I know a little bit about food. I know it’s smart never to ask what’s inside of a hot dog – just eat and enjoy. I know that chocolate chip cookies are wonderful any time of day. I know that sweet is better than sour, cooked is better than raw (with the exception of sushi), and anything fried is generally delicious.
Until recently, my appreciation of food seemed complete. I knew what I liked, and I liked what I ate. Food was a means to an end. Eat and be happy. Eat to survive. Eat to live and eat another day. My approach to food was pragmatic. The possibility that food might serve a purpose outside its nutritional value was beyond the scope of my understanding.
Recently, however, I realized I was wrong. Food, I discovered, can be the engine to a world of conversation, stories, and laughter. I learned this not, in my kitchen or an elegant restaurant, but at Joe’s Table in Barcelona, Spain, where, the vacation that was postponed, cancelled, and delayed for three years, finally happened. Joe is part of the “Eat With” movement, in which tourists, rather than dining in a restaurant, dine in the home of a local resident to experience authentic local cuisine.
Finding Joe’s home in a dark alley, far from our hotel, in a neighborhood where our taxi driver warned us to keep our hands on our wallets at all times, heightened our sense of adventure. Soon, we were spotted and invited in. Our group of three: myself, my wife, Paula, and our friend, Helene, were joined by six other gastronomic travelers. The others included a young married couple from San Francisco of Filipino descent, and four others from a chocolate supply company in Pennsylvania. They were two men and two women. One man, the boss, had a familiar but hard to define accent. The other man, with no discernable accent, was a manager from Indiana. And the women, both in sales, were from Pennsylvania. They seemed like a good team, joking and laughing among themselves.
Joe, our host and chef, encouraged us to make introductions as we made an optimistic toast over sweet vermouth for a wonderful evening.
Like a great Broadway show, the meal was divided into acts: The Overture, The Prelude, The Suite and The Finale. During The Overture, we were treated to Cicchetti Iberico, three different and fabulous strips of ham on crusty bread. During this course we learned of the mighty efforts it took for the boss to recruit the manager away from a competitor. This was followed by Baccala mantecato and Gnocchi di Trento, the first being codfish on polenta, and the latter being potato pasta prepared in the manner of ancient Rome.
During Prelude (and our first glass of wine) we tried to guess the boss’s accent. “British?” I queried. No. “Australian?” asked Helene. No again. “South Africa?” shouted Paula. Yes, he said, nodding his head to a round of applause and laughter.
The wine continued to flow, and the food was amazing. We learned a little bit about the chocolate industry, but things really got energized when Paula shared her near-death, 13 broken bones, 75 foot fall off Monument Mountain in the Massachusetts Berkshires, while Joe presented The Suite: Fagato alla Veneziana, Amanida MallorGalli and Escudella pobre – a liver, a vegetable, and a beef dish…all fantastic!
Somewhere between the Amanida and Escudella, the young couple from San Francisco shared their story. By this point, I lost count of how much wine went from my glass to my mouth, but I distinctly remember their saying that they were on their way to meet their parents in Italy for their fourth wedding ceremony. It all had to do with a secret elopement, a brother who got married the same year as they and unknowingly broke a Philippine tradition forbidding siblings to marry in the same year, COVID (of course!), sticking to the same date of the elopement for all other weddings so there would be only one anniversary date, and family unity, which essentially meant keeping the parents happy. We did our best through the laughter to follow their tale of multiple weddings. With so much wine, it wasn’t easy.
As we were approaching The Finale, we learned more about the two women in sales. At first, they were reluctant to share their story, but we soon discovered they were dear friends. Not only were they friends but they were sister’s in-law too. And that’s when it got dicey and not so easy to follow.
When they first met only one of the two was married. The women hit it off immediately and became good friends. Then the unmarried woman met the married woman’s brother in-law and began to date him. When the married women found out about the relationship, she was not happy, worried their friendship would suffer as a result. Those of us listening to this story were politely incredulous. “Really? Seriously?” was our common response. Interesting times followed but it all worked out. Today, all four are happily married and friends.
The most touching story of the night came from Joe, who previously worked at some of the finest restaurants, honing his craft as a chef. But his true love and passion for cooking came from his late grandmother whom he loved dearly. In creating Joe’s Table, he paid homage to her. His eyes welled up as he told us about this singular woman and the influence she had over his life. Our eyes welled too.
The Finale was a perfect cheesecake, but in reality it was so much more. The stories, the laughter, the memories, and the realization that although it’s not likely I will ever see these people again, our three hours at Joe’s Table will long be with me.
The next time I’m hungry for good conversation, I’ll remember to weave it through a bounty of mouthwatering delights. What I learned is that it’s not about the eating, it’s all about the sharing.