by Amalia Mobley

Food is an important part of any culture. And not just the cuisine — the culture that surrounds it is just as significant as the food itself.

Europe celebrates food as an social event

I’ve found that in Europe, and especially Spain and other southern European countries, food and dining is just as much of a social event as it is a personal one. People travel from the office straight to restaurants for a full dinner and drinks with friends and coworkers. As many work long days that end at 8pm, it’s perfectly natural to have dinner at 9 or10pm. It’s rare to see anyone eating alone, especially at dinner. It’s meant to be a time to reconnect with friends and family after a long day at work. In some cases, it’s unusual enough that if you’re caught eating alone, you’ll get looks from fellow patrons, perhaps in wonder at not having anyone to eat with. Plus, it’s highly unusual to see someone walking around eating a sandwich. Eating is an event, and not something to be rushed.

In the US eating is practical

In the U.S., it’s quite the opposite. Coming from New York City, where everyone is always rushing to their next destination, I’m used to eating quickly, and by myself. In as hectic a city as the Big Apple, no one really has the time to call up their friends and ask if they want to catch lunch or dinner. It’s common to see businesspeople eating alone at cafes or restaurants, or taking their food to go to be more efficient. Of course, the after-work drink at the local bar is common, though it happens much earlier, at about 6 or 7. Outside of that, food just isn’t as much of an event to most Americans as it is to most Europeans. Food is meant to be eaten, and in some cases, as quickly as possible. That’s probably why the U.S. is the birthplace of “fast food.”

In the US working defines eating

This difference in food culture can be chalked up to differences in the workday. First, the American workday begins and ends earlier: working from 9am to 5pm, with an hour for lunch at about 12pm, the average worker doesn’t have much time to enjoy their meal. By the time you’ve rounded up your coworkers and found a place to eat, you really only have time to actually eat. This means less time to socialize with coworkers, as it could take away from eating your meal. Instead, many American workers opt for bringing a packed lunch that they then eat alone at their cubicle, or going out by themselves for a quick fast food meal. Since lunchtime (universally) is a time to get away from the drag of work, American workers need to make the absolute most of their stingy one hour of freedom.

Late eating because of long working day

By contrast, the Spanish workday begins at about 10am and ends at about 8pm, with two or three hours for lunchtime at 1pm. This frees up way more time to eat and enjoy your time with coworkers or friends or family. Many workers go home for lunch and eat it with family, or will take their time with coworkers at a nearby restaurant for a full meal. Lunch becomes a leisurely social event. Though not as popular nowadays, the Spanish siesta happens at this time, meaning it would be perfectly natural to go home, have a meal with the family, take a short nap, and return to work refreshed.

It’s incredible how much of a difference this small change in the typical day can cause such deep differences in how we eat food. Honestly, I think this difference in attention to food plays a major role in general attitude — having more time during the middle of the day allows for more time to decompress from work, and I think it makes people generally less stressed. Maybe the time we take to enjoy our food is more important than we think, and if we all took a little extra time to enjoy our meals, we’d all be a little less uptight.