At the start of my sixth day in Spain, I waited elbow to elbow with my travel mates at a charmingly rustic bar in Madrid. We sat at a wooden farm table with our gazes alternating between the menu and the two jamones hanging from the ceiling just above the rack of pint glasses and coffee cups. The espresso machine whirred and puffed, and our waiter, clad in black save for his maroon bar apron, flitted in and out of the tables. Tray after tray came out of the kitchen piled high with montado, a Spanish staple consisting of anything and everything mounted on a piece of toast. He set the plates down at the table next to us with mouthwatering entrees I could never eat. Toast covered in melted cheese, another with a few slices of jamón, and a third with scrambled eggs. I coveted my neighbors’ wheat-filled delicacies.
Prior to arriving, I had researched my wheat-free options, and, at this point in the trip I was well versed in the Spanish breakfast specialty, the tortilla. This is not to be confused with its North American burrito wrapping brethren. The Spanish tortilla is made from sliced potatoes mixed with eggs and onions, and baked quiche style. When you order a pincho de tortilla it implies you want a piece of tortilla by itself, and has netted me for five days in a row a piece of tortilla with a thick slice of toast. While investigating flourless Spanish cuisine, I naively imagined that once in country I would find additional menu items, lesser known, non-internet worthy treats of the bread-free variety. Instead, I was met with every conceivable form of montado and after six days in a row of the delicious tortilla, I was sick to death of this breakfast mainstay.
When the waiter arrived, I upped my gluten-free game and ordered the only thing on the menu that wouldn’t make me sick for days. No pincho this round. “Tortilla, sin pan,” I said. Sin pan. Without bread.
At the mere mention of sin pan the room grew so quiet I could clearly make out the words to the fuzzy Michael Bublé song on the radio. The waiter stared at me with his coal black eyes, waiting for me to make the expected retraction.
“Sin pan?” he asked, his pen hovering over his notepad.
“Si. Sin pan,” I confirmed.
He said nothing, but the sour look on his face, along with his arched eyebrows, told me he was not impressed, and worse, that I had insulted him to his core. After scratching down my order he looked to my friends and avoided eye contact with me for the rest of my time in the restaurant.
Once he darted back to the kitchen, I slouched in my chair. It seemed as if I had asked for a culinary reinvention or special treatment, fancy dietary concoctions or hors d’oeuvres made from endangered species. I wanted to explain that I’m allergic to wheat, I had even translated the phrase before leaving home, but was never successful in delivering it. I could have told him that ingesting the tiniest amount of flour would land me in bed wishing my reaction included instant death instead of severe flu-like symptoms. It would start with throbbing temples, and a body ache that slowly gave way to intestinal gridlock. The grand finale always included cemented joints that lasted for three days. I couldn’t chance the flu, real or otherwise. I was, after all, in the birthplace of the Spanish Influenza, the virus that killed more people in one year than the Black Death Bubonic Plague did in four. God only knew what sort of havoc Spanish wheat could wreak on my system.
If anything, I had a strategy. After navigating menus in the States for almost two years, mining them for safe options, and squealing in delight when a specialty menu was made available, I decided that in Spain I’d do like I always do. I would order stuff without the bread, croutons, won ton strips, soy sauce. This silly little wheat allergy business wouldn’t complicate my travels in the least. Just stay clear of the meatloaf and Wiener schnitzel and revel in the fact that I was in Spain, rice-filled Paella Central. Wrong.
What I didn’t know at the time was just two-hundred and forty-three kilometers from where I sat lies the region of Zamora, and is called Tierra del Pan or Land of the Bread. This shouldn’t have surprised me so much considering Spain did spend a few centuries shedding blood over their Catholic beliefs, which include the Body of Christ inhabiting what? A piece of bread. This alone wouldn’t be so bad, but when you consider that piece of bread is then eaten as a sacrament, a serious rite and big deal among Mass-goers, you can see where I made a major faux-pas. With the sinking realization that hundreds of thousands of people died because they thought the whole bread thing was phooey, I wondered if it was still too soon in post-Inquisition Spain to order breakfast sin pan. I may as well have strapped into the rack and turned the crank myself.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, I learned that one of the oldest baker’s guilds is found a three hour high-speed train ride away in Barcelona, and was established in 1200 AD. Not only was it one of the first, but it was highly influential causing guilds of bakers to crop up along the Mediterranean, and they have been in full swing for over 800 years. In Spain, bread is your friend. The word companion comes from Latin com- “with” + panis “bread,” and with Spanish being a Latin based language I basically declared myself friendless. A cue my waiter took so seriously he never spoke to me again.
As I sat there, not knowing any of this stuff, I imagined the string of profanities and assumptions leaving the mouth of the cook. What is she? Some Adkin’s groupie? Jumping on the gluten-free fad wagon? What kind of crazy person comes to Spain and doesn’t eat bread? I wanted to run back in the kitchen to make amends, to apologize, and explain. It’s not you, it’s me. Really. Me and my wheat-intolerant, flu-fearing stomach.
The waiter brought our plates of steaming delights. He placed a café con leche for each of us on the table, and one by one set down our breakfast dishes. Without glancing in my direction he put my order on the table: tortilla with a fat slice of toast.
Kelly Chastain is a graduate of Pacific University with a BA in Creative Writing. She works in both fiction and non-fiction, and has been published in The Burrow Press Review, Isthmus Review, Cactus Heart Press, and others. Currently, she blogs at kellychastain.com, and is working on a historical novel, a series of memoir vignettes about growing up on a farm, and travel writing pieces for an upcoming trip to Portugal.