Ibicenc Kitchen, Herminia
I can’t crack eggs to make an omelet without thinking about the Gypsy woman Herminia, pronounced air-me-knee-a, and the tortilla española that she cooked one day in the kitchen of our rented beach house just outside of the city of Ibiza in 1962. The kitchen was a small room at the back of the house. From its one window, divided into small panes, I could see the backyard of a neighbor’s house. I drew the view with a crow quill pen in my sketchbook, a sparse scene consisting of a fig tree with a crooked trunk propped up by crooked sticks, a small shuttered window, a slack clothesline with pieces of underwear pinned up to dry most days, and a well with a bucket on its ledge waiting to be dropped down and filled with water. The shade on the underside of the fig tree contrasted strongly with the intense summer sunlight that hit the top of the tree.
On the wall to the right of the kitchen window there was a cold-water faucet directly above a counter with a sunken sink. A pottery basin nested in the sink. It held water for washing vegetables and dishes. A small depression in its lip allowed easy emptying. A dish rack in the shape of an “x” stood next to the sink, and next to the rack stood a little wick stove mounted on four legs. It provided the only means for cooking food.
Plain white tiles lined the walls of the cooking area almost to the ceiling. All the floors in the house were laid with decorative tiles. The house and its kitchen were not so much primitive as they were minimal, functional, and antique.
My mother, “Nani”; my husband, “David”; our toddler son, “David Pequeño”; and I lived in the beach house for a few months before we moved into the Old Town of Ibiza, built on a mountainous hill. The old town was once a fortified Roman outpost that was further fortified by Moors during their occupation of the island (800’s to 1200’s).
My mother arranged for Hermenia’s husband, Pepe Garcia-Garcia, to give me flamenco guitar lessons. Pepe liked to say that he was “born in a guitar.” He earned money playing in bars that were beginning to pop up around the wharf, owned by and frequented by extranjeros, outsiders and foreigners to the natives who were born in Ibiza. Once a week Pepe walked to the beach area carrying his guitar. Herminia usually came along, often with their two children. She was short, solid, and sturdy, her long straight black hair severely pulled back. The family made an arresting silhouette of diminishing sizes and shapes as they walked along the road to the beach. They were outsiders, like us, having come from a group of Gypsies on the Spanish mainland.
The Ibicenc natives, I eventually found out, treated Gypsies with disdain and thought they were thieves. On the other hand, the Brits moving to the island had a more generous opinion of Gypsies viewing them as indigenous peoples. They were favorably impressed that I had secured a friendship with a Gypsy woman, referring to Herminia as the “real thing.”
But Herminia disapproved of the British and other extranjera women, thinking they were all sexually promiscuous, and fearing that they might seduce her husband Pepe. “I will pull them by their hair and throw them into the fire,” she said to me one winter day, gesturing wildly as we stood near a fire burning in the fireplace. “But I trust you,” she reassured me.
One late afternoon after my flamenco guitar lesson, we were all getting hungry. Herminia entered the kitchen with a confident air, cut a few florets of leftover cooked cauliflower into bits and browned them in a small frying pan using virgin olive oil which everyone in Ibiza seemed to use for cooking. She cracked and beat eggs, poured them over the cauliflower then flipped the contents, producing a flat round “tortilla.” Lightly salted, it was delicious and unforgettable.
Herminia had concocted a version of the national dish, tortilla de patatas, substituting cauliflower for potatoes. The tortilla de patatas was universally served at restaurants in Ibiza as one course in a meal, after, or in place of an unpretentious hot gruel called “sopa.”
The tortilla has only two ingredients, potatoes and eggs. It is simple and quick to prepare if the potatoes are thinly sliced. The tricky part is the flip, which can be done either by holding a plate over the frying pan, flipping the two over so the tortilla’s cooked side lands on the plate facing up, then sliding the tortilla back into the pan so the uncooked underside comes into contact with the pan; or it can be done by gingerly sliding the tortilla out of the frying pan onto a plate, cooked side down, and then holding the empty pan over the plate, and flipping the two so the uncooked side falls into the pan. Either way, its flat, circular presentation remains a large part of the dish’s unique character.
