Gazpacho de Quietbubble, con el gato Eliza, 26 March 2007.
It’s springtime, which means it’s gazpacho time.
The first time I ever heard of the fabulous cold soup, I was watching Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown in my 11th-grade Spanish class, which was taught by a French immigrant who realized, way too late, that this movie might not be appropriate for his high school class. It could have been a number of things that made him jittery, worrying about how much of the humor we were getting: the high, lusty camp; the foul language; the suicide attempt played for laughs; the sex talk; the talk of terrorists on TV, again played for laughs; the crazy cuckold with a handgun; the lovely women in skimpy, loud miniskirts.
I’d like to think it was the drugs that made Mr. Chaligné bite his nails.
There’s little point in giving plot summary. Those who haven’t seen the movie will be slightly bewildered by the paragraphs that follow, as at least four different plots converge on a grieving woman’s Madrid apartment. Those who have seen it will cringe at what will be necessary reductionism. Bear with me, though, because knowing the basics is important.
Pepa, a voice actor for a soap opera, decides to kill herself. Her lover Ivan (Fernando Guillén), a voice actor for the same soap opera, uses the smooth lines from the TV show to pick up women, and is leaving Pepa for another woman. Once upon a time, Pepa was the Other Woman, and her relationship with Ivan broke up his marriage to Lucia. Later, Pepa discovers that the new Other Woman is one of her dearest friends. And Lucia, who went mad when Ivan left her, has recently been released from a mental hospital, has scary running eyeliner, a handgun, and is looking for Pepa. Again, Pepa finds all that out as the movie progresses.
What’s important is the suicide by gazpacho. Carmen Maura plays Pepa as someone warm and nearly motherly, but deeply embittered and worn through by the difference between real love and what passes for it on the TV shows for which she does dub work. She’s lovely but there’s something maniacal about her eyes and that set jaw. Pepa makes a large batch of gazpacho in her blender, spiking it with a bottle of sleeping pills. She plans to drink the soup, and call it quits.
Before she can drink it all, though, a number of people trickle into her house—an old friend Candela (Maria Barranco), who’s running from the police and Shiite terrorists (long story); the police who are searching for her; Ivan’s son Carlos (Antonio Banderas, nerdy and sexy all at once) and fiancée Marisa (Rossy de Palma), who are apartment hunting and don’t initially realize who Pepa is. It’s a party, but an unintentional one.
As with most parties, there’s food. By the end of the movie, almost everyone’s had a bit of that gazpacho. Pepa offers it to the detectives searching for Candela. The virginal Marisa drinks it, and goes to sleep on the balcony, where she dreams of losing her virginity. (Mr. Chaligné’s ears were red through this entire scene. The class giggled, and erupted into laughter when, discussing the deflowering with Pepa, Pepa tells her that “It’s better the way you did it.”) All in all, the gazpacho gets everyone in the movie to loosen up a bit, and basically causes a laugh riot for everyone outside the movie—i.e., the audience.
Women on the Verge introduced me to a lot of things, from casual drug use to dark humor (that’s nevertheless cheerily lit and gaudy), to frank sexual humor that’s adult instead of adolescent, to the idea of seeing life from a woman-centric, deeply campy gaze. All of this and more can be summed up by the gazpacho, a ridiculously colorful, spicy, amazing concoction that flipped my taste buds around simply because I’d never considered the idea that a soup could be intentionally cold.
For an impressionable 17-year-old boy, looking at the stylish and madcap and sexy Almodóvar world, gazpacho sounded like the coolest thing ever. I had no idea what it would taste like.
After revisiting the movie six or seven years later, I decided to finally make some gazpacho of my own. The recipe I found online makes it sound easy:
4 large tomatoes, peeled and quartered
1 large cucumber, peeled and seeded
2 cups tomato juice
1 red onion
4 garlic cloves
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
Cumin, salt, cilantro, and Tabasco sauce to taste
Instructions: Purée tomatoes, cucumber, tomato juice, onion, bell pepper, and garlic. Strain into bowl. Stir in olive oil, vinegar, cumin, salt, and Tabasco. Garnish with cilantro leaves. Chill for 3-4 hours.
I bought the groceries—I’d never heard of cumin before, and balsamic vinegar was something I’d smelled but never tasted—and laid them out. I dressed in my customary cooking garb—old Phish t-shirt, black sweatpants, and swimming goggles to protect me from the onion spray—and got to work. It would be easy.
Around the time that I took a swipe at a tomato with the vegetable peeler, and splattered tomato juice and seed all over the kitchen wall, it dawned on me that I didn’t know how to peel a tomato. I like the thin-skinned tartness of a good tomato, so I’d never bothered to learn. Deseeding the cucumber was proved to be time-consuming and slippery; I nearly cut a fingertip off on two occasions. The ingredients were adding up to a larger meal, and taking up more counter and bowl space, than I’d anticipated.
The trick for peeling tomatoes is simple. Bring a small pot of water to boil. Submerge a tomato in the water. In about three minutes, the tomato’s skin will have loosened and split enough for you to tear it off in strips. Even your average cook knows this instinctively. I had to look it up on the internet, with a heap of cut vegetables sitting on the kitchen countertop.
With all the work involved, and the necessary wait, I hoped the soup would live up to my anticipations. It surpassed them. Gazpacho is rich, tangy, and very spicy. Tabasco, along with peppering up the whole thing, emphasizes the garlic. At its best, it’s not smooth but chunky, with a feel on the tongue that’s slightly grainy but also velvetty going down. The cumin neutralizes the tartness some, and adds its own musk of spiced clay. It’s a soup with bite, and a sharp smell that, because it’s cold instead of steaming, doesn’t overpower the nostrils.
When I make it now, I’m more generous with the Tabasco than I was a few years ago. Instead of garnishing with cilantro, I pluck the leaves and puree them along with everything else. I go light on the salt, figuring that the Tabasco and vinegar will carry the saltiness as far as it needs to go. The soup is perfect for a hot Mississippi summer afternoon, with a baguette, apple slices, and cheese on the side.
I haven’t, however, tried it with sleeping pills, and don’t recommend Pepa’s recipe unless you’re throwing a really wild party.