The Foreigner at the Table

I’ve eaten many a meal with Mario’s family. His friends, too. But it wasn’t until recently that his cousin pointed out to me that, well, I eat funny. No, no, my chewing habits are just fine, thanks. But what’s up with your hand?

Think long and hard about what you do with your hands while you eat. Inspired by this post about Spaniards’ eating habits, I came up with my own list of the way Spaniards find us guiris weird at the dinner table:


  • You eat with your left hand on your lap.
  • You cut your meat and then switch the fork to the other hand. And then you put your left hand back on your lap. Why do we do this? I did a little research, and it seems there are two styles to eating, “American” and “Continental” style. Forbes calls our style of eating the “Switch and Switch” style. Apparently, the Continental Style came about from wanting to be unthreatening at the dinner table. You know, if you put your hand in your lap, it could be because you have some sort of weapon hidden there.
  • You don’t eat fruit after meals. A very common practice in Spain, this one. In some families, fruit is the dessert, although there’s no way this would fly with Mario’s family. We have a theory that the goloso gene is there, but it’s diluted for every generation. Mario’s grandmother used to put sugar on her salad. Yeah, you read that right. Mario’s dad cannot pass up dessert for anything. Mario is goloso, but not nearly as much. Maybe our kids won’t even like dessert? That’s yet to be seen. But fruit? Always. It can be as simple as apple (make sure you peel it!). It can be a fruit salad (macedonia), strawberries with milk (a lite alternative to strawberries and cream), or even compota de manzana, but fruit is essential.
  • You eat things really hot or really cold. This could be just a family thing, and I tend to think it is because my husband’s aunt likes her food steaming hot. But what is with these people and lukewarm soups? My father-in-law somehow even manages to enjoy room-temperature coffee, and I just can’t. Nope. However, keep in mind I grew up with a father who refused to eat things that weren’t nearly boiling hot. This same man put his chocolate candy bars and Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies into the freezer.
  • You don’t use bread para empujar. I do love bread. Yes, yes, I do-ooooo. But before I came to Spain I never used it to push food onto my fork. But gosh, does this make sense. Salad eating is so much easier now. Thanks, Spain!
  • You don’t watch TV while you eat. When I was growing up, watching TV while eating was not the thing to do. It was usually a sign that you had nothing to say and that you were bored with the company. Now, Mario’s family won’t have it on if there are guests at the house, but with just the family? You bet. It’s usually The Simpsons on Antena 3, followed by the news. Such cheerful mealtimes we have with all the doom and gloom.

  • You don’t drink coffee after your meal. Okay, this is not the most universal of all my rules, but it still counts. Coffee is very often drunk after the meal. My Spanish family drinks it right in the glass, which I found odd at first, but they soon adapted to bringing me a nice mug. Mario has decided to mess this rule up for me by not drinking coffee at all and preferring tea. He’s a strange one.
  • You don’t take a nap afterwards. There is nothing better than eating un buen cocido followed by a half-hour nap. I’m much more of a bed-napping person, but many of my in-laws do it quite well on the couch. My mother- and father-in-law have mastered the eyes-half-shut television-watching position.

So what do you think, are Spaniards weird? Or are we?

17 thoughts on “The Foreigner at the Table

  1. My favorite little trick is definitely the bread para empujar, I still use that :) But I can never get used to eating with my fork in my left hand, still holding onto my knife with the right!

  2. I so, so hate the TV thing! I found it so odd that most host family wanted to watch the news while we had our ensaladilla. Now that Kike and I have one room where we do practically everything but shower and sleep, I’m forced to watch TV! As for “hacer el barquito” as it’s called in Seville…bread is quickly becoming my favorite food!

  3. Ooh my host family did the T.V. thing and it drove me nuts. They put on either very political stuff or The Simpsons at top volume.

    I love “hacer el barquito” like Cat said, but I just don’t like eating that much bread! My host actually told my study abroad program that I had an eating disorder when I refused her endless offers of pan.

    1. Oh gosh! I often refuse bread because I end up eating too much! It’s an “extra” that I don’t need. My in-laws are finally just getting used to it!

    2. one of my favorite memories of my year in Madrid was not just that the TV was on at every meal, but that King Juan Carlos shook hands with someone new every day on that TV ;) We got great enjoyment out of that!!

  4. My dad is an expert at that half-sleeping half-watching position. He’s sleeping but dare chaging the channel!!!
    In my house and everyone else I know, you should eat fruit after lunch and dinner. Bu tI just can’t! I love me some yogurt or natillas. Ice cream in summer, of course!

  5. A lot of these are applicable in France too! I’ve been meaning to write a post about it because I’ve gotten comments on my eating habits too. I’ve also picked up a bunch of “French,” or now that I’ve read your blog “Continental” eating habits so I’m in no mans land when it comes to how to hold a fork!

  6. Those are so true – it’s the funny little things. Spanish people always think they’ve forgotten to give me a napkin too, because I was raised to put that in my lap, along with my left hand!

  7. I have changed my American habits somewhat. It’s a bit the same with dining with my Armenian inlaws. They do things that used to make me raise my eyebrows but okay…you get used to it. I remember when I first came to Spain and lived in a colegio mayor, boys in the dining hall would grab my tray and cut up my meat and peel my oranges with a knife for me. It seemed to bother then a great deal how I did everything at the table, especially putting a hand on my lap (what the hell are you doing with that hand down there while we’re eating?!) duh…well, at first I was a bit obstinate and then I kind of learned to rest my wrists on the table and how to use a knife properly. Made me feel like a bit of a barbarian sometimes around Europeans. :-S

  8. I am totally guilty of the “switch and switch” style of eating. I noticed it when I lived in Sweden and felt like I wasn’t eating properly! Glad to hear I’m not the only one :) I also noticed that I ate faster than Europeans, which caused me slow down with my eating. Now that I’m back at home, everyone eats faster than me and I have to “hurry up” so that I can catch up with others!

  9. The hand in the lap is so true!! I do that all the time and my Spanish boyfriend find is strange and has told me that it’s bad manners!

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