The largest room of the beach house opened onto a long front yard that connected to the main beach road. All the furniture in the room was made of wood: four chairs, a big round table and a sideboard with drawers incised with decorative, fanciful lines. We used the room for everything but sleeping and cooking. We gathered to eat, to socialize, to work and to study around the table.
Into this room one day came Yvonne, a British woman who lived across the road in one of the fancier houses that faced the beach. She burst in during my lesson stomping her feet in genuine flamenco rhythms, loud and staccato. She had danced professionally in Madrid before she married and had children. Could we all get together, she proposed, and have a party next week at her place after my guitar lesson?
We could prepare paella. She had a large paella pan and could build a fire in the front yard of her house.
Herminia liked the idea of making a paella. She relaxed her prejudices about extranjera women and overcame any misgivings that she might have had about Yvonne. We agreed to get together early the next week.
The morning that Herminia and I walked from shop to shop in Ibiza buying ingredients for paella, I was thrilled. I was proud to be seen with her, to be embarking on a sort of cultural expedition, transacting important tasks in a foreign language, and soaking up the colorful ambience.
Up till then I hadn’t heard of paella, so I didn’t know what to expect. I was surprised when we entered a butcher shop and Herminia asked for conejo. I had never cooked or eaten rabbit meat, but it is one of the traditional ingredients along with rice, saffron, amarillo (a powdered yellow food dye used to augment the color given by saffron which is very expensive), green peas, tomatoes, chicken, any available shell fish, and, of course, salt and pepper and olive oil. No onions or garlic are required in traditional paella.
Unfortunately I can’t recall at all the paella that we made that day, its preparation, the cooking or the eating of it. With effort I can reconstruct a mental snapshot of the scene using whatever little bits of memory that I have of the event.
I imagine an overhead view of Yvonne’s large walled-in front yard. Just to the left of center a large round pan simmers with colorful ingredients. It sits on top of a wood fire that burns in a shallow pit in the ground. Eight or ten grown-ups stand around talking casually and glancing every now and then at the paella on the fire. I imagine them holding glasses filled with red wine provided by Yvonne. A few children skirt around the yard playing happily and mindlessly as children do.
This time it was not the cooking that mattered to me, but rather the shopping for ingredients. With quiet joy I remember Herminia shopping, not the paella that she made that day. For once, I “know the dancer from the dance.”
My wardrobe was made up of dresses, skirts, sweaters and blouses, hand-me downs from my sisters and ready-mades bought for me by my mother in department stores. I hated to shop for clothes. I thought of myself as an artist dealing with universal truths, not seduced by fashions of the day. I didn’t care about style. I didn’t have to because my mother had always provided stylish garments from which I would choose my outfit for the day.
One such garment was a fuzzy striped long-sleeved pullover sweater, Half-inch dark green and white stripes ran across the front and the sleeves. It was too bold for my taste, so I seldom wore it, only if there was a strong chill in the air. Herminia saw me wearing it one day and admired it. I gave it to her without thinking.
She wore it often. The stripes could be seen from far away as she walked proudly around town. The sweater became our bond, the symbol of our trust in each other. When she next returned to the mainland every Gypsy woman of her tribe wanted the sweater. They cajoled her, pleaded with her to trade, even offered her money, but she wouldn’t separate from it.
The Old Town, my husband, David
The town of Ibiza had two parts, the fortified old part and the mostly flat, more modern part, the “Extension” or “New Town”. When winter came we moved to an apartment in the Old Town. It was a steep two-block climb on cobbled streets beyond a permanent “drawbridge,” a wide, inclined roadway with an arched opening at the top. The drawbridge was the only entry point to the old town other than a secret tunnel that had been bored into the hillside centuries earlier. In 1235 Catalonians led by James 1 of Aragon surprised and defeated the Moors by entering through the tunnel.
