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36. Gerry Dawes's Spain: An Insider's Guide to Spanish Food, Wine, Culture and Travel

"My good friend Gerry Dawes, the unbridled Spanish food and wine enthusiast cum expert whose writing, photography, and countless crisscrossings of the peninsula have done the most to introduce Americans—and especially American food professionals—to my country's culinary life. . .” - - Chef-restaurateur-humanitarian José Andrés, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Oscar Presenter 2019; Chef-partner of Mercado Little Spain at Hudson Yards, New York 2019


Sunset in a Glass: Adventures of a Food and Wine Road Warrior in Spain Volume I, Chapter I Sevilla: Arrival in Spain (in 1968) Soldiers on a Train (Excerpt protected by copyright)

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 Gerry Dawes in 2021 standing at La Puerta (El Arco) de la Macarena, the gate through which he first entered Sevilla in 1968, quite by accident, the same entry point used by numerous Spanish Kings on their first visit to Sevilla.

Sevilla: Arrival in Spain

Soldiers on a Train

Chapter 2

(This content may not be copied or re-transmitted without the written consent of author Gerry Dawes.) 

 Before I was stationed in Spain in the US Navy, my knowledge of Spain and wine, which subsequently became a career for me in New York City, was nonexistent. Spain and my Spanish wine expertise would follow later, but my fledgling wine knowledge began its journey in California when I was stationed in Monterey in the mid-1960s. (I don’t count plying girlfriends back in Illinois with the occasional bottle of pink “Champagne.”) On week- ends at the mystical white beach at Carmel with my buddies—all of us students at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey—I shared jugs of cheap California wines, along with bread and cheese from the Mediterranean Market in Carmel village. One night under a decaying old Monterey wharf, I helped two Navy buddies polish off a gallon jug of Mountain Red—with miserable results.

Occasionally on a payday weekend, I would splurge on abalone and a bottle of Almaden Emerald Riesling or some such at a restaurant on Monterey’s then-not-so-touristy Fisherman’s Wharf or have spaghetti and a wicker-wrapped, aptly named fiasco of Chianti on Cannery Row, which at that time still had vestiges and whiffs of John Steinbeck’s era. And one June weekend in 1967, I watched and listened in wine-soaked reverie at the Monterey Pop Festival as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Otis Redding and others became international stars right before our mesmerized eyes and ears and passed into legend.

Before I entered the Navy, at Southern Illinois University, I had sporadically pursued a Journalism major until 1965 when the Lyndon Johnson-led US government—opting first, of course, for those “who had not worked continuously towards a degree”—decided they needed even more carrion candidates for Vietnam. I volunteered for the Navy as soon as I felt the hot breath of my local draft board breathing down my neck. To avoid the possibility of two years of infantry duty and possible (certain in my mind) death, I enlisted for four years in the Navy, astutely calculating that aircraft carriers didn’t normally invade Vietnamese rice paddies.

Ironically, I damn near died from a bout with spinal meningitis that I contracted during basic training at Great Lakes Naval Station, where recruits were allowed some four hours sleep a night, which greatly contributed to a meningitis epidemic among recruits during that epoch. (In the middle of the night, we took turns guarding a laundry room, just in case, we surmised, the Viet Cong somehow managed to penetrate the heartland in the dead of a Lake Michigan winter to stage a surprise laundry raid.)

After a four-month stay in the hospital and after schmoozing the Great Lakes Naval Station personnel bureau with boxes of donuts, they put me on the telephone with Navy bureaucrats in Washington, whom I pestered until they gave me an assignment to the Defense Language Institute at Monterey, where I miraculously graduated as a poor-to-mediocre linguist. I left Monterey barely conversant in Russian, much of which was military terminology, but I did learn to sing a transliterated version of “Dixie.”

After graduation, we were transferred for several months to the Defense Department’s Top Secret Security School in San Angelo, Texas, a training assignment made memorable by a monumentally ignorant Boatswain’s Mate Chief Petty Officer, who lined up our mostly col- lege-educated crew of linguists and threatened to charge us with mutiny for failing to show up for a useless meeting after an all-night class. He punctuated his blustering by proclaiming the “ignorance in boatswain’s mates went out with the sailing ships,” which caused the in- credulous officers watching this absurd, worthy-of-a-M*A*S*H episode performance to stifle guffaws. The mutiny squelched, we survived to graduate, but the Chief was not done spreading his wisdom.

