When I was about eight years old, one of my cousins started helping at home, which meant she’d pick us from school and cook lunch etc. One side of her family came from Castile where the winters are very cold and you have to eat substantial food, so she started introducing us to stout meat and potato stews and other new ingredients that I wasn’t familiar with, which was quite a change from the food I was used to eating.
At the beginning, I was fine with this situation—the food was generally OK and the novelty didn’t bother me excessively. Plus, having her around meant I got to stop being the oldest of the younger people in the household (and thus didn’t have to be The Role Model all the time). And I most definitely loved teasing her teenage vanity; I took a special interest in hiding her cigarettes so she couldn’t smoke 😏
I grew more and more confused as the weather became colder and the novelties more frequent, often after one of her trips to see her parents, who owned an immaculately clean and very well stocked butcher’s shop. She would come back with parcels to be distributed to the extended family, and they would be an assortment of what I thought at the time were extremely weird items.
One time she made sandwiches using a firm but creamy orange cheese that I had never seen before, and me and my school friends spent 10 minutes trying to figure out what it was. Was it pumpkin? Was it some exotic mortadella? Or some other cured meat? (and if so, what?)
But the worst was still to come.
One day, and I remember very well when it was, because it was the day before the Three Wise Men arrive with gifts for us good kids, we were just excitedly preparing for lunch when I started smelling something new.
What was this smell?
It was not pleasant. It was weird. It had that strange scent which I couldn’t quite put into words… But I couldn’t see it yet, as the pressure cooker was still shut.
A few minutes later, the dishes are laid out on the counter, the cooker lid is removed and ladles of a brown pungent stew are poured onto the dishes.
I could identify some potato bits. Some meat. The rest was an agglomeration of some sort of squashed brown things, and the occasional bay leave. And the smell… so strong!
WHAT WAS THAT?!
Well, it was a lentil stew. Lentejas. Made with brown Castillian lentils, which get mushy when they’re cooked, and which looked extremely unappealing.
I refused to eat that. No. I wouldn’t. Absolutely not.
And they responded to me with a popular saying:
Lentejas: si quieres las comes, y si no, las dejasLentils: if you want, you eat them, and if not, you leave them.
I chose not to. I sat on the chair with my arms crossed. Mutiny!
Time passed. My bottom started to hurt sitting on the chair for such a long time. The stew got cold. I did not eat it. The food was taken away.
The problem is… this was an open insurrection which went exactly against the expected behaviour which you’re supposed to follow if you want to obtain gifts: good children are obedient and do as told.
I went to my bedroom and sulked. How unfortunate I was! This was so unfair. Do all the work all year, getting good marks at school and being nice to old people who try to kiss and hug you without consent, and then this! And I could most definitely feel myself getting weaker by the minute.
“This must be what hunger strikers feel”, I thought.
I decided to write a note before passing out. It went something like this:
Dear Three Wise Men:
I have never encountered this dish and the smell of it makes me sick. I am very sorry. I behaved well the rest of the year. Yours faithfully, Soledad”.
I folded the note so the contents would not be readable if you were not the addressee, and wrote on it: “PARA LOS REYES MAGOS” (“For the Three Kings”). I quietly slid open my window, and placed the note on the windowsill, held in place with a plant pot. I closed the window, and sat back on the bed. It was getting dark already and I felt a mix of misery and apathy. It was meant to be a happy day, but there I was…
I slowly determined that I would accept whatever outcome came my way. I was pleased with myself for standing for my principles, but I was still furious with my cousin and her “weird” food choices 😂
I don’t remember if I had dinner that day—I have a vague memory of eating an omelette in the early evening. I don’t remember attending the cabalgata parade either; maybe we saw it at a distance and at an angle, from the balcony; or maybe we didn’t, as a punishment.
Next day when I woke up I cautiously approached the window—the note was gone! What did that mean? Had the magi visited? Had the wind taken it away, despite my precautions to secure a corner under a plant pot? And what about the rest? Would there be… gifts?
My sister had woken up too. So we both put on our dressing gowns and slippers and approached the living room. She was quite confident and at peace with herself because she had eaten the stew, so she was perhaps a little bit less cautious and a lot more at peace with herself.
And… there were gifts!
I felt a bit confused, as I was sort of expecting to not to find anything at all, or maybe just coal instead, as it’s custom when you don’t behave properly. I remember unwrapping the gifts with a mix of guilt and lack of entitlement. Is this really allowed? Did they not know what happened yesterday? Eventually I abandoned myself to the excitement of new construction sets and puzzles.
My cousin made that horrid lentil stews a few more times while she stayed with us, and I refused to eat it in each occasion. I would just eat, at most, the potatoes, which I would patiently dig up with my spoon, carefully removing any attached lentil flesh. Maybe I’d eat the boiled egg, again making sure I did not consume any lentil at all. And all of this while trying to avoid smelling the dish, because it was still way more pungent than I could cope with.
The next year my cousin couldn’t help us so I started having lunch at school. And guess what? They also loved cooking this! And I still hated it. I still couldn’t pinpoint what it was exactly that repelled me. Perhaps the pungent smell of chorizo or whatever meat they used (I did not like chorizo back then, and I just about tolerate it nowadays). Perhaps it was the squashed lentils. Or the way they made the potatoes go grey? Whatever it was, I just did not eat them. Fortunately, the school would serve a starter and a main, so it wasn’t like you would just not eat anything at all. But oh, the accusing sight of the almost untouched lentils in the table!
I kept at this for many, many years. Whenever I thought of lentils, my reaction would be Ewwww, gross, no!
Then, shortly after my 30th birthday, we were hiking in Spain and ended up on a random restaurant for lunch. They had a set menu and I chose a starter called “Timbal de lentejas y salmón”; i.e. a cold dish of lentils and salmon. I don’t even know why I ordered that, as it clearly stated lentejas. Perhaps I was uninterested in the rest of the items in the menu.
Anyway, the dish arrived and I’m presented with a beautiful arrangement of lentils and salmon; the lentils are nicely cooked and still have a bite, the salmon is juicy and full of flavour, and the vinegar based dressing elevates and joins everything together. What was this marvel? Where had it been for the whole of my life, indeed?
I became a convert, there and then!
I don’t even remember what the rest of the menu was. I just remember the lentils and the salmon!
But I wonder if it was something to be expected. After all, we also have this popular saying:
Lentejas, comida de viejasLentils, food for old people.
Is it a coincidence that I started liking lentils again once I turned 30? Mmm! Maybe not. Maybe this was meant to happen! Maybe it happens to everyone!
In the years since this re-acquaintance, I have consumed copious amounts of lentils (mostly in salads) and then discovered also the wonderful world of dals, and recently ful medames.
I’m now at peace with legumes.