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from the May 2017 issue

All Desert Islands Are the Same

Dreadful is the condition of the castaway better schooled in gastrosophy than shipwreckology. Predisposed to survive on what lies within my reach and in my reportoire, should I long for oven-roasted oysters with zucchini, a rock lobster with fresh favas, striped bass with celery, cabbage, and vinegar, red mullet filets with rosemary cream, breaded mullet with oysters, even a little dish of oysters Girardet, what materials do I have to attain an acceptable result? Neither wine for deglazing nor vegetables to yield the proper aroma and consistency, nor aromatic herbs on this tropical island, which is surely concealing from me the treasure of its spices. Not even fire! And without fire there is no cooking and, as that famous dialectical materialist philosopher, Don Faustino Cordón, the last of his line, I do believe, has said . . . “It is cooking that created man . . . .”


All desert islands are the same, or we think they are, the way we think we know New York or heart surgery. When I went to New York for the first time, I had seen it so often in movies that it had a place in the mental album of cities where my imagination had dwelt. When they operated on my heart, I had the feeling they had already done it many times on television and in the movies, and with my chest prised apart, I was the extraordinary hero of a broadcast recorded with a camera I held in my own two hands.

In any case, I lived through a familiar experience and was able to confront it with the most interesting phrases, thanks to the best-paid screenwriters in cinema. This was an advantage missed out on by those who went under the knife before the era of mass culture and the reign of the image, and had to memorize quotes in Latin or the proverbs of those unbearable national thinkers around whom the metaphysics of countries and people is forged. Esse oportet ut vivas, non vivere ut edas, some imbecile said once, and his words have prospered in the conventional bit of repressive popular wisdom: Eat to live, do not live to eat. I am rather fonder of Terence when he says: Animus est in patinis. Until I reached this island, it’s true, my soul was in my dishes, and the wisdom of this choice I ratify with that pre-Christian proverb: Don’t face off with a hungry man.

Fortunately, we owe much more to immanent than to transcendent culture nowadays. Hence, when asked about my cardiac condition, I tend to respond succinctly: Now I know I carry my enemy inside me. I probably owe the phrase to the scriptwriter for To Have and Have Not, maybe even to Chandler himself, who penned excellent dialogue in his Hollywood days. Another castaway before me exclaimed: Navigare necesse est, vivere non necesse. To navigate is necessary, to live is not; and another cardiac patient uttered the words: Hesterni sumus, we are of yesterday, as saintly Job already surmised. But primum vivere, deinde philosophari, and for that reason, the first thing any castaway worth his salt should do is explore the island he’s landed on, accept the island’s emptiness.

And so I began my exploration of the island, sure of the terrain I was treading, as in the initial passage through a country already known, convinced that I would find all I needed to begin a long survival in solitude.


“You are metaphysical,” a character from Cervantes says. “It’s because I don’t eat,” another replies. And yet food, too, may guide one to reflections on essence and existence, as I learned from a reading of Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste. Between the theory of drinking and that of gastronomy, Brillat-Savarin considers the end of the world and of all that terrifies the gastrosoph, recollecting—after praising the grandeur of man, the only animal that drinks for pleasure, without any need of thirst—the horrors occasioned in Philadelphia in 1792, when yellow fever moved many men to shut the doors of their conjugal homes to their infected wives, and fathers, with the same motive, to abandon their children. What phantoms pursue the digestion of Brillat-Savarin, that of his stomach, but also that of his mind? Is this the same person who, reflecting on death, proposes as a remedy a glass of good wine or recommends meat pies as a way of staving off the definitive end?


Though not described by Aristotle in his inventory of known fishes, the Mediterranean peoples have developed striking cultures around the bacalao, perhaps since, being a fish transformed into an imperishable mummy, its price has always been low in comparison with its fresh counterparts, and the poor are nourished on memory and desiccated corpses. I have always thought it a gastronomical barbarity to eat bacalao fresh: it is a fish without personality, at the midpoint between a hake and the Land of Nod. The salted or air-dried bacalao, on the other hand, is transfigured through these processes into a being of a different order, a dehydrated mummy awaiting the resurrection of the flesh through rehydration and the Final Judgment of those fantastic culinary vade mecums dreamt up by the mind of man. To eat fresh bacalao is like making love with a young creature who offers moxie, but no preambles, under an obscene neon light, without bothering to remove one’s socks. 

Though the magic of brandade is the lone contribution of the French to the bacalao’s glory, they have done it great linguistic service with a bevy of names both particular and general: morue franche, cabillaud, morue salée, morue sechée, merluche, morue noire, morue verte. In the main, they have always considered it a bastard raw material, provincial, undeserving of the culinary laboratory that is Paris, and it is not even clear that certain writers made the distinction between bacalao in its salted and air-dried forms: clipfish and stockfish, respectively. I remember, in this regard, my perplexity at a certain Mrs. Jessica Kuper, an anthropologist from South Africa, who, after investigating the local gastronomic traditions, married a Dutchman and subjected him, I suppose, to the sheaf of recipes she reproduced in The Anthropologist’s Cookbook. I am uncertain whether the marriage survived, or Mr. Kuper, for that matter, but my excellent glutton’s memory brings back to me the image of a number of the dishes the anthropologist noted down: for example, recipes whose bouquet depended on a peanut sauce as interpreted in various African cultures, or a fish soup of the Chugach Eskimos, which I would not scorn in my condition as a castaway, but which I would not deign to sample under any other circumstance. Now, Mrs. Kuper allows one of her collaborators in the book to call stockfish a supposedly regional French dish attributed to the residents of Rouergue and Quercy, which must not be bad, as it consists of rehydrated bacalao, cooked with potatoes and pureed with eggs, cream, butter, pepper, and parsley; which puree is then doused in a healthy serving of walnut oil. This hypercaloric ambuscade may be delicious, but it remains a variation on brandade, and I seem to remember, from the way they spoke of the mummy employed therein, that the narrator was none too certain whether salted or air-dried bacalao had been used, and only the latter may properly be called stockfish. It was also apparent that she had little affection for the dead body, because in her words, the process of desalting it and soaking it were a torment to the sense of smell; to the sense of smell of a chicken-heart, one must say, for no scent is offensive if it leads to the splendor of a well-made plate.