On graduation day, he graphically told the men in our unit, several of whom were married, how to avoid contracting venereal disease after having sex with women they might meet in bars. My classmates, fearing imprisonment for mutiny or insubordination, strained mightily, as in near hernia-inducing strain, to keep from laughing in the chief’s face. Some of the officers attending our graduation rushed from the room to keep from doing the same.

One day in class, when field assignments were being announced, my unit commander blurt- ed, “Dawes, you lucky bastard. You are going to Rota, Spain.” As it turned out, life’s lottery handed me a winning ticket. As soon as class was over, I went straight to the base library and checked out the few books I could find on Spain.

On January 2, 1968, not long after daylight, our military plane, near the end of an overnight flight from McGwire Air Force Base in New Jersey, banked near El Puerto de Santa María and I got my first glimpse of Spain. Below, I saw whitewashed buildings amid palm trees set in a sea of stubby vines—now bare of leaves in mid-winter—surrounded by stark white soil. As I would learn later, the Navy base at Rota was near the sherry vineyards between Jerez de la Frontera and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. As the plane circled before landing, I also could not help noticing circular enclosures which I would learn were bullrings, including the big one at El Puerto de Santa María and a couple of smaller ones which I would one day find first-hand are used to test young fighting cows for bravery. Spain was already beginning to fascinate me and I had not even touched the ground.

The plane landed in Spain, but on the US Navy base, an American enclave where I would stay for the next week, eager to discover my first foreign country. New arrivals were not allowed off the base until they had attended the don’t-drink-the-water, don’t-eat-the-food, don’t-get-in- fights-with-the-natives, don’t-molest-the-señoritas lecture, which was held once a week. For our group, the indoctrination lecture was not held for nearly a week. All I saw of Spain during my first week in Rota were the glimpses I got on the daily bus rides to my work assignment at a large white security building, surrounded by a huge antennae field—derisively known to the enlisted men as the “hum locker,” because of the constant humming sound made by the anten- nas. It was where Navy linguists in French, Arabic, and Russian clandestinely eavesdropped on radio conversations from around the Mediterranean.

Tom Sims, a tall, shy, sardonic, totally eccentric French linguist, with whom Gerry Dawes first came to Sevilla.

From the perimeter road, across the strands of barbed wire that encircled the base, I saw men plodding along on burros past scrappy-looking farms with cottages, some of which still had thatched roofs and in whose sparse environs grew cactus and palm trees. I saw little of the greenery that I knew from my native Midwest; this part of Spain was more like parts of Cali- fornia, perhaps even more barren. Still, those few glimpses seemed exotic and were tantalizing. Finally, along with other new arrivals, we were given the indoctrination lecture and allowed off the base. I went to downtown Rota with a fellow sailor for my first meal in Spain: spaghetti with meat sauce, served in an “American” bar, where Spanish and foreign girls, very few of whom were prostitutes, tried to keep lonesome young men engaged in conversation, thus

keeping the wheels hot on the trucks that delivered San Miguel beer to the bars of Rota.

The latest American rock music blared from a jukebox, continually reminding my compa- triots of the girls they had left behind, perpetuating their homesickness and underlining their determination to get out of “Mother Nav” and away from Spain. Some of my fellow Navy men contemptuously referred to the local Spaniards as “Moes,” a name used by sailors who had been transferred from previous assignments in Kenitra, Morocco, where they called the Moroccans “Moes,” then used it in Rota as a moniker for Spaniards in general.

I knew men who spent two years at Rota and never got more than a few kilometers from the base. Once I lured one of them as far away as Cádiz, that wonderful, ancient, exotic seaport city across the bay from Rota, to see the sights but he became so uncomfortable after a couple of hours that he demanded we return to Rota to drink in the American bars.

I too joined the daily post-shift migration to the bars of Rota, drinking my share of drinks, playing my share of pool, telling my share of jokes, and trying, like hundreds of other enlist- ed men and officers, to woo the too-many-times-wooed, often hardened, young women who served drinks. But gnawing away at my insides was the thought that Spain was my chance to see Europe, maybe my only chance before returning to small-town Illinois where, with the help of the GI Bill, I would resume the pursuit of my teacher’s degree at Southern Illinois University.

