Josephine Caminos Oría, SOBREMESA

Josephine Caminos Oría, SOBREMESA

Josephine Caminos Oría has a love/hate relationship with her book, Sobremesa, even admitting to Zibby that she at one time ripped out 380 pages and tried to start from scratch countless times. But eventually, the pieces fell into place and Josephine was able to tell the story of her family, their recipes and traditions, and the protector who has been watching over her since she was 16. Josephine and Zibby discuss some of the memoir’s most unbelievable stories, as well as how Covid impacted her family’s foodservice business. Read Josephine’s essay about her journey to publication on Moms Don’t Have Time to Write.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Josephine. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Sobremesa. Did I say that right?

Josephine Caminos Oría: Yeah, Sobremesa. Perfect.

Zibby: Sobremesa: A Memoir of Food and Love in Thirteen Courses.

Josephine: Thanks so much for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. I loved the structure of this book. It’s so great. It’s just amazing. Tell listeners what your memoir is about and also what inspired you to write it.

Josephine: It’s that ultra-general coming-of-age act between La Pampas in Argentina and the prairie here in the United States. I was born in Argentina but grew up in Pittsburgh. It’s not so much about my life. It’s about the spiritual direction my life has taken and the signs. What better day to talk about that than November 1st, el Día de los Muertos, Saints Day? It’s really just about me finding my place in that in-between. That includes coming to terms with both of my cultures, which were beautiful cultures, but Argentina always felt very far away. It came to losing a big love of my life that led me to go back home, so the heartbreak that actually led me back to Argentina. Then it’s really about reckoning those two cultures, falling in love again, and then, I would say, following the signs, the signs that God gives us, the universe gives us, whatever God is to you, or the universe, and where it takes me. I hope that helps. Also, it’s all about conversations around the dinner table. That was probably the first thing I should’ve said.

Zibby: It’s about all those things. Have you read Laura Lynne Jackson’s Signs, the book called Signs?

Josephine: No.

Zibby: You should pick that up. It’s very on message for this story and your other man. The other half? The other man? What did you call him? Hold on, hold on, let me flip to a page. The man who visits, the ghost, sort of, in your story.

Josephine: The gentleman caller?

Zibby: The gentleman caller. Sorry, yes, the gentleman caller. I’m like, the other half.

Josephine: Because he’s from another era.

Zibby: Why don’t we start with that? I know you track in the book, all the times where the gentleman caller comes in and out of the narrative of your life. At times when, of course, you tell people, people are like, what are you talking about? When was the first time the gentleman caller called? I know this is not the main thing, but since we’re talking about signs.

Josephine: He first came to me and my first boyfriend, which was a boyfriend of almost a decade, when I was about twenty-two, I would say. He follows me. We believe that this man is a ghost in my parents’ home. We just can’t reckon it. My parents come home. They’re kind of like, you guys are crazy. Again, these things in my house, if you talked about ghosts, it also wasn’t like, oh, my god, what are you talking about? Spirits in the Latin culture are, I don’t want to say accepted, but they’re just kind of a norm. They could be very well. He then continues to haunt me. I don’t want to say haunt because that sounds like a very negative word. He continues to appear only to me. My boyfriend, my ex-boyfriend, at the time, Trip, is the only other person who’s ever seen him. Then when I come to a realization, a reckoning of who he is twenty years later — this man will pop in and out of my life. He really catches me off guard. A lot of the times, I don’t really understand it’s him until he’s gone, if that makes any sense. The hairs on my neck will alert me, but it takes that time to digest. When I do understand who he is, I realize I had met him when I was sixteen. He helped me through a car accident, a very terrible car accident. I don’t realize that until years and years later.

Zibby: Can we discuss the car accident? My jaw was on the ground as I was reading about what happened to you. You went flying through the windshield. They found you next to the car, oh, my gosh.

Josephine: I have a sixteen and seventeen-year-old. I think of that car accident as they’re newly minted drivers. I’m like, dear God. I’m yelling at them to take this thirty-mile-per-hour speed curve slowly when the tragedy of what my brother and I did — we were driving to Miami from Pittsburgh, which is a twenty-two-hour trip. We tended to caravan all together, my family. We had a family of eight. We would just want to get through the trip. I think I had my driver’s license for two days. It was about midnight. My brother was trying to convince me to jump over the bench seat of a suburban and take over. My mom wouldn’t let me drive. She was behind in another car. Somehow, he wore me down. I don’t know if you have brothers.

