The meal

The meal is one of our most important social institutions. It is where you can share stories and discuss matters current and past. It is something that can be shared irrespective of language understanding. Food is the foundation of a meal, but it is not the defining factor of a good meal.

I have had many great meals where the food has been ok. And I’ve had many mediocre meals where the food has been par excellence. I’ve had great meals with people I don’t know, and people whose language I don’t understand. So what are the defining factors of a great meal?

The most memorable meals I have enjoyed have been around long tables sitting roughly between 8 and 16 people, and, with a few exeptions they have mostly been at people’s houses.

They have also usually been preceded by some sort of social pre-meal gathering, either at a bar if eating out, or somewhere in the same house as the meal will happen.

Meals cooked in

For meals cooked in a home, it also involves a certain openness to the kitchen, a shared cooking process. And some of the top meals of my life were in a country house in Sicily, with a small outdoor kitchen with a shallow brick barbecue.

Everyone was part of preparing the meal, not everyone were making food, but everyone was taking part in the shared meal-making process.

Non-food meal-making

This involves making drinks, setting the table, playing music, making snacks, setting the lighting, making jokes and conversation. The list goes on, and they’re all part of what makes the meal so special.

The partake of food

When you finally sit down to eat, everyone is hungry. Everyone has taken part in the preparation, and everyone is ready for the eating stage of the meal.

It usually goes a bit quiet once the food has been served, and then the humming builds up again, as soon as the blood sugar rises.

Post-food atmosphere

And here comes the next phase: sobremesa. This is a concept I got familiar with when living in Spain. Sobremesa literally means over the table, and in practice it means the conversations, the parlour, the chit-chat after the meal.

And it is important here that the plates are not immediately cleared – clearing the table seems to disturb this delicate lingering of the meal and create a sense of urgency which is detrimental to a relaxed post-food atmosphere. There should also be enough liquid on the table to keep people sitting and conversation flowing.

Sweet teeth

By this point, you may have forgotten about dessert altogether, but after a while it might be time to introduce something sweet, and perhaps a coffee or something stimulatingly similar.

If the plates haven’t been organically cleared by this point, it’s probably a good time to do a quick KP-service and make ready the table for another phase.