The first time I went to Spain was ten days after 9/11. I worked in Rockefeller Center that year, as an assistant at Simon & Schuster. When I got to the office that morning, oblivious to all that had already happened while I was at the gym, in the shower, on the subway, a girlfriend of mine in the marketing department, whose father was a firefighter, was standing next to the elevator bank in the lobby and sobbing. She was the one who told me about the first airplane. I remember thinking that none of it made any sense. Don't worry, I tried to soothe her. I'm sure it was just an accident. As I rode up to the 14th floor, I thought that maybe a window washer, hanging outside on the face of the building, had startled the pilot of a small prop plane and the accident had ensued from there. I suppose your mind goes in absurd directions when it's forced to take in the incomprehensible.
Up on my floor, half the office was missing, stranded in Brooklyn while the subways ground to a halt across the city, the island sealing itself off. The people who had made it in stood in my boss's office, the only one with a television set, and we watched the coverage together, staring in disbelief, some people making terrible noises, as the towers crumpled and fell in real time before our eyes. One man left and made a beeline for his office, closing the door behind him. His wife worked part-time on the 96th floor, I found out later. That Tuesday had been one of her days in the office. They had three small boys at home, beautiful children who sometimes stopped by the office and smiled shyly at me. She never did come home that day. Months later, they found her remains.
I had a secret boyfriend at the office those days. We tried to be discreet about our relationship, not wanting to be water-cooler gossip, but I think we fooled only a few. We'd long had plans to take a trip in September together, settling on a 10-day journey from Madrid, for a friend's wedding, to Seville, Cordoba and Granada in the south of Spain. In those horrifying, paralytic days after the 9/11 attacks, when I could barely bring myself to get on a subway, much less an airplane, we had to decide whether to cancel our trip or whether to go. Maybe it was peer pressure, maybe it was all that idiotic "don't let the terrorists win" mentality, but we decided to fly. I was half-mad with fear on the way over the Atlantic. I remember my boyfriend telling me, trembling before takeoff, that it wasn't too late to get off the airplane and go home. But I forced myself to be brave.
In Spain we were treated like war heros. Everywhere we went, when people found out we were New Yorkers, there were free glasses of sherry, long, sympathetic looks, even a mortifying standing ovation at the wedding we attended. We watched footage from New York on the Spanish news, saw Giuliani's grainy image here, there and everywhere. I looked away when the airplanes flew into the towers again and again.
It's surprising, in retrospect, that I remember anything about the food. But three things I do remember. Unwieldy chunks of chorizo in red wine at a tapas bar near the train station, salty and sour. A leg of jamon behind a bar, with plump, fat-lined slices on a plate in front of us, next to our water-beaded glasses filled with pale yellow sherry. And pan con tomate for breakfast, salted and drizzled with olive oil. In another frame of mind, I would have loved that breakfast, so foreign to me, so new. But heartbroken and angry is really no way to go out into the world. I resented the stale bread, the mealy tomatoes, the pockets of oil first thing in the morning. All I wanted was a nice bowl of American cereal with milk for breakfast and to be home again, back in New York, with my people and my grief and that gaping wound at the south of the city.
Back in New York, my boyfriend and I didn't last long. That was the thing about 9/11, it threw a lot of things into relief. You had to make decisions about what you wanted if today was going to be your last day, or tomorrow. That was one of the last trips I took with a film camera and after I got the rolls developed, I packed the photos away without even looking at them. It would be years before I unpacked them and had a look. I'm still a little baby-faced, standing in a tiled room in the Alhambra. Sitting by the banks of the Guadalquivir in a mini-skirt and flip flops. Smiling gamely in front of the grand Cordoba mosque.
I didn't eat any ham for a long while after that trip. Couldn't face potatoes or eggs or any of the other things we ate ad nauseam whilst in Spain. It would be years before I went back to a tapas bar in New York. In the meantime, though, through cooking I discovered smoked paprika and Marcona almonds, I fell in love with Manchego cheese and quivering slices of membrillo and the sour little boquerones that Zabar's carried. I made paella and golden potato soup and eventually went back to Spain, under much happier circumstances.
But the truth remains that I can't really eat Spanish food without thinking of our September vacation. And I can't think of that trip without thinking of that Tuesday and all that we lost. As improbable as it is, the two are forever linked in my head. Just like the rest of life, really. The sweet and the salty, joy and despair.
Janet Mendel's LA Times piece on the importance of chickpeas in the Spanish diet included this little purée garnished with shreds of toasted, garlicky bread and salty, chewy bits of bacon or jamòn. It's the kind of soup you can make with your eyes closed, really, just a simple weeknight soup made a little bit special with a crunchy, savory topping of fried bread and ham. I like how the crusty bits of bread fight back against the hot, smooth soup, nicking the insides of your mouth. You're supposed to use dried chickpeas, but I used canned ones and it was still very nice.
And I liked how, as I cooked, the aroma of the food on the stove made me think back to everything that happened all those years ago and how lucky I am to get to call all this the fabric of my life, sometimes vibrant, sometimes wrenching, but always, always worth living.
Chickpea Soup with Crisp Croutons (Crema de garbanzos con pan frito)
Note: 1 cup dry chickpeas makes 2¾ cups cooked. Soak the dried chickpeas in water for 8 hours. Put them to cook in hot water and simmer until tender, about 3 hours.
2 tablespoons plus 1½ tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/4 cup diced pancetta or jamòn
1 cup sliced carrot
1 cup chopped onion
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 boiling potato (8 ounces), peeled and cut in pieces
2 3/4 cups cooked chickpeas (I used a 28-oz can)
1/4 cup tomato puree or sauce (not paste)
2 quarts water, broth or chickpea cooking liquid
Pinch of cayenne
Freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of dried thyme
1 bay leaf
1 cup diced bread, cut into ½-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon coarsely chopped garlic
1/4 teaspoon smoked hot pimentón
1. Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a soup pot over medium-high heat. Fry the pancetta or jamòn until the fat is rendered and the pork is crisp, about 2 minutes. Remove the pot from heat and tip the pot so fat drains to one side. Skim out the pork bits and reserve.
2. Return the pot to the heat and add the carrot, onion and garlic. Sauté over medium heat until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the potato and cook 1 minute. Add the chickpeas, tomato puree and water. Season with cayenne, salt, pepper, thyme and bay leaf. Bring the mixture to a boil, cover, then reduce the heat and gently simmer until potatoes and carrots are tender, about 20 minutes. Discard the bay leaf.
3. Purée the soup in batches in a blender. If desired, sieve the purée. Sieving the soup after it is puréed eliminates the chickpea hulls and makes for a smoother soup. I didn't bother.
4. Shortly before serving, reheat the soup. In a small skillet, heat the remaining 1½ tablespoons of oil. Toss the diced bread in the oil until lightly toasted, 2 minutes. Add the chopped garlic and the reserved pancetta or jamòn and sprinkle with the pimentòn. Fry briefly to crisp.
5. Serve the soup in shallow bowls. Scatter the croutons, garlic and pancetta over the soup and serve.