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From Paella to Pancakes

Arts & Culture | December 11, 2014

Waking up last week on another lazy Sunday morning, I jumped out of bed eagerly anticipating brunch, a delectable meal that has become an integral part of my weekly routine. As I made my way to the dining hall, I realized how much my eating habits have changed since I moved to the United States. From meal times to dish options, I’ve had to readjust my expectations and acclimate to a food culture that is quite distinct from that of Spain.

Growing up in Barcelona, my concept of a morning meal was not slathering maple syrup on French toast or biting into a cream cheese-filled bagel; instead, I would stroll into my kitchen to devour the tortilla de patata (Spanish omelet) that my grandma had left sitting in the fridge or slice up a fresh baguette and top it with Iberic ham or chorizo. I was accustomed savory home-cooked meals based on a Mediterranean diet; now, I find myself grabbing pizza on my way to class.

I’ve always been a food-lover, and when I came to college I was ready to dive into a new culinary adventure and to explore a plethora of new foods. As I ate my way through my first semester, my plate overflowing with anything from a guacamole-covered burrito to Dewick’s traditional Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing, I began to distinguish interesting differences between American and Spanish cuisine. Despite Tufts’ variety of organic options, fatty foods—such as oily cheese pizzas and salads slathered in ranch or Caesar dressing—dominate the menu in the dining hall. And one cannot forget the ever-tempting baked goods; often my American meals end with a beautiful red velvet cupcake or a perfectly round chocolate chip cookie.

Less prevalent in American cuisine are basic foods like bread and olive oil, which lie at the heart of Spain’s culinary culture. “We start with olive oil as babies,” says Antonio Diaz, a Spanish-born owner of a soon-to-open tapas restaurant in New York City. In a Spanish home, olive oil is fundamental to every meal. Similarly, bread holds a sacred place in the table to such an extent that Jonathan Pincas, the Creator of Spanish Food World, describes it as the “third cutlery utensil, after the knife and fork.”

“Spaniards will eat bread with anything and everything, including heavy carbohydrate dishes like pasta and rice, even with dessert in some occasions,” Pincas adds. While Americans buy preservative-rich bread and smother it with peanut butter—the PB&J sandwich is an iconic lunch—in Spain, bread goes best with ham. Embutidos, cold cuts, are cultural delicacies and the kitchen counter is often home to a leg of Iberic ham.

The distinction between American and Spanish cuisines also shows in their vastly different meal times and food epicenters. While breakfast is not a notable meal in Spain, Americans value a hearty breakfast so much that they have extended it after-hours, fusing it with lunch to bring about the trendy weekend “brunch.” Similarly, while busy American schedules often call for quick, on-the-go lunches, in Spain lunch is considered the most important meal of the day and generally consists of several courses. Contrary to American meals, which Pincas argues are “fast and easy [and] require minimal personal or economic sacrifice,” a Spanish lunch is a drawn-out affair requiring wine and, afterwards, a siesta (nap) for recovery.

Both food cultures also differ in terms of their schedules: whereas in the United States lunch usually takes place at noon and dinner at 6:00 p.m., a Spanish lunch usually starts at around 3:00 p.m. and dinner isn’t eaten until 8:00 p.m. at earliest. However, most often people sit down to dine at 10:00 p.m. and during the summer months Spaniards will eat as late as 12:00 a.m.

One specific unique feature to Spanish culture are tapas, roughly translated as “little Spanish meals.” Eaten before lunch, tapas are small plates of cold and warm dishes that vary by region and season. According to Chef Manuel Verdaguer, “Eating tapas is about fresh and high quality products [and] tasting different flavors.”

Inasmuch as they are valued for their culinary delight, Spaniards often indulge in tapas at restaurants and bars as a way to socialize and catch up with family and friends. This tradition correlates with another Spanish custom, la sobremesa; a period of time after eating that allows conversations to extend after the table has been cleared. To foreigners who visit Spain for the first time, the length of this routine often comes as a surprise. Pincas remarks how “the sobremesa in Spain, at weekends or festive periods, can drag on for so long that it is not unusual for lunch to actually transition into dinner without any perceptible activity in between.”

In effect, tapas and la sobremesa demonstrate the importance that food plays in a wider cultural context of Spanish values; meals are not meant to be inhaled, but rather to be enjoyed among family and friends. In America, however, meals often take a backseat to other tasks and obligations.

As Cody D. Delisatry points out in her article “The Importance of Eating Together,” it is rare that “Americans grant [them]selves pleasure over productivity.” The strong American work ethic can thus be one factor that leads to the misconstrued view where time spent eating is seen as time wasted. However, other factors like the low cost and widespread availability of convenient food with take-out or dining hall buffets might have led to this distinct occurrence. Delisatry discusses the importance of eating together, revealing that “the average American eats one in every five meals in her car, one in four Americans eats at least one fast food meal every single day, and the majority of American families report eating a single meal together less than five days a week.”

This American tendency to dine alone precludes the possibility of a meaningful shared experience. Hence, the perceived importance of meals is often distorted by distinct cultural food values. While in Spain meals are sacred and embedded into the daily routine, in America eating is often seen a necessary activity that can consume valuable time.

But although the Spanish and American cultures diverge when it comes to food and eating, what is most important to me is not the contents of my plate. Reconciling the gastronomic bridge is easier when I cherish meals as a uniting oasis in the day. Although it is easy to give priority to daily tasks and cave into the temptation to eat on the go, sitting down and enjoying a meal with people is both benefits individuals personally and creates a sense of community.

So yes, I might have had to temporarily replace paella with pancakes, but despite their differences, these meals hold similar places for me, regardless of the continent on which I eat them. In the end, whether it is a Sunday morning American brunch with friends or a late Spanish lunch reserved to family, what is important is that we eat them together.

All photos by Katherine Marchand.