Kokotxas (cod cheeks) simmer on one burner, Pimientos Piquillos (mild red peppers) on another, with slivers of garlic gently bubbling on a third, awaiting some prawns. Hovering over the professional grade stove in this stainless steel kitchen is a gaggle of men, one belting out “O Sole Mio,” while he trims mushrooms, a second frying up pork rinds, another cleaning anchovies. The kitchen opens onto a long room filled with simple wooden tables and chairs.
You are in San Sebastian, Spain, Basque country--where the knuckle of the Iberian peninsula joins the bottom of France--and you’re lucky enough to be in a Txoko, a sociedad gastronomica, or men’s cooking club. In the Basque language, “Tx” is pronounced like “ch,” so Txoko comes out as Choko. It is a Seussian tongue, Basque, quite unlike the Spanish spoken in the rest of the country, and if Dr. Seuss didn’t invent it, he could have. The word for prawn is Otarrainxkak, prawns certainly being a language spoken by these cooks.
There are strict traditions here: only men can be members, only members and their guests are admitted, and although women are allowed as guests, women are very rarely permitted in the kitchen.
There are more than a hundred men’s cooking clubs in San Sebastian. Their origins are a subject of fact myth and fact, but it’s a fact that women run things in Basque society. In this matriarchal environment, Txakos initially gave men a place to gather, cook, and talk. During the tyranny of Franco’s Spain, from 1939 to 1975, the clubs gave members a place to preserve Basque culture. The clubs still emphasize society as much as food, and a few now reportedly allow women as members.
On our visit, members gathered around the kitchen, joking with those manning the stoves and discussing recipes. San Sebastian is a food city, boasting seven Michelin-starred restaurants for its 140,000 population. Many of the chefs from those haute cuisine establishments still belong to Txakos. A clear sense of family and camaraderie is at work here, for this is an organization that manages itself on the honor system. Each member pays an initiation fee and monthly dues to defray the costs of rent, dishes, and utilities. Members bring the raw materials for the meals themselves. If a group is eating, everybody pitches in to cover the costs. Coolers of beer and wine are open to all, but each member is trusted to log into a computer to tell the club how much he’s consumed and pay accordingly.
The biggest day of the year for Txakos in this city is January 20th, which the Catholic Church commemorates as the feast of Saint Sebastian. The celebration begins on Saint Sebastian eve, the 19th, where thousands of people turn out to the city’s Konstituzio Plaza for the Donostiako Donborrada, or festival of the drums. Members of every Txako turn out, dressed either in chef’s whites or Napoleon era soldiers’ uniforms--the reasons for these uniform choices are a little hazy--equipped with drums or barrels, depending on their outfit. At the stroke of midnight, the mayor raises a city flag and a twenty-four hour drum-banging procession through the city begins. The procession doesn’t stop until a member of the the Union Artesano lowers the flag.
It is the only day of the year when non-members are welcome to enter any Txako, and when they’ll not only let you touch their Kokotxas, they’ll probably feed you some.