Zibby: I do. I have a brother. I understand.

Josephine: I was like, “Oh, my god, stop, stop. Okay, one hour. Then we’ll switch back.” He had it on cruise control. I don’t even know that I knew what cruise control was.

Zibby: I still cannot do cruise control, by the way.

Josephine: No, I don’t trust myself with it, for good reason. I couldn’t gain control of the car. It’s going seventy miles per hour. Did I mention it’s a suburban? Packed. We hit the guardrail. Well, the center, not the guardrail. Thank God no one else was on the road. The I-95 at that point is four or five lanes. We just tumbled and tumbled. Somehow, I ended up outside of the car. I had scratches and bruises, but the only big thing I had was one of my eyes had glass all in it. That minted me with a new astigmatism that I’ve lived with since. It’s crazy. Then my brother walked away with a broken arm and some bruised ribs. My grandfather was in the car. I think he just walked away with a neck brace. It’s just incredible.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I got into an accident when I was eighteen. Again, I had my license for like a minute. I lost control of the car, same way. I didn’t know if I should turn into the skid or turn away from it, that whole thing. I also crashed in the middle of the thing.

Josephine: I think it’s that panic when you do this. Somehow, the axle — I don’t know. It was fully, fully, fully — I do not take all the blame because my brother is fifty percent too. I always remind him. It’s incredible we walked away. My recollection of that accident — I did wake up in the hospital. It kind of left me in shock for several days. I couldn’t talk. It was right before Christmas. There was someone else there that all of my family claims was not. That’s where the story of my gentleman caller begins.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Wow, that is wild. It’s sort of nice to have the comfort that you have, basically, a guardian angel of sorts, right? Ish. I don’t know.

Josephine: Yeah, more than a guardian angel. I haven’t seen him since where my book leaves off, which was — oh, my god, I can’t even think — like eight years ago. I think more, whoever he is is an ancestor of mine, and I’m named after that ancestor. I think he was playing out, I don’t want to say his own purgatory, but I think he was playing out the reckoning of how to find his way back to the table, back to sobremesa.

Zibby: Tell me more, also, about the food and the meals, and now you’ve dedicated your life to this, and all the recipes that you include and the importance of the family meal and all of that.

Josephine: I grew up in Pittsburgh, but our home was Argentine, if that makes any sense. Once you entered those door, Spanish speaking, the food was Argentine. It’s very similar for all immigrants. My parents never liked to coin themselves as immigrants. You make a home with what you grew up with, with what gives you that comfort. We mostly ate very Argentine. One of those roles was sitting at a table, napkin in lap, all eight of us. We always had the same seats, all the women on one side, nearest the kitchen, the men on the other side. Very Latin. I definitely talk about a lot of machismo at the dinner table. The rule was, you had to sit. You had to sit until you were excused. It wasn’t formal. It was just, you had to stay until the conversation was done. A lot of times, that’s tough. It’s tough for parents, too, because how annoying is it when — how many kids do you have? Four?

Zibby: Last time I checked.

Josephine: How annoying is it when they’re like, can I get up now? Can I get up now? You’re almost like, yes, just get up so I can talk to my husband, or their dad. I don’t know. It’s really just about sitting and staying. It’s really about the food, but it’s so much more than the food. The sobremesa, which is that time you spend around the table after the food’s gone, that’s the fifth and final course. That’s what serves up the real nourishment. That’s when the real conversations start coming out, when your guard is down. Whether it’s something that’s been bothering you, eating at you, no pun intended, or if you have a beef with someone at the table or you just finally confess something, hey, I’m not feeling good at school, or I didn’t have anyone to eat lunch with, that’s when we get the kids. When they were little, I used to get them right at bedtime. We just grew up that way. It was a really important part of our culture. I believe it gave, in me, a sense of self, of who I was. I say in the book that it wasn’t only a part of nourishment, a part of our nightly tradition, but it was a way for my parents to pass down their Argentine culture beyond DNA. That’s important. We can have the DNA, but if it’s not instilled, .

Zibby: I love that. I love thinking about the idea of the nourishment of the meal coming after the food has been cleared.

Josephine: It’s a lot because the food is a portal. Food is a portal. It’s a portal to something else. It opens up conversation. Also, can you recall any time where you’ve eaten something and it stopped you in your tracks and it’s like someone’s walking beside you?

Zibby: Yes, a Chessmen cookie, which is like my grandmother.

