Sobremesa. The Ultimate Friendship Practice.
"The world envies our ability to spin out long meals with eternal sobremesas (over the table conversations). Sobremesa is a custom that unites us with family and friends around that which we love doing most. Eating. This is because in Spain, happiness is pronounced 'sobremesa.'" - Alberto Piernas Medina
From an early age I have gathered people around food, initially at my British boarding school as a response to terrible food we were served. I continued to cook and gather through university and on into my adulthood.
As with many of my life practices, I never thought much of it at the time. It was just something I did. My initial recipe was simple. A small core group of eight people would invite eight of their friends every week, usually on a Sunday. We would all bring something to the table, food, drink, sweets, wine, cheeses. It was a community of abundance at a time when we were all collectively poor.
In my twenties I moved to Spain, and so too did my food and gathering practice. I learned something deep from the Spanish, that beyond their love for food, their long lunches were not just about eating. The mythical Spanish siesta was not the center point of a long mealtime either. What mattered was the idea the Spanish had invented a unique word for: Sobremesa.
The direct translation of sobremesa is on the table or tabletop. The colloquial meaning for sobremesa refers to the time after a meal where we sit around and talk over the table. Sobremesa. The time is necessarily long, unstructured and meandering for the practice to work.
Mealtimes are a festival for the senses, food, music, good company, laughter, pain, scandal, sorrow, triumph. What I learned in Spain is that so much more can be digested over a table than food. When I came to the States I tried, and failed dismally, to bring the long lunch with me to my startup company in Northern California.
In MEA, I found a venue to resurrect and appreciate the practice of sobremesa. Over every meal, we convene around wonderful food, we talk, we laugh, we cry, we share, we explore, we discover, we reveal and are revealed. We make friends over the table. We build stories over the table.
My own sobremesa friendship practice has, I believe, been the key to a rich and happy life full of friends.
One of our compadres recently raised the idea of friendship as a practice. Like a yoga mat is key to yoga so too a table big enough for friends is, in my experience, the key to friendship.
Top 10 Sobremesa Practices
I tried to distill down my sobremesa learnings into ten learnings:
1. Curate everything, especially people. Choose who is coming individually and who is coming together collectively every week as carefully as what you eat. Have a strict “no asshole” rule.
2. Create a gathering cadence. If the gatherings you create have a predictable timing and venue, people are more likely to fall into the schedule, if you don’t have the right space, recruit someone who does and see if they will host.
3. Make the rules clear and get buy-in from your organizing group. These gatherings are a co-creation not a hosting, that way dinners can run without being a burden on any single individual. Make sure you have a core group of 3 or 4 conveners committed to the endeavor. Anyone coasting or freeloading, don’t invite them again.
4. Don’t sweat the drop outs. Welcome in random elements. People will inevitably not show and one friend will inevitably want to bring another unexpected guest. Roll with it (life is whimsical).
5. Share cooking responsibilities and shopping responsibilities together. Try to always prepare something that is beyond any one individual. Let people know how many people are coming so they can cater accordingly.
6. If you are the host, be sure you make the base dishes, something extensible like a risotto or pasta or a big salad that means everyone will get some food.
7. Be careful to insist that every meal is special. The goal is to make something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Make the food beautiful as an homage to the experience. Explain this ambition to people participating.
8. Create an environment where everything touched is pleasing (this is not the same as expensive). Don’t serve beautiful food on plastic plates and platters. Go the extra mile, use nice dishes or get creative and think hard about how everything on a table is tactile, visual and works together to create a sense of occasion.
9. Choose your music with care and don’t play it too loudly. Soundscapes are often the last thing people think about for a dinner but are the thing that creates a vibe or an atmosphere. If you are not a good music curator, go to someone that is.
10. Clean together. Everyone, everyone is involved in clean-up and tidying at some stage of the dinner. That way it becomes effortless. A single night cleaning for a dozen people will put you off doing this ever again.
For those of you that want to go a step further, here are some advanced practices…
Dance. Music can get louder in the cleaning phases, it helps to dance and as you tidy and clean.
The salon model. Having a topic of conversation like the French salon style convening can help an evening move forwards. I have hosted dinners with a menu of printed discussion topics. It was fun. I wouldn’t always do it but occasional topic led discussions can be amazing.
Food themes. Exploring a specific cuisine can dovetail with the salon model. Your theme might be Japanese culture and the food could wrap around that theme. Again, these dinners build momentum and create a culture. It can be a social culture, a learning culture, an exploring culture or some combination of all of these.
Be conscious of the culture you are creating.
Jeff Hamaoui is a co-founder of MEA and Regen Communities and an entrepreneur, sage, wit, and poet.