A Love Affair with Spain - How La Tienda Began

September 2009

Often I have been asked, ‘How is it that the Harris family, without a drop of Spanish blood, (that we know of), ends up being the leading source of fine Spanish food in America?’ 

It all goes back to our family – the ties we feel toward each other and how they in turn mirror the best of the Spanish tradition of family. We were a Navy family, with all that this entails. Ninety days after Ruth and I were married in Long Beach, and we were settling into our assignment in Washington DC, I was ordered to be the chaplain to a destroyer squadron which was bound for the Mediterranean for six months. Ruth was left among a pile of moving boxes in Norfolk. It turned out to be a blessing, as my Spanish port calls changed our lives. There, for the first time, I experienced the traditional Spanish culture where family ties are strong and children are cherished.

For some families the sailor’s life is too unpredictable and strains the family. For other families, such as ours, the unpredictability and uncertainty of the Navy way of life encourages closeness and bonding that might not be necessary in a more settled circumstance. It is a hard life, but one full of adventure. Over the course of our life in the Navy, we moved twenty-six times. Tim, our eldest was born in Virginia, Jonathan in San Diego and Christopher is our Spanish son. He even has a birth certificate from Rota in Cádiz, emblazoned with “Hijo de la Raza”! 

Our kids had to fit in with classmates of many schools. Tim set the record with thirteen different schools before college. Jonathan was in three fourth grades! Thus they did not have the luxury of taking many years to build friendships, so of necessity formed them within their family. I remember many times Ruth and I would urge the boys to go out and make friends in the new neighborhood. They invariably replied, “Why? We have our brothers.”

When the Navy gave us our dream assignment to Spain, Ruth and I saw in the typical Andalucian family the same kind of family closeness and interdependence that we fostered as parents. Paradoxically our family grew strong because constant change made close relationships within the family vital. On the other hand, the Spanish family formed lasting bonds because there is no change at all. They have years – even generations – to build family ties. 

Whether it is a family in Spain or America, it takes hard work and commitment to foster healthy relationships. People are people anywhere on the globe; we are all imperfect, to be sure. But with the model of a loving extended family as the ideal, it is easier to keep your eye set on the goal. One difference is that the Spanish families are quite communal and regularly sharing meals together. They also have a strong sense of hospitality for the stranger, who is treated as a friend. When we visited a Spanish family we could count on sharing tapas or a freshly prepared meal with them, either at home or at their favorite local restaurant. 

When we were stationed in Spain, we elected to live with the Spanish people, rather than on the Base. We wanted to be immersed in the life of the generous Spanish people in order to experience first hand the culture which we found so appealing. We enrolled Tim in El Centro Inglés where he spent the school day with Spanish kids as well as a few English and Americans. 

Tim valued his experience at the school so much that he and Amy will spend the first 6 months of 2010 in the same neighborhood where he grew up, and will send their two boys, Ben and Sam to a small school in Jerez de la Frontera. There they will spend each school day with a mix of children from Spanish and English speaking families, just as Tim experienced before.

When we were in Spain, at a moment’s notice we would pile the kids into the car (no cumbersome car seats in those days) and head north, showing them castles, Romanesque and Visigoth churches and beautiful old towns such as Trujillo, Guadalupe, Cáceres, Úbeda, Jaen, Cuenca and Soria. I must admit that sometimes their eyes glazed over as we showed them yet another church, but castles were no problem. 

Santiago de Compostela always struck a chord with our family - so much so that many years later when Jonathan was a young man in college he spent one summer walking across the north of Spain to Santiago on the pilgrimage route, Camino de Santiago. Later, he and his bride Stacey walked from León to Santiago on their honeymoon. Our youngest son, Chris, spent a summer in La Coruña as a college student, and Tim spent a summer with Spanish friends in Sevilla. (He says he spent many hours cooling off from the roasting heat by lingering in the air-conditioned El Corte Inglés!)

So we grew to be a close cohesive family with a shared love for Spain, whose culture was built on the same foundation of family as ours. When we were back in the United States we would take the boys back to Spain on military MAC flights, revisiting our old haunts and finding new people and places to enjoy. On the return flight we would load an extra suitcase with memories of Spain: those long tube glasses they use at tapas bars, ceramics and cazuelas of all sorts, María cookies and, most of all, bars of Heno de Pravia and Magno soaps whose familiar fragrance still waft through our home. A lot of other passengers were, too.

When I retired from the Navy we settled in Williamsburg. Ruth and I decided to dress up our house with lots of classic Moorish style tile to remind us of our happy years in Andalucía. We adorned our bathrooms and kitchen, our fireplace surround and dining room with classic Moorish designs reminiscent of the Alhambra. 

Just about the time when our two older sons began making lives of their own after college, a serious medical situation occurred at home, which caused the family to draw even closer. As the medical crisis was resolved, we realized how much we enjoyed each other’s company and thought of ways in which we could work as a family in a common enterprise. It was the early days of the internet, and so while Tim was at work with a Virginia ham company, Jonathan, with a degree in fine arts, experimented with web design. Since the Spanish tiles were very hard to find, Jonathan posted them on the web to help others with their quest for authentic tiles. With that action, La Tienda was born, just a year after Amazon.

Soon Tim suggested adding a picture of a Jamón Serrano to our tile site, to see whether anyone would like one, if we could get them imported. The response was immediate and enthusiastic. It was clear that La Tienda had made contact with the Spanish soul.

We continue to work together. Tim, Jonathan and I share the same office; other family members have found ways to contribute on a regular basis. Our youngest son Chris never got the wandering lust out of his bones. And so he and his wife Rian travel the globe as diplomats for the US State Department, and yet keep close contact with the progress of the family company through the Internet and Skype. All of the family continues to travel the highways and byways of Spain, some more than others because there are little children to nurture. We enjoy meeting other families with small artisan businesses, and buy their products for La Tienda. We find great satisfaction in supporting their families and way of life with which we so much resonate.

In our veins may flow the blood of the Dutch, Frisians, Scots-Irish, English and Armenians – we are American, all from immigrant stock. But our hearts have absorbed the essence of Spain and we feel at home there. After all, our wanderings across the landscape of Spain reach back to 1965! We find it a source of joy to work together, and to bring you our love for traditional Spain, as expressed in their cuisine. What gives me great personal satisfaction can be summed up in an email I received just as I was writing this reflection:

My father left Spain as a refugee in 1939. Behind he left his childhood, his country, and his favorite "Galletas Marias" (Maria Cookies).… I bought a box and handed it to my father in person. For the first time since leaving Spain, at 83 years old, he enjoyed his first authentic galleta in almost 70 years. Now every night he shares one cookie with everyone present so as to conserve his treasure and enjoy the moment. Gracias La Tienda! You have not only provided us with great authentic products, excellent personal service. You have given us a wonderful family moment! – Gali Sánchez

It all goes back to family. As a young husband and father, coming from a chaotic childhood, I was inspired by the traditional Spanish family and the way they cherish children. It may not be perfect, but with all its flaws it is a good model, and one that still exists in many parts of America. It takes dedication and focus, in the culture in which we live, but it is worth it – and it is never too late to strengthen family ties. 

Best wishes to you and your family,