Never use a knife to cut tortilla
And other unspoken rules
As any sorority sister who studied abroad in BALENTHIA (read: Valencia in an affected Spanish accent) for a semester can tell you, there are some cultural differences that you immediately pick up on when you move to Spain from the US. Lining up at a bakery never includes actually standing in line (there’s a “disorganized order”), lunch and dinner are eaten way later in the day, and meals can last hours due to the concept of sobremesa.1 But then there are more subtle differences that you probably don’t notice until you’re fully metido2 in a Spanish family.
Case in point: A couple of years ago David and I had lunch with his aunt, uncle, and younger cousin at their house. His aunt is from the northern part of Spain, and on the menu were two of my favorite things that the region is famous for: caldo gallego3 and tortilla de patata. As we were eating, I overheard David’s aunt tell her daughter to stop using her knife to cut the pincho4 of tortilla on her plate. Um, what? No one had ever told me that. I made a mental note to ask David about it later, and tried to nonchalantly place my knife back without anyone noticing (mission: probably not accomplished). When we were alone, he explained that you’re never supposed to use a knife with egg dishes. Who knew?!
In some ways I find people in Madrid more direct than in the US, but in this sense everyone is going to be too polite to correct you. So here’s a list of rules and traditions around food that I’ve picked up in the past six years:
Never use a knife to cut tortilla (see above)
It’s acceptable and encouraged to use a small piece of bread to push food such as rice or pasta onto your fork
Pancakes are typically eaten for a mid-afternoon snack instead of breakfast (and usually with whipped cream and chocolate syrup)
Paella is never eaten for dinner
Don’t cut bread at the table
Serving wine with your left hand is bad luck
Toasting with water? Also bad luck
Your hands should always be seen instead of being kept in your lap (I fail miserably at this one)
Olive oil adelgaza5
Rules are made to be broken, and no one is going to look down on you for not following these. In fact, we may have eaten paella for dinner a few times… secretly… in our own home. As they say, “Ojos que no ven, corazón que no siente.”6
When you stay after a meal talking with friends/family. Usually accompanied by coffee, copas, and/or “solving the world’s problems” as David likes to say.
A part of/immersed in
A traditional soup from Galicia
Makes you thin. This one is up for debate, but David’s mom insists that it’s true.
Spanish phrase meaning “what you don’t know won’t hurt you,” or in this case, what the etiquette police don’t know won’t hurt them.