Marti Buckley (Alabama, USA, 35 years old) just five years ago published “La cocina vasca” for Artisan Publishing, a best-selling volume in English on this country’s gastronomy. It was later translated into Spanish and declared the best book of 2019 by the Basque Academy of Gastronomy. Almost a decade had passed since this American fell in love with the Basque Country, its people and its food. Today she is a renowned journalist and chef, working with media such as Travel & Leisure Magazine, she has written for Wallpaper Guides and when she is in San Sebastián where she lives with her two daughters, she teaches South American cooking; when in the United States, Basque cuisine. She also works in marketing, had a car that sold ice cream sandwiches through the streets of San Sebastián, was a pastry chef at the prestigious The Loaf, and directs the International Society for the Preservation and Enjoyment of Vermouth. Yes, he really likes vermouth. He is currently putting the finishing touches on a new book dedicated to Basque pintxos, which will be entitled “The Book of Pintxos”, confirming that Buckley has been successful in terms of frequency of publication and also in terms of the originality of the title Portishead resembles them. The Bristol band dubbed their second album Portishead and their third, which took 11 years to release, Third.
We make an appointment with Marti Buckley in the Gros neighborhood, near her home, with the guarantee that she’ll be late by accident. The idea is to go to his favorite corner in nearby Pasaia, but it starts raining. She has just returned from a visit to Granada and the Alella region (Barcelona) to write an article about the smallest designations of origin in the Spanish scene, but at the natural wine bar where we did the interview she will ask for a water . “I’ve got a slight hangover and I’m going to make dinner at home tonight. Something southern,” he emphasizes. We have two hours, it’s the time you agreed with your babysitter. This is our conversation with Paul Preston from Basque gastronomy.
What struck you most when you arrived in the Basque Country?
That was when I was 20 years old and didn’t study much, but I was impressed by the culture, the people, the language, the food bars. Back then there were foie pintxos for three euros, it was heavenly. I found everything very different and interesting. And the sun, it’s always sunny when you come to visit, that’s very well thought out (laughs). I’ve read all the books on the field in English, there were about four. I became a real Spanish geek, drank Spanish wine, watched Almodóvar movies, all at home in Alabama. I was obsessed, I was addicted. I don’t know, maybe the same thing would have happened to me if I had gone to Italy.
Is it also because you are fascinated by the new and unknown, or because you feel something is missing from the place it came from?
I always had the feeling that something was missing. He tinkered. I remember always running to the supermarket and nobody in the US did that. People stopped their cars and offered to take me to the supermarket. She missed the daily interactions, the good life. In my country, these moments don’t happen that often.
When did you become interested in gastronomy?
By the age of 14, she was baking Oreo cakes or a Mexican cheese spread, albeit with canned ingredients. I had no idea of the possibilities. In Spain I understood that you can cook from scratch, that you can take your time with food and that cooking is fun.
When and how did you decide to stay here?
At first the idea was to stay for a year. And then… another year. I wanted to make this book with Basque cooking recipes. In the first year I realized I wasn’t ready because I really enjoyed it, but I had no idea. After three years I was already able to think seriously about the book. All of this made me want to stay here. Gradually everything became permanent.
What contribution do you think your book could make?
I wanted to tell the story of traditional recipes. From a commercial point of view the most logical thing would have been to do a pintxos book and that’s what I’m going to do now. But I wanted to give all the context, from the story to the parties to details about the producers. I wanted to tell Basque culture through food.
Which challenge was bigger? Making Basque gastronomic culture interesting and understandable for an American, or telling it without the locals thinking this is Sesame Street?
Let’s see, it came out in English and was published by an American publisher, but I kept thinking about the Basque grandmother who wanted to read it and was looking for a mistake. I couldn’t change anything, I had to quote everything very well. Two years later it was translated into Spanish. Everything went very slowly, I researched for years before the book appeared on Basque TV and radio. So by the time the book was published I was already settled in the area. I feel good because I know the work I’ve done and the research behind it, and I feel confident in answering any questions. I am in love with this country and its cuisine. I’m not here to make money fast…well, not slow either (laughs). I want to be a good ambassador and I take that very seriously.
