All around Latin America, the sobremesa is enjoyed after lunch and dinner when families and friends gather. This is how one of our favorite traditions began and what it means to our community.
In Latin America, food is so much more than simple sustenance. It’s a religion. One could argue that the entire way of life in this part of the world revolves around food. Holidays are celebrated with it. Loss is mourned with it. There is no major occasion in a Latino’s life that isn’t centered around a shared meal. If food is the spirit and corazón of Latin America, then it makes perfect sense why there are countless cultural customs and traditions centered around eating. One such custom is the sobremesa.
Sobremesa is one of those beautiful Spanish words that doesn’t exist in the English language, so it can be difficult to translate. It’s a word that can be both a verb and a noun. The direct translation is upon the table, however the real meaning of the word encompasses so much more.
When you get together with friends or family for a meal in Latin America, the experience is not just limited to the meal itself. Sobremesa is the time you spend in deep, meaningful conversation, relaxing together, sometimes for hours, well after dessert has been served. You talk, drink, debate, laugh, and fully enjoy each other’s company. You… sobremesa.
The conversation is rarely shallow or boring. It’s not a time for small talk. As you may know, once people have eaten delicious food and enjoyed a bottle of good wine (or two), they can talk about anything. That’s what makes the conversation after a meal so much richer than any during it. There is no subject too heavy, provocative, or immature for the table to discuss, as long as it is done so with good manners and much respect.
Most commonly, sobremesa is enjoyed over a nice cup of coffee or shot of digestive liqueur. The ritual originated in Spain, as a byproduct of the often heavy three-course Spanish lunch. As it would be wildly inappropriate to have a siesta right at the table, sobremesa became a delightful alternative, in order to allow your food to digest before going back to work. Nowadays, this tradition is enjoyed all across Latin America.
Although it can be longest on the weekends, sobremesa is not reserved for Saturdays and Sundays. It can even be the “meatiest” part of a business meal, depending on the venue and nature of what’s up for discussion. Sobremesa is especially dangerous after weeknight dinners, as one could very easily lose track of time and suddenly come to realize it’s nearing 2 am on a work night! But that doesn’t stop people from enjoying sobremesa every day or night of the week. That’s due in large part to the fact that family and friends are two of the most important aspects of Latino life.
Sobremesa at restaurants
From Mexico City to Buenos Aires, when you go out to eat at a restaurant, especially on the weekends, you might find that there is a wait. If you ask the host, “How long for a table?” you may get what seems to be a strange response, something along the lines of, “15 minutes to 1 hour.” That’s due to the unpredictable nature of sobremesa. They have no idea how long guests will stay and chat at their table once they’ve finished eating. Locals will pay no mind to the long line of hungry guests eagerly waiting to be seated.
In other cultures, they might find it incredibly rude, but a Latino would find it rude to get up and leave as soon as a meal is done. Some might become frustrated that the waiter cleared the plates after they had finished eating but has failed to take the initiative to bring them their check. That’s also due to sobremesa. It would be considered inhospitable to make a guest feel rushed after a meal, so they’ll only bring your check when you ask for it.
The general concept of sobremesa is certainly not limited to Latin America. You’ll find similar traditions in European, Mediterranean, Asian, and Arab cultures. However, the Spanish language is the only one with a specific word for it, which goes to show how important it is. As incredibly important as food is to Latinos, at the end of the day, it serves the greater purpose of bringing people together.
Today, we live in a complicated world. We’re distracted at every turn, constantly comparing ourselves to strangers on the internet, and often overworked and spread way too thin. Bills pile up quickly, and our kids grow up way too fast. Now, more than ever, we might want to consider a paradigm shift in our priorities. Isn’t it time to enjoy a better quality of life, to be fully present and make quality time for one another? Sounds like it’s time to… sobremesa!