Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Jamon

When you live in a place not many people have been, it can be challenging to find the perfect story or detail to illustrate what your life—or life, in general—there is like. “How’s Barcelona? What’s it like there?” I’ve been asked these questions countless times since I’ve been back in the U.S., and I always answer in the general—“It’s great; it’s a beautiful city.” These are hardly evocative or satisfying responses. Providing more detail—about, say, the weird architecture, the extremely late hours for eating meals, or the fact that many people don’t speak Spanish but Catalan—gives a better sense of the city but not necessarily a vivid mental image. But I’ve learned something from hearing Mom and Dad tell people about their visit to Barcelona: the perfect way to grab attention is to describe the jamon.

Jamon iberico—Iberian ham—is a regional specialty, ridiculously expensive and ubiquitous in Barcelona and beyond. It’s basically a type of cured ham, expensive because of the elaborate and lengthy curing process and the luxurious, indulgent way the pigs who become the ham are treated before they’re killed. Cured meats, I realize, are delicious but just not that interesting. What’s interesting about the jamon, however, is the way it’s stored, sold, and served: in leg form, hoof intact, hanging in large groups of other legs from shop ceilings or secured to café bars to be carved-to-order. There's no mistaking what it is: it's a pig’s leg, hoof through haunch, sometimes sheathed in a net, sometimes hung simply from a rope.

They’re everywhere in Barcelona, from the smallest local butcher shops to the largest market on La Rambla. And now they’re even in the New York Times Magazine, featured this Sunday in an article by Rob Walker about buying jamon iberico online—jamon’s first foray into the American market (at a price of around $1,000 per leg). The illustration with the article featured a jamon in a carving vice, sitting on a table alongside what looked like Jell-o molds and pasta salads—just another picnic snack.

The detail that works—that makes jamon a perfect symbol of Barcelona’s quirkiness—is that hoof. You don’t see too many hooves in an American grocery store. And you definitely don’t see this, featured prominently—sassily—at a little café near our apartment:

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