Michael Largo


The History of Flan

One hundred years ago, General Juan Carlos Goya of the revolutionary army, a tiny man, stood wide eyed in front of the firing squad on a stinging spring morning in the small coastal village of Maniagua. He foretold of his family’s future in the split second before they shot him, declaring that the household practice, then, now and always, is to have prepared, on days of execution, giant round tables draped in purple silk holding numerous tins of a gelatinous golden dessert known as flan.

Legend has it that when the general was asked for his last words he stood erect, puffed up his chest like a proud parrot, the 101 medals received during his long and shrewd career covering his drab uniform like a puzzle of armor. He turned his head slightly askew as if ready for a portrait, then winked and whispered.

“Flan should always be served wiggly and jiggly, this, even during disagreeable times, we all concede.”

“Is that it?” the firing squad commander said.

“Traditionally,” the general continued, “it is baked and served from one large mold. Then, individual, pie like slices are served.”

The firing squad commander raised his emerald saber. The riflemen thumb flicked the flint locks, their stubbled beards pressed against wood stocks, eyes beaded down the barrel.

“Use 3/4 cup of sweetened almond milk, 2 stalks of sugarcane and 4 egg whites,” the general went on.

The commander’s emerald saber sliced through the air and musket booms echoed over the uneven stone wall of the courtyard, rustled the thatched roofs of cottages. Crying babies paused. Slumbering old men opened one eye. Nothing subsided until the salvo of gunshot was muted by the sea.

Afterwards, fat ravens flew from the fruitless mango trees. Every single albino sparrow–which the village was noted for-- shot up from patchy sand and gravel roads. Even the region’s famed purple eyed parrots and fan--headed cockatoos turned on their perches in rusty wrought iron cages at the market place as the general spiraled to his knees and said,

“We must serve flan in individual cupcake tins instead of the clumsy cake pan. Caramelize the sugarcane in a black iron skillet until golden, then pour and coat the sides and bottom of the tins with this heavenly essence.”

It was later added by family lore, but could not be historically verified, that the general said with his last breath: “A good flan will have the consistency of Jell-O and the texture of a thick custard.”

A faded sepia photograph of the general remained in a place of honor above a star shaped wooden table in the Goya family’s kitchen for generations to come. His tiny black bean eyes were cast to the left toward the wood stove where for as long as anyone could remember cauldrons of almond milk simmered and long, heavy pans melted sugarcane into Caramel from fresh cut stalks. In the photograph, a thin fleck of white glows at the edge of the general’s dark and wide broom mustache, a remnant of flan he was served after his triumphant return from a campaign in the north. That day, he tasted it, as he always did, with the tip of his dagger just before this one and only photo of him was taken. His head in this rendering is slightly askew, a gesture now seen in headshots used by actors. Because of these details, the family historians argued that the photo could not have been taken at the time of his firing squad.

Upon further, closer examination, others believed that the general was already dead when the zinc phosphate flashed. Some remembered that a photographer had rushed in with a tripod camera, black cloth over his head, and a tray of ignitable powder to use as a strobe at the moment of execution. Since it had taken the firing squad commander six times to carry out the death sentence of the general, there would’ve been plenty of time for pictures, enough for a portfolio.

Each time the commander sliced his saber the musket balls struck the general’s chest of medals and the general fell to his knees, sliding down and around the pole with his hands bound behind him, and whispering instructions about the preparation of perfect flan.

“Briskly but gently, stir the egg whites and almond milk in a wooden bowl until thick, pour into the tins atop the Carmel and place the tins in two inches of boiling water stoked by a wood fire. Cook until firm.”

It was only after the firing squad commander ordered the general’s shirt removed did the execution stick.

The firing squad commander kept the general’s medaled shirt, against Goya family protests, as well as partitions by the curator of the local military museum. Long after the general’s blood had been washed away by heavy rains, the executing commander sat on a lopsided stool in the vast courtyard, for months, the general’s shirt spread out before him in the moist dirt. The commander still wore his calf-high riding boots, the studded leather bullet strap crisscrossing his chest, and his parade style brigadier hat with one white cockatoo plume. All he ate during this period were leftovers from the funeral flan, morsels no bigger than grains of sand which he let slide down his throat without chewing or truly savoring them.

Then, the albino sparrows returned to the courtyard and became bold enough to perch on the commander’s square shoulders or nest in his hat during these endless days of contemplation.

Villagers thought he must be experiencing remorse for carrying out the orders to execute such a famous general. Other, more scientific villagers, believed they were witnessing the formation of a statue, until finally, the commander lifted the shirt from the dirt and raced home to his freckled wife and ten yellow eyed children.

