Thursday, September 18, 2008

Two Basque Books

Via the Idaho Statesman we get this article about two books that have the Basque Country, its culture and its the identity of its people as a background:

Bask in a couple of new Basque books

Through fiction and nonfiction, authors Dave Boling and Colleen Fillmore portray the history, beauty and strength of Basque culture.

Edition Date: 09/18/08

Every five years, Downtown Boise sees red - and white and black with a wink of green. Colors twist in the lithe bodies of Oinkari dancers celebrating their heritage and patron saints. It is Jaialdi, a time to feast with friends and family and reflect on traditions carried from distant soil on the shoulders of past generations.

The next Jaialdi is set for 2010, but in the meantime, two new books ought to stir up local Basques and admirers of their singular culture. One dreams the lives of families in the Basque Country before and after the Nazi devastation of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. The other examines dietary history and modern culinary habits of Boise Basques, weaving health aspects with customs that go beyond the plate.


Dave Boling once saw a Basque woman dancing on the lip of a wine glass. The image nearly became the title of his first novel, a sweeping historical romance and surprising resume bullet for a 56-year-old veteran sports writer.

Boling spends most of his time following football and basketball for the Tacoma News Tribune, but in airports and hotel rooms between assignments, he managed to write a book. Then, he managed to get it published in a year, an eye-blink by industry standards. A lot of writers who write for a living lose their hunger for it off the clock, but Boling said it felt like recess.

"All those times I woke up at 4 a.m., I didn't have to set my alarm clock. I woke up because I wanted to get writing. In a way, it was a bit of an escape," he said. "When I was really focused and the writing was going really well, I was in that town; could see it and hear it and smell it."

That town is Guernica, known as the Basque cultural capital. On April 26, 1937, Germany's Luftwaffe blasted it with 100,000 pounds of explosives. Bombs dropped for more than three hours, and machine guns cut down many of those who tried to flee. When the fire finally burned down, a third of the population was dead and 70 percent of the city destroyed.

The atrocity was a Nazi military exercise and a strategic move by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who hoped to break the spirit of the Basque resistance.

Many histories have been written about the city, but Boling wanted to write a story about the passion and fortitude of its people. He married into the culture and always has been struck by its vibrance.

"At first, the whole thing seemed to me to be about dancing, drinking, eating and having fun. That was at the core of being Basque," Boling said. "It was later that I learned there were these very close family ties and real reverence for their history, culture and heritage."

"Guernica" ($26, Bloomsbury USA) traces the twining lives of Miguel Navarro and Miren Ansotegui, their experiences painting vivid pictures of real events and imagined people. Boling visited the city and the surrounding Basque Country more than once while he was writing the book and worked to give his words and characters authenticity.

He researched for years, using nonfiction as a framework for his developing fiction. He consulted his Basque in-laws, professors of Basque studies and a Spanish publishing company to make sure the story rang true.

"If there has been criticism, it's that my characters are too appealing, too valiant, too strong. There is a feeling that characters have to be deeply flawed to be real. I don't agree with that," he said, joking that he has been blasted much more severely in his day job by Seattle Mariners fans.

"More than reviewers from newspapers or the literary types, I hope the Basque community really attaches to this. In a very special way, this is a tribute to them, their love for family and closeness in personal relationships and high character.."


When Colleen Asumendi Fillmore was a child, she thought everyone was Basque. Her Irish mother had mastered the cuisine cherished by her Basque father, and the tongue, tripe and chorizo she ate seemed as normal as macaroni and cheese.

"I grew up Basque. I didn't realize it was a special ethnic group," she said.

While she did not develop her mother's skills in the kitchen, Fillmore inherited her passion for good food and healthy living. She earned an undergraduate degree in restaurant management at Idaho State University and a master's degree in human nutrition from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before becoming a registered licensed dietitian.

"I love to learn about the body, and with food, you study anatomy, physiology, organic chemistry. You come to know how anything will metabolize," she said.

Fillmore is director of child nutrition programs for the Idaho Department of Education and earned her doctorate in adult learning and leadership from the University of Idaho in 2005. Her dissertation had exactly the same title as her book, which was born in the fashion of an industry myth. A worldwide publisher of academic research, VDM offered to turn her thesis into a book.

"Basques of Boise: Adult Dietary Culture and Tradition" ($64, VDM) tells a story that is neither frilly or linear. It is a dissection of Basque food and the people who consider it part of their identity.

"The food we eat defines who we are and entwines with our sense of self," reads Fillmore's introduction. "This exploration was not intended to change a cuisine that has been in existence for hundreds of years, but instead, bring awareness to the field of ethnic dietary intake and how this unique group fits within the latest nutrition research."

Fillmore's subjects are not identified by their real names, but she said if you know the local Basque community at all, some of them will be unmistakable. She observed them participating in cultural functions at the Basque Center, counting heads, plates and portions and entering ingredient data into USDA-approved software. She analyzed about a dozen meals.

She compared its staples to those of classic Mediterranean fare, noting that fish, olive oil and fresh vegetables are prevalent. The saturated fat levels are good, as are percentages of iron, protein and vitamins A and C. Calories and sodium are a little high and calcium and fiber are a little low, but Fillmore said party menus are not ideal indicators of day-to-day balance. And, even for a student of nutrition, USDA guidelines don't hold a candle to the significance of culture when it comes to food.

"There are a lot of things I had done ever since my childhood that I didn't realize were part of the tradition forever and ever. They mean more to me now," Fillmore said. "I really believe you can tell the story of who people are by what they eat."

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