The Anti-Nostalgia Tapas of La Vara
One evening last week my wife and I walked down a street in Brooklyn that felt plucked from some imagined past. Glowing brownstones lit by warm streetlights twinkling through a canopy of late summer leaves. We were headed for La Vara, my favorite restaurant from Alex Raij, a chef I stan. She and her husband Eder Montero are often credited with sparking the tapas craze that tore across New York City and then the country a decade ago. Serious Eats crowned her sea urchin panino “sandwich of the decade” in 2009, while Frank Bruni called it an “era defining treat” in the Times. I’ve had it. It lives up to the hype.
Tapas aren’t the must-be-seen-eating-it food anymore, not since the Olive Garden limped onto the bandwagon. But Raij has watched the trend wax and wane, has watched dude chefs copy her dishes and be hailed for their “creative genius,” and, with Montero by her side, has kept on bringing the world her lush, innovative interpretations of the flavors of Spain.
Raij isn’t Spanish herself, her parents are Argentine-Jewish immigrants, but she’s always had what she calls an “intuitive, easy relationship with Spanish food,” even before she met Montero, who moved to New York from Bilbao in 1999.
Raij calls La Vara “the love child between my husband and I, because it's a Spanish restaurant that is inspired by this notion of the contributions of Jews and Moors in Spanish cuisine. But in Spain, those influences are really sublimated. They're just not talked about at all, but they're so obvious to people who are involved in food. I like sort of digging around for that stuff and then doping it up. It's like a Spanish restaurant that looks towards contemporary Middle Eastern flavors.”
In 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain gave their Jewish citizens a choice: convert, flee, or burn. The justification used was the “great harm suffered by Christians from the contact, intercourse and communication which they have with the Jews, who always attempt in various ways to seduce faithful Christians from our Holy Catholic Faith.” Those who refused to convert were often mugged, murdered, or raped as they tried to flee. In 1609, they gave Spanish Muslims the same choice. This brought to a definitive end the golden age of Jewish culture in Spain that flourished during the Muslim conquest of Iberia. In the centuries that followed, Spain’s Jewish and Muslim cultural influences were erased or forced underground.
Securing power by dividing people into us and them and inciting fear of them in us has a long history as an effective tactic for taking power. We’ve seen it again in the rise of Trump’s nationalism. It simmers underneath his nostalgic refrain, make America great again.
“Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent,” Mad Men’s Don Draper said in his famous Kodak slide projector pitch, “...in Greek nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.”
As Don continues in his trademark voice, at once commanding and seductively tender, he turns off the lights and starts up the slide projector, his words illustrated by candid images of what appears to be his own happy family.
“This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards. it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels - around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”
As he finishes, we see his colleague Harry has been moved to tears. It’s clear the account has been won. The audience is left with the irony of Don’s crumbling marriage, dressed up, sanitized, and used to sell slide projectors.
Historian Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were, observes that in recent decades we’ve seen a “revival of the more pernicious form of nostalgia, what we might call past-sickness. This is the longing to reproduce an idealized piece of history. When people are collectively nostalgic about their past experiences as members of a group or as inhabitants of an era, rather than individually nostalgic for their personal experiences, they start to identify more intensely with their own group and to judge members of other groups more negatively.”
My wife Bree comes from Pennsylvania Amish and Mennonite country, a place with deep connections to collective ideas about the past. Her parents were Mennonite a few generations back, but they’ve evolved into atheist, Rachel-Maddow-watching, Hillary-voting registered Democrats whose homophobia applies only to their own daughter. The details aren’t mine to share, but the way they treated Bree when she she came out to them at seventeen would make a compelling horror movie. When they flew to Tucson for her MFA graduation, she asked if they would meet me. They said no. As I stood outside the University of Arizona Poetry Center, waiting for Bree’s graduate reading to begin, her mother stood three feet in front of me, refusing to make eye contact or acknowledge there was a person standing where I was standing.
“You’ll never know the joy of family,” Bree’s mother told her on the phone, shortly after that trip. When Bree tried to argue that plenty of queers are married with children, her mother said, “It’s not the same.” When Bree told her parents the overwhelming majority of Americans support gay marriage, they said, “That’s what people say in public, but privately, everyone is laughing at you.” Bree was a trojan horse of them, born into a family who believed themselves to be safely us. They gave her a choice, convert, flee, or burn.
Walking down Clinton Street that night it was hard to avoid feeling nostalgia for the New York City of my past. Why did I ever leave, I always ask myself on streets like these, on the sort of hot, sweet city night that makes it hard to remember the chronic headaches from living above an illegal dumping ground for dry cleaning chemicals, the trash sweating on the streets, the years of working too many hours for too little money, of paying too much rent and drinking too much, the daily effort it took to avoid being consumed by blazing panic.
Bree sighed and looked up at the light filtering down through the dark green leaves, casting dappled shadows on multi-million dollar brownstones. “This is what every little kid who dreams of moving to New York City thinks it will be like.”
We ducked into La Vara and sat at the polished white marble bar. We looked up at the walls, covered with metal cutouts that evoked Islamic sacred geometry. I ordered a Monserrat, which pairs a spicy Casa Mariol vermut with bitter aperol and cava, and comes garnished with a brandied kumquat and a manzanilla olive. The empty marble in front of us began to fill with small jewels of flavor. There was an amuse bouche of fried green olives perched on pungent mint yogurt. There were Raij’s classic croquetas de jamón, pillowy pockets of delight. There were lemon drenched anchovies with eggplant and charred bread, and light, fluffy fried artichokes that melted on our tongues like fairy wings. There was a dreamy fluke tartare with pomegranate seeds and cardamom and fried matzoh. There were tender chicken hearts, skewered and slathered in lemon juice and cumin.
When it was over, we stepped lightly out of the restaurant and back out onto the warm street. We had nowhere to be, except with each other, so we wandered south, through Prospect Park, listening choirs of insects shout their proud songs into the night.