|Paella is Somethin' Else|
|For my money nothing beats a heaping plate of paella. You lean out over mounds of mussels and chorizo and lobster parts, all semi-hidden by a steaming blanket of saffron rice, and you get a salty, exotic sauna that reddens your face and assaults your sinuses with the aroma of a thousand years of Mediterranean paradise. Though I've downed dozens of such meals over the years, I remember my first plateful of paella more vividly than last night's macaroni.|
During the first three weeks of '81, I used time off from college to kick around Spain with my sister Laura. She met me at the airport the day of New Year's Eve and we took the shuttle in to town to find a pension and a place to eat. The restaurant we settled on was a few years past elegant, with musty red velvet drapes, faintly stained napkins and a table whose severe wobble required a two-matchbook shim to balance it. Having slept through most of high school Spanish, I let my sister do the talking. (My Spanish teacher's name was Mr. Eldred though, behind his back, everyone called him "El Dread.") Laura had a boyfriend from Argentina for awhile and, in her case, Spanish was definitely a romance language. On my behalf she asked the waiter about a dish on the menu whose description, in large gilded ink, took up much of the page. I don't remember what he said, but I ordered it anyway. After a long delay the food finally came in a flourish as the waiter delivered an immense skillet brimming with rich yellows and reds and blacks that were easily the most vibrant colors in the place. Heads turned as it was rolled to the table. It was as if a giant, flaming birthday cake had been delivered and I was the guest of honor. Soon several waiters busily set to spooning out portions of the bounty onto the plate before me. They served up more and more, but the skillet never seemed to empty. It was bottomless. It was thrilling.
That meal was a revelation. So was the fact that while I was entranced with my food, the head waiter was doing some serious flirting with my sister. As midnight approached, the fellow informed us of the Spanish custom that shortly would have stranger kissing stranger and everyone drinking in a common cheer to the New Year. I figured it was just a line from a creative make-out artist, but it turned out to be true. A few minutes before the big huzzah the restaurant staff handed each patron twelve grapes which we were to eat -- one with each chime of the clock -- leading up to the big moment. Of course the clock struck too quickly to down all twelve morsels, leaving each of us with the juice and bits of partially eaten grapes streaming down our faces. Smooching a stranger in that condition would have been harder if the wine hadn't started flowing much earlier in the evening. The celebration lasted an hour or so and then the waiter, who never did kiss my sister, brought the check and the night was over. It was one hell of a way to start the trip.
After a few less eventful days in Madrid, we traveled the next two weeks in a wide loop, heading north to Barcelona, back down to Valencia, then across and further south to Andalusia. In between our visits to churches and museums, I spent as much time as I could searching for records. Toward the end of the trip I had amassed a stack of fifty or so. They were mostly jazz LPs, although I did score two copies of the Stones' Sticky Fingers with the banned cover. That's the one featuring the woman's hand rising up out of a can of treacle. One of my favorite finds was a Spanish release of Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else with Miles Davis on Blue Note. I'd recently been going nuts buying up Blue Note reissues in the States, but this was one album I'd never seen before. With only a few days remaining, Laura and I decided to check out the Costa del Sol and hopped a bus for Marabella. When we got there we did what we always did when we got to a new place and that was ask where we could get the best paella in town. The ticket vendor in the bus station chuckled and admitted that he, too, had a practically religious devotion to the stuff. After an animated conversation (Laura translated, I rubbed my belly and he roared with laughter), Laura and I headed out to the beach for an early siesta before searching out the recommended restaurant. We were walking along when, suddenly, I realized I had left all my records on the bus. I felt sick. Three weeks of prime vinyl hunting wasted, washed away in the groggy moments at the end of a long bus ride. We ran back to the station and Laura explained what happened to the ticket man. He placed a quick call and then assured us the records would be put on a returning bus and back in my hands in few hours. Later that night I couldn't decide which I was happier to see, another plate of paella or that Cannonball Adderley record.
I've always found it peculiar how the sense of smell can trigger memory. A roasting hot dog takes you to Coney Island, the smell of worms in the sun after the rain stops transports you back to the old neighborhood. On rare occasions, it's possible for the reverse to happen, too. I still have most of the records I got on that trip to Spain. Whenever I play one on the radio the strangest thing happens. I could swear the studio fills up with the heady aroma of a huge, steaming skillet of paella.