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  • “Dios, ¡me encanta comer!” my roommate Jorge said, quoting his friend as he reminisced about his voracious version of grace. Down on the street below, shop doors began to close for the siesta, the owners returning home or heading to a nearby café to chat with a friend over coffee and a cigarette. Various individuals grabbed a last-minute loaf of bread from a corner panadería in order to complete their lunch with an integral part of Andalusian meals. And on the clay-colored terrace where we sat six stories above all this, enjoying the sun’s warmth that reached us from over the rooftops of surrounding buildings, lay a large and shallow pan filled to the brim with a golden-orange paella. Upon looking at this dish, flecked with bits of rabbit meat and thick chunks of sautéed white onion, I couldn’t help but enthusiastically agree with Jorge’s friend. Eating was fantastic. Yet after having spent several months in the country, I got the feeling that his friend’s exclamation reflected something more than the gluttonous impulse I was experiencing in that moment. I had come to realize that, in stark contrast to the time-efficient, impersonal, and physically satiating characteristics that so often typify American meals, the Spanish loved to eat not only for its palatal pleasure but as a profoundly social experience, something for which they readily sacrificed convenience. Whether buying ingredients from the local grocer, cooking with a friend, or savoring conversation throughout the meal, the approach to eating was a slow one that emphasized interaction over sensory saturation. So as lighthearted as this friend’s comment was, within the context of the culture it still expressed a more holistic appreciation of eating than I often witness in the states, namely by valuing the communal process of preparing and eating food.

    This process manifested itself in the very beginnings of making the paella. Jorge, like all children who grew up on their mother’s cooking, claims that no matter how much personalized instruction he receives from his mom, the paella he makes on Sunday afternoons just can’t compare to her own. While regrettably I have no basis for comparison, to me it tastes unbeatable. I remember one particular Sunday, in the little beige kitchen of our apartment, Jorge stood diligently at the stove, mixing various spices and liquids into the paellera in a specific order that I didn’t understand. I meanwhile peered over his shoulder like someone eager for the answer to a complicated exam question. While I proved utterly useless in the cooking process, that time did provide us the opportunity to talk about what Jorge was creating and how, and from that conversation (as well as others like it) I’ve gleaned that the exquisite flavor of the paella is in part due to the knowledge about meat that Jorge’s mother, a butcher in a town a few hours away, has passed on to him. In turn, I was fortunate enough to learn from Jorge a selection of tips he’s ascertained throughout the years, such as discerning the quality of meats based on the color of the flesh and bone. This chain of communication is but one testament to the social potential of food, in this case serving as a catalyst of not just conversation but the act of learning from one another; the passing on of personal insights that are wholly absent from the expedient drive-thru of McDonalds. Perhaps it’s in part due to my shameful status as a chef, but to me Jorge was a culinary expert, and to this day I put into practice much of the cooking advice that he gave to me. For that I’m extremely grateful, and this sentiment alone contributes to exposing the social shortsightedness of quick and isolated eating habits.

    Of course I don’t mean to romanticize Spain as some sort of food utopia; large supermarkets dominate over smaller vendors, many people make a quick sandwich to eat in front of their TV or computer, and fast-food restaurants undoubtedly exist. Nor do I want to suggest that all Americans fail to value the social potential of food. But it is the small, marked differences in the culture at large that made the most profound impressions on me. The preparation complete, we at last sat down on the terrace to enjoy the paella, my single contribution being a loaf of bread purchased at the little bakery next to our apartment complex. The meal spanned over an hour or more, the conversation never coming to a lull. I believe it was through meals like these that I came to know my friends on an increasingly deeper level: their favorite bands, their travels abroad, their ambitions, their beliefs. And when the pan was barren, hardly a few grains of flaxen rice left untouched, we cleared the plates away and I assumed our gathering had come to a close. Almost instinctively it seemed, however, Jorge pulled out the stovetop espresso maker and a tin of wafers and we repeated the process again, concluding with lunch late into the afternoon. While the paella was the centerpiece of the meal, it was not the sole purpose. To me it seemed to take secondary importance to being in communion with friends, serving more as an object to gather around and let interaction take its course, rather than a lunch to be devoured in order to overload the senses with constant stimulation. This process, whether done consciously or not by Spanish citizens, transmits the culture’s value of people and relationships and its recognition of food as a means to express it.

    Shortly before Jorge and I parted ways, he commented to me that he very much liked the English word “belong”. It was a pretty word with a pleasant meaning, seldom used in Spanish, signifying something that is “rightly placed in a specified position”. To me, food belongs in the midst of social interaction. When we as a society hand this tradition over to the convenience of Big Macs, we effectively relegate food to the sphere of social irrelevance. Its worth then belongs to the corporations who can offer the quickest service at the lowest price. Rather, we can benefit from recognizing that the process of creating a meal and sharing it with others allows for so much enjoyment, discovery, and relational development that depriving this aspect from eating is a great loss to its possible capacities. Sharing a pan of paella with friends on a sun-drenched terrace helped me to realize this, and I count that memory among my fondest.
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