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La Comida—Spain’s Most Important Meal

Spanish food, American food. Spanish meals, American meals. Spanish life, American life. How are they similar? How are they different?

Okay, I’m going to stop sounding like a blue-book exam right about now.

In Spain, you may hear people say the following:

  • Salimos después de comer.
  • ¿Cuándo vais a comer?
  • Paramos para comer.
  • Te dieron de comer, ¿no?

I’ve figured it out—the Spanish day isn’t structured around the clock (not really). It’s all about la comida, lunch. (In high school we learned the word almuerzo, which isn’t the same thing in Spain. Almuerzo tends to be a mid-morning snack, whereas la comida is lunch around 2 or 3 p.m.) This led me to tell Mario that people are fixated on eating lunch! It plays such a central role.

In the states, we have morning until 11:59 a.m., afternoon after 12 p.m., evening after about 6 p.m., and night after about 9 p.m.

In Spain, morning is until you eat. After that it’s la tarde (literally “the afternoon”) until you have dinner. After dinner, it’s nighttime. For me, it’s still weird to hear 7 p.m. being referred to as 7 in the afternoon, but I’m getting used to it.

Spanish food

Photo from Hayley Comments

Eating must be pretty important for Spaniards! Of course, you know it is. Most Spaniards I know would not want to spend their lunch hour in front of the computer with a sandwich in their hand. Indeed, this is the antithesis of the traditional Spanish lunch.

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Dad and I eating in San Sebastián, Spain

What is the (traditional) Spanish lunch about, then? It’s about …

taking a real break. Don’t give me any 30-minute lunches, I’m talking at least an hour and maybe two. Of course, if you have a job, it’s shorter. Mario has a full two hours to eat, but since we live in Madrid, going home for lunch would just be silly. In small towns it is much easier to do this. Nonetheless, most Spaniards take a break, even if it is just to sit down with work colleagues in the office.

… first plate, second plate, fruit, dessert, coffee. At least in la casa de mis suegros, this is how it goes, almost always. You can shake things up a bit by having small appetizers for the first course or making the fruit the dessert. My father-in-law has fruit, dessert, and then sometimes a small cookie with coffee. Sweet tooth? Nah.

… the three o’clock news. Unless it’s a special meal, the news tends to be on while we’re eating. This doesn’t mean we always pay attention to it. Before the news comes on, we watch The Simpsons. Because of the timing, a lot of Spaniards end up watching the Simpsons, a fact I attribute to its immense success here in Spain.

la sobremesa. A word with no real English equivalent, sobremesa is the chat after the meal, as people linger over coffee, sweets, and liqueurs. As people are generally content with their bellies full and the wine flowing through their veins, there can be some really intriguing and enlightening conversations that occur.

la siesta. This is not as true as it once was, but many do pause to take a short nap, whether it be on the couch or in a bed! I find that the more I eat, the more I want a siesta! Of course, when we’re having dinner at my in-laws’ house, we generally don’t eat lightly.

La comida, besides meaning lunch, literally means “food,” emphasizing the meal’s importance for many Spaniards. As I live here longer and longer, I am beginning to love the concept and embrace the (outdated?) concept of sitting down with loved ones and pressing pause for a moment.

What do you love about the Spanish idea of la comida?

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The Foreigner at the Table

I’ve eaten many a meal with Mario’s family. His friends, too. But it wasn’t until recently that his cousin pointed out to me that, well, I eat funny. No, no, my chewing habits are just fine, thanks. But what’s up with your hand?

Think long and hard about what you do with your hands while you eat. Inspired by this post about Spaniards’ eating habits, I came up with my own list of the way Spaniards find us guiris weird at the dinner table:

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  • You eat with your left hand on your lap.
  • You cut your meat and then switch the fork to the other hand. And then you put your left hand back on your lap. Why do we do this? I did a little research, and it seems there are two styles to eating, “American” and “Continental” style. Forbes calls our style of eating the “Switch and Switch” style. Apparently, the Continental Style came about from wanting to be unthreatening at the dinner table. You know, if you put your hand in your lap, it could be because you have some sort of weapon hidden there.
  • You don’t eat fruit after meals. A very common practice in Spain, this one. In some families, fruit is the dessert, although there’s no way this would fly with Mario’s family. We have a theory that the goloso gene is there, but it’s diluted for every generation. Mario’s grandmother used to put sugar on her salad. Yeah, you read that right. Mario’s dad cannot pass up dessert for anything. Mario is goloso, but not nearly as much. Maybe our kids won’t even like dessert? That’s yet to be seen. But fruit? Always. It can be as simple as apple (make sure you peel it!). It can be a fruit salad (macedonia), strawberries with milk (a lite alternative to strawberries and cream), or even compota de manzana, but fruit is essential.
  • You eat things really hot or really cold. This could be just a family thing, and I tend to think it is because my husband’s aunt likes her food steaming hot. But what is with these people and lukewarm soups? My father-in-law somehow even manages to enjoy room-temperature coffee, and I just can’t. Nope. However, keep in mind I grew up with a father who refused to eat things that weren’t nearly boiling hot. This same man put his chocolate candy bars and Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies into the freezer.
  • You don’t use bread para empujar. I do love bread. Yes, yes, I do-ooooo. But before I came to Spain I never used it to push food onto my fork. But gosh, does this make sense. Salad eating is so much easier now. Thanks, Spain!
  • You don’t watch TV while you eat. When I was growing up, watching TV while eating was not the thing to do. It was usually a sign that you had nothing to say and that you were bored with the company. Now, Mario’s family won’t have it on if there are guests at the house, but with just the family? You bet. It’s usually The Simpsons on Antena 3, followed by the news. Such cheerful mealtimes we have with all the doom and gloom.

  • You don’t drink coffee after your meal. Okay, this is not the most universal of all my rules, but it still counts. Coffee is very often drunk after the meal. My Spanish family drinks it right in the glass, which I found odd at first, but they soon adapted to bringing me a nice mug. Mario has decided to mess this rule up for me by not drinking coffee at all and preferring tea. He’s a strange one.
  • You don’t take a nap afterwards. There is nothing better than eating un buen cocido followed by a half-hour nap. I’m much more of a bed-napping person, but many of my in-laws do it quite well on the couch. My mother- and father-in-law have mastered the eyes-half-shut television-watching position.

So what do you think, are Spaniards weird? Or are we?