This is a story about hand gestures and veal.
Our waiter was well-shaven, compact and professional. He gracefully swept between tables as my parents and I entered the cave-like restaurant. Onto the cramped dining room floor we strode, non-Spanish speakers in Barcelona, city of uneven architecture and lisps. I was 11. And hungry.
Spanish-language menus aren’t tough to navigate. The pulpo is always near the bacalao, displayed just underneath the chorizo. In this instance, “ternera” was the operative word — duck, perhaps, or maybe mutton? I retrieved the mini-dictionary from my cargo shorts’ Nalgene-sized pocket and thumbed through. Ah, “veal” it was.
I opted for the Basque-style veal chop; few decisions test my nerves quite like choosing between two varieties of petit roast poultry on a French menu, yet arriving at this selection was no picnic either. The waiter noticed in embarrassed horror a smudge on my father’s wine glass. Brandishing his side towel he cleared its complexion and replaced it.
Time to order. I cannot claim to remember my parents’ selections. With my characteristic ear-to-ear grin I pointed (with my pinky finger) to the veal chop, gazing upwards in giddy anticipation, wordlessly imploring the waiter to deliver me unto carnal delight.
But wait, hold it, stop and do not move a muscle! I had a choice — my selection was customizable! Mr. Waiter understood my profound lack of Spanish language skills and adjusted his query accordingly. Swiftly raising his right hand, the waiter (let’s call him Alejandro) held his index finger close to his thumb, indicating thinness: a pounded-chop. My spirits sank — meat mallets desiccate supple veal-flesh. With all due respect to scaloppini, I avoid pounded meat unless poached for a roulade.
But wait, hold it, stop and do not move a muscle again! Alejandro drew his hand inward, towards his body, preparing for a second option. His index finger rose, climbed toward the heavens, pulled by angels away from that ghastly thumb. I could hear Plácido Domingo singing Nessun Dorma in the background overlaid with Richard Strauss’ opening to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Two succulent inches separated thumb and index finger as he pushed his hand forward. My spirits leapt: big daddy veal chop, thick as a standing rib roast with class and subtlety to boot, would be mine. I matched my trembling hand to Alejandro’s and said “Por favor, I’ll take the beast.”
Alejandro glided away from the table. My parents and I waited. A chunk of animal protein approximately the size of Lionel Messi’s thighs appeared. I enjoyed it with reckless abandon. To say more about the flavor would damn it with faint praise, as the English language is so often at its peak when nothing is said.
My life has gone downhill ever since. Except for that whole salt-crust grilled snakehead fish in Bangkok …