The kitchen island has always been the heart of our home. It’s our landing pad, the liminal space between out and at home, the spot where we set down the day’s mail or leave sticky notes to remind each other of upcoming appointments. It’s where we usually eat, as the dining room table is often covered with a jigsaw puzzle in process. Often I eat dinner standing on one leg, the other leg resting on the island like a ballerina stretching at the barre.
In early 2020, the island became our lifeline for information about the impending pandemic. Every day around 4:45, I would mix an old fashioned while David cooked an early dinner. We got in the habit of eating while we watched Governor Beshear’s Covid-19 Update on the ipad. We shoved fairy lights down ale-8 bottles to mimic Andy’s green lights for compassion.
Initially, it was almost fun. We were stuck at home, but it felt like connection, like sharing a real moment with every other Kentuckian (as long as you turned off the comments; those would leave you feeling hopeless and sometimes hostile). We ordered take-out two or three times a week, trying our best to help our local restaurants stay afloat. As we scarfed down Don Senor tacos or fried chicken from Hall’s, we would count how many times Andy said, “Kenneth, can you bring up the Louisville/St. Louis slide?” We learned how to sign We will get through this together. We clapped and cheered when someone was taken off a ventilator. We could do this for a few weeks, even a few months if we had to.
But as spring marched toward summer, the updates grew more dire. More people died, the stay-at-home orders were extended, all international trips got canceled. Izzie started the school year remotely, and her mental health declined rapidly. My studio had reopened for private sessions, but group classes weren’t safe yet. David was working in the TCU at the hospital, endless shifts in hot and itchy PPE, watching patient after patient die from a virus we still knew so little about.
The daily updates were no longer fun, just another reminder that our world was spinning out of control.
Since I couldn’t travel, I read my old travel journals. That’s when I was reminded of the practice I learned in Barcelona: siesta and sobremesa. Siesta is the practice of taking time in the middle of the day to recharge. Sobremesa is the tradition of lingering over a long meal, talking, digesting, and relaxing.
As the leaves began drifting off the trees, we stole away to the back porch. Using the money that Delta refunded me for canceled flights, I ordered a patio heater and some comfy chairs. Every Sunday, when David was off-call, we got in the habit of walking the mowed trail on our property, then enacted the Smith version of siesta and sobremesa. We would spend the entire afternoon outside looking at trees instead of checking our phones. The news all seemed bad anyway, so what was the point? By unspoken agreement, we started spending more time around the patio heater and less time around the kitchen island.
If the island seemed like a place for plans and logistics and worries, the porch became a refuge, a place to linger and loiter. Sometimes we read or finished school work. But mostly we just sat, letting our eyes and brains rest from the incessant catastrophe that was the larger world. Fall is the best time on the back porch, days warm enough to spend in short sleeves and nights cool enough that a sweater or the patio heater makes it warm enough to see what the constellations have to teach us.
We loaded up our old cheese board with snacks. These were definitely not Instagram-worthy charcuterie boards, but more a random assortment of whatever was in stock at Kroger that week (remember those long months where saltines were not to be found?). A few pickles or olives over here. A tomato from my parents’ garden, sliced and salted over there. A crisp Gala apple and some gooey brie. A tub of beer cheese or feta dip. Little hills of triscuits, or oreos, or salted pistachios, anything we can pick at over many hours, the setting sun or a pop-up rainshower the only way of knowing it was time to go back inside.
Now, post-pandemic, the tradition remains. We love our porch at all times of the year, but fall is when it really shines. As the days grow cooler, we spend more and more time out back, staring at trees as we nosh on a perfect peach from Beech Springs or sample thick pieces of sharp cheddar with honey mustard. We nap or lie in the grass to find pictures in the clouds. We talk about firing up the grill, and then invariably decide it’s too much work, opting to throw random food items on the cheese board instead.
So I nibble a pretzel stick dipped in beer cheese, as content as I would be at a Michelen-starred restaurant. As I learned in Spain from a waitress that looked just like Shakira, “What you eat is not as important as how you eat. The most important part of the meal comes after the food.”