Winter in Ibiza was mild, but cold enough that many homes had a fireplace, as did our apartment. Built by local masons, the traditional Ibicenq fireplace was an attractive architectural detail, organic in design with a broad, round opening and a hand-formed, stuccoed, funnel-like chimney.
One evening David sat by the fireplace reading a paperback book he had borrowed from the English-language lending library in the New Town, Meyer Levin’s 1956 non-fiction novel “Compulsion.” The novel is based on a notorious crime committed in Chicago in 1934 by two intellectual students, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, both from wealthy Jewish families.
Leopold and Loeb were 19 and 20 years old when they attempted to execute a “perfect” murder. Infatuated with each other and with the Nietzscheian idea that a superior man, Übermensch, is exempt from laws that govern ordinary men, they kidnapped and murdered a teenage boy.
The young men feared being identified as homosexuals. After one brief sexual event, the two agreed to never be seen together in public without having at least one other friend with them in order to avoid scandal. At the trial, Loeb testified: “. . . a rumor had gotten around that he [Leopold] was a cock sucker.”
All of a sudden, David threw the book into the burning hot Ibicenq fireplace and watched it burn. The next morning, embarrassed, I reported the book lost and paid the penalty out of our weekly food allowance.
There was something wrong with our marriage. David was becoming suspicious and oppressive. He assumed a patriarchal stance protecting his rights over me, as though I were his property. He got sick with a fever, lost weight, and was rendered temporarily impotent. Sometimes a desperate look came into his eyes.
As equally talented art students at Washington University in St. Louis, he in the class of ’59 and I in the class of ’60, we had been equally admired by teachers and equally popular with fellow students.
In school we had been “Minerva and Dave,” painting at easels in the painting rooms and engraving metal plates in the print shop, he wearing a hole-filled, torn, white T-shirt and paint-splattered casual slacks; I in a grey paint-splattered work coat with my long blond hair in braids. At the annual Beaux-Arts Costume Ball a couple had dressed up as “Minerva and Dave” satisfying the theme of “famous artists” with a touch of irony.
Settled in the Old Town of Ibiza for a year, we made friends with many Americans who had come to the island to vacation briefly, or to live and work at their art for a while taking advantage of the island’s moderate weather, the dollar’s favorable exchange rate, low rents and cheap prices for food and maid service. Some were escaping repressive families, indulging in lifestyles unacceptable in their hometowns. Boat trips to Morocco provided access to heroin and marijuana.
We became friends with two young homosexual American men who were vacationing on the island, Peter, a dress designer, and Walter, an actor. One day David went swimming with them in the Mediterranean in a fairly isolated spot. There, surrounded by water and with Peter and Walter barely in sight, he contemplated suicide.
Back home in the apartment, David confided in me that he had struggled with the thought of drowning himself. I dissembled, pretending to have little concern for his conflict, but I was disgusted with him. My only defense was denial, and I tried to put the incident out of my mind.
I was deeply unhappy. I didn’t want to be married. I decided to ask my mother to help me to divorce. She had moved into the hotel that faced the main square, Hotel Marisol, and she began to hang out with Brits and other extranjeros sharing their sexually promiscuous lifestyle.
One day she had a black eye. She had spent the previous night with a rugged young man on his yacht. “Scotch John” had hit her, and she was proud to show proof of their intimacy.
“I’m so unhappy,” I confided in her one day. “Will you help me? I want to leave David.”
“No, she answered immediately. ”I spent twenty years bringing up you and your sisters and now it is my turn to have fun.“
My sister Alexandra visited for a week. I enjoyed her company, but I hid my unhappiness from her, never confiding in her.
While in Ibiza, Alexandra had a brief love affair with a young American named Henry, and they decided to travel together to the mainland where they had tickets for flights back home.