Josephine: Right. In this book, you eat something, and as long as we’re making the recipes of those who passed before us, it’s like they’re still alive. They’re still there with us.

Zibby: It’s true. My grandmother actually made this cake. For the longest time after she passed away, nobody could find the recipe. It was so good. It was this chocolate chip sponge cake with this inch-thick, great chocolate frosting. It was so yummy. Then I finally found this tiny, little scrap from a back of a magazine. I was like, “I think this is it.” Then my mother-in-law, who was a baker, was like, “No, no, this doesn’t make any sense.” She redid all the ingredients. We had this one cake. I was like, “This is it.” Then my mother-in-law passed away, so now I’m not going to get the cake again. It was just that one moment, just the taste of it. Now it has all sorts of memories. Yes, I love how food just conjures up love. Really, that’s what it is. It’s love and experience.

Josephine: Put it out to her. Put it out to her on November 1st. Hey, send me that recipe if you can, please.

Zibby: Aw. I feel like we’re in the movie my kids watch all the time, Coco, Día de los Muertos.

Josephine: Oh, yeah, my daughter loves that movie.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, it was so good. Tell me about the writing of this book. What was it like for you to relive all of this stuff? You shared so much of your private relationships with the reader, which I loved. It was so fun getting to know you as you went through everything. What was it like sitting down and doing this?

Josephine: It was really cathartic. It was also really frightening. I had a love-hate relationship with Sobremesa. I wanted to break up with her several times. I tried to. I tried to divorce her. I even, literally, tore up 380 pages once. I think my husband was looking at me from the other room. This was during the pandemic. I think all of my kids were like, no one bother Mom. No one go near Mommy today. I got the idea for this book — it’s really challenging because it’s a memoir. I’ve only written a cookbook. Typically, you don’t write a memoir unless you’re famous, unless some grand event has happened to you. While there’s some trauma in the book, it’s not unlike any trauma that’s happened to anyone else. It’s more about the spirituality of it and me wanting to really introduce the tradition of sobremesa to here in the United States where there is no translation. What better time does this come to me than at the pandemic when we’re really all wanting to have a seat at the table? I released my first cookbook on Dulce de Leche in 2017. That book contains snippets of the recipes, snippets of the memories behind them. That book left me with such a taste that I wanted to really tell our Argentine story. I see so little of Argentina in the Latin culture here. I really wanted to add to that and bring flavor to that.

I started trying to write it in 2018. I would grapple with, why am I writing a memoir? I knew the story in mind. I almost wanted to remove myself from it and make it fiction just so it wouldn’t be about me, but it would be about the message in the story. I just couldn’t. I couldn’t because I had been a CFO for twenty years. My story was already out there, my bio. My company was named La Dorita. My grandmother’s Dorita. There was no way to remove myself. Finally, I had to just settle in with, okay, I’m going to write about myself. When you do, and I know you’re writing a memoir, you really have to determine, how vulnerable am I going to be? How real? If you’re not, there’s holes. It’s not the real truth when you have some omission. That’s really tough, but people want to know the truth. Not everyone will agree with what you say. I wrote it for about a year. I would obsess. I was working full time. I would obsess and wake up at two AM when it would just come to me. I took tons of long walks on the weekends. It’s almost like it would download. I just couldn’t get the storyline right, though. It was during This Is Us. I kept trying to think I’m this magnificent writer and doing back and forth, back and forth. Then my husband would read it or read part of it. He’d be like, “I’m confused, and I’ve lived this with you.” It took me a long time. I did get a first draft. I then had an editor that I used for my first book, just a private. I can always give her name out if anyone wants. She’s spectacular.

Then I started querying it, and just nothing. I probably queried two hundred, three hundred people. I wanted to get an agent, independent publishers and agents, and just nothing. I kept getting almost no feedback. Finally, someone said to me, “I love your story. I actually love this story, but first of all, who are you to write this story?” In other words, very nicely, what’s your platform? “Second of all, it’s not cohesive.” The pandemic hit. I had really been grappling, do I continue with this? One day, my husband said to me, “You just need to write the damn thing because if you talk to me about it one more time…” Believe it or not, those 380 pages that I had ripped up — granted, I saved it on my Mac. We sat down. In two weeks, I reconfigured — I had my timeline, reconfigured it. He sat down and read every single chapter with me, which is something my husband and I — we worked together, but don’t — it just worked. The story came together. Maybe it took that time with the pandemic. We had a food company. We have a food company. All public things stopped. We were at home with our five kids. It just came together, but it almost didn’t. I think if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I may still be grappling with it.

