so-bre-me-sa: (noun); time spent being present at the table, lingering over a meal in conversation well after the food is gone.
This memoir, by an Argentine-American who grew up in Pittsburgh, but fell in love and moved to Argentina, was a wonderful introduction to what makes the Argentinian culture so rich.
Sobremesas are the family gatherings around the dinner table; the leisurely hours spent eating and talking about life, politics, love, and anything else that connects a group of people in a meaningful way. As I read this, I thought about the idea of “breaking bread” with other people and getting to know them on a much more personal level as you share a meal together.
The author Josephine compares sobremesas to gatherings like American Thanksgiving, but I feel fortunate that I grew up in a house where we had dinner around the table as a family every night. We talked about our days and enjoyed all the food that my mother had prepared. When I had a family of my own, we were sure to eat dinner as a family every night, too. We were a small table of four, but now that my children are grown and moved away, we’ve had to make an effort to meet for extended family dinners at one of our homes each month. Those are our “sobremesas” where we catch up on each others’ busy lives and laugh over events we remember, or share stories about the past. I feel very fortunate indeed.
The book begins with the idea that food is a celebration that evokes two of our most urgent desires: to be nourished and to belong. From there, Josephine writes about some of the Argentinian dishes her abuela lovingly cooked and shared. Dishes like milanesas (beef milanese), empanadas al cuchillo (knife-cut beef handheld turnovers), noqui de ricota (ricotta gnocchi), and so many others.
The book is told in 13 courses and each of those recipes is shared. But the recipes include more than a list of ingredients; they share the love behind these dishes. And thought I rarely ever try to recreate a dish I read about in a book, I do want to try this simple one: Mom’s Mushroom Sandwich.
“This sandwich tastes of home, hangovers, or both. It’s a love letter from my mom.”
Josephine is eating this sandwich after a painful heartbreak and goes on to instruct that, “The bread takes a backseat to the snowcapped mushrooms, allowing their umami goodness to shine through. Further, a reliable white sandwich bread won’t crumble, even when it’s the only thing that stands between you and a tidal wave of tears. There’s one last requisite: this sandwich is best eaten in pajamas or old sweats, in bed or in a comfy chair in front of the TV while watching a Hallmark or Lifetime movie or two back to back.”
I get it. There are times I need a comfort food like that. And the mushroom sandwich sounds oddly delicious, despite the fact that she suggests using Wonder bread — which I normally avoid.
Shortly after reading this chapter, my mother and I were at a restaurant that served Mushroom Toast with their own locally-grown mushrooms. It felt like serendipity. We had to try it. It wasn’t quite the same recipe as Josephine’s mother’s, but it was absolutely delicious!
Moving to Argentina
You may be wondering why I’m sharing this memoir on a travel blog. In part, because we get a glimpse into life in Argentina as Josephine travels there to work on her family’s ranch. That’s where she falls in love with Gaston, and decides to move back to her familial homestead and live with Gaston in Argentina.
While Josephine does speak some Spanish, this move is complicated. I know many couples who try to make a long-distance relationship work, and some who pick up and move abroad without knowing what complexities and culture shocks may ensue. This is the case with Josephine and Gaston. They have different native languages. There are cultural norms for men and women in Argentina that don’t match those in the US. Josephine insists he come to Pittsburgh to help her pack and to get a feel for the home that she knew — a very foreign experience for Gaston, who doesn’t speak English.
These are the types of issues that a cultural blending raises and it was interesting to read of Josephine’s realizations that neither Argentina or America felt exactly right. She sometimes grappled with where she belonged.
But actually, there was one place where she always knew she belonged: at the sobremesas she shared with her family and friends. A place where the food nurtures the body and the conversations nourished the soul.
I loved being able to relate to that experience. I enjoyed learning more about the Argentinian culture, but really loved the realization that families everywhere embrace the idea of gathering at a table to break bread.
What type of family dinners do you enjoy? Are they similar to sobremesas?