Ghosts have many interpretations in media but not often do they take the form of a “Gentleman Caller” but in Sobremesa by Josephine Caminos Oría, the otherworldly male figure becomes an omen of sorts. The book came out earlier this year and is part memoir, part cookbook, and in it both the ghost and Argentine food are markers of major life moments and the thread that binds these moments is sitting around the table chatting with loved ones and good food. “Sobremesa” doesn’t exactly have a translation in English though technically it means “over the table” — the context is lost in the literal translation but the act itself is practiced in throughout Latin America. Sitting around the table chatting over the meal followed by coffee and dessert is a tradition in Argentina, where Oria’s family hails from, that’s the basis for the book.
“Gathering around a table and sharing meals has always been—and continues to be—the glue that connects most families together. Growing up in Pittsburgh, sobremesa was non-negotiable at my parents’ table of eight, plus two for my abuelos Alfredo and Dorita when they visited from Argentina—most nights, at least,” Caminos Oría tells HipLatina. “Sobremesa helped me make sense of the world. It’s where we told our stories; where we had the real conversations; where the magic happened.”
But the story is so much more than how food and family built the foundation of who she is — it’s also a coming of age story where she comes into her own in her 40s while married with children. The book tackles some of the more relatable struggles (long time love goes wrong? Check. A lack of clarity about her career? Check.) while also exploring the culture and traditions of Argentina. Being one of eight children with successful parents who both worked in medicine she easily could’ve taken the well-worn path, which she does for a while, but it’s her homeland and culinary traditions that ultimately lead her to make her own way.
The book is broken up into three parts with each chapter titled after an Argentine idioms (and their translation) and featuring a recipe tied to a sobremesa in that moment in her life. In the chapter entitled “Stop Talking Nonsense” (a translation of “Estás Mandando Fruta”) she talks about her relationship with Gastón, an Argentine who works in her family’s estancia (ranch) in Córdoba in central Argentina, as they open up about it to their families about their relationship. She shares a sobremesa with his family with a feast that includes homemade empanadas; “That first-bite anticipation of waiting for the molten-hot empanadas to cool was at once the best and most agonizing feeling. In that bite was a multitude of emotions — new beginnings, eagerness, hope, boldness, affirmation, trust and confidence. The chapter ends with a recipe for empanadas, an Argentine staple that basically every country in Latin America makes its own version of.
While the heart of the book is family, love, and finding your path, the belly of the book, to be exact, is the traditional recipes that she also makes personal. Take the tortilla española ( a Spanish omelette with potatoes), the recipe serves seven “or one, nearing rock bottom” as she writes after sharing about indulging in the tortilla while dealing with heartbreak. Of course it also includes dulce de leche gelatin and Argentine staples like milanesas, which is her choice — if she had to choose — as the dish to introduce someone to the cuisine.
The book is, in a way, an ode to Argentine cuisine, and what she calls the “slow food movement” and the tradition beyond the grill, which has become the mainstream symbol of Argentine cuisine. She shares that the culture of sobremesa and the camaraderie of sharing a meal in Argentina hasn’t exactly been recognized as much as the wood-fire cooking style. She also hopes that this book provides some context about being bicultural as Argentine-Americans, especially when Latinos are often grouped together and their cultural differences are erased. “You can’t check us all into one little box. I’m also acutely aware that for many not familiar with the diversity of Hispanic and Latin culture, it might not be as easy to detect the differences in culture from one region to another…The greatest challenge about Latinx culture is that there is no uniform participant or audience. We are all unique.”
She explains, for example, that often Latin American cuisine is associated with Mexican cuisine since it’s so popular throughout the U.S. and few people have been exposed to other types of LATAM cuisine. She hopes that Sobremesa will resonate with first and second gen Latinxs who have adopted both U.S. traditions as well as those of their family’s homeland. But it’s also a book that celebrates cultural differences while also underscoring how families are more alike than different, struggling with acceptance, high expectations, and family turmoil.
It’s a mix of Eat, Pray, Love meets The House of Spirits with Doña Petrona influence (the iconic Argentine TV chef) who released her best-selling cookbook in 1933. Her recipe for dulce de leche, the sweetened condensed milk whose origin story is unknown but commonly attributed to Argentina, becomes the structure that helps her bring her beloved abuela’s recipe to life. Like most Latina grandmas, her abuela also didn’t keep exact measurements for her recipes so when, in her late 30s, Josephine decides to create the recipe from scratch it’s Doña Petrona who guides her.
The book’s recipe, pun intended, of pivotal moments marked by sobremesa, sometimes emotional, sometimes revealing, and sometimes just fun, highlights the evolution of her career and personal life. One of those pivotal moments is a career change that takes her from a C-suite position to being a small business owner at age 43 selling the dulce de leche inspired by her beloved abuela Dorita’s after perfecting the recipe.
“I decided to take a leap of faith and create something inherently ours—Argentine-American with my husband, Gastón. I realize now, as a mom that I would be failing my children if the only thing I taught them is to play it safe for others. My hope is to teach by example and inspire my children and other women who are questioning the path they find themselves on to go against the grain and fight for a life worth living.”
Another Latina icon who was influential in the writing of this book was Chilean author Isabel Allende, famous for her use of magical realism. She was inspired by Allende’s ability to write about real-life while incorporating fantasy and “finding the magic in unseeingly ordinary events”. The aforementioned Gentleman Caller, it turns out, has his own story that ties back to theme of the book in a roundabout way.
“That ghosts exist is not something up for discussion. In my mind, at least. The questions is, who recognizes them, who has the better story to tell or whose ghost helped to restore their faith in life at a time when they needed it most?,” she writes, adding about the ghosts of her family members “knew I would someday need something to seize hold of when they were gone. So they gave me the gift of dulce de leche. And I’ve hung onto it. For dear life.”
She and her husband established La Dorita in 2009 selling her beloved grandma’s dulce de leche and in 2017 she published Dulce de Leche: Recipes, Stories & Sweet Traditions. Now with Sobremesa she’s venturing into storytelling in the hopes of taking readers on a journey through this “gastronomic meditation.” She shares with HipLatina that food is more than just sustenance, it’s, in a way, a person’s essence, it’s memories and reminders of who we are and so she hopes it might inspire some readers to get to cooking to connect with food on a deeper level.
After more than a year of isolation and confinement, it’s those special moments centered shared around the table that brought us comfort and closeness amid this pandemic. “How better to explore and make sense of this new normal we are all navigating than at sobremesa? The down time and connectivity it fosters is essential to both our humanity and sanity. Not to mention, we are all craving to once again gather—to connect with others and make sense of our lives and the world around us. It’s what we do at the dinner table. Those who eat-and-run miss out.”