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.

Una Hamburguesa Americana
Una Hamburguesa Americana in Corte Ingles

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.

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4 thoughts on “Una Hambuguesa Americana

  1. This reminds me of a roast beef sandwich I ordered in the UK, at an lunch place (near Hampton Court of all places) that boasted American style food. It was a thick slab of beef on plain Wonderbread smeared with butter.

  2. I too ate at a Burger King in Madrid. For me, it was that I was too jet-lagged and exhausted (having just arrived) to navigate a tapas bar and of course no restaurants were open at the ridiculous hour of 9 p.m.

    It did indeed taste like any other Whopper.

  3. This reminds me of a time in Sevilla with my then teenaged daughter. After weeks of jamon, cathedrals, olivas and museums, the poor kid just wanted a burger and fries. We found a McDonalds and both agreed it tasted better than any McD stateside. Thanks for the memories.

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