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Paprika: Just a Pile of Dust?

She said: I’ve been making up excuses for not going to Barcelona for quite some time.

See, years ago, when E, always the wanderlust, initially suggested we take off to Barcelona for a long weekend, I was all for it. Then he started trying to woo me with tales of how we’d go from bar to bar ordering pulpo a la Gallega, octopus tossed with olive oil and sprinkled with copious amounts of paprika. Two octopus-eating fools in love.

Let’s be clear about a couple things. I love pulpo. I loathe paprika. I’ve been stalling ever since.

I’ve never understood paprika. When I was a kid, it was the most commonly used spice in my mom’s cupboard, unless you counted granulated garlic or dehydrated onion flakes. The tiny Schilling’s tin, with mounds of rust-colored dust that accumulated around the slightly raised holes on its top, was a constant presence in her cooking. Nothing, it seemed, livened up the surface of anything like a little—or rather, a lot—of paprika.

I can still see her tipping the tin and tapping it in measured fashion with her fingertip, and I can still hear the relentless dull thud as it echoed in my ears. I’d cringe inwardly each time. Casseroles. Tap. Tap. Tap. Baked potatoes. Tap. Tap. Tap. Not even corn on the cob was safe from that slightly spicy dust. Tap. Tap. Tap.

Paprika didn’t seem exotic to me in the same way that some spices conjure comparisons to frankincense and myrrh. Instead, it seemed the culinary incarnation of the similarly colored shag carpeting in the living room, which I admit I also didn’t like. The spice sort of tasted like I imagined that carpeting might, with something of a stale stuffiness or mustiness about it that, to me, seemed as dusty and as pointless as can be.

A couple of decades of life experience beyond that Iowa farmhouse kitchen haven’t persuaded me to the contrary. Ignoring paprika’s existence proved to be of little consequence for quite some time. And then E came along. Back when the dollar was being trounced by the euro, my excuse for staying stateside was easy. But lately I’ve been running out of reasons. And because life—and marriage—is full of compromise, Barcelona is currently situated squarely at the top of our travel list. I can’t imagine going to Barcelona and being the sort of annoying tourist who orders the octopus, hold the paprika. And yet I may not be above asking for pulpo a la Gallega, sin pimentón, por favor. 

He said: Renee, Renee, Renee (shaking head). Paprika is mother’s milk to me. There’s nary a dish my mother, grandmother, and aunts have made that didn’t contain anywhere from a pinch to a punch of the ruddy-red spice. And in honor of you, the very first dish I ordered at Miguelitos, a tapas bar here in Barcelona, was pulpo a la Gallega. The One and I clinked forks then dug in, and we loved it.

Now granted, paprika—especially the sweet kind—isn’t jam-packed with flavor. No, it doesn’t deliver the musky wallop of cumin or the fiery heat of the look-alike spice, cayenne. But my grandmother always considered paprika to be the “lipstick of the dish.” It adds a bit color to anything it touches. Avó Costa used to make a chicken and rice soup that had just a tinge of pink to it—pink being her favorite color. To this day, none of us can figure out exactly how she got the soup to blush. (So in love with the color was she, that she had a straight-sided hat covered with the tiniest pink rosebuds knotted out of straw. And she wore that to church every Sunday—looking as if she had a marvelous pink-frosted cake on her head.)

But Vovó didn’t just paint with paprika, she understood its subtleties. She knew that besides the traditional sweet and hot paprika that we all find in dusty tins on the supermarket shelf, there was an entire spectrum of the spice, from barely there to piquant. And she knew how to coax the flavor—and color—out of each type.

For example, when I was a kid, she’d fry up my aunt’s chouriço—pork sausage my aunt would pack with garlic and paprika—in oil. She’d strain the used oil into a large bottle she kept under the sink until she had enough. Then she’d ceremoniously slice up a pile of potatoes into fat fries and dump them in the orange oil. As the fries spat at her, she’d call upstairs to my cousins Barry and Wayne and me, “Sheeps! Sheeps!”—her accent mangling the word chips. We bolted into her apartment and scraped her kitchen chairs into place while she heaped the fries onto our plates. There we sat, all four of us, we three devouring the luscious, fat, rusty-colored fries, and Vovó, her chin cupped in her palm watching, smiling.

If that’s not an argument for the proliferation and preservation of this quiet, shy spice, nothing is.

While here in gorgeous Barcelona, I’ve of course enjoyed pimentón—smoked paprika—another of Iberia’s greatest gifts (along with Avó Costa). One look at the love affair we Americans have been having with pimentón the past decade is all it takes. Back home, I’ve had it sprinkled on everything from apricot purée (a revelation) to chocolate (not such a revelation). Bottom line: we love paprika.

So buck up and face your fears. Book passage to Barcelona and begin an indiscriminate, torrid affair. I’m sure E wouldn’t mind.

Octopus with Paprika

What about you? Where are you on the paprika spectrum?