To Zaragoza or to the puddle: an old Spanish story

Cartoon from Madrid Cómico in 1885.

This is a translation of an old story from Spain, specifically from Aragón, a region whose main city is Zaragoza. As I began work on the translation, I ran into a problem: the story is about a baturro. How should I translate that?

Literally, at least today, it means “a rustic from Aragón” according to the Royal Spanish Academy. The story is older, though, and back then, the word meant a little bit more, according to the Great Aragón Encyclopedia. A baturro would not merely be rustic but a little foolish and not very intelligent. More than that, a baturro would embody the stereotypical virtues and defects of the people of Aragón, above all pigheaded stubbornness and no small amount of pride and independence.

How could I embody all that in English? Bumpkin, redneck, hayseed, hick, yokel? The roots for some of these words are too deep in United States culture. How about provincial? Merriam-Webster’s definition includes the ideas of “limited outlook” and “unsophisticated.” That might have to do, with an added adjective or two.

The story, then:

***

One day Saint Peter grew bored. He hadn’t needed to open the Heavenly gates for some time, so he asked God to return him to the world to see what was happening down there. “No mortal has come to see us in many long years,” he said. [Translator’s note: Maybe they were all headed the other way.] With His divine blessing, Saint Peter jumped down to Earth. He had barely arrived, traveling on the road to Zaragoza, when he met a local provincial rustic and asked him where he was going.

“To Zaragoza,” he said.

“God willing,” the saint replied.

But, filled with the typical stubborn pride of the Aragón people, the rustic insisted, “Whether He wills it or not, I’m going to Zaragoza.”

The Fisher of Men, unhappy with the answer, used his God-given powers and turned the rustic into a frog. Then he tossed him into a nearby puddle. There he spent several years suffering during bad weather, dodging stones thrown by children, and enduring a thousand other calamities.

When Saint Peter had finished his mission and was ready to return to Heaven, he revisited the road to Zaragoza, restored the rustic to his human form, and asked him again where he was going.

“You already know. Zaragaza,” he said, even more determined than the first time.

“God willing, my friend, God willing,” the saint said sweetly.

“Not by God nor by [the original tale redacts the word] prayers. I have already told you: to Zaragoza or to the puddle!”

And so, the Apostle, seeing how impossible it was to bend the man’s will, let him continue peacefully on his way.

***

This is why, if you visit Zaragoza, you might see a few little frog statues in the city.

Goodreads review: “We Who Are About To…” by Joanna Russ

We Who Are About To...We Who Are About To… by Joanna Russ
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A spaceship goes off-course and crashes, leaving a handful of survivors, and all but one of them are determined to survive. That one, the narrator, knows they’re all about to die. She’s shrewd, perceptive, and has a lively voice, but she is also unstable, impulsive, and unreliable.

The first half of the novel recounts her interactions with the others, and it does so stylishly and well. The second half is her stream-of-conscious reflections and ramblings about the life she is about to lose. In the introduction, Samuel R. Delany calls the second half the best part, and some other readers agree, but I’m on the side of those who thought it was a bit too New Wave. It adds to the story, but only a little, and it goes on for far too long.

I treasure other works by Joanna Russ. This one is genius in the first half, but the second half doesn’t work for me. I’m glad I read it, but if I ever re-read it, I’ll only read the first part.

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Stuffed crown roast of frankfurters

My apartment building, like many others, has a book exchange shelf in the laundry room. There I acquired the United States Regional Cookbook, published by the Culinary Arts Institute of Chicago in 1939. It’s a little yellowed, a little stained, and a little surprising.

The book is divided into ten sections, each devoted to a different region: Creole, Michigan Dutch, Southwestern, Mississippi Valley, Cosmopolitan America… In some ways it’s a look back at an America that has ceased to be for most of us. Recipes include opossum (Southern), reindeer (Western), salt codfish (New England), green kern soup (Pennsylvania Dutch; green kern is unripe grain), and lutfisk (Minnesota Scandinavian, of course, and the recipe calls for oak or maple ashes).

I should add that the casual racism of the Southern section makes my fingernails curl up, although the book does acknowledge — in different, unrepeatable terms — that many of the recipes come from African-American cooks.

The old book also includes plenty of good recipes whose ingredients I can still easily get and would enjoy, including potato soup (many varieties), apple salad, hunter’s style duck, and Kentucky fried chicken, which is pre-cooked chicken dipped in batter and deep-fried. (Now we know the colonel’s secret recipe!)

The Wisconsin Dutch section really means German: Deutsche. I grew up in Wisconsin and my great-grandmother was Wilhelmina Bertha Amelia von Haus. I was raised on braised pot roast, käsekuchen (cheese cake), sour cream potato salad, and stollen.

But stuffed crown roast of frankfurters? I think somebody pranked the editor. Still, it could be a lot of fun to bring to a Green Bay Packers tailgate party. Those are always exuberant affairs.