Cooking in a Man's World : A Glimpse into the World of the Txokos, Basque Men-Only Cooking Clubs Where Comrades in the Kitchen Work Their Magic to Create Wonderful Regional Cuisine
Kumin, Laura, The World and I
Few cultures understand the deep-down meaning of food for the spirit as the Spaniards do. While all of Spain's various national cuisines reflect the immense pleasure derived from sharing a meal, the close relationship between cuisine and camaraderie is best illustrated in the txokos (pronounced "chokos"), a Basque urban institution that tourists rarely have the opportunity to experience. These traditional gastronomic associations form an important part of the social life of many Basque men.
Historians link the origin of these bastions of male fellowship, based on the uninhibited pleasure of preparing and sharing good food, to the increase in prices at the popular cider shops in the province of Guip[pound]zcoa during the mid-nineteenth century. In protest the men bought bottles of cider on their own and shared them at a local shop or in someone's cellar. They soon discovered the advantage of pooling their resources to rent or build a place of their own, open only to members, who could then stay as long as they liked without having to keep buying fresh drinks throughout the evening. Tidbits prepared to accompany drinks eventually became more substantial, and the first sociedad gastron-mica was founded in San Sebast'an toward the middle of the last century. Others soon followed in its footsteps in Guip[pound]zcoa and later in other Basque provinces.
The men-only policy of the txokos probably has its roots in these origins, since at the time it was not considered seemly for women to drink, and domestic economy traditionally reserved such luxuries for the family breadwinner. It has also been commented (by men, it should be pointed out) that Basque society has always been strongly matriarchal and that the txokos provide an outlet for men away from the watchful eye of their womenfolk. Although today women are invited as guests on stipulated days of the week or holidays, and a few maverick txokos now permit them to become full-fledged members, most remain staunchly masculine redoubts in contemporary Spain's increasingly open and equal-opportunity society.
Originally created by the region's growing middle class, today the gastronomic societies reflect a wide range of social strata, some of them honoring the immigrant roots and cuisine of their members. The recent resurgence of pride and interest in Basque culture has influenced the rapid increase in the number of these associations, with over a thousand in existence today, more than half of them founded since 1968. Their identification with traditional Basque values created tensions for the txokos during the Franco regime, when they were closely scrutinized for possible nationalist activities. Although each has its own customs and traditions, governed by bylaws voted upon by all members, most txokos share certain outstanding characteristics, including the programming of annual cultural and sports activities open to the public.
Through the gracious invitation of Carmen Lus, mother of my close friend Laura Etxebarr'a, my husband and I were fortunate enough to secure an invitation for dinner at the Txoko Soloarte, in Basauri, on the outskirts of Bilbao. The occasion was festive, a celebration of the town's patron saint. Carmen's late husband had been a founding member of the txoko. They had spent many a Saturday evening there with his cuadrilla, or group of friends, dining and enjoying conversation, song, and lively card games until the late hours.
Soloarte is located behind an anonymous door on the ground floor of a residential apartment building. A foyer adorned with pieces of heritage furniture donated by members leads to the cozy dining room with its tile floors and exposed wooden beams, a comfortable home away from home for Soloarte's sixty-eight txokistas. A hearty, good-humored din indicates that most of the cuadrillas have already begun their dinner. At one end is the bar, where drinks and coffee are prepared and served by members. …