I stopped eating meat in my early twenties. The journey from vegetarian to ex-vegetarian started with a winter trip to Guatemala where I nibbled on a few strips of crispy American-style bacon and ended six months later when my brother—part-time line cook and full-blown foodie—moved into my basement, bringing with him the penchant for grilled lamb chops. As the primary cook in my mixed, formerly two-person household, all the meals were vegetarian. Now, it was two carnivores, the tantalizing smell of cooking meat versus me. On Thanksgiving, I roasted (and ate) my first turkey in seven years.
Since then, my eating habits have been flexible; I prefer to cook vegetarian food, but eat meat on occasion, mostly in the company of others. On my last trip, I ate what my hosts gave me, agreeing with chef and television host Anthony Bourdain when he said in an interview with Dianne Jacob, “It’s really important to be a good guest, because the table is the best reflection of a nation and fastest way into that culture … Now is not the time to say, ‘I’m a vegetarian’ or ‘I’m lactose intolerant.’”
Or in my case, now is not the time to say, “I’m a lapsed vegetarian, but I vacillate about my decision daily.” I skip this awkward explanation and simply eat the food that people serve me, from spinach pancakes to duck blood soup.
On this trip, I am traveling with Olli, a decade-long vegetarian. It is easy when we are alone to avoid eating animals, but our conversation often turns to what it means to be a good traveler, a good guest, and a good eater. We retell an anecdote from a vegetarian cyclist who refused to eat meat from a goat slaughtered just for him by a nomadic family in Central Asia and his ensuing and lasting regret.
What would Anthony Bourdain do? What will Olli do?
Our thought experiment was put to the test in our first country: Spain. Beef, pork, sheep, lamb, fish—the Spanish love them all. Whole legs of ham dangle from the walls of every supermarket and restaurant, even at some gas stations. A doctor we stayed with lived in a modern high-rise building; long links of chorizo (pork sausage), gifted to him by his patients, hung casually from kitchen shelves; on his table was a ham mounted on a “jamonero,” a support especially used for holding and cutting the cured leg of a black Iberian pig.
What does a country of meat lovers feed to their vegetarian guests? Enter “tortilla de patatas,” the Spanish tortilla. Loved and served around the nation, on display at tapas bars, vacuum-packed in markets, used as sandwich filling, “tortilla de patatas” is nothing like the wheat or corn flatbreads we know from the Americas. It is thick. It is juicy. It is a plump cushion of egg.
In the kitchen of our hosts in Andalusia, we helped to peel and slice potatoes before dumping them in a deep fryer. We were ushered out of the kitchen before seeing how this was transformed into a perfect yellow discus. Our first “tortilla de patatas” released the fragrant smell of olive oil and sautéed onions when cut into wedges. The eggs were just runny enough to be mopped up with slices of chewy bread.
I liked it so much that I tried to recreate it for our next host. He was incredulous about my choice to make it for breakfast, my addition of red peppers and cumin, and my desire to serve it with ketchup. No self-respecting Spaniard would masquerade American diner-style home fries and scramble as “tortilla española.” My clumsy handling of the necessary pan-plate-plate-pan flip prompted him to say, “Your tortilla looks like a transporter accident à la ‘Star Trek.’”
My first “tortilla de patatas” may have been unconventional, but during our time in Spain, we never had the same tortilla twice. The shape of the potatoes ranged from diced to sliced to roughly chopped. The eggs varied in viscosity and color. Some were topped with vegetables, others with cheese. The mother of one host was too shy to meet us, but not too shy to make us “tortilla de patatas” with zucchini.
During our thirty days in Spain, we ate the same dish with many different people: Spanish, German, Basque, El Salvadoran, American, French-Canadian, an au pair, a factory worker, a primary school teacher, a doctoral candidate, an almost-famous rock star. Each “tortilla de patatas” was as unique and enjoyable as each of our hosts.
Amie Thao is cycling 15,000 miles across Europe and Asia to document people, food, and stories. Follow along at www.internationalsupperclub.org.