Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


ham-sandwich

(ILLUSTRATION: GENTLEMAN DRAUGHTSMAN)

How the Fate of a Spanish Cold Cut Explains Global Finance

• April 23, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(ILLUSTRATION: GENTLEMAN DRAUGHTSMAN)

The ham sandwich at the eye of the storm.

Dry-cured ham is one of the lesser known pillars of Spanish identity. Every year the average Spaniard eats 11 pounds of the stuff, and there are 47 million Spaniards. That comes out to more than half a billion pounds each year.

Food historians suggest that Spain’s love affair with jamón dates back to Roman times and was cemented under the Caliphate of Córdoba, when eating pork was a way of declaring one’s Christian-ness. The cured hams also traveled well, which came in handy in the days when Spain ruled the seas; whole pig legs were stacked like firewood on Spanish ships bound for the edge of the world. More recently, traditional Spanish ham has taken on new associations. Sometime around 2010 or so, cafes around Barcelona started cutting prices on their most popular breakfast order—a small ham sandwich and a coffee. At a price of just two euros, they called it the precio crisi: the “crisis special.”

At first, force of habit and the appeal of a bargain kept the cafes full in the mornings. In my neighborhood, a cafe called the Mesón del Toro kept serving the finest acorn-fed pork, its flesh a satisfying deep red, even at precio crisi prices. But unemployment was skyrocketing, and before long the crisis ushered in yet another transformation in Spain’s—or at least my neighborhood’s—relationship with jamón.

What’s remarkable about this is that, until fairly recently, Spain hardly had any Chinese immigrants.

About a year ago the cafes that served the crisis sandwich started closing. First one, then three, then six of the old family-owned breakfast spots in my neighborhood shut down and passed on to new owners.

The ham sandwiches stayed on the menu (no cafe in Barcelona could hope to do business without them). But none of the new proprietors was Spanish. Financing a small business has become nearly impossible for anyone who depends on Spain’s crippled banking system, which is making fewer loans now than at any point in the country’s democratic history. Instead, the cafes all went to Chinese immigrants.

What’s remarkable about this is that, until fairly recently, Spain hardly had any Chinese immigrants. Over the past 15 years or so, their numbers have ballooned from a handful to more than 170,000. Most arrived during the boom years of the aughts, only to then fend for themselves alongside everyone else in the grim crisis-era labor market. But as the downturn continued, the immigrants have turned out to hold one crucial advantage over their hosts: access to informal credit.

The Chinese underground banking system is complex and hard to pin down, but suffice it to say there is a great deal of money sloshing around off the books in the world’s second-largest economy. “Forty-four percent of elites want to move their money out of China,” says E. J. Fagan, a spokesman for Global Financial Integrity, a research and advocacy shop in Washington, D.C., that tracks illicit capital flows. International Chinese lending networks—often operating in places like the British Virgin Islands—accept deposits from people on the mainland who want to evade taxes, hide proceeds from corruption, or just realize higher returns than the paltry interest rates offered by Chinese banks. The networks then lend the money out to Chinese entrepreneurs. According to a Global Financial Integrity estimate, $2.83 trillion leaked out of China illicitly from 2005 to 2011.

When “P,” a Chinese woman living in Barcelona, decided she wanted to buy one of the cafes in my neighborhood, her brother-in-law and a Chinese accountant arranged her loan through an entity located “somewhere in South America.” I spoke to P in her new cafe, where she stood behind the bar. She asked me not to use her name, because she didn’t want the Chinese to look bad—which she thinks they do. “Even I think there are too many Chinese bars now,” she said. And the reservoirs of goodwill toward the immigrants were hardly deep to begin with. “I’ve been here 15 years, and sometimes I feel like I just got here,” P said. “My son, at school they call him Chinito.” The more the crisis pinches, the more the rising visibility of the Chinese triggers resentment.

The envy is ill founded, however, because business is worse than ever. At this point, one in four Spaniards is unemployed; they aren’t stopping in for a ham sandwich on their way to work. None of the half-dozen Chinese-owned cafes in my neighborhood is turning a profit. Eight months into her proprietorship, P is struggling to keep up with her loans. And the economic challenge is tied to a gastronomic one. With bills to pay, the cafes have to cut corners.

The sandwiches are suffering, and everybody knows it. One recent morning, I was the only customer on the terrace of the Mesón del Toro. In the cold March air, I stared down at my crisis sandwich. The bread was no longer the fresh, crispy stuff the previous owners had used. It was a dry, store-bought roll. The jamón was more pink than red, the wan color of a pencil eraser. And the meat was cut in suspiciously perfect rectangles, betraying that it had come off the shelf, not the bone. A week and a half later, the cafe was closed; workmen said it had been sold to a new Chinese family.

When I asked P about the declining quality of the sandwiches, she scoffed at the suggestion that the Chinese owners lacked a feel for traditional Spanish fare. “The food’s easy!” she said. Chinese workers have been staffing Spanish kitchens for years. Rather, it was the crisis itself that was still eating away at their breakfast.

Marc Herman

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly-planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


Follow us


Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.