(by Désirée Willmes)
“Whatever challenges and hardships you may face in life, make sure you always have good food on the table.” Those were my mom´s words before I moved away from home to explore the world.
She knew what she was talking about.
My mother (Victoria, but called Nena in her family) was born in Spain during World War II. The country had just ended its civil war, which was a kind of dress rehearsal for the world war. In 1940, the year she was born, Spain was on the brink of famine.
But whenever Mom talks about her childhood, she tells happy stories—stories about growing up in the countryside in Galicia, right next door to Portugal. The area was a smugglers´ paradise when she grew up—mostly tobacco, coffee, and penicillin brought over from Portugal. It was also the land of tungsten mines, a precious metal used for manufacturing fighting vehicles and anti-tank warheads for Germany. Allies knew that the tungsten maintaining the Nazi war industry was almost exclusively sourced from Spain, which led to a concentration of spies operating in that region.
Mom often tells the story about her parents sheltering a German woman in their house for a week. The spy had a little white dog, which, like my mom, happened to be into food. My grandmother apparently was very annoyed that she had to fry two eggs for the mascot on a daily basis and serve it on her best porcelain during their stay. Mom, very little at the time, only remembers being amused about the fried eggs for the mysterious lady´s perrito blanco.
Even though she grew up in slightly dangerous territory, she was a happy child, surrounded by chickens and rabbits, with fruit and vegetables grown on a bit of farmland behind the house. She lived an adventurous life, climbing trees (occasionally falling out of the tree). When she was ten, she accidentally got drunk eating cherries out of a jar, not knowing they were soaking in schnapps.
Whenever Mom (the only girl of five children) was upset with her siblings or her parents, she would wrap her belongings (which consisted of a piece of fruit, a piece of cheese, a slice of homemade bread, and her rag doll) in her mother´s silk scarf, and off she would go—as far as the family´s garden, hiding in the rabbits´ shed. Her brother Pepe, whose life had been saved by smuggled penicillin, knew how to lure her back home by shouting, “I’m glad Nena has vanished. Now I can have an extra piece of tortilla.”
Food has always been and will always remain her passion. Not a day goes by that she doesn´t talk about food. Before the lockdown for the pandemic, she would go to the local market on a daily basis, spending hours meeting random people and exchanging recipes with them. Even in difficult economic times, when I had to wear the same old coat that I had already outgrown, we never were short of food. I used to sit in the kitchen to do my homework, with the intoxicating smells of her cooking. Whenever I had the chance, I’d snatch some of the soft but crispy hot potatoes she was preparing for a tortilla de patatas, a Spanish potato omelette. She always says that tortilla is the best comfort food, and she is right.
I grew up in Germany. Every summer we would vacation in Galicia, buying food and drinks as gifts for family and friends. We had a routine: When we approached a checkpoint at the border, Mom would call out, “Frontera a la vista,” which was code for my brother and me to pretend to be asleep—atop boxes of chorizo, potatoes, cheese, beans, brandy, and wine. When the border officers asked, “What are you bringing back from your summer break?” Mom would say, “Two exhausted children and lots of dirty clothes.” Perhaps it was her upbringing with contraband that gave her the skill of not ever twitching or getting nervous.
Years later, when I lived and shared an apartment with my brother in London, she arrived for a four-day visit schlepping an oversized suitcase. As she came out of the arrivals hall, I asked her what she was carrying for those few days. “Some of your books,” she deadpanned. “You know, the heavy Spanish literature tomes. Don Quixote and the like.” When we opened the luggage at home, we found a massive ham leg pointing its dark hoof at us—a very expensive Iberian Pata Negra, from a pig that had been fed acorns.
When I married my American husband in Southern Spain three years ago, one of those hams was the protagonist at our wedding. We wanted a memorable wedding, and arranged for a top chef to cook onsite in her kitchen, serving the meal at sunset in a magnificent garden, with a stunning view of the Atlas mountains. Mom arranged for a Pata Negra ham, plus a master trained in the art of ham cutting. “Forget Parma,” Mom told my Italian father-in-law, “this is by far the best ham you will ever taste.” Instead of giving out cigars and chocolates as wedding favors, Mom wanted to do something with food. She sourced an organic olive oil farm and ordered handcrafted bottles to fill with this liquid gold for our friends and family.
I now live on America´s east coast, and my mother is in the severe lockdown in Spain, waiting out the Covid-19 pandemic. She is in isolation, and my brother, who lives nearby, brings her groceries once or twice a week. We FaceTime so that she can see what I put on the table, and I can make sure that she has healthy meals. We share recipes, celebrate the occasional happy hour, and tell many food stories. Mother’s Day in Spain comes earlier than in the U.S. It’s the first Sunday in May—today—and my mom is so upset that she will spend the day by herself, but she is thinking of cooking something special; she already gave my brother the shopping list, and we will have a family FaceTime. The other day she cried. She felt lonely but immediately distracted herself with the thought of her next birthday, her 80th. “We need to celebrate once this dreadful virus leaves,” she said. “Let´s plan a feast….”
Désirée Willmes lives in Connecticut where she works as a court interpreter.
5 medium/big potatoes (russet or Yukon gold), peeled
salt to taste (approximately 1 1/2 - 2 t.)
1 big yellow onion (Mom prefers sweet onion)
2 - 3 c. olive oil
6 eggs, beaten
Cut the potatoes about 1/8 inch thick.
Put them in a bowl and toss with salt.
Cut the onion in half and then slice it into fine rings.
Using a deep non-stick frying pan, add the olive oil over high heat, then lower it to medium.
Add the onions and sauce for 1 minute.
Add the potato slices. The olive oil should almost cover the potatoes and onions, which should cook slowly but not brown, absorbing a fair amount of oil.
Turn gently every few minutes until potatoes are tender.
Drain in a colander, reserving the cooking oil.
When the potatoes mixture has cooled a bit, toss them with the eggs, and let them soak for 5 minutes.
Clean the frying pan with paper towel, put it back on the stove over medium heat, and use some of the reserved olive oil to coat the pan.
Carefully pour the warm mixture into the pan, and let it cook.
When you see the edges of the tortilla firm up, use a rubber spatula around the edges to let the uncooked part slide to the bottom of the pan.
Lift slightly with a spatula, and when the bottom is lightly browned, carefully cover the pan with a large plate or cutting board.
With one hand on the pan´s handle and the other one over the plate, flip the pan.
(This maneuver is to be carried out over the kitchen sink.)
Slide the omelette back into the pan, uncooked side down, and cook for another 3 - 4 minutes, loosening the edges with the rubber spatula.
Slide onto a serving plate and serve it warm or at room temperature.