so that happened

Pity the Madrileño Vegetariano

PITY THE VEGETARIAN Madrileño.png

I landed in Madrid a week before Scrubs was due to arrive.

My grandfather – my Yayo – was excited to meet him, but hid it (badly) beneath his usual gruff stoicism. He made sure the bedsheets were ironed and the pillows were plumped and the blankets were in the press (“por si acaso” he said, as if anybody in Madrid during the summer has ever been in need of a blanket). He dotted his long thoughtful silences with the punctuation of seemingly random questions about this new man in my life.

The first time I broached The Subject, he was sitting in his armchair by the window, his chin in his hand, looking out over the motorway.

“Scrubs is a vegetarian,” I said, tentatively.

Yayo turned to look at me.

“A vegetarian?” He repeated, in a tone of voice that suggested I’d told him something scandalous. He raised his thick eyebrows at me and looked at me as if I’d told him Scrubs had five nipples or enjoyed dressing in women’s underwear in his spare time*.

“Yes, a vegetarian,” I nodded solemnly.

“What does that mean?” Yayo’s brow furrowed and he leaned forward, as if close attention would be enough to bridge this truly enormous gap in understanding.

“He doesn’t eat meat.” I said.

“He doesn’t eat meat?”

“He doesn’t eat meat.” I repeated.

“He never eats meat?”

“No, never.”

“What does he eat then?”

“Pizza, pasta, rice… In Ireland there’s fake meat-“

“Fake meat??” Yayo reared back as if he’d been shot. “Fake meat?!”

“Yes Yayo. Fake meat.”

He shook his head sorrowfully.

“He eats fish though?”

“No. Vegetarians don’t eat meat or fish.”

“No fish?!”

“No.”

He continued to shake his head slowly. I could practically see the cogs in his head turning as he reassessed every scrap of information he had gleaned about Scrubs. Eventually he lifted his head, looked at me, and sighed deeply.

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“I will have to buy him some food. What does he like?”

“Cheese, tortilla de patata, pizza, pasta… Don’t worry about it Yayo, I’ll pick some stuff up for him tomorrow.”

Yayo nodded and turned back towards the window, deep in thought. I beamed, thinking the conversation hadn’t been as tricky as I had anticipated. Vegetarianism is basically unheard of in Madrid, so I had been expecting a bit of an uphill battle.

A few days later when Scrubs finally arrived, he was greeted warmly by Yayo and settled in quickly despite the language barrier. My extended family were delighted to meet him and peppered him with questions as he ate his fill of cheese and tortilla de patata. The second night, after I had taken him on a tour of the city, we arrived home to Yayo looking extremely pleased with himself.

“I bought pizzas. I bought pizzas today! They are in the freezer.” His chest was puffed out with pride. For my grandfather, buying food that belonged in the freezer was a strange and uncomfortably modern activity. “You could make one now,” he said, trying to disguise his excitement at the thought of frozen pizzas being cooked for dinner.

I thanked him and grabbed a pizza from the freezer. I stared at it. I blinked.

In my hand I held a ham and cheese pizza.

I turned to Yayo with the pizza held aloft.

“Yayo…” I paused, trying to decide how to phrase the following sentence without coming across as ungrateful. “Yayo… this pizza…” I faltered.

“Yes?”

I tried again.

“Well, see… Scrubs is a vegetarian…” I trailed off. Yayo’s face was absent of even the faintest glimmer of understanding.

“I know,” he nodded, smiling at Scrubs as if to reassure him that he was accepted despite this glaring character flaw.

“… So, he doesn’t eat meat…”

“I know!”

My eyes narrowed and I squinted at the ceiling as I circled the point, trying not to offend.

“…So, this pizza has ham…”

The confused silence was deafening to my ears. I could take it no longer.

“Scrubs doesn’t eat ham.”

Yayo turned, baffled, to look at Scrubs, who was by now shuffling uncomfortably by the door.

“He doesn’t eat meat, you said.” He looked back at me.

“Yes. I mean, no. He doesn’t eat meat.”

“Yes.”

“Okay, but… this pizza has ham…”

“Yes?”

“So… vegetarians don’t eat ham,” I said again lamely, unsure how else to explain myself.

