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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


The Importance of Being Earnest and Not Being Kurlansky: An Open Letter and Critique of Mark Kurlansky's The Importance of Not Being Ernest (Hemingway) and His Negative Opinions About People Who Regularly Attend Pamplona's Fiestas de San Fermín

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The Importance of Not Being Ernest, Hardback Book

The Importance of Being Earnest and Not Being Kurlansky

By Gerry Dawes

Author of Sunset in a Glass:  Adventures of Food and Wine Road Warrior in Spain

There is a book out by Mark Kurlansky, The Importance of Not Being Ernest: my life with the uninvited Hemingway, another book that points out many of Don Ernesto’s well-known flaws, Hemingway bashing being a fashionable sport for the last couple of decades at least.  Kurlansky is the author of a wad of books, many of them best sellers and many of them very good.  Some of you (and I) have read and applauded some of his other books, especially Cod: a Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and The Basque History of the World*.   (*I had some reservations about his suppositions in The Basque History and the fact that he apparently never made contact with a single member of the Basque separatist group ETA before writing the book.)

Many of you will find Kurlansky's observations in The Importance of Not Being Ernest interesting.  Some of you, especially those who love Pamplona, will find parts of it not to your liking, especially Kurlansky's contempt for Pamplona’s Fiestas de San Fermín* and his claim that no one goes there for the fiesta, but because they are just trying to "out Hemingway Hemingway."  Needless to say for those of us who have known and loved los sanfermines that is polemical, but there is more. Also problematic is that he seems not to have interviewed any of the people who go to San Fermín thus compounding his woeful ignorance of the history and significance of San Fermín and the reverence for the fiesta that most regulars--Navarros, Basques, Spaniards and foreigners--have.

 *I suspect that he has a general contempt for Spain itself and seems not to really know the country.  He labels the Spain chapter in Not Being Ernest, The Patent Leather Soul of Spain and claims on pp. 93-94 when he was living in France and used to go to Spain that “Spain was dark and depressing, quiet with people afraid to speak.  The last fascist country—but the food was superb.”

I lived in Franco’s Spain for eight years and while his dictatorship was a weight on the country, getting lighter every year, Spain was hardly “dark and depressing or quiet.”  

Maybe he decided it was clever to juxtapose Federico García Lorca’s poem about the patent leather souls (from the patent leather tricorn hats) of the repressive Guardia Civil (the paramilitary police that was not exclusive to the Franco regime*) and assign that moniker to all of Spain and thus Spaniards. 

*Lorca's poem Romance de la Guardia Civil Española was published in 1928, so it was not about Franco´s Guardia Civil and to paint Spain and Spaniards with the broad brush as having Patent Leather Souls is a disingenuous gimmick

"They ride the highways
with patent leather souls.
Hunchbacked and nocturnal,
they ride forth and command
the silences of dark rubber
and the fears like fine sand."

And, as to the food being superb, that likely was in San Sebastián, where he went, across the border from Saint Jean de Luz in France, but the rest of Spain in those days did not have universally good food, due in part to the widespread use and re-use of cheap and substandard olive oil in many places.  The rise in quality of Spanish cuisine in general had much to do with the rise in standards for olive oil, which is used in most dishes in Spain, then, especially outside of Atlantic Spain, i. e., Mediterranean Spain, where the use olive oil as the main cooking oil was predominant.

Kurlansky, whom I have met on a few occasions, even had dinner with at Marichu restaurant in New York and with whom I thought I had a friendly relationship, two years ago published The Unreasonable Virtue of Fly-Fishing, in which he claimed that the fictional Jake Barnes (not Ernest Hemingway) and Bill Gorton had gone to Burguete fly fishing after the Fiestas de San Fermín, not before as is clearly described in The Sun Also Rises.  Since I knew Kurlanksy, in a private Facebook message to him I pointed out that this was an error that he might want to correct in a future edition.  (Hemingway and Hadley did go to Burguete both before and after San Fermín in different years, but Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises went before.)

Early on in Not Being Ernest he claims he began as a kid reading Hemingway "with The Sun Also Rises, a truly awful title."  I don't think I have ever heard anyone say or write that about the title, but I guess that's his opinion, which he follows up with a paragraph, which is not his opinion, it is a fact-less observation and it pisses me off because it is about me.

I told him I had been to San Fermín seventeen times and had stayed in Burguete (at the Hostal Burguete of The Sun Also Rises fame) several times over the years, usually before the fiesta and once during the Christmas holidays.  

