This pairing is inspired by the 1958 movie version of the Old Man and the Sea, starring Spencer Tracy (I never read the book. So what?); The old hazy camera tech makes it feel like a memory and the story deals with the willingness to risk annihilation in order to achieve something, be something, or find your old self again.
Santiago, an elderly Cuban fisherman, hasn’t caught a fish in 84 days. The town’s fishermen are losing respect; even his young apprentice Manolin has been told by his parents to stay away from him. Santiago is now officially salao, meaning cursed. He returns to his fisherman’s shack every night alone and defeated. Manolin sneaks over there in the mornings to bring him a newspaper and to prepare him simple food with coffee.
On the 85th day, Santiago heads out in his small wooden skiff viciously determined. After a long while, he feels a tug on his line; an enormous marlin that will purge his bad reputation. Unfortunately, he can’t reel the giant fucker in. But he’s not going back to shore empty-handed. If he does he might as well be salao forever and Santiago is not going out like that. He holds on to the line through two days and two nights, as it twists and turns in his grip, shredding the skin of his hands. The fish finally weakens and he pulls it in and ties it to the side of the boat. As he trolls it back to shore, sharks begin to circle. He fends them off with a makeshift spear but not before they devour the meat. He arrives to shore with a bare carcass. The townspeople pity him and back to the shack, defeated and alone, goes poor Santiago.
This must have been about Hemingway’s own struggle. Leading up to this book, he was a bit like the old man: aging, feeling depressed and going through a long slump of his own. This book was his own redeemer like the marlin would have been for Santiago. He won Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes for it.
A lot of people go through trying times that can drive them to greatness or defeat, that is why stories like this one are so popular. My own battle came in my early twenties. After spending four years of high school in four different countries, constantly re-adapting, I was spat back onto a familiar surface with familiar friends in Albany, NY. Although I knew it well, I felt far away and unable to reconnect. I began floating through life’s motions for years, moving around some more, feeling like I had potential but not knowing where to fit. I found something that I loved, that I could become great at through hours of practice, ignoring the outside world: the Flamenco guitar.
I neglected relationships, work, and money. I traveled back and forth from NYC for lessons and concerts two or three times a week after working a full day upstate; often, I wouldn’t get home until two in the morning. On regular nights, I would string together four hours of practice regardless of how late it kept me up.
I made quick progress, but when I witnessed the rapid-fire alzapuas and picados of more experienced semi-pro players, I realized I had a long way to go. Flamenco requires decades to master, and I was starting late. I had to cram— ignoring the famous quote of classical master Andres Segovia: “anyone who practices more than three hours a day is stupid or lying.” A dull pain crept into my wrists, arms, and back, part of a chronic pain condition that had leveled other guitarists. I played out once more couple of months later, but the following morning I couldn’t open my hands. As calls came in for my first paid work, I had to turn them down. My arms felt like the marlin carcass, tendons shredded and meat falling off the bones; My spirit felt like the old man’s. I had to drag myself back to my cabin and start over.
That was years ago, and though I still have the condition, I have a much more balanced, happy and healthy life now. I play guitar casually, cook more, and spend time with my friends and family.
One of the dishes I cook often is Fisherman’s Eggs. It reminds me of the rustic seaside setting of this film; It seems like the type of one-skillet meal Manolin would have prepared for Santiago along with some crusty bread to nurse his spirit back to health. I’ve included a quick recipe for pan con tomate, a Spanish staple that brings the right combo of crunch and acidity to this meal. Cook this for a quiet early morning breakfast before heading out to do your days tasks.
Andres Segovia’s gentle melodies are perfect for nursing an ailing soul. Every note he plays is drenched in tone. Also, he kind of resembles Santiago with his stout stature and gray hair. He was enormously popular during the time the Old Man and the Sea came out. Anytime I talk to someone of that generation about flamenco guitar they say, “how bout’ that Segovia.” He was actually a classical guitarist not flamenco but whatever. You will still find his records in thrift stores and estate sales across the country and you might even find a VHS of this movie scattered in the same heap.
Fisherman’s Eggs Recipe
4 cloves garlic (minced)
2 -3 tbsp flat-leaf parsley roughly chopped. Reserve a couple whole sprigs.
1 can of sardines in oil
1 shallot minced
- Prep all your ingredients
- Heat a cast-iron skillet rubbed with oil for four to five minutes on broil.
- Remove and add the garlic, chopped parsley, onions, and sardines with oil, breaking up the sardines roughly.
- Mix with salt, pepper, and more oil and return to the broiler for four to six minutes.
- Remove it again, stir and gently pour eggs over the top. Add two whole sprigs of parsley over the eggs and return to the oven until whites are cooked but yolks jiggle. 3-4 minutes.
- Add salt, pepper, oil, and hot sauce to taste. Serve with pan con tomate and strong coffee.
Pan Con Tomate
Baguette. Sliced in half lengthwise and quartered crosswise. Lightly toasted.
2 garlic cloves, peeled halved
- Rub toast lightly with garlic
- Cut tomatoes in half, remove most seeds with a finger and grate flesh side down on a box grater.
- Spread pulp over garlic toast and with more salt and pepper and a glug of olive oil.