Before the general’s death no one in the village understood the simplicity of turning everyday things into profitable products. The first omen was the firing commander’s sudden diligence, who along with his brood was seen working as a blacksmith, pounding and shaping glowing hot metal onto anvils, trying over and over to duplicate the puzzle of the general’s medals that prevented the penetration of musket balls. Ultimately the first bullet-proof vest was invented.

Another sign of the changing world came when an old hobbling veteran returned from the very long war. This skilless soldier was useless in peacetime, knowing only bayonet thrusting and ambush.

One dark, cricketless night, after this obsolete soldier ate what he thought would be his last slice of flan, he decided to hang himself from the dangling vines of a rubber tree. When the noose stretched and sprung him back up, only to knock the top of his skull against the thick mother branch, he had what is now considered an epiphany. He later went on to lay the ground work for creation of rubber bands of all sizes, the largest of which led to the invention of bungee jumping.

Also, an old lady, who used the smooth, round stones that washed up on the shore to pound the mango stains from her hands, began calling her favorite rocks by name, as if they were children. In her final days, just before she had to be strapped to the rocking chair on the porch, she began to tuck her rocks into tiny doll beds and was seen trying to feed her stones specks of flan with a toothpick. Her daughters, nearly old women themselves, got the idea to put the mother’s stones into small see-thru cartons with instructions for care and sold them to tourists along with a box of toothpicks widdled from the bark of the very mango tree which caused the old woman’s demise

The people were amazed that nearly everything could be merchandised. The poorest villagers who lived on the coast, once considered the most foolish of locations to build a house, due to collapsing sands, zig-zagging tides and annual periods of vertical winds, discovered that there was an even greater value in intangible things.

When the tourists came, the costal villagers tried to sell them their scrap-wood shacks. They offered free tours of their property, enticed by a complimentary slice of flan. They tried to distract the buyers, make them forget the minute inconveniences of coastal living like flea bitten ankles and flan crunchy with sand grains. Every time the buyers started picking something apart, the villagers who built their huts on the dunes said nothing. These shriveled salesmen just raised their arms and jutted their bony fingers out the window, towards the sea. They became unimaginably rich by selling the “vista.”

Soon, the industrial revolution of packaging caught fire in the village. The general’s own children, forever sopping up the sweat from their foreheads with tattered apron tails while in the infernal kitchen, worked night and day to perfect the single serving of flan. And they nearly had it, but something was always missing.

In the traditional baking of flan the dessert is removed from the oven and cooled. Once adequately firm, the yellow custardy cake is flipped onto a dish so that the Carmel, once on the bottom, becomes the top and drips slowly over the edges of the flan to fall into tiny golden pools around the edge of the plate. In the small cupcake tin, the general warned ,this flipping of the flan was not easy. So, at first the Goya family descendants sold their flans still in the tins and provided a free souvenir dish with the general’s likeness stamped in wood block. This allowed the hurried traveler to flip the flan out themselves. But people were not bothering with the flan much and only came for the dishes which when tossed into the sky for good luck, were discovered to glide across the sea like flying sandollars. Nearly bankrupt, the family unloaded their supply of flying dishes, which they named ‘freebies,” to a toy maker (who slightly modified the name). Then again, the family fired up the almond milk kettles.

By now a Goya boy had been born who displayed the same shrewdness and wandering black bean eye of the general and the same tilted head seen in the old film-coated sepia photograph above the star shaped family table. He, like all offspring, was placed on a silver stool to reach the stove and trained from the time he was 2 years old to stir the simmering flan mixtures with a firm and steady hand. At first considered a slow learner, the boy’s fingers were smacked with a sticky wooden spoon more times than he could count. He always forgot to add the Carmel to the bottom of the tins before pouring in the smooth mixture. Most of his flan batches were placed on the stoop for the albino sparrows and tailess squirrels.

Some family historians say, that to save his sore knuckles --others call it a stroke of genius-- the boy one day decided to add the Caramel syrup to the top of the flan while still in the tins and then decided there was no need to flip it out at all. The rest is history. The individual-size-serving of flan in cupcake tins were at first loaded onto wagons and chilled by melting blocks of ice and later packed onto railroad cars and steam ships to be distributed around the world.

Today, in every bodega and in every dairy section of the nation’s supermarkets, the general’s single serving of flan is prominently displayed. And more recently, new documents have been unearthed that testify to the general’s very last words. After his shirt with the 101 medals was removed and he shivered in the sting of the morning sea air, his hands bound by rope behind the pole, he licked the edge of his bristly mustache and said, “And don’t ever forget... If you want to be extra classy, paper thin orange slices make the perfect garnish.”