I got not so much as an acknowledgement for my corrections, for two years anyway, until The Importance of Not Being Ernest came out.  I was stunned to find this on page 132, a whole paragraph about me drawn from my message about the error in Fly Fishing, fortunately without mentioning me by name.

"I got a note from a reader (one he didn't bother to acknowledge) telling me that he had been to San Fermín seventeen times and stays in the auberge (I thought auberges were in France, Hostal Burguete is a hostal) that Hemingway stayed in on the Irati*.  Seventeen times.  I don´t know that Hemingway would have wanted to go seventeen times.  Out Hemingway-waying Hemingway.  I wanted to tell him that Navarra is a beautiful place, and he ought to forget about Hemingway and get to know it. But I suspect he would not have understood, so I said nothing."   

(*Burguete is not on the Irati; in fact, the Irati at its closest point is at least 12 kms. away; where Hemingway claimed to have fished as Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises is even farther away, some 16 kms. nearly ten miles each way on foot over sometimes mountainous terrain.)

I was under the impression that serious "journalists" like Kurlansky reached out to people* they are writing about to find out what the real story is, but not the grand Kurlansky, far be it for him to understand the importance of being earnest.  

 (*He obviously got my Facebook note about his The Sun Also Rise error, but instead of simply answering the note, he saved it to use as the basis for the fact-less paragraph he wrote about the unnamed guy who had gone to San Fermín 17 times.)

I wrote the following on Facebook Messenger and, of course, got no answer, nor did I get a comment about the numerous instances of errata I found in the book.

"Mark, I got your Hemingway book yesterday and have already read 138 pages, underlining multiple passages. Much to my shock and annoyance, I encountered your unattributed diatribe about me, the guy who wrote about your mistake (repeated in this Not Hemingway book*) that in The Sun Also Rises Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton went to Burguete AFTER San Fermin, which Hemingway did do in other years, but not as Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises.

*Page 95, The Importance of Not Being Ernest: “In The Sun Also Rises, Jake and Bill catch trout there after festival.  In real life, he went fishing before the festival.”

No, Kurlansky, as I tried to tell you nicely two years ago, you got it ass backwards.  In real life, Hemingway and Hadley and friends went to Burguete both before and after the fiestas in different years, but in The Sun Also Rises, as I wrote to you, again well before you published The Importance of Not Being Ernest, that “Hemingway was 130 pages into The Sun Also Rises and up in Burguete before he gets back to Pamplona for the fiesta.” And, expert that you are, you should know that Burguete is not on the Irati, as you wrote.

I also included Hemingway's Burguete & Mythical Feasts in the Mists of the Historical Pass of Roncesvalles in Navarra:  Scenes from Homage to Iberia from my blog and which is also a chapter in Sunset in a Glass:  Adventures of Food and Wine Road Warrior in Spain, so he had more than ample information about Burguete's location and my long-time (more than half a century of involvement with Navarra), yet he still went ahead and put his erroneous observations in his book. 


I went to San Fermín 17 times, not just because of Ernest Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises, but more because of James A. Michener’s Iberia (unmentioned by Kurlanksky in Not Being Ernest), because Michener inspired me to meet Matador John Fulton and Iberia Photographer Robert Vavra.   I came to Pamplona for fiesta for the first time with John Fulton and yes I was thrilled to meet Juan Quintana, who was the model for Montoya in The Sun Also Rises and I subsequently became friends with him. 

American Matador John Fulton and Juanito Quintana in Pamplona during Fiesta 1970.

Devotees of the Fiesta, many of whom have gone for decades without fail, go for a variety of the reasons.  While Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises may have given many of them inspiration to go in the beginning, Michener’s chapter in Iberia on Pamplona (and subsequently his novel, The Drifters, partially set in Pamplona) drew just as many.  And regardless of who and what first inspired them to go, sanfermineros return year after year because of the friendships they make among Basques, Navarros, the foreign contingent and the camaraderie.  Memories and oral histories from San Fermín stack up to the sky.

But your statement "I wanted to tell him that Navarra is a beautiful place, and he ought to forget about Hemingway and get to know it.   But, I expect he would not have understood, so I said nothing." is pure unadulterated bullshit, Mark, and shows a real lack of respect for me and a shockingly cavalier attitude to following ethical journalistic practices of verifying things you write about and especially whole paragraphs used to make some cockeyed point. 

As it my not knowing Navarra, Señor Pomposo, I published an article in The New York Times about the marvelous villages in the Navarran Pyrenees back in June 1994. In the early 1990s I wrote full chapters on most areas of Navarra for both the Berlitz Travellers Guide to Spain and Penguin Travellers Guides to Spain and I have  traveled in Navarra, outside of San Fermín, more than 50 times.