At the bone-cracking climax of Spain’s latest hit movie, two rivals in a love triangle club each other with legs of salted ham, until one falls dead in the sand.
To Spanish moviegoers, “Jamon Jamon” (“Ham Ham”) is a straightforward film about sex and materialism. Despite the movie’s title, few here even seem to notice the prominence of the pig in this portrait of their society.
Indeed, for Spain, a Don Juan’s murder weapon is also an amply proportioned national icon.
Slimmer stars normally hog the limelight, but the chubby porker is a cultural heavyweight here, a creature that has loomed large through the peaks and troughs of national history. Pork is to Spaniards as beef is to Argentines and veal is to Italians.
The passion for pork in what is now Spain dates back at least 2,500 years, to a time when Celtic tribes carved boar-like statues from granite boulders for use as tombstones or territorial markers.
“They had various divinities,” said Teresa Chapa, a history professor at Madrid’s Complutense University. “The pig, like the bull, was very important.”
The Celts are gone and Spain is a front-row member of modern, democratic Europe today. But some things haven’t changed much in the 25 intervening centuries.
In modern Spain, the faithful pray to 61 Roman Catholic saints whose legends were in some way intertwined with the pig, according to a book on the pig in Spanish culture co-authored by Ana Castaner Pamplona, a Spanish senator. In every neighborhood, bars (full of bullfight fans) serve everything from Porky’s ears to his curly tail.
Such is Spaniards’ esteem for the dry, salty jamon serrano that men sometimes describe motorcycles and pretty women as “la pata negra, " a phrase synonymous with quality that refers to ham made from the hind legs of the Iberian pig.
More than just a favorite food, though, ham has great symbolic value in Spain, a country of love and hate, said “Ham Ham” director Bigas Luna. “ (Jamon) embodies the same contradictions that the country does,” Luna told a news magazine here. “It’s also a destructive element.”
In the context of Spanish history, that’s no baloney.
When the victorious Moors swept through Spain from North Africa in 711 AD, they conquered a nation of pork-lovers. And, because religious dietary laws forbade the Moors, like the Jews, from eating pork, the pig became a symbol of political and religious resistance.
During the ensuing seven centuries of sporadic warfare that led to the Moors’ final defeat and the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, the pig’s ritual slaughter and public consumption became an important demonstration of Christian faith--and, therefore, of an emerging Spanish identity, Castaner said in an interview.
“This is when the pig began to assume a social identity,” she said, adding that to eat pork “was a means of affirming one’s Catholicism.”
It was during this period that lifelong Christians began to call once-Jewish converts marrano, or swine, according to John A. Crow, an American expert on Spanish history.
This Spanish word is derived from an Arabic root meaning prohibited thing, or outsider. Ostensible converts acquired the name because they were seen as outsiders who still refused to eat pork.
The pig has stolidly, solidly rummaged through the national psyche ever since. Even today, Spaniards don’t understand why foreign visitors are put off by the pungent, fatty hams hanging by cloven hooves in almost every bar. At $50 a pound, most Spaniards consider the meat a delicacy.
The Museum of Ham, a popular Madrid restaurant chain, is a case in point. While tourists in Madrid’s historic center may head for McDonald’s, many Spaniards prefer the nearby museum’s seemingly endless array of hams, sausages, pates and other pork products.
“It’s like going to a museum and seeing paintings by many artists,” explained Luis Munoz Heras, portly manager of a chain whose flagship eatery is only a short walk from the Prado Museum, a treasury of masterpieces by the likes of Velazquez, El Greco and Goya.
Fans of the versatile pig, too, the old masters. What would they, or the art world at large, have done without their pig-bristle brushes?