And what did the grandmothers say?
The year after it was published, they gave me the prize for best publication at the Basque Academy of Gastronomy, and that was more exciting than the success in the US. A friend gave the book in Spanish to her grandmother and she took out a pen, ready to correct anything that was wrong, but could not find anything to correct.
Marti Buckley photographed in the port of Pasaia, four miles from San Sebastián.Gianfranco Tripodo
How was your experience in a bakery?
I was the dessert girl at The Loaf. Three of my friends set it up. I know a lot about pastries and ice cream. My idea was to teach people here what good pastry is. They gave me a free pass. I prefer rustic things to fine ones. The puff pastry here doesn’t convince me. They’re too scared of getting fat and don’t use enough butter and sugar. We put a lot more in and it comes out richer.
If the pastries here don’t convince you, the breakfast …
(laughs) Your breakfast is trending now. Since it’s a flow of coffee in the morning and you don’t eat until eleven, it has become fashionable. They invented intermittent fasting. Well, I’ve adapted to this rhythm.
Why haven’t you pushed ahead with your ice cream sandwich project? Now I don’t have to criticize the ice here, thanks.
It was a super tedious project. I made the cookie dough, the ice cream… made and sold on the street all day. It was fun and exhausting. And everything happened to me. One day an American came and invited me to have lunch with him in Mugaritz; After lunch I took a plane. It wasn’t about seeing what happened next. He just didn’t want to eat alone and he liked my ice cream.
How has the city changed since you arrived?
A lot. I have always lived in Gros. When I landed, no one was crossing the bridge. In the meantime, tourism has become more widespread and there has been a generational change in the restoration. New websites are emerging, perhaps without much foundation, but very exciting in what they do.
Is there also a risk that this city will end up looking like all other cities?
The only thing that can save us is the Basque character. Only the Basque people can save that. You and this personality, which always makes you suspicious of the new.
It’s strange that this attitude used to be reprehensible and now…
It is what will save us! The power of money and the internet is enormous. It’s hard to resist. Tourism is experiencing a kind of reverse colonization. The Spaniards went to America to spoil it, and now we come here and spoil everything.
Do Americans know European reality better, or is it still a whole for many?
In 2010 nobody knew anything about it. It may sound more familiar now, but I think many still don’t know where they are from when they visit Europe. And when they arrive, they hallucinate. After living your whole life with such a strict diet, come here and see the wine, bars and people constantly walking around the city. One of the biggest tourist attractions is drinking, and that’s why everyone is happy. It’s very easy to fall in love with it. The bad thing about living here is that you will never vacation in the city. I see the tourists and they envy me. I think most of my compatriots already know that Spain is not Mexico and that it already is. More people are coming who are better informed and want to be a better tourist.
And are we Europeans unfair to the Americans? The previous question was a bit.
You have stereotypes about us that are just as bad as we have about you. Sangria, bulls, siesta. People who visit my country sometimes seem to think it’s just New York or California. If you’ve only been to Manhattan and San Francisco, then you haven’t been to my country. When I was 20, Manhattan was as weird as Madrid.
“A friend gave the book to her grandmother, who pulled out a pen ready to correct what was wrong. He didn’t find anything,” says Marti Buckley. Gianfranco Tripodo
Is that why you first wanted to study in Madrid before going to the Basque Country?
Of course, because at the time I had no idea.
When do you think you stopped being a foreigner?
With the face I have, I looked like another Erasmus student… They wouldn’t listen to me, but a daughter makes friends faster. They take you more seriously. But integrating here means one day believing that it is already there, that you are one more. And the next moment you hit a wall and realize you’ll never fully integrate. I’m in a phase now where I feel more American than ever.
How important is it to keep the connection to the origins?
At first you want to take them off in order to integrate, but the more integrated I am here, the more interested I am in my Americanness. But yeah, there was a time when I didn’t want anything to do with the US. Now I’m happy to buy my American ground coffee and make it the American way. Then there are issues like politics. After 2016 and Trump’s election, everything was very tough. What happened If you look at what happened in the Capitol on January 6, 2021 from afar… It shows that there are some flaws in our idea of how a country should be formed.
