I have a fetish.
Kitchen knives. It's a common affliction that infects many of us who don clogs and white coats for a living. Just as there is, I am told, the perfect purse for every outfit, we knife queens* have to have the right knife for every job.
The morning of my last day in Barcelona in July, my wife called me from New York. "Have you found the fish knives yet?"
She was referring to her fish knives, those offspring of a butter knife and a spatula that have a notch in their palettes, causing their dull-edged blades to resemble a woman's lips in a Picasso painting. During our previous trip to Spain the year before, she (and, admittedly, I) became smitten with these knives which are provided at even the humblest beachside fish shack in Spain, but are virtually extinct on the tables of America. In N's mind, procuring a set of these fish knives was one of the primary goals of my trip.
I, on the other hand, had a different kind of fish knife on my mind. Getting my hands on one of my kind of fish knife was my latest obsession and my sole objective for my last day in Spain. I had to have a fish machete.
I still don't know the proper term for the enormous knives wielded by the brassy fishmongers (all women!) of la Boqueria. These hatchets resemble Chinese cleavers, but the blade curves sharply, like the Grim Reaper's scythe turned inside out. Whenever I visited a market in Catalonia or Valencia, I invariably found myself awestruck as I watched the strong, though often petite, women deftly fillet a small sole or thinly slice through a whole merluza (hake) with a knife the size of an axe.**
I answered my wife's inquiry nervously. "No, no fish knives yet, honey."
As N knows, when I travel, I am an eater, not a shopper. By the end of a trip, my suitcases are bursting with almonds, chocolate, olive oil, wine and illicit pork products. Aside from an embarrassing number of Spanish and Catalan cookbooks, there are no non-edible items, not even a pair of Campers.
I told N of my fruitless search for fish knives (both kinds) in all the wrong places, including stores one would have thought appropriate, like housewares stores and even knife shops (cuchillerías).
She listened patiently, aware that her husband's shopping I.Q. is zero and his Spanish only marginally better. "Go to El Corte Inglés. They'll have them there."
I did as instructed and, sure enough, this Spanish equivalent to Macy's was a treasure trove full of her kind of fish knives. I snapped up a dozen, with an equal number of matching fish forks (I suppose that now makes me a flatware queen, too). The true object of my desire, my fish machete, was sadly nowhere to be found.
Dejected, I returned to my vacation rental and desperately poured through the Barcelona yellow pages one page at a time, having no idea how a Spaniard would categorize what we call "restaurant supply stores." My eyes popped wide open when, like a dumb mule, I stumbled across the category "maquinaria alimentación y hostelería."
With stores about to close, I raced to my savior, Celaya, a restaurant equipment store oddly named after a famous twentieth century poet. I happily handed over 40 Euros for my prize and paid little attention to the nervous glances cast my way as I maneuvered through crowded Barcelona streets, my shiny new fish machete clutched tightly in my hands.
*I hope I have not offended anyone with my use of the word "queen" here. I lifted it from Guy Trebay's humorous article that appeared in the New York Times a month ago, where he described "dish queens" in the food industry, a group which includes Thomas Keller. To quote from his article: "From the term 'dish queen,' nothing is meant to be inferred about a person's sexual tastes. A dish queen, broadly speaking, is a person belonging to a rarefied and sometimes loopy group for whom food is infinitely more appetizing when beautifully framed." In the same vein, the degree of my ridiculous obsession with finding the perfect knife is equal to that of the socalled dish queens.