N.B. This piece appeared in the final issue of my old zine, Travelling Shoes, “Authentic Seville”, first published in the summer of 1999. The last few times I’ve visited Spain, I’ve not eaten a hamburger, operating on the unforgiving principle of “fool me once.”
There’s a joke in Whit Stillman’s film Barcelona about the awfulness of what passes for American-style hamburgers in Spain, and how because of this awfulness Spaniards all believe that Americans are stupid and grotesque, or at least possessed of degenerate tastebuds. Of course, the punchline in Barcelona is that the Spanish don’t know how to make hamburgers – that they make the worst hamburgers in creation, so its only natural that they’d think hamburgers taste like dog food, because all Spanish hamburgers do taste like dog food.
One day in Corte Ingles in Seville, a giant department store on a par with Macys, I put Stillman’s joke-observation to the test. I ordered a hamburger and french fries at the store’s fifth-floor restaurant. My original plan had been to get an omelet or some fish for lunch, but I’d been gone from the U.S. for six weeks, and they had hamburguesas on the menu, and I was homesick. The lure of comfort food was irresistible. I’d thought about hamburgers before, but I wasnt prepared to enter an American fastfood chain restaurant to get one, even though there were several McDonalds and Burger King franchises scattered around the city. I didn’t want to eat American fast food, or drink Budweiser, or watch Baywatch while I was traveling in a foreign country. What’s the point in doing that? But at that moment in Corte Ingles, I needed a hamburger, and I needed it bad. It was a psychological thing.
My mouth watered in anticipation as I placed my order with the waitress – an olive-skinned cutie in a food-service version of the Corte Ingles uniform, blue skirt and blue and white checked blouse. I wanted a Hamburguesa Americana, with lettuce and tomato and cheese, served up all juicy and hot, and a Coke Cola and some fries. She smiled knowingly, as if it was to be expected that large Americans would want to eat something that disgusting. Perhaps shed smile the same way if I were a Japanese tourist ordering a plate of raw fish entrails from the Corte Ingles menu. When she took the order to the cook, who was standing at the grill behind the counter, there was no mocking laughter. No one pointed and whispered the word gringo in barely audible tones. It was very encouraging. These people obviously knew what they were doing. They’d cooked hamburgers before.
By the time the burger arrived I was ready. The waitress even smiled when she delivered the plate, knowing it was just what I was looking for. Just the sort of dish an American would want to see on a Saturday afternoon. And I have to admit, what was on that plate looked like a hamburger. It smelled like a hamburger. There was even that All-American staple, ketchup, the condiment the world mocks us for overusing, on the table. This would be a good burger. A burger that reminded me of home. I was hopeful.
I shouldn’t have been. What was served up on the distinctive Corte Ingles china was the absolutely worst mockery of a hamburger Id ever tasted. Mealy, perhaps 40% soy-based filler, strangely seasoned, and served barely warm, it made me gag. I dont know if its just that I was eating in a department store restaurant, which is always a mistake, or if this monstrosity was the standard for Spanish hamburguesas, the top-of-the-line Iberian model. It couldnt have been worse if the cook had cut a perfect slice from a cylinder of freshly uncanned Alpo, fried it in grease and served it up on a bun.
I gulped my coke and paid the bill, nearly 1200 paesatas, almost ten bucks. Id taken only one bite of the offensive sandwich. Down the escalators and out the front door, I hit the street at a dead run, sprinting the two blocks to the Plaza de la Compana and the nearest Burger King. The hell with local cuisine. I banged open the door and rushed to the counter. I ordered a Whopper with cheese, a giant Coke and fries. It was a concession to American culture that Id wanted to avoid. But I needed a hamburger, a real hamburger, or at least as close to a real hamburger as a Burger King in Seville can make. And I needed that hamburger bad. I needed real flame-broiled beef, real tomato and lettuce, and maybe some real special sauce, to wash the taste of that hideous Hispano-burger out of my mouth, to dull the memory of that grotesque travesty of a burger. But now I was scared. What if all hamburgers in Spain tasted like the Corte Ingles burger? What if even a dependable place like Burger King, acting under the pernicious influence of Spanish burger chefs, produced those things? It would mean disaster. It would mean that my burger lust would go unsated until I returned to America.
I shoved my money at the counter person, grabbed the familiar tray and ran to a table. This would be the moment of truth. I unwrapped the sandwich-shaped object to reveal what appeared to be a perfetly normal-looking Whopper with Cheese. But I knew better than to take it at face value. Gag me once shame on you, gag me twice shame on me. I took a small nibble. It tasted like a Whopper. I took a larger bite. It was a hamburger! Or at least what passes for a hamburger at Burger Kings worldwide. Through the marvels of mass-produced standardization and franchise quality control, I could eat a Whopper – a Whopper exactly like every other Whopper Id ever eaten – right on the famous Calle Sierpes, within spitting distance of antique monuments to learning and culture. I’m sure it was a victory, although Im just not sure what kind of victory.