What part of politics does gastronomy include?
There are always those who see politics in everything. Gastronomy does contain a socio-political element. It deals with issues such as poverty, economic and power struggles, cultural exchange and oppressed people who have cooked and served other people. Now let’s find out. I remember an interview for an American medium about the first book. At the end the guy said to me, ‘Well, I don’t know how we can talk about your book. You did it, you’re an American in the Basque Country…”. And I replied: “The Spaniards have conquered the world, they can defend themselves, I don’t do any cultural appropriation.” Now, for a Caucasian chef, for example, it’s ugly to prepare something Mexican. In short, the Basques don’t need an American gentleman to defend them.
Is it possible to live here regardless of politics?
I live here, but I’m mostly from abroad. I had to educate myself. Learn what can and cannot be said, learn to talk about certain things. And also to learn deeply, because from the outside there may be some romance, but what happened on both sides is very hard. I can’t live outside of politics, it wouldn’t be me.
Do you understand gastronomic patriotism?
A lot! Oh my God! Crazy! I love it and I defend it. One of my life missions is to defend Spanish food against Italian and French food in the US. There isn’t that much faith there and I have to defend it (laughs). There was a lack of marketing. There is no list of 20 Spanish dishes that people there can name without hesitation. Seriously, I want to help spread the word about the cuisine here. What happens is that I’m a single mother and I live in the most expensive city in Spain… but still I insist. If I showed you the documents I have on my computer, I would have 50 years of work with these ideas alone.
When starting a business, the ideas are the part you enjoy the most, right?
(laughs) I think so… I could have opened an ice cream shop or a restaurant, but I never did because I can’t handle the logistical part of my brain. I’m more interested in ideas and doing things, but simple things. I feel very good as a writer. An idea is born, you complete it, you use your creativity and you have a well-packaged project.
Should every writer at this point in their career become a photographer?
Check it out, they call you and give you a budget of 20 euros for photos. You cannot ask a professional to work with you for these fees. So you have to take the photos yourself. Not for books, of course.
What relationship do you have with Instagram?
Well, it’s already built into my being. Sometimes I deleted it from my phone. I post something and if I don’t have anything planned for the next 48 hours, I delete the mobile application. It’s okay to do it that way because after a few days you open it and there’s a lot in there (laughs).
Well, it’s mental health. What happens is that if I do this later, I get penalized by the algorithm.
How much do you charge me for recommending my restaurant?
I do not do that. Sometimes they write to me about restaurants, but I’ve never posted on Instagram or my paid blog. I don’t trust the recommendations of people who do this. Yes, I am a very bad business woman. As a professional, I can only do a job that convinces me, that fulfills me and that I consider well done. But now it’s very complicated. Now I don’t look at the first page anymore. It just sucks. I work in a very niche area, so I can see where each piece of data is coming from, what it’s read and where it was copied from. The system no longer rewards good work. But hey, when I published a book and it got good, I got away from this world of bloggers and influencers. It’s not what I want.
San Sebastián is full of tourists today. Do you have a guilty conscience because of the overcrowding?
NO! (pauses) Well, I think about it sometimes… Even though I know I made a lot of decisions not to make it worse. It could have done a lot more damage (laughs). I’ve done just enough damage. And I always try to talk about places in this country that provide context. Never take it easy. I always ask myself that. I got an offer to make a guide and said no because I don’t want to junk food.
Are you a principled American entrepreneur?
No, I’m just the only one who can’t afford a house at my age. It’s like love, you always have to be guided by your principles. And feel good. Poor thing, but yesterday I drank Vega Sicilia.
Could you fall in love with someone with no taste buds?
If I were open to learning…
Nobody learns anything after 25.
Yes, I taught the parents of my two daughters … Of course it’s true that there is almost nobody who hates oysters and then is a cultured and interesting person.
Is reading certain books or listening to certain records the same as eating certain things?
Without a doubt, and with the advantage that it’s easier to master food than literature or music, since you have to do it every day, several times a day.
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