Introduction to the Spanish Food Idioms Series:
Inspired by the “Edible Idioms” in French series on Clotilde Dusoulier’s blog Chocolate & Zucchini, I have decided to start the New Year with a new a series on food idioms in Spanish. My focus will be on food idioms used in Spain, where I live and where I have been learning the Spanish language. I would love to hear others’ experiences with food idioms in Spain and in different Spanish-speaking countries, as well.
I find idioms in general fascinating, especially as a learner of a foreign language. In my experience, beginning to understand the colloquial expressions of a place is an essential part of feeling more integrated in the culture. Grasping the figurative meaning of the words in an idiomatic expression is like sharing a wink with the speaker – you are on the inside.
I find culinary idioms particularly fascinating (surprise, surprise), and see these expressions as a means to more deeply understand the history, culture and emotions connected with different foods in Spain.
There is of course another leap to take between understanding idioms to actually using them correctly, and the process can lead to some funny mistakes. This series will thus be a (potentially treacherous) adventure into the figurative realm of the Spanish language through idioms involving food.
Let’s dig in!
Today’s expression: con las manos en la masa
The phrase literally translates as, “with your hands in the dough.” If you catch someone con las manos en la masa, it is similar to catching them “red-handed,” or, to use the culinary equivalent, “with their hands in the cookie jar.” In all cases, someone has been caught in the act of doing something, usually bad to a greater or lesser extent, at least in the context.
“Imagine a baker we surprise at work. Could he deny he was making bread?” asks Alberto Buitrago, professor of Spanish at the University of Salamanca, in his Diccionario de dichos y frases hechas (2009). The proof, as they say, is in the pudding (once you get started, it’s hard to stop…).
As is the case with the equivalent English expressions, con las manos en la masa is often used in the context of crime. For example: “El ladrón fue pillado con las manos en la masa.” “The robber was caught red-handed.”
However, the expression has come full circle and is also frequently used in culinary contexts in Spain, in which it is both literal and figurative at once (though your hands may be literally covered in dough, the figurative connotation that you are up to something is always present). I think of all the times Manolo has surprised me in the act of making yet another batch of buttery cookies, a guilty pleasure, con las manos en la masa.
In an Internet search for different uses of this expression, I came across a popular cooking show called Con las manos en la masa that ran on Spanish Public Television (TVE) between 1984 and 1991 and is considered a forerunner of the genre in Spain.
When I mentioned this cooking series to friends In Spain, several for whom the 1980s were formative years spontaneously started singing the eponymous title song, a rousing ode to traditional Spanish food performed in duet:
The woman’s opening line sounds like a confession, largely due to our expression of the day: “Siempre que vuelves a casa / me pillas en la cocina / embadurnada de harina / con las manos en la masa.” “When you return home / you always catch me in the kitchen / covered in flour / con las manos en la masa.” We get the sense that she’s up to something other than just making an ordinary loaf of bread.
This hunch is confirmed in the man’s response, which tells us the woman has been experimenting with nontraditional cuisine, which is a tad unsavory in the context: “Honey, I don’t want refined dishes, I’m coming from work, I don’t feel like Chinese duck. How about some gazpacho, with cucumber and garlic….” It turns out she’s been taking classes at…gasp!… the Cordon Bleu.
This exchange might sound questionable through a feminist perspective, but ultimately, the mood is lighthearted and that craving for tradition speaks to both men and women, which for me comes through in the joined voices of the chorus, an impassioned list of favorite traditional Spanish dishes: “Papas con arroz, bonito con tomate, cochifrito, caldereta, migas con chocolate, cebolleta en vinagreta, morteruelo, lacon con grelos, bacalao al pil-pil y un poquito perejil….” No fancy dishes for us!
All of these references belong to the connotations of the expression con las manos en la masa in Spain today. I am beginning to feel more complicit already.