Zibby: How did you manage the food business piece of the pandemic?

Josephine: Really challenging. We have a food product, dulce de leche. We also have an incubator kitchen. We have startups who come and work out of our space. We have a six-thousand-square-foot building and all these different kitchens. Instead of building their own, they come and use ours. We have anyone from a huge meal subscription company which does thousands and thousands of dollars a week to a grandma who likes to do the seasonal farmers’ markets and sell her quiches and sauces and wedding soup, so just kind of everything, but they are all businesses. It all kind of just halted except for our meal subscription companies. Those members kept us going. If we were to close, everyone was to close. Do you see what I mean? It was a lot of pressure on us. We have about twenty-three companies. If I closed our doors, I was closing them on all of those companies. The dulce de leche side of it really suffered. Now we’re looking to see how we can have someone manufacture it just because the milk — everything went up in ingredient so much that it no long made sense to make it.

My husband and I, we do Argentine food. That just got obliterated. It was really hard because we were doing large corporate events and cooking classes for doctors. We did a lot of teambuilding. All of that just disappears. The really hard part was that you were having to return a lot of money for deposits and stuff. Anyway, it led me to move down to Charleston, South Carolina, with my kids. We still have the company. We still have the culinary incubator kitchen. I came down to help my brother who has a real estate brokerage company because he was killing it. While food was being obliterated, real estate soared. I just knew I needed to pad our income to keep the company going. It hasn’t been easy. I will tell you, I’m still in Charleston. My husband is in Pittsburgh. We just make it work. We’re looking to start something down here, so probably sell Pittsburgh but make sure it keeps going, the culinary incubator. It really turned our lives upside down. In all of that, the book came out.

Zibby: Actually, my husband’s grandmother has this amazing crumb cake recipe. A couple years ago, I helped them turn it into a business. They were in Charleston. It’s called Nene’s Treats. They did find a copacker, actually. It’s manufactured in Texas somewhere. You can get it on Goldbelly. I should send you a cake or something. It’s really yummy.

Josephine: Oh, my god, I’ll check it out.

Zibby: We were trying to find space in Charleston. They did share a kitchen. Anyway, I’ve been in that world. It had to be shipped frozen. It was a whole thing.

Josephine: Food is very bureaucratic. People don’t realize it. They’re like, oh, I have this recipe. I’d love to do it. Then once they realize the twenty-five hurdles they have to jump through —

Zibby: — It’s a lot.

Josephine: It should be. We’re ingesting that food. Yeah, it’s a lot.

Zibby: We talked to, also, the famous — who was the famous biscuit company in Charleston? Have you been there?

Josephine: Oh, Callie’s. Yeah.

Zibby: Yeah. We got in touch with Callie’s and tried to use their copacker.

Josephine: She’s releasing a book now.

Zibby: She’s releasing a book?

Josephine: I think so. It’s easy dinners or something.

Zibby: You should do a thing with her.

Josephine: I know, I know. We’ll see. She’s kind of Charleston royalty, though.

Zibby: Still, the world of Charleston food.

Josephine: It’s fun being down here, I have to tell you.

Zibby: Can you still buy your dulce de leche? Could I go online and buy it?

Josephine: It’s still in some supermarkets in Pittsburgh, but no longer online. I just need to find the right copacker. The issue with the dulce de leche is there are dulce de leche companies here, but it’s not real dulce de leche. They use powdered milk that they reconstitute with oil. Really, dulce de leche’s a jam. I know that sounds so bad, milk jam, but it’s really milk just boiled, boiled, boiled down. There should never be oil in it. I’m really having a problem finding it. There’s also that flip side. The real, real, real thing is still not manufactured here, which obviously is an opportunity, but it’s also a challenge. We’ll see.

Zibby: Interesting. I’m sure you’ve done your investigation, but it took a long, long time to find the right copacker for Nene’s Treats. If you want that information, let me know, I can get it. My sister-in-law is running that business now.

Josephine: Great.

Zibby: So now you’re in Charleston. You have the book out. What next? Are you going into real estate? How are you going to keep writing and cooking?

