Facing Down the Ultimate Food Phobia
The first time I ate pig face was at a bar in Cuenca. This was more than a dozen years ago, and I was in the Spanish town, about a two-hour drive east of Madrid, with my friend Leah. We were graduate students then, both at the tail end of our twenties and living off of fellowships as we finished our dissertation research. The weekend trip was an antidote to all those hours in dark archives.
We spent the morning walking in the lavender-covered hills outside of town and gasping at the houses that dangled perilously over Cuenca’s twin gorges. But by afternoon, the weather had turned rainy and cold. And so we did what any Spaniard would do. We went to a bar—or, rather, to several of them.
In the first we ordered coffee, and then, when it seemed sufficiently late, we switched to wine. In each place, we enjoyed the peculiar attention—a kind of collectively heightened awareness—that attaches to two foreign women in a Spanish bar. We acted, of course, as if we weren’t aware of it. This was not false modesty, but something even more treacherous: the desire, not uncommon among callow travelers, to prove that we belonged.
As afternoon turned into evening, Leah and I laughed in the way we had seen Spanish girls laugh, wrapped long scarves around our necks in the same carefully disheveled loops as they did and taught each other the two Spanish card games we knew. We exchanged stories about village festivals we’d attended, and the Spaniards who had told us we “weren’t like other Americans.” It was a rivalry, in other words, subtle but critical: Which of us was more Spanish?
At last it was dinnertime, and we moved to a bar that specialized in grilled meats. Wedging ourselves at the counter, we shouted for chorizo. A handsome bartender served it, flirting all the while. We asked him what we should order next, and he told us to try the careta. Careta? Neither of us knew the word. The bartender made a circling motion around his face, and we must have blanched a little bit. “Really, it’s good,” he said reassuringly. How could we refuse? A crowded bar, an attractive bartender, that competitive tension running between the two of us. So much was at stake.
When it comes to identity, food is like a foreign accent: it always betrays your origins. Leah and I might have mastered the imperceptible wrist flick that opens a fan; we might have been able to discourse knowledgeably on the subtle cultural references of Pedro Almodóvar films; we might have been able to curse like Spanish sailors. But when it came to food—pig’s feet and razor clams and blood sausage and that potato salad that oozes mayonnaise—there was a lot of Spain we couldn’t stomach. Whenever we ate out at restaurants that year, we inevitably chose Italian or Chinese or Indian, not because those ethnicities were ours, but because they felt, even in their weird Spanish incarnations, more ours than the local options. And for all the churros and jamón and potato omelets we did eat that year, the foods that got us really excited, the foods we craved and begged visitors to bring and celebrated whenever we found reasonable facsimiles, were muffins and pizza and bagels and, please, just once, a decent burger.
And so, when the bartender in Cuenca set the plate before us and we beheld a huge pig mask—with holes where the eyes and snout used to be, and glistening pockets of fat beneath the cheeks—Leah and I were instantly and irrevocably converted back to what we really were: Americans. We wanted to eat it, or at least wanted to be able to say we had. Yet one tentative bite revealed grease, and gristle, and—ick—a few charred, bristly hairs. We each choked down a mouthful, then pushed the rest away. “You don’t like it?” asked the bartender, sincerely surprised. Defeated, we admitted that we did not, and slunk out of the bar. Do I have to say it? We stopped for pizza on the way back to the hotel.
The second time I ate pig face was at an ambitious restaurant in Cáceres. This was just six months ago, and I had been living in Spain, permanently, for about four years. The story of how that came to be is long, but it fits within the contours of the usual expat saga: a change in careers, a search for happiness.
The restaurant was Atrio, the only one in the otherwise austere region of Extremadura, in western Spain, to hold two Michelin stars. My dinner companion was Dan Barber, chef of New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, who was visiting the region to meet a foie gras producer. Dan didn’t know much about Spain, but he was, of course, well versed in food. And so our conversation that night felt like a very pleasant cultural exchange, with me explaining the history behind the local cheese, Torta del Casar, and him telling me why the wine we were served with it was such a terrible match. I translated the menu for him, working my way down through thistly vegetables and cuts of meat that don’t exist in America. And there it was: careta. “We’re definitely having that,” Dan said.
I ordered it blithely. What had changed? It wasn’t that, in the interim, I had eaten a lot more face—in fact, the memory of that greasy mask had led me to avoid it on all but one unfortunate occasion, when the aspect in question belonged to a sheep. Nor was it just that I had decided to become a more adventuresome eater. Any expansion to the list of foods I happily consume had coincided with my living in Spain, so the change felt almost imperceptible. It was the same evolutionary process that led me to realize one day that I had stopped translating things in my head, that I could understand the background conversations swirling around me without actively making an effort.
When it came time to order that night, it no longer occurred to me to feel squeamish. Face had become just one more thing to eat. And indeed, the pig face Dan and I ate that night at Atrio was delicious. The chef, Toño Pérez, had pressed it into a disk roughly the size and thickness of a chocolate chip cookie. Fried until it was golden brown and crunchy, it tasted deeply of Iberian pig. We called it “face bacon,” and laughed as we ate it.
The last time I ate pig face was a few weeks ago. I was back in the U.S., visiting family in New York. A few unhappy events had recently caused me, for the first time since I had moved, to seriously consider leaving Spain. The prospect made me deeply sad, feeling as it did like loss. In Spain I had become someone new, and returning, I feared, would mean losing that person.
As I sat at the bar at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a waiter set a small, slotted block in front of me. Fitted into the grooves were three disks, each the diameter of a cookie, but thin to the point of laciness. “We call this ‘face bacon,’ ” explained the waiter earnestly. I burst out laughing. “Of course you do,” I said.
Blue Hill’s translation of Atrio’s pig face was crisp and delicate, and it tasted not of olive oil and ibérico but of the richest, most delicious American bacon. Eating it, I felt the sadness that had engulfed me over the last few months lift a little. In flavor, in appearance, in texture, there was nothing Spanish about Dan’s face bacon. But I knew. I knew where it had come from.
Lisa Abend lives in Madrid and writes for Time and The Christian Science Monitor. Before becoming a journalist, she was a professor of Spanish history.