“Ham is not meat!” Yayo declared, looking mildly affronted.

Now it was my turn to stare.

“He doesn’t eat anything with eyes, Yayo. He doesn’t eat ham or jamon serrano or chorizo or steak or fish or prawns or crab or anything like that.”

De verdad?”

“Really.”

Yayo turned back to Scrubs, this time with only pity in his eyes.

Pobre,” He said, which translates to ‘poor guy.’

I assured him that I would eat the ham and cheese pizza, and Scrubs would eat the plain one, and we thanked him for buying them, and that was the end of it. Yayo seemed to understand from then on, even if he didn’t agree. He would periodically ask me to ask Scrubs if he was sure he didn’t want to try some jamon. When Scrubs laughed and politely refused, he would use some of his limited English to earnestly tell him, “It’s good!”

My extended family to this day struggle to understand vegetarianism. At family lunches or weddings they shake their heads as the hors d’oeuvres go by, their faces pictures of distress as they watch Scrubs turn down the non-vegetarian options. They discuss food around him the same way people might discuss their future holiday plans around the terminally ill. They pity him, this man who will never taste the simple pleasures of spaghettis con chorizo or croquetas de jamon or paella de marisco. They pity his poor, languishing taste buds.

Such is the fate of vegetarians in Madrid. They are the untouchables of the Spanish capital’s culinary scene. They are neither understood nor catered for.

Maybe one day there will be Quorn chorizo and substitute Serrano, but for now there is only pity.

*Just to be clear, he has the standard-issue number of nipples and absolutely no spare time**.

**I should probably clarify further and say that Scrubs’ sartorial interests extend only to purchasing (male) clothing that fits him without having to try it on, and getting in and out of shops in record time.

19 thoughts on “Pity the Madrileño Vegetariano

  1. An alien in their midst 🙂 My youngest son has suddenly decided to be vegetarian for three months – his friends challenged him. Said they’d pay him $300 if he managed to do it. If not, he’d have to pay them, lol. SO he’s discovered a love of tofu, and gone the whole hog to vegan… I’m waiting to see how long he lasts.

  2. This was an awesome post. I felt like I was right there, listening to the conversation, watching to see the eye gestures. Truly well done.
    It reminds me of the scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. When told that the boyfriend doesn’t eat meat, they propose to serve lamb.
    As for not wanting to try on clothes and escape quickly–I am with Scrubs a hundred percent. I know it’s wrong, but I am good for a couple of items of clothing and then….I have just got to leave.

  3. One doesn’t become a vegetarian just by choice and the world needs to the understand that (specific emphasis towards the west) where it’s more of a fad that one puts on and off the tag as and when one want and that’s not how it works. Me, being from a place where half of the population are vegetarians, I wonder what it’s like for scrubs out there to answer all those curious minds.

    Grandpa is such a cutie, full marks for his effort and care ☺️

  4. I can picture this- I’ve been reading bits out to Astroboy while eating my breakfast and having a good giggle. The thing is I can also see my late grandfather reacting like that even in Wales…

  5. It was such a great post, I actually laughed while reading it (Like made laughing sound not just in my head). Your Yayo sounds amazing. Loved this post!

  6. Haha…been there, experienced that type of confused reaction time and time again in my 20 years as a vegetarian. Especially in Japan. Now I’m a vegan I get to experience hostility too…

  7. Imagine being held at gunpoint (bear with me) by a literate animal, and the only hope of rescue is (BEAR WITH ME) tweeting a coded message.

  8. I love love LOVE your writing!!!! Many thanks to Jeff Cann who nominated you for the AWkwARD and brought my attention to this lovely blog!!!

  9. I’ve been a vegetarian for practically my whole life, and I grew up in a small town in Texas whose official city nickname is “Cowtown.” I know this struggle, even sans language barrier. And it continues and even intensifies as I’m on the road and often at the mercy of others for meals (or, at the very least, at the mercy of the grocery aisle or diner menu in the middle of nowhere). It’s funny how rarely I even think about being vegetarian until I’m put somewhere where that concept is totally foreign and I feel taken down a few notches all over again.. I’m sure it’s given Scrubs more ‘character’ and thicker skin as it has for me.

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