Sunday, May 17, 2009

Eternity and Ham, Part III (fini)

In the year 711, Tariq b. Ziyad, the Muslim governor of Tangiers landed at Jabal Tariq (or Gibraltar as we would now say), the stone promontory named after him. He decisively beat the Visigoth Christian King Roderic, establishing a foothold for Islam in southern Spain. It took less than ten years for the Moors to conquer all of Spain except for a small portion of the country in the central and western Pyrenees.

In about 720 Spanish resistance stiffened, and under the legendary leader Pelayo, the mountain Kingdom of Asturias in the northern Pyrenees defeated a Moorish army and stopped their advance. That battle began the Reconquista, a war that continued, with many fits and stops, for more than 700 years until Boabdil, leader of Grenada, surrendered Alhambra, the last Moorish fortress in Spain, to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492.

My mind cannot comprehend a war lasting for 700 years. Seven Hundred years ago Columbus had not yet been born, let alone sailed to America. Seven Hundred years is more than twenty generations. It’s time enough for your great-grandfather to have been born and die and all the generations through your great-grandchildren as well—and for that to happen half a dozen times. The impact on a people and culture must be enormous, almost incomprehensible.
In Spain, the signs of Moorish culture are everywhere. You see them in orange and almond groves; in white hilltop villages built as forts; and in the geometric and abstract designs of the south of Spain.

You also see signs of Moorish culture in the cuisine. Some of those signs are direct influences, such as spices like coriander and cumin or the use of almonds and oranges, but the Spanish love of ham, strangely enough, is also a result of the Moorish occupation of Spain.
After centuries of conflict, living together and intermarriage, it was difficult to remember who was a Muslim and who was a Christian. Especially because many people switched their religion depending on who was ruling the territory where they lived at any one time. A few cultural signs became key indicators.

One of the most important was whether you ate pork. If you ate pork, then you were a Christian. If you did not eat pork, then you were Muslim. After the Christian victory in 1492, given the looming terror of the Inquisition, it would have been a very bad idea to decide that even though you were a Christian, pork was just not to your taste.

Dishes that are made in Morocco with lamb, such as the small kebobs known as “pinchos”, are made with pork in Spain, even though the seasonings may be Middle Eastern.

As a result of the need to prove your identity as a Christian, Spain became a nation of lovers of pork, and of ham, and remains so to this day. Eating ham confirmed to the world that you were entitled to eternal salvation. So if you look closely, look at history and culture, you can see eternity, not only as a great ring of pure and endless light, but also as a bocadillo of jamon iberico. Or you can if you are Spanish, at least.

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