It’s a hot summer day, some time in August, some place around the Mediterranean coast, something like “I don’t know what day of the week it is nor how far into the month we are.” Food, lots and lots of food. Coffee, lots of that too. Words, back and forth, elevated in tone or coated with laughter, empty because you’re still groggy from the siesta you took earlier, or serious, because you want to convince your cousin that “Thursday, the number seven and the color brown all have the same energy.”
In Spain, we call this “la sobremesa,” and it is one of the moments in life I cherish most. Its literal translation is “the over-table,” but to clarify, it is the time spent from the end of the last course to the moment people get up from their seats to carry on with their lives. An idle hour. The “dolce far niente.” A time worth losing. My guilty pleasure.
The difference in food was one of the things that struck me the most when I moved from Barcelona, Spain, where I am originally from, to the United States. The sizes, the flavors, take-out and drive-ins, the speed… I won’t get too deep into the details of my critique for I would much rather enlighten the reader with a different reality, and maybe that will be enough to contrast the culture, or lack thereof, surrounding food in America.
Food is, evidently, used to nourish the human body and without it we would not be able to survive, but food also is so much more than that. The very beauty of it lies in the ceremony, the ability to share it with the ones you love, to indulge in what you are eating while engaging in conversations — from small talk to existential questionings — to make the act of eating a separate part of your daily routine. A time to forget the mundanity of the nine to five when you eat from your office desk as you multitask and sip on your sixth coffee of the day.
No, we don’t have sobremesas every weekday. It is typically reserved for Sundays when your grandparents come over, holidays and days when hours aren’t counted, or dinners with friends, dates and even acquaintances. It is something to expect.
First come the guests, milling in around forty minutes later than the requested arrival time (but the host already counts on that before they even put the food in the oven.) They bring wine and appetizers, like cheeses and olive tapenades, or they may be in charge of dessert — a summer tarte, a fruit salad, chocolates…
After a while the conversation moves to the main table and the fun begins. Fun, that is, if you aren’t sitting next to your boring uncle who asks about your “boyfriends or lack thereof,” or the family friend who tries to convince you that mandatory military service should still be implemented.
I like to think of la sobremesa as the closest thing to Greek banquets. You have been indulging in delicious food, your cheeks flushed and hot from the fourth glass of wine, perhaps it’s already your fifth, you have sat up three times to check on the food and have cleared the plates twice. What comes next is the best part: the coffee — served out of a mocca pot that leaves a metallic aftertaste because it has been in your grandma’s pantry since she got married —and the pastries: buttery, sweet and addictive.
You switch places with your sister when she goes to grab a cloth to clean up your uncle’s spilled glass of water, and begin talking to your grandmother. She tells you about the time she went to Peru and about how good the Pisco Sour was at the Machu Picchu. You slyly hide her glass; she has had enough for today.
To your right is the cousin you never know enough about. You ask him about school and he says “same old.” Scoff. That will be enough till you meet again and ask him once more, knowing what the answer is already. You overhear a conversation about the latest scandal in the news, this time it’s something about the decadence of music. You draw your ear closer and attempt to engage. It is your grandfather’s comment that makes you jump up and start arguing over the four people sitting between you and him. It becomes a loud cacophony of arguments going nowhere, there is no convincing him. “Music died when Duke Ellington died.”
By the time the guests are gone, your ears are thrumming, the air still feels alive and in your mind, something somebody said is replaying in a loop. “When you say you are doing a double-major, make sure to say Poli Sci first and then Art History, or you won’t be taken seriously.” A shake of the head and a small scoff, while you sweep the floor where your sister carelessly ate her biscuit. The quote sticks, and it becomes ingrained in your dialogue. Poli Sci, then Art History. Okay.
Anecdotes, lessons, jokes, Socratic demeanors, nonsense and everything in between. La sobremesa is a place to learn to appreciate the true riches of life, a safe zone to debate over things that will be forgotten by the morning, a time to learn how to listen (something that is not taught often enough).
Now I sit in front of my screen while I eat my lunch in between Zoom classes. I feel guilty for falling for the very same thing I despise, while I count down the days until I can be seated under the shade of the willow tree at my countryside home, as the warmth of summer embraces my skin, still hot from having been reading under the sun earlier in the day.
A guilty pleasure or perhaps it is just merely a pleasure. Guilty, that is, if you can’t step back and appreciate the exceptionality of that time spent “over-the-table.”
Daily Arts Writer Cecilia Duran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.