A Touchy Subject

When I first moved to Spain I used to get a kick out of touching fruit in supermarkets. I’d be walking through the produce section and say to my girlfriend, “Watch this…,” and as we passed near a bin piled high with oranges I’d reach out and tap one quickly with the tip of my finger–always looking around beforehand, naturally, to make sure nobody was watching. “Ooooh,” she’d say in mock horror, “you are bad!”

Perhaps I should explain. In Spain, you see, touching fruit or vegetables is akin to walking up to a salad bar in the United States and sneezing on the coleslaw. I once made the mistake of touching fruit with my hands at the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid. Once. That was over twenty years ago, long before the Mercado San Miguel became the swanky tapas destination it is today. Back then it was a normal humble market and I was unwise in the ways of buying fruit. I reached for a handsome-looking pear, then handed it to the vendor to weigh. “Don’t touch the fruit!” he boomed. His tone of voice would have been more understandable had I suddenly decided to reach over and pat his wife’s rear-end. But a pear?

The odd thing about this is that Spaniards are not fastidious people. Ask for bread in a bar and the waiter will grab a stick with his hands and cut off some hunks, pick them up and put them in a basket that never gets washed and hand it over. And nobody cares, me included. Sure he’s been fingering through the coin wells in the till all day long, but don’t sweat it, you’ll live. The butcher I often go to offers free samples of chorizo on Saturdays and he holds the sausage in one hand, cuts pieces with the other, and nudges them off the knife with his thumb, letting them fall on the bare steel counter where everyone plunks their money down. Like everyone else, I eat them, and it’s no big deal. I’ve seen a well-dressed father solve the problem of his crying baby’s dropped soother by picking it up off the streets of Madrid, giving it a purely ceremonious wipe, sucking on it as though that had the sterilizing properties of an autoclave, and then sticking it back into the baby’s mouth. Spanish people are not fussy about most things.

But dealing with fresh produce is something else entirely. While the rest of the world may be a little fastidious about everything, Spaniards seem to channel all their germ phobia into fruit. And it’s remarkable how strongly they feel about this. Fruit vendors at markets popular with tourists often display a sign written in a variety of languages warning tourists not to touch the fruit, and often in distinctly rude terms. I guess the thinking goes, you’re talking to the kind of ignorant degenerate who thinks it’s okay to touch fruit with his bare hands so you’ve got no other choice than to speak to him in language he understands. Something like, ‘Hey shitface: Hands off, okay?’ Or words to that effect.

This philosophy is not restricted to small vendors in the markets. It goes right to the highest corporate levels. The supermarket down the street from me actually broadcasts reminders over the intercom every 15 minutes telling people not to touch the fruit with their filthy, disease-dispersing paws. In their self-serve fruit and veggie area, there are stations stocked with plastic gloves, apparently so that regular pandemics don’t break out. While plastic gloves are commonly used for all kinds of food handling elsewhere, the Spanish seem to reserve them exclusively for picking fruit, possibly in the fear that if they were to broaden their use, they might run out of them. Then, naturally, nobody would eat any fruit and the nation would quickly succumb to scurvy. And the supermarket rules are quite clear; the rule applies to all fruit and vegetables. I have seen people walk into the fruit aisle, put on a glove, grab a bunch of bananas, put them in a plastic bag and then move on to the checkout. Bananas. Don’t they already come in their very own convenient protective packaging?

The case for using gloves to pick your own fruit might seem a little less absurd when it comes to say, apples, but here’s the thing, and this is where it gets really interesting. Spaniards don’t eat the peel of fruit anyway. In Spain you don’t ever see someone take a bite out of a piece of fruit. It’s just not done. Fruit is peeled, then cut into pieces. In family restaurants where they often serve fruit for dessert, they bring it to you on a plate with a knife and fork, whether they’re serving apples or pears or peaches or plums.

I recently went to the market to buy some fruit and, after walking around and eyeing up the various selections, I settled on a good-looking stall where an old woman was just finishing her transaction. She had a trolley cart, and was loading it up with her purchases. She was taking her time, finishing off a story about how her daughter Charo has a son, Manolito, and Manolito has taken to biting the other kids in his class, but his teacher said don’t worry, it’s just a phase, and then she added (with an unmistakable measure of pride) that the bites left lasting marks, and wasn’t Manolito a precocious thing, and on it went. The vendor, a woman in her 40s, looked at me with a smile that seemed to say, thanks for being patient, but I wasn’t in a hurry and besides, this kind of exchange is part of what I like about markets.

When Granny’s cart was finally loaded, I looked on in stunned silence as she rested her handbag right on top of the apples in front of her. Worse, as she dug for her wallet, she triggered a small avalanche of apples that cascaded onto the well-trodden concrete floor, bouncing and rolling away into dark, suspect corners that by the look of them, rarely received the full attention of a mop, not that that would have made it okay. Even a hardy soul would look at this floor, look at the fallen apples, and immediately concede the loss.

“Don’t worry about it señora,” the fruit lady told her. By which I understood her to mean, ‘I’ll clean up the mess and dispose of the infected items in the appropriate bio-hazard receptacle.’

But the old woman started bending over to collect the apples. I couldn’t just stand there and watch so I helped her. For the first time since the scarring rebuke I received in the old San Miguel market, I was picking up fruit with my hands in public—and fruit I wasn’t even planning on buying.

Not sure what to do with the apples I’d collected, I cradled them in my arms, waiting to see what Granny would do with hers. To my profound amazement, she nonchalantly put them right back with the rest of them. I timidly did the same, half expecting that somehow I might still get chastised because the old lady is old, so she gets a pass, but I should have known better. But the fruit lady just smiled as though nothing had happened. I was, and remain, speechless.

Lately, perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve come around to the idea of peeling my fruit. It is, actually, quite enjoyable to eat that way. Besides, you never know where it’s been. And sometimes, for that matter, you do.