Learning to love la sobremesa


by Sally Wilson

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My fridge door is a wild country littered with notes and reminders, chiefly about food in Mexico City. It’s where I stockpile the maps I’ve drawn to lead me back to an olive stand or the taquería in Colonia Navarte, where pineapple slices fly from the spit to tortilla in ways that trained pilots can’t rival. I write down cuts of meat that are hard to memorize—huesos de tuétano, chambarete de mano—and stick them on the fridge with a magnetized business card from the butcher shop, La Sorpresa.

For me, mapping the city according to a trail of food stops is about falling in love with the city. Collecting a long list of the ways to say “shank” is about learning the words that will decode it. But not all parts of the food culture of Mexico are so quickly available or so readily learned, and one of those practices is the art of la sobremesa.

It took me awhile to realize that some meals in Mexico only begin when they end. On weeknights, my kind of meal finishes with a pile of ransacked corn husks and some stray salsa verde. A snack from a taco stand takes me fifteen minutes, and most times I’ll eat it standing up. I’ll slow down to more of a marathon runner’s pace to work through three-courses of comida corrida, but remain quietly conscious of the clock. This way of eating is normal for me, and probably for many others in Mexico City. What it lacks, though, is an all-important course—the one that starts only after the plates have been cleared. It’s the course that requires time, good company, a drink or two, and conversation: what lies deep at the heart of la sobremesa.

I was unpractised and wobbly when I started to spend more and more time at the table, although I couldn’t pinpoint why. There was coffee in front of me, small cakes and buttery biscuits and I was sharing time with the people who make up my treasured, patchwork family here. But still I couldn’t find a way to fall in time with the conversations or relax with the ebb and flow of the afternoons. My mind would race: shouldn’t we visit a gallery, jump on an Ecobici or take a drive and climb a mountain? In Australia we have the boozy lunch, the brunch and afternoon tea, and each of them involve tables, people and talk; none of them prepares you for la sobremesa, which requires something deeper from you, something more profound: it asks you to flick a switch and to slow right down.

The pace of la sobremesa is part of the ritual. Tío Conejo, a seventy-eight year-old maestro mezcalero with a walking stick and a full-time grin, taught me this. His palenque is in the south hills of Ejutla de Crespo, Oaxaca, where I visited earlier this year to learn about mezcal. After a day spent with our hands in the ferment of cooked agaves, we sat down at a neighbour’s  taquería —a gang of us at a long table—to eat and reflect on the day. Through the evening and as the night began to fall, Tío Conejo was entirely composed. He took his time with a plate of hot pork tacos and quartered limes. When the meal was done, he talked, enjoying the leisurely conversation with friends. My own behavior that night was less elegant. After three tacos I was worn out, hovering at the edge of sleep. I was in awe of the evening and the company, but also looking for the right moment to pack up the table and escape to bed. Somehow though, in the reflected glow of the sobremesa and the avocado trees, I waited a little longer... And I managed to slow down a gear. At the head of the table, Tío Conejo was simply enjoying the vibes. “Good things take time”, his smile seemed to tell me.

Paulino Martínez hosts plenty of long lunches each week at El Parnita, the restaurant in Roma Norte that he runs with his brother Nicolás and mum, Betty Acra. He has noticed over the years that people tend to stay at his restaurant, even after finishing double rounds of tacos Carmelita and Huérfanos. “After the food, people want to continue their conversations and drinks. They want to stretch out the moment they’re sharing”, he says. This approach to gathering seems exotic, rare even, in a part of the restaurant world. I’m more familiar with places where waiters circle and the eyes of twenty other people in line are watching, hell-bent on you paying your bill and handing over your seat. But at El Parnita there’s an ever-present sense of generosity, one in tune with the philosophy of sobremesa. I feel at home there, amidst the salsa bowls and the family photos.

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The sentiment is shared by a cluster of friends in their seventies, who gather at El Parnita every week. They stay talking long after the flow of ceviche and tlacoyos to their table ends. “We stay until after the sun has gone down, the kitchen has closed and we get kicked out”, chuckles Tío Paulino Martínez (Paulino’s uncle). Their table is tucked away behind the restaurant’sentrance; it’s prime real estate with an enviable view of the scenery that flocks to El Parnita. But the gang rarely has time to people-watch, because they’re having far too much fun on their own. To me, they seem like experts in la sobremesa and I’m curious to find out what makes their version of the long lunch tick.

Jorge Ordoñez indulges me. “Friends”, he says, “Friends, food, drinks, space and time, in that order”. In the midst of the chatter and coffee it’s hard to tell the difference between the men sitting here now, and what they must have been like in their twenties. Gilberto Nieves, the Hemingway of the group, ponders how a conversation that has spanned for decades can stay interesting. “I’ve heard this guy say the same things for years”, he says with an eye on Tío Paulino, “but it doesn’t stop me from coming back to hear it all over again”. Perhaps the secret is the friendship. “We look forward to catch up”, says Billy Wignall with a cigar in hand, “it’s a weekly celebration”.

Looking around the restaurant, I have a breakthrough of sorts. The time we spend at a table, talking, represents an escape. Invariably we return to our obligations, but during that moment at the table we are being listened to, fussed over and cared for. La sobremesa is an opportunity for reflection, laughter and playfulness. It’s about valuing close, meaningful connections. It’s a simple celebration of who we are, and those we love. Paulino agrees: “I think that, as humans, we often forge our relationships around food and drink. Sobremesas are a perfect way to make and maintain connections. Food and drink are the bridges that serve as our connection points. They are the pretext for great friendships, agreements, businesses and other expressions that reflect the human capacity to relate”.

The experts’ table is littered with half glasses of wine, desserts and mezcal. My own table is here to celebrate a birthday, and it’s decorated with small dessert cakes, glasses of carajillo and tequila. Artisans move between tables selling over-sized, bright yellow decorative pineapples and the clock has struck that golden hour which marks the start of an afternoon of idle talk at the table. I think back to the mountains and Tío Conejo, with a silent nod to the master. It’s a glorious hour and, with a drink in hand, I never want to move from my chair.