This pairing is inspired by the 1958 movie version of the Old Man and the Sea, starring Spencer Tracy (I never actually read the book. So what…). The old camera tech looks hazy enough to make it feel like your own memory, and the story deals with a certain feeling or human condition. It’s the willingness to risk annihilation in order to achieve something or be something or find your old self again.
In the story, the main character Santiago, an elderly and experienced Cuban fisherman, is going through an 84-day slump with no catch. The other fishermen of the town are losing respect, and even his young apprentice Manolin has been told by his parents he can’t see him anymore. 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 prepare him some simple food with coffee.
On the 85th day, Santiago heads out to sea in his small wooden skiff viciously determined. After some time he feels a tug on his line and discovers he has caught the enormous Marlin that will finally purge the word Salao from the mouths of his doubters. Unfortunately, it is so enormous he can’t reel the 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 that line through two days and two nights, as it twists and turns in his grip, shredding up the skin of his hands. After an epic battle, the fish finally weakens and he pulls it in. As he trolls it back to shore, sharks begin to circle. He holds his own, spearing a bunch of them and finally driving them off, but not before they devour the meat of the fish leaving nothing but the carcass. He really can’t catch a break. Back home people feel bad for him and although he has the carcass to prove how monstrous this fish was there is debate over whether it was really a marlin or a shark. Back to the shack defeated and alone goes poor Santiago.
Man, I really love this movie. These old stories about man and the sea are so metaphorical and can be interpreted a million ways. I think for Ernest Hemingway, who wrote it, it must have been about his 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.
I think a lot of people go through these times and it can drive people to greatness or defeat; that is why stories like this one and Moby Dick 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 a million miles away and unable to fully reconnect. It was a frustrating time. 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.
When I decided I was going to be truly great, I neglected relationships, work, and money and poured everything into this goal. I traveled back and forth from NYC for lessons and concerts two sometimes three times a week, after working a full day upstate, not returning back home until two in the morning very often. On regular nights, I would string together four hours of practice regardless of how late it kept me up.
In my lower level group guitar workshops I was making quick progress, but when I witnessed the rapid-fire alzapuas and picados (flamenco guitar techniques) of more experienced semi-pro players, I realized I had a long way to go. Flamenco requires decades to truly master, and since I was starting late, I had to cram. Some advised me it would take six hours of practice daily, so I stuck to my commitment and made that happen, ignoring the famous quote of classical master Andres Segovia that, “anyone who practices more than three hours a day is stupid or lying.” Finally, I felt this dull pain begin to creep into my wrists and then my arms and my back. I developed a chronic pain condition that I knew had leveled other guitarists, but it was hard to stop compulsively playing and so it set in permanently. 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 actual paid work, I had to turn them all down. My arms felt like the Marlin carcass, tendons shredded and meat falling off the bones, and my spirit felt like that of the old man. I had to drag myself back to my own cabin and think about how to start over.
That was all quite a few 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 just the type of one skillet meal Manolin might 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 make this meal even more enjoyable. Cook this for a quiet early morning breakfast before heading out to do your days tasks.
Andres Segovia is the perfect musical choice for this meal. He is the most famous Spanish classical guitarist in recent memory and every note he plays is drenched in tone. His gentle melodies are perfect for nursing an ailing soul. Also, he kind of resembles Santiago with his stout stature and gray hair. During the time the book and movie both came out, he was enormously popular. To this day, 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. Put this on as you cook the recipe below.
Fisherman’s Eggs Recipe
4 cloves Garlic (minced)
2 -3 tbsp Flat Leaf Parsley (roughly chopped) (save a couple whole sprigs)
1 Can Sardines in oil
1 Shallot (minced)(or sub for onion)
- Prep all your ingredients (chop parsley, mince onions and garlic, and crack all eggs into a large bowl)
- In your oven’s broiler, or at its hottest setting, heat a cast iron skillet rubbed with oil for four to five minutes.
- Take out the skillet and add the garlic, chopped parsley, onions, and sardines with oil, breaking up the sardines (but not so much as to deprive them of texture)
- Mix it up for a few moments with salt pepper and more oil and add it back to the broiler or oven 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 add it back to the oven.
- Leave them in there for about three to four minutes until the whites are cooked but the yolks are still jiggly. If you overcook the eggs it won’t taste half as good.
- Add more salt pepper oil and then hot sauce and serve alongside pan con tomate and some dark coffee.
Pan Con Tomate
French Baguette or other crusty bread (I used leftover Sourdough today) cut open and lightly toasted
1 or 2 Tomatoes
- Toast the bread and rub it with garlic
- Cut tomatoes in half, and, with a box shredder, shred the tomatoes into a juicy pulp in a bowl.
- Add the pulp to the surface of the toast and with more salt and pepper and a glug of olive oil and serve alongside your fisherman’s eggs and coffee.