Travel Essays

A Moveable Feast: pan con tomate

My new bite-sized series, A Moveable Feast, will feature anecdotes and lessons learned from my favorite Spanish foods. The first features pan con tomate, which is as delicious as it is simple to prepare.

Why couldn’t life be as simple as pan con tomate? The bread popped out of the toaster, causing me to jump in surprise out of my reverie. I sighed at my jitteriness and picked the remaining skin off the clove of garlic. I rubbed the garlic across the rough toasted surface of the bread that I had carried under my arm from the bakery earlier that day. The garlic shredded and melted into the crispy dough, filling my nostrils with its comforting smell.

Cooked garlic always reminded me of home. Having an Italian-American mom will do that to you. The whole process of preparing pan con tomate was always soothing for me: familiar, simple ingredients and a no-brainer process allowed me to mull over my latest thoughts as I prepared the snack.

I only prepared pan con tomate when I truly felt at home. I had spent months living in the house of strangers, parents who decided that they wanted the benefit of a live-in English-speaking person. I was a guest, but I had to earn my keep; I had a full-time job as an English teacher yet had to play babysitter when I got home; I didn’t fit in with the adults, but was lumped with the young children; I was part of the family, but I was also “the help.” I felt like I was constantly walking on tiptoes. I only prepared pan con tomate when I felt at home enough to raid someone’s refrigerator, and that was at the home of the Garcia family, whose children I babysat twice a week. They always had tomatoes: one type of tomato for cooking, firmer tomatoes for salads, and usually a half-started tomato for pan con tomate.

Pan con tomate was one of the few ways a person could convince me to eat raw tomato; one firm, ripe tomato would last a week as I squeezed every bit of juice down to the rind. I cut the new tomato in half and rubbed the juicy insides over the top of the bread. A final glug of good olive oil and a generous sprinkle of salt were the finishing touches.

Sometimes the simplest things were the best. It was a gentle reminder when I missed the comforts of home. I was okay. I had all the right ingredients. I just had to put them all together.

pan con tomate

And months later, when the Garcia family got a beautiful new flat, they showed me around through doors and hallways.

“And this would be your room, Courtney, if you came to live with us…. please come live with us.”

There would be plenty of pan con tomate in our future.

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