Donostia in Translation
The Seven Basic Plots of food writing are no different to the Seven Basic Plots that underlie all our cultural narratives. Chefs, too, must vanquish monsters (see: the memorable scene in ‘Heat’ where our hero overcomes a terrible service to finally earn some grudging but genuine praise from a kitchen bully); chefs, too, must go on quests (see: every sub-Bourdain peripatetic binge through a city committed to print or celluloid). Restaurant critics can go from Rags to Riches: what is John Birdsall’s ‘I Puked at Joe Beef and It Made Me a Better Man’ but a prototypical story of a protagonist gaining it all (a nice dinner), losing it all (the same nice dinner), and coming back stronger for it? Every ‘I visited the best restaurant on earth’ snoozefest is just a quintessential Voyage and Return by another name; if a dinner surpasses all expectation, the tale can only be told in the style of Comedy; when Ryan Sutton picks up his own valise from the cloakroom at l’Arpège and heads, deflated, out into the Parisian streets, we have wallowed with him in Tragedy’s profoundest depths . And, finally, we have Rebirth, the plotline that launched a thousand gushing travel double-page spreads about discovering The Authentic in just the most unassuming of locations: I was a big stupid cultural ignoramus until the transcendental moment when I tasted – truly tasted, as though for the first time – extra-virgin olive oil fresh from the press / Assam laksa at a Hawker market in Penang / papdi chaat served by a problematically simplistic depiction of an Indian street vendor.
Said-baiting presentations of other cultures aside, I’m not necessarily saying that this state of affairs is a bad thing; indeed, Jung, who (sort of) came up with The Seven Basic Plots in the first place would argue it’s not a good thing or a bad thing or any sort of thing – it’s just the way things are. But a thing being the way things are isn't of much use when you're trying to say something – anything! – new or interesting.
Take Spain. The basic plots here have been done so many times that all questions of primacy and originality have become moot. Like the crew of the Argo – floating on a ship whose component parts have been replaced so many times they have no right truthfully to call themselves Argonauts at all – food writers writing about Spain must cast themselves out onto the Bay of Biscay on a life-raft of other writers’ accumulated #content: guides to the same handful of cities; voyages of discovery to Adria-inflected restaurants; “rediscoveries” of hoary 60s clichés like sherry and paella. Ripoffs of ripoffs, clones of clones, meta-analyses of randomised control trials of every tapas bar thronging every plaza mayor in every tourist hotspot in the country.
It's even worse in the case of San Sebastián. You can refer to it as Donostia if you want to sound more cultured (perhaps you might choose to employ the formation “…or Donostia, as the Basques know it”); you can broaden its gastronomical scope to include Azurmendi and Extebarri and ratchet up that already-bonkers Michelin-stars: population ratio, but when it comes down to it, you’ll still be recommending the same five places for the same five things to eat. Here, for example, is the exact paragraph I copy and paste into every email I send to people who ask me for recommendations:
The number one thing is the cheesecake at La Viña. The number two thing is the mushroom orzotto at Bar Borda Berri (pretty much everything else there is good too). Then there's the octopus and the suckling pig at La Cuchara de San Telmo, the cute little jamón croissants at Ganbara (there they also make the best incarnation of a delicious anchovy snack called a Gilda), the prawn skewers at Bar Goiz Argi, and the salmon and the slow cooked egg with mushrooms at Atari. There are two more experimental places – A Fuego Negro and Zeruko – that are a bit hit and miss but also worth a look. Gandarias is also probably your best shout if you want a solid, steady "session" bar that does all the classics well enough. Finally, if (when) you get bored of the city, take a bus to Hondarribia nearby (just on the border with France). Follow the crowds to the central street and go wherever seems busiest. It's a tiny place but we ate incredibly well there.
There are probably some omissions there: all the cheffy people on Instagram also seem to bookmark Bar Nestor, for its unicorn-scarce tortilla and hefty txuletas. But genuinely and generally speaking that’s a pretty solid list: follow it to the letter, and you’ll leave the city sated and with no reasonable cause whatsoever for FOMO (also, if you do go, don’t sleep on the ranking: the cheesecake really is that good).
Are we done here? Would you be happy to read that list padded out with some colour-puff about the old town and the Bahía de la Concha and how they pour the txakoli like that to aerate it, and leave it at that? Do you come to those city-specific Top Tens for pure service journalism, names you can enter into a Word doc or spreadsheet or – if you’re a million years old – an actual notebook with a pencil or goose quill or whatever the hell you use? Or do you want more?
Casting every trip to San Sebastián as a breathless Voyage of Discovery of a handful of dishes doesn’t ring true, just as writing about Seven Basic Plots might be a teensy bit of a narrow lens through which to view (or, more accurately, to force) the entire history of literature. Two of the major limitations of the Jungian model (as it is reconfigured in Booker’s text, at least) are how subordinate every other character in a plot is to the protagonist; and the (impossible?) end state of aesthetically, psychologically satisfying wholeness towards which every plot must perforce bend. Can we ask the same questions of our own writing?
Certainly, a new story about San Sebastián could try. It might position the city not as an adjunct that takes on significance only when in relation to a central figure (see ‘John Inverdale’s San Sebastian’ for an inadvertently parodic, weirdly possessive paragon of the form); might instead ask what it means to be a covetous food tourist determined to write your own personal narrative on top of a city which has evolved over centuries without you. It might talk about that idea of wholeness – about what a truly satisfying trip to the city looks like in retrospect, on the flight home; about how the desired, perfected end state of wholeness is not a (whole) lot different from a sense of fullness, which is in itself not hugely far away from a somewhat more distressing sense of being too full, which is actually something you are far more likely to encounter after carpe-ing your diem and stuffing your face with every pintxo going. It might mention that San Sebastián itself is a very small, fairly limited place, so much so that after a while – over a purgatorial Easter weekend, say, to pluck something entirely removed from my personal experience out of the blue – you, the protagonist, find yourself willing to try anything (the local thermal baths; trawling shops you wouldn’t normally even look at, were they in Madrid, or Barcelona) to take up the time between more gavage-like feeding sessions at the pintxo bar. It might ask whether a trip to San Sebastián can ever be about more than the food, and ask again whether we’re OK with that; ask whether racing through a Google-generated checklist of “must try” dishes to be able to say that you – yes, you – have conquered the city, eaten all that is good there, is actually any different from those losers with the Eat San Sebastián tour group you saw earlier. It might state, in conclusion, that if you seek to remove the food from the culture, really you’re removing what makes the food the food in the first place.
But who would read that? Just order the cheesecake instead. It’s honestly so good: so soft, and so comforting.