Pedro Almodóvar's 'Parallel Mothers' Will Make You Crave a Potato Omelet
The important Spanish dish plays a key role in the new film.
Whenever there's food in Pedro Almodóvar's latest film, Parallel Mothers, now out in theaters, it looks luxurious. In one of the first moments, Penélope Cruz's character, a fashion photographer named Janis, serves a plate of jamón ibérico to her guest, a forensic anthropologist who will eventually become her lover. The meat positively glimmers. But the dish that gets the most screen time is the humble potato omelet—the tortilla española—that Cruz cooks midway through the movie.
Almodóvar's camera lingers on the potatoes glistening, steeped in oil, while Cruz fries them. When she finally unveils the finished product, it gleams, the toasted egg in a perfect mound. But this tortilla is no mere adornment. There's a purpose to its place that is central to the film's notions of history and generational conflict.
"The Potato Tortilla (Omelet) in Spanish culinary culture is equivalent to pizza or hamburgers in American food culture," Almodóvar told Thrillist in a statement via email. "It’s a delicious, popular, and affordable dish. In fact, if a Spaniard decided to bring it to the American market (I don’t understand why no one has yet; the ingredients are very basic), I am sure that it would triumph. It’s the same with Spanish cheeses. Ours are just as good as the French or Italian cheeses, but they are much better salespeople than us.” Indeed, Spanish chef José Andrés, the founder of the nonprofit World Central Kitchen, has described the tortilla española as "the most important dish in Spanish cooking." All you need? Potatoes, eggs, salt, and olive oil.
While Cruz's Janis doesn't spell out the recipe on screen, you can get a general sense of her technique by watching her deftly peel potatoes with just a flick of a knife, cutting them into delicate slices. Cruz makes fine rounds of potatoes; Andrés' recipe suggests cubing the spuds. She throws a pinch of salt into the pan with the oil and potatoes as they gently bubble. You can practically smell the aromas filling the kitchen, impeccably designed with green and red accents. (Alomodóvar homes are always enviable.)
At the start of Parallel Mothers, Janis becomes pregnant with the child of the aforementioned anthropologist, a married man who is helping her with a family project: locating the grave of her great-grandfather who was murdered by the fascist Falangists during the Spanish Civil War. In the hospital maternity ward, she meets Ana (Milena Smit), a scared teen. They go their separate ways but reunite by chance shortly after Janis makes a shocking revelation: The baby she brought home does not share her DNA. When she runs into Ana working at a cafe outside her apartment, she learns that Ana's baby has died from a sudden and inexplicable crib death. Janis invites the younger woman back into her life as her suspicions that their infants were switched at birth grow.
Ana arrives at Janis' door just as she is starting to prepare the omelet. Coming from a privileged upbringing but a broken home, Ana has never cooked a tortilla or peeled potatoes before, and Janis delicately walks her through the steps while wearing a "We Should All Be Feminists" shirt. The instruction is flirtatious but also motherly. Through the omelet prep, Janis is informing Ana about a part of her culture to which she is ignorant. Their generational divide is expressed through a different understanding of history. When Ana becomes jealous of the time that Janis is spending on the grave project, Janis snaps at her: "It's time you knew what country you are living in!" She explains, "There are over 100,000 people missing, buried in ditches or close to cemeteries. And until we do that, the war won't have ended." She encourages Ana to figure out what side of the war her father's family was on, to investigate her own role in the horrors that unfolded.
Almodóvar uses the gorgeously melodramatic switched-at-birth plot to tell a story about the wounds of a country. Janis' desire to be a mother, and the lengths she goes to keep the baby she knows is not hers, is born in part out of a desire to pass her familial history down, to remember the crimes perpetrated by the 20th-century Franco regime. "This is a debt that Spanish society has, and until that debt is paid, until these dead are honored, Spain’s war continues there," Almodóvar told the New York Times Magazine in a profile last year.
The omelet is not disconnected from these themes. It's a staple of the Spanish diet that Ana doesn't know how to make. In teaching Ana to wield a knife and prepare the dish, Janis is mothering the young woman, passing down a tradition that is vital to the place in which she lives. It also, of course, looks delicious.