As Alexandra said goodbye I began to cry uncontrollably. She looked at me, surprised and concerned. ”Oh, dear Sister, you’re crying because I’m leaving,“ she said, putting her arms around me. ”I didn’t realize that you loved me so much.“
I didn’t tell her the truth, that I felt sorry for myself, that my tears were for myself alone, that I was jealous of her for being free to do as she wished without a husband and a child imprisoning her, that I envied her for being able to travel with a young man she had just met, nearly a stranger. I wished that I could be promiscuous and travel around with near strangers. Instead I was married to an impotent, gloomy, domineering young man, and I was stuck on an island full of widows dressed in black, shopkeepers, shop girls and waiters, surrounded by pleasure seekers, free spirited pot-smoking extranjeros.
I yearned for pleasure.
I found some pleasure in a book of traditional French children’s songs that Roseline, a French girlfriend had given me. I deciphered the melodies solfeggio and spent hours singing with my 2-year old son, David Pequeño. We learned the melodies by heart and memorized the words to almost every song in the book.
David Pequeño’s favorite was ”Meunier, tu dors,“ ”Miller, you sleep.“ He would pretend to hold a fiddle with his left arm held out and his chin tilted down toward his left shoulder, while his right arm sliced back and forth through the air holding an imaginary bow that moved in sync with the words.
”Ton moulin va trop vite,“ we would sing. As I sang I acknowledged to myself that my unfulfilled sexual desires were spinning out of control. ”Your mill goes too fast.“
My favorite was ”Je suis un petit poupon,“ ”I am a little doll of a boy,“ that ends with the phrase ”la bonne aventure, au gai, la bonne aventure,“ ”a fine adventure, oh joy! A fine adventure.“ This phrase in this silly little song sustained me. It fed my spirit when I felt most doomed. Years later I realized that I was not alone in using verbal and musical expressions of joy to elevate the spirit beyond difficulties.
In Eleanor H. Porter’s 1913 novel Pollyanna, Pollyanna tells the Parson that her late father said ”that he wouldn’t STAY a minister a minute if ‘twasn’t for the rejoicing texts . . . all those that begin ’Be glad in the Lord,’ or ‘Rejoice greatly,’ or ‘Shout for joy,’ and all that, you know—such a lot of ‘em. Once, when father felt specially bad, he counted ‘em. There were eight hundred of ‘em.”
Boston, Years Later, a Lover
Years later I prepared a tortilla de patatas for a lover. We lived together in Boston for a few months, having run away from our marriages thinking that we might be able to make a committed life together.
After browning thin-cut potatoes in a small skillet with virgin olive oil, I poured a beaten egg over them. After the egg set a bit, I succeeded in artfully flipping the tortilla without incident. A minute later I slipped the tortilla onto a plate, salted it, and presented it to him, proud that it was an almost perfect circle. My heart beat fast as he tasted it.
“Nice,” he said, “but it could use some onion and maybe a little cheese.
He could have thrust a knife into my heart. He missed the point totally. He failed to intuit the triumph of a cuisine based on want, an austere cuisine springing from a spirited culture forced to embrace necessities while discarding luxuries. Spain had come up with an unadorned, rugged dish that had served easily and handsomely as one course in a meal for centuries, and he, my lover, found it lacking. He would replace ”The Good“ with its treacherous enemy, ”The Better.“
It was like telling an abstractionist-purist painter that he should put a few diagonals into his composition consisting of right angles only. Were Mondrian still alive, he might advise him, ”Your picture Broadway Boogie Woogie is nice, Piet, but it could use a diagonal or two to jazz it up.“
But worse was yet to come. Our esthetic and culinary differences were just the tip of the iceberg.
One day, after attending an exhibition of Goya’s prints at the Museum of Fine Arts, I mused with my lover on the sorrows and difficulties of life. Fired up by the series of prints I had just seen at the museum, The Disasters of War, and channeling the pain that my favorite artist, Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes, had expressed a century and a half earlier, I ranted about the horrors of war, man’s inhumanity to man, and everyone’s duty to make the world a better place to live in, even if one’s own life were full of difficulties as I assumed that both of our lives were.
He became still, looked me in the eyes, and said in a dull, monotone voice, ”I don’t know what you’re talking about. There have been no difficulties in my life. I’ve gone first class all the way.“
copyright © 2017 Minerva Durham