In addition to hanging out in the bars, I continued reading about Spain and like many others before and since, became enamored of Ernest Hemingway’s books, especially the ones set in Spain: For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Sun Also Rises, especially the latter, which drew on the author’s experiences with the Paris-based “Lost Generation.”

During my first months in the Navy at Rota, I met Tom Sims, a tall, shy, sardonic, totally ec- centric French linguist, whose father was a prominent geologist and whose sister Charlotte was crowned Miss Minnesota in 1967. One of the quirkiest of many quirky people I have known in my life, Sims became my friend and, eventually, my housemate in an off-base apartment.

Sims arrived in Rota several months before I did and had been to Sevilla once. How Sims managed to get there and back, I still wonder, since his skills as a navigator, or anything else involving the use of logic applied to everyday problems, seemed non-existent. Sims, whose whole life revolved around reading good literature while listening to classical music, is a man to whom I would never loan even a screwdriver without a serious interrogation, nor would I turn him loose in any kitchen unless I wanted it to become a toxic waste site. His idea of cooking in those days consisted of dumping a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese—bought from the Rota Navy Exchange—into a pan of water, turning the fire on under it and reading until he smelled it burning. Sims also seemed to revel in a peculiar habit that made him, say, order steak in some of the best seafood restaurants in Spain such as those in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and then choose fish in landlocked Ecija, a Córdoba province town which gets so hot it is known as la sartén de España, the frying pan of Spain.

In early spring of 1968, Sims and I took the train from El Puerto de Santa María to Sevilla. When we arrived at what even a novice like me knew had to be the main train station in Sevilla, then the Estación de San Bernardo, Sims claimed that there was another station where we were supposed to get off. After a 15-minute stop, the train began to move. I kept questioning Sims about this “other” station, since I was convinced that we were on our way to Madrid. As the train was rambling out of the suburbs of Sevilla, it slowed down for a track-switching maneuver and I insisted that we jump off before it picked up speed again.

We got off the train while it was moving and ended up in San Jerónimo, then a suburban village near Sevilla’s San Fernando cemetery, where later I would learn that Joselito and Belmonte, the two great hero matadors of Sevilla, were interred. It was market day in San Jerónimo, so we strolled along the street listening to the foreign sounds of peddlers hawking the cheap produce of a working-class barrio. When we asked using sign language how we could get to Sevilla, a woman at a vegetable stand pointed to a bus stop across the street. The bus was just arriving and we rode four kilometers to Sevilla, where we got off at a stop across the street from one of the old Moorish gates to the city.



El Arco de la Macarena, one of the remaining ancient gates left in Se- villa and one of the most important because it leads to La Basilica de la Macarena. But since it is off the main routes leading into Sevilla, it is unlikely that any foreigner would enter Sevilla this way for the first time. This was my very first photograph of Sevilla. Note the traffic jam of bicycles, motorbikes, small trucks and cars and a donkey pulling a cart.

 The gate was the Arco de la Macarena, the ancient archway through which one of the most iconic Virgin figures of Andalucía, La Virgen de la Macarena, a jewel-bedecked, richly robed Madonna statue of legendary beauty, is carried out each Holy Thursday to the hosannas of thousands of Sevillanos. The Macarena gate is flanked by the ruins of Sevilla’s old Roman walls and is one of the city’s most revered spots, but it was not a place directly linked to any main roads, so it was next to impossible for a foreigner to enter the city this way. I have long thought, given this auspicious entrance into Sevilla, that my fate was somehow inextricably intertwined with this marvelous Andalucian city from that first moment. My future wife and I eventually lived in Sevilla for nearly four years; the best man at our wedding was a Sevillano, and it was Sevilla that, 25 years later— through a pivotal rekindled friendship and the discovery of a prodigiously talented young bullfighter/media star, Francisco Rivera Ordoñez—would draw me ever more deeply back into Spain.

