When will I learn that it is a fruitless practice to try and introduce the glories of American cuisine to the denizens of foreign countries? For six years now I’ve been living abroad and despite numerous attempts, my one success remains the time I baked peanut butter cookies for my Japanese landlord in Tokyo (later I found out that she had prepared them for her Buddhist prayer group). Buoyed by my success with the Japanese Buddhists, I tried again the following year in Switzerland when I prepared dozens of peanut butter cookies for the neighbourhood Christmas party -at no small expense to myself I might add, since peanut butter, not being given its rightful consideration as a staple of life, is priced more as an imported delicacy.
Anyway, be that as it may, the Swiss peanut butter experiment was a miserable failure and in the end I had to return home with nearly all of my cookies, not a few of them missing miniscule bites from where some of the braver children had tried them before abandoning them for one of the stale, tasteless gingerbready type cakes that the Swiss seem to adore around that time of year.
Which brings us to Spain where I have, among other things, attempted to foist a tuna noodle casserole and homemade Ding Dongs onto the virgin tongues of various Spanish and British houseguests. Nobody asked for second helpings.
Refusing to learn from past mistakes, I decided to make American style frosted sugar cookies for Nico’s school birthday celebration yesterday. Their class mascot is a stuffed lady bug puppet named Marieta so I thought it would be cute to make the cookies in the shape of lady bugs and then let the kids decorate them (chocolate chips for the polka dots, liquorice for antennae, jelly bean eyes, etc). The decorating went smoothly enough but when it came time to eat the cookies, the kids just looked at them with suspicion and although a few picked the chocolate chips off the tops of their cookies, not one of them would take even a single bite. Even the class glutton who would eat a plate of pebbles if there was a bit of sugar sprinkled on top, refused to touch his lady bug.
I was utterly shocked; I had known that this wasn’t a familiar cookie to them but I still couldn’t imagine that any child on Earth could turn down the joyous sugar shock that each bite was guaranteed to give them. Apparently even massive sugar rushes do not defeat the strengths of culinary cultural ties. “Nunca he visto una cena asi” Alex heard one child mutter as he stared disconcertedly at his cookie. (“I’ve never seen food like this.”)
On the other hand, I reasoned, maybe I had just misjudged their attachment to Marieta, the class lady bug. Maybe creating an item of food in her image and then eating it was too disturbing to contemplate. I tried to imagine American children having the same issue but didn’t succeed. After all, if Americans kids have no problem eating cookies shaped like their beloved Santa Claus, I figure they can eat just about anyone and anything as long as it’s constructed primarily of sugar and butter. Maybe the real problem was just that the Spaniards are not in the habit of eating desserts in the shape of exalted cultural figures?
As Americans, if we like someone, we make them into a cookie or a cupcake and then promptly devour them. During the last election, dozens of bakers took to their ovens to produce Obama sugar cookies and a quick internet search will easily turn up any number of other cultural icons. Michael Jackson, George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus- indeed they have all been baked. As for the British, they apparently turn people they like into pizzas. “There are photos of Susan Boyle everywhere and I started thinking how much she looks like a pizza with that round head of hers” said Toby Thorogood, the responsible bakery's product development chef. Well sure…To us this is normal and natural but perhaps not all cultures see it that way. At least not the Spanish anyway. As much as I try and imagine, I can’t quite see Javier Bardem’s face grinning up from the top of a cupcake or Zapatero’s likeness gracing a batch of sugar cookies. Granted Marieta the ladybug is no Julio Iglesias in terms of her national importance, but I suppose to a bunch of Spanish three-year olds, she might as well be.