’t have to evacuate my stomach on the street.
I’m not sure there’s a moral to this story, other than don’t be my friend, but that’s the moral to all my stories. I’ll say this, though, the next time someone recommends I try an authentic meal, I’ll do a quick Google search first.