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
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
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.