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Global influences
Appreciating the rejuvenating experience of a leisurely Sunday lunch

Illustration by Drew Maxwell

May 2014

The sound of a crowded restaurant — the low rumble of chatter, staccato chimes of flatware and glass, and the muffled fanfare of shouting in the kitchen — overtakes us as we pass through the door. The tables, stamped with wine stains and littered with crumbs, mirror some of the guests, rosy with vino and speckled with morsels of pan. Some lean back to alleviate pressure against their belts, while others lean in to catch all the gossip. A server navigates his way toward the door. I put up four fingers, mouthing the word "cuatro?" He taps his imaginary watch with his finger, head shaking. We know, we know — "vale, vale" — it’s almost 4 o’clock. We are late for lunch.

The mere suggestion of a wine-soaked Sunday lunch has me longing for my days as a 20-something expat in Spain. Ruth, the manager at Riverwest’s Centro Cafe, is telling me about its four-course wine lunch on Sunday. I immediately reserve two spots for my sister, Karen, and me. Currently next-door neighbors in Milwaukee, we were once roommates in Madrid. Our shared passion for food and wine has spilled over into our professional endeavors: Karen, a former restaurant owner in Madrid, is now chef/owner of a butcher shop and restaurant in Milwaukee, and I, formerly employed by a Spanish winery, am currently self-employed teaching others about wine.

As the week progresses, I consider canceling. I now have two young children and a small business. Even at the bargain price of $60 for four courses and eight wines, the meal feels extravagant and frivolous, but not for the cost. A working mother just doesn’t have time for this, I tell myself. Fortuitously, the lunch’s Italian roots remind me of my own, and my first trip to Italy in 1990.

My most lucid memories are not those from the Coliseum or the canals of Venice, but the quaint homes of my mother’s many-times-removed cousins. Later, we would explain to our friends here that these strangers treated us like kings and queens. In hindsight, we weren’t being treated like royalty, we were being treated to pranzo, an authentic Italian lunch.

In spite of our linguistic differences, the scene was as animated as a reunion of old friends. The noise level would crest then fall temporarily, as each course of antipasti, soup, pasta, fish, meat, salad, cheese, fruit, dessert, coffee and digestivos emerged from the rustic farmhouse kitchen. As I went for seconds, my grandfather, an Italian-American, nudged me, "Pace yourself." Hours later, I groaned from pleasure and pain, signaling an imaginary white flag to my hosts. They just smiled, serving me more brasato di maiale, shouting with hand gestures, "Mangia, mangia." After talking and eating for hours, somehow we still had so much more to share. We moved in inches toward our rented car, all the while awkwardly backward waving, kissing and embracing.

I decide to forge ahead with our Centro Cafe reservation. A friend points out that being a mom or living in America is not the problem. I’m the problem, she says. After all, America has Sunday brunch. I counter, "It’s different," and explain why.

The first reason goes back, way back. "And on the seventh day, God finished his work … and he rested," still holds clout in some countries. Even as late as 2005 when I still lived in Spain, "Sunday Shopping" laws limited commercialization on Sunday. A state-sanctioned day of rest along with a "ma-ana mentality," where work, deadlines and chores happen "ma-ana," create the perfect storm for relaxation. In America, on the other hand, we cram so much into the week, we need Sunday to "catch up" or "prep." Even the actual word, "brunch," suggests gatherings occur before lunch, leaving plenty of time for chores. The European lunch, on the other hand, is the gastronomic destination of the day, with a late one extending the weekend until Sunday’s sun has set.

I had thought the Spanish had mastered the art of carefree dining, until I spent time in the Republic of Georgia. Arriving a full hour late, my Georgian friends joked they are on GMT, or "Georgian Maybe Time," but they are well worth the wait. Their meals have a super-human feel to them. Touring wine country, a casual roadside lunch with my driver and guide, morphed into a multicourse affair. With each new dish, Irakli raised his glass to life, love, food and wine.

Georgian weekend lunches, like those of their European neighbors, almost unequivocally, include wine. A bloody mary or mimosa at an American brunch can lighten the mood, but wine’s influence runs deeper than the physiological effects of alcohol. At Centro Cafe, Nate Norfolk, our guide and certified sommelier, commented that "by drinking this wine, we are preserving a culture" of small family owned wineries. In an instant, I felt connected to something bigger than myself. Wine’s connection to culture and history fosters a sense of community with your table, your country or even the world. This sense of belonging can act as kindle for long and enjoyable conversations. Even a wine bottle’s size further promotes sharing. I was surprised to learn wine is rarely served by the glass in Georgia. My Georgian friends were more surprised I might drink wine by myself.

By the time dessert arrives at Centro Cafe, I am seeing the world through a new filter. I can do this every Sunday, I tell myself. Karen and I remain seated, finishing our wine, enjoying the rare opportunity to talk. Centro Cafe’s owner, Peg Karpfinger, joins us. Nate pulls up a chair. The sommelier and Ruth take a break. And we all talk. We talk of Italy, food, Milwaukee, wine, children and business. Finally, I find the carefree abandonment I had come seeking. Peg, seeing our empty glasses, offers us another, but before I know it, I hear myself saying, "I really should be going."

After all, one long lunch may not be enough to alter my outlook on life, but I sure will enjoy finding out if two can.


This story ran in the April 2014 issue of: