I really wanted to like fiambre. A cold salad of chopped meat and pickled vegetables served on Guatemala’s Day of the Dead, it’s what turkey is to Thanksgiving: what everyone eats on the holiday, vegetarians aside. Fiambre is tradition, and I love traditions—particularly those involving food. So this year, on November 1, I made sure Shon and I dug into a dish of our own. Next year, I won’t.
No two fiambre recipes are alike. Similarly, no two tales regarding its origins seem to match up, either. My favorite account goes something like this:
In the 16th century, a family in Antigua was visited unexpectedly by a big group of friends. The lady of the house ran into the kitchen and ordered the cook to serve lunch within the hour. Finding a cellar with little more than bits of fiambre (during the time of the Spanish conquistadors, Guatemalans used the word “fiambre” like Spaniards do today to refer to bits of ham, sausage, bologna, salami, chorizo, and other cold cuts), the cook ran to the market to buy ingredients for a chicken soup and salad. On the way, she ran into her beau (a local policeman) with whom she exchanged a few words and kisses. This impromptu rendez-vous left her little time to actually cook, and so, as time ran out, she quickly chopped all of the ingredients she had purchased, added accoutrements like roasted bell peppers, olives, and capers, and then topped her creation with sliced cheese and the bits of meat from the cellar. It was a hit and requested thereafter as fiambre.
Here’s a simpler theory on the dish’s history, too:
On the Day of the Dead, families visiting the graves of departed loved ones would bring a picnic comprising the favorite dishes of the deceased. One family would share its eats with another family who would share with another until everyone ended up with a medley of bites that combined into one dish—fiambre.
Whichever story is true (or not), the gist of what fiambre is remains the same. Made up of any number of ingredients—some sources say up to 50—it’s tidbits of this and that. There are two main types: rojo (red), made with beets, and blanco (white), made without. People start prepping fiambre days in advance and make huge amounts to share on the Day of the Dead with family and friends.
Shon and I tried fiambre rojo and, true to form, it comprised everything but the kitchen sink: chicken, deli meat, hotdogs, sausages, chorizo, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, peas, chickpeas, olives, asparagus, baby corn, green beans, peppers, radishes, fava beans, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and more—mostly dyed red from the beets.
“I don’t know what this is, but it doesn’t taste good,” said Shon, after biting into a leathery piece of something with skin still attached.
We picked our way through the vegetables, each ate a slice of cheese (the processed, plastic-wrapped American kind), and then braved a few bites of meat. To be honest, it was tough going.
I get traditions, I love traditions, but I don’t get fiambre. The weird cacophony of cold, stained, chopped meats had me checking my fork before every bite to ensure no rogue piece of hotdog or bologna (both of which I hate) had snuck aboard. And while I actually quite like pickled vegetables, the mix—garnished with pasty cheese, carved radishes, and sliced eggs—reminded me of an elementary school chef’s salad, the kind that used to make me gag.
Clearly, fiambre isn’t my thing.
And here my blog post would have ended, with my not “getting” the dish, had it not been for something that happened on the Day of the Dead night. Shon and I had long finished picking through our store-bought fiambre, when around 8 p.m., there was a knock on our driveway door. Shon went to see who it was and, to my surprise, returned with a container of fiambre. Doña Matea, a very nice woman who cleans Shon’s office (and who I didn’t even know knew where we lived), had come to our house to hand-deliver fiambre she had prepared herself.
And with that utterly simple, sweet, and spontaneous act, I realized what Shon and I had been missing and not quite “getting” all along. Fiambre isn’t really about the food. It isn’t supposed to be purchased from a store and picked over at the kitchen table with your significant other. No one makes huge quantities of fiambre just because they love fiambre. No, the tradition of fiambre–the real tradition of fiambre, as those tales above imply–is one of sharing with family and friends.
Knowing that now, I can honestly say that I’m a fan of fiambre. I’ll just never eat it, again.