How Did I Get Here: Judging Basque Cooks on Spanish National TV

“Say that you only ever eat beans with ketchup.”
“For breakfast.”

Unthinkable for an American.  And there I was, a 30-year-old female from Alabama, the spokesperson for my country and my under-represented and often maligned state on a Spanish national cooking competition show, Entre Dos Fuegos.  The set, with its opposing stoves and dramatic wood-fire background, was packed with teams and audience members from two neighboring Basque villages, Tolosa and Gernika.  They were preparing one of the most classic basque dishes: babarruna.

These blackish beans are cooked über simply, then garnished with blood sausage, pickled green peppers, cabbage, and pork fat.  It’s a dish with a strong cultural link, a cause for celebration in the cold winter months of this region. And I was supposed to judge the merits of each version, seated alongside my fellow judge, Mari Tere from Berriz.

For those watching the television, underneath my face and its feigned confusion were the words ‘Princesa de Alabama’. This was the pseudonym given to me by the producers of this season, a competition spin off of the wildly popular show No Es País Para Sosos (No Country for Boring People).   And this was the introduction shown before the beginning of each show.

The hosts of the program were Ander Gonzalez, a San Sebastián-based chef, and Ramón Roteta, one of the members of the Arzak-Subijana-Arguinano clique that runs the cooking culture around these parts.  Ander’s lovable teddy personality formed a comic counterpart to Ramon’s one-moment-goofy, one-moment-serious role as the paternal figure.

During our run, a little bit over three months’ worth of shows, we would try some of the Basque Country’s most iconic dishes.  One week it was bacalao al pil-pil, the next was sheep stew. One week it was two crazy pirates from a seaside village making sukalki, and the next would feature women well into their 80s letting an irrintzi  rip before radiating a deep blush and settling back into their seats.

For a food lover and Basque-obsessed person like myself, it was a dream.  Before each show, a spread of incredible ingredients lined the surfaces of the set: gigantic fish, produce ready for its closeup, even live snails at one point.

I soon grew more comfortable with my part, from relaxing in the green (but actually blue) room before shows, to caking my face with unspeakable amounts of stage makeup, to memorizing my prompts just a few moments before filming.  

I got used to going out at night and having people ask me if I was the girl on TV (and, in true too-honest Spanish nature, telling me I was either better or worse looking in person).  I never will get used to heading out to the countryside, to one of the 24 villages that took part in the show, and having random people ask my for a picture.

I got used to sparring with the other three, giving my opinion as we would debate off set on the best of the two dishes. Unlike other reality shows, we really decided off set the winner, based almost solely on the merits of each pueblo's plate. 

Most importantly, I made some super new friends and some incredible memories.  Ramón, Mari Tere, and Ander are wonderful, funny folks. The whole crew…Andoni, Jon, Carmen, too many to name….they will always have my love.

And did I say the thing about beans and ketchup? Bai. Rather than fight out a lesson on the finer dining differences between Brits and Americans, I said it—but not without adding in a line about frijoles with tacos.  Just to keep it a bit real.