There is no poetry without delirium, it is true. My mouth speaks out of hunger, with a tip of the hat to Saint Matthew: Ex abundantia enim cordis os loquitur, for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh; so I am not conserving paper, for I know it won’t help me make fire, however much the hands of this renegade cleric, failed intellectual, and fugitive sailor rub and rub the driest of sticks to spark the flame that would qualitatively change my situation. Difficile et proprie communia dicere, Horace writes, and how right he is, the hardest thing to express is what is common, and nothing is as humdrum at the present moment as the hunger of the imagination, though I might fill my stomach like a predator as primitive as the earliest amphibian. Now I imagine myself as a fish, amphibian, reptile, quadruped, invoking their alimentary recollections to draw on them in my plight, but nothing arises save for victimized reflections on my long journey from nothing to the most abject poverty. Sometimes I think it would be better to abandon myself to the temptation of the water, where the sirens sing for me to come to them as they have to every under-qualified sailor, from Homer to J.A. Prufrock. What answer could I give them beyond this search for my origins in the bacteria of the sea while staring at the inviolable wholeness of a dried bacalao, spurred on by the unassailable words of Ecclesiastes, With much wisdom comes much sorrow, as I compare my remembrances of Chez Giraudet with this nutritional squalor?

Death by water
to cathedrals submerged
or the gates of Hell
a premonition of lakes
in atavistic memory
waters withdrawn
to the sea’s anxious waiting
while the lotus feigns beauty
amid rot and death deferred
dark harbinger
the waters recovered will drain
the basins of the earth in their dormancy
and will search for man between two epochs
the one of the piscine brain, the other of the polyglot
ape, with a degree in economics,
but memory remains
in the terrified retina of the first life
of the man who observes the low tide
with notions of vengeance and shipwreck
may the sirens sing, may the veins be opened,
who can be sure of eluding death by drowning?

Plainly: I am metaphysical, I don’t eat. And wishing to reach the boiling point of my imagination, I would place inside a casserole the portions of bacalao fit for preparation al pil pil, following the Basque technique of repeated faints in defiance of the laws of the transubstantiation of bodies, such as I tasted it in the restaurant Akelarre in San Sebastián.

The image of that triangle, mummified by salt or air, returns to me, finally, and I see it in a clay dish atop a glorious emulsion effected by its own gelatins, with garlic, oil, strips of dried choricero peppers, and the rhythmic rocking of the chef who stirs the casserole far enough above the flames that the fire aids in the emulsion and doesn’t ruin it.

No one else has ever achieved such a marvel, not the discoverer of the wheel and not the inventor of the condom. Millennia were needed before the predator ape descended from the trees and plunged into the savannah to discover fire, agriculture, and the right to accumulation, so that he could arrive at the formula bacalao al pil pil in the laboratory of his mind, where every tenth of a second flash memory, reality, and the desire to put to order the dialectic between chance and necessity. And if, some day, O reader of this castaway’s missive, you should ever find yourself before a plate of bacalao al pil pil, first eat the amber wisps of the fish’s flesh in the balsam of the sauce, and afterward, do not neglect the sauce that remains, which requires a silver spoon commensurate with its glory, and last of all, do not ignore the skin of the resurrected fish. It has lost the softness of other fish’s skins, because the gelatins have drained into the emulsion, and its flavor and texture are now as peerless as those of the skin of a Peking duck. And when the wonder is inside you, shut your eyes, and forget that you share your humanity with all the sadistic killers of history, and render tribute to whoever hit on the miracle of the transubstantiation of the mummified flesh of fish into delicacies the palate pays homage to as a definitive proof of its existence. And remember. Remember the spoonfuls, not so much eaten as lived, the ambrosia that lay in each one. Let your teeth speak for you, and with your tongue, lick the crannies of your mouth, for the teeth may retrieve what remains of pleasure’s shadows and the tongue will remain memory long after it has been desire. And consider that, as cooking and gastronomy are the pretexts of crimes against the living, we must require that the crime give rise to a proportionate degree of plenitude, and that, unlike the barbarity of grinding up our ill-starred enemy and turning him into a wretched hamburger, the death we have provoked has been the occasion for a splendorous image of beauty and abundance.


Excerpt from Reflexiones de Robinson ante un bacalao by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. © 1995 by the heirs of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. By arrangement with the Carmen Balcells Agency. Translation © 2017 by Adrian Nathan West. All rights reserved.

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