On that wondrous spring day in 1968, Sims and I wandered through the back streets for hours, emerging from Sevilla’s narrow urban canyons on calle Francos to find the La Giralda tower soaring above us. Once the minaret of the main mosque when the Moors ruled Sevilla seven centuries earlier, La Giralda was later capped with a Renaissance structure and became the bell tower of the Cathedral and Sevilla’s symbol, its Eiffel Tower. The statue of Faith, called El Giraldillo, crowning the top of the structure, has a metal protrusion that allows it to swivel in the wind so that it acts as a weathervane. The shield-like protrusion resembles a mu- leta, the small red cloth that a bullfighter uses during la faena, the main act of a corrida— there is even a pass called the giraldilla.

Sims and I had finally arrived at the center of the city, but our meanderings were worth it. From our impromptu entrance through the Macarena arch that is sacred to Sevillanos and our serendipitous exploration of the labyrinthine streets of the working-class quarters of Sevilla with their strange sights, smells, and sounds, I got a taste of the city’s true alma, its soul, one that I have never lost. In subsequent months, now enchanted with this beautiful and exotic city, I returned again and again. My Navy linguist’s unit worked in shifts that were similar to what nurses work in hospitals. The schedule was crucial to being able to really immerse myself in Spanish culture. Our work cycle began with two evening shifts from 5 p.m. to midnight, then two day shifts, followed by two midnight shifts.

On the last morning of each cycle the shift ended at 8 a.m., then we had the rest of that day free, the following two days and until 5 p.m. the last day when the cycle began again. During each nine-day cycle I had 81 hours off in a row, the equivalent of a four-day weekend, which allowed me to go to Sevilla and play civilian, or in my case, Sevillano. Not insignificant in my nascent love affair with Sevilla was the fact that there was a continual flow of young American, Canadian and English-speaking European women backpacking or touring around Spain and on their obligatory stop to see the quintessential Andalucian city of Carmen. This made Sevilla an infinitely more attractive place for me to spend free time than in Rota, with its very highly competitive, seldom fruitful bar scene with its jaundiced women.

Early on during my hitch in Rota, on a train from El Puerto de Santa María to Sevilla, I met an American backpacker whose name I no longer remember. He was carrying the indispensable guidebook, Spain on $5 a Day, which recommended a cheap pensión in the old Jewish Quarter, the Barrio de Santa Cruz. It cost about a dollar a day, he said, and asked me if I would like to share a room with him to save money. We found the Pensión Santa Cruz in the narrow back streets of the Barrio and it became my home away from Rota. The Juan Alonso family who owned it became my Spanish mamá and papá and their son Juan, mi hermano, my Spanish brother, who subsequently came to America sponsored by my friend Edwin Mullens and was the best man at our wedding in Michigan. I was hooked on Sevilla.

Because of the military’s infinite wisdom and logic-defying precision, I, a Russian linguist, was assigned for two years to the Rota Naval Base in Spain, from which periodically I was sent out riding (facing backwards) in the plane captain’s seat of antiquated 1950s-vintage, unarmed airplanes, including the great swept-wing “whale,” the A-3 Skywarrior, a converted fighter-bomber. Staging from Rota to aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean and to land bases in Greece and West Germany, we flew on electronic eavesdropping missions off the coasts of Egypt, Libya, East Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union. It was my job to listen on a radio receiver and tape Russian military conversations. While flying off the coasts of the Soviet Union bloc countries, the first time I heard a MIG on our tail pretending to lock on with a missile that would have turned us to toast in a few seconds, I momentarily longed even for a Vietnamese rice paddy. Nevertheless, during my two-year tour of duty in Rota, between


A street scene on calle San Luís in La Macarena quarter during my first hour in Sevilla.

flying missions, I had time to begin discovering Spain and I began to develop an afición, a passion, for the country that has continued to grow for more than 50 years. I was happy, deliriously happy, to be in Europe and not in Vietman.

By August of 1968, a year after that momentous Monterey Pop Festival, after a weekend in Sevilla I found myself in a steamy second-class train car rattling south through Andalucía toward El Puerto de Santa María. I was with a group of Spanish Army conscripts, whom I had met on the train and who would become my friends over the course of that summer as we traveled back-and-forth between our respective military assignments in Cádiz province and weekend R&R in their beautiful, mystical Sevilla, the quintessential city of southern Spain, a place that was rapidly becoming my adopted hometown.