Josephine: I’ve been wearing many hats for so many years now. Before I started my company in 2009, the food company, I was the CFO of a large medical company in Pittsburgh. I did that for eight years, plus my food company. Now I look at it as, we have our food company, I’m an author, and we’re going to do something down here. I’m also doing real estate. It’s just really many hats, but whatever has to make it work. I definitely have an idea for a new book. My youngest daughter is nine. It’s actually a series. I’m really looking to do kind of a YA/middle grade, food, mystery, all fiction, definitely have it have that Spanglish feel, sort of Judy Blume-ish, but incorporating food and just a lot of flavor there for young girls and boys. Hopefully, that would include recipes too and would let them start cooking in the kitchen. I’m very much an advocate that kids should know by the age of eight to make their own eggs. It’s a self-preservation tool to cook. Also, it’s way to learn to love yourself and to love others.

That’s brewing in my head. I haven’t had that lightning bolt yet to sit down and write. I try to go on walks. I invite my spirit guides. I’m like, come on, inspiration. I need that. In the meantime, until we sell our company in Pittsburgh and figure out the dulce de leche side, I am focusing on real estate because the pandemic, if anything, it made entrepreneurship very real. You have to keep on producing income no matter how it is. With the books, I’m not at that point yet, so I do have to continue to pad otherwise. We are constantly, my husband and I, when he’s here, we’re looking at spaces. We really want to create our own Argentine food concept here. While in Pittsburgh, we helped a lot of entrepreneurs. I feel that in doing that business, we kind of lost ourselves and what we wanted to do together. We were doing it, but more on a corporate level. Now we want to do it for the public. I think Charleston’s a great place to do it. There’s lots of hats. It’s just how to get it all done, right?

Zibby: Yeah, and five kids.

Josephine: Right. Moms don’t have time to read. Moms don’t have time to write all the time.

Zibby: It’s true. Your kids are nine to what?

Josephine: My youngest is nine. She’s a girl. Then my oldest is eighteen. The other four are boys. I’ve got an eighteen, sixteen, fifteen, and thirteen-year-old. Just like a lot of people, it’s been challenging. It’s also been a blessing to have them home last year, but it really derailed so many plans. My time was so limited, just like so many others, but good things came out of it too. I am waiting for that divine inspiration because the real thing — my goal is to really be a full-time writer. That’s what I would love, so you got to work towards it.

Zibby: I love your series idea. That sounds really good, a middle-grade series.

Josephine: Thank you.

Zibby: I’m serious. That sounds really good.

Josephine: I have so many stories. I have this little journal here. I don’t journal, but I write things down. I’ll hear my daughter talking or my kids talking. I’m like, oh, my god, you cannot make this stuff up. I have a research pool right in front of me.

Zibby: Totally, I know. I’m like, where should I write this? No, I’ll remember. Then of course, I don’t remember. Last night, I was putting my son to bed. He goes, “I finally believe you that I’m not adopted.” Meanwhile, we look so much alike. He looks just like everyone else in the family. I’m like, “Oh, yeah? Why’s that?” He’s six. He’s like, “Because you love books, and now I love books.” I was like, “That just made my life.”

Josephine: That is so great.

Zibby: It was so cute.

Josephine: Oh, my god, I love a six-year-old that loves books.

Zibby: I know. It’s so cute. I was like, okay, I got one. I’m like, are any of my kids going to want to read? This is great. Tell me, any advice for aspiring authors?

Josephine: Oh, gosh. I’d say, first of all, just get out of your own head. Sometimes we are our worst enemies where we have this idea — I’ve talked to a lot of people. I’ve actually had people ask me, “How do I know if I’m a writer?” I’ll look at them and I’ll say, “Do you have an idea? Have you written?” “No, I haven’t published anything.” “Well, have you tried?” If the story won’t leave you alone, it needs to come out. Give yourself a chance to be a writer. It just takes a lot, a lot of dedication, a lot of patience because all those no’s that you’ll receive, the non-answered queries — I think sometimes the non-answered ones are worse than the no’s because it’s just like you feel invisible after all this time you’ve put into things. You just have to get that one yes. With both of my books, I spent a ton of time in Barnes & Nobles and other stores looking at books like mine, seeing who the agents are, if I could find it, who the publisher is. You have to really just do a ton of research on what the market is. Who are the publishing houses that would maybe best be home for you? The other thing I would say is, a lot of people say, write every day, write every day. It’s not realistic. At least, not in my world. If you’re not writing every day, it’s okay, but I would always make sure to get out and walk in nature because that’s when I would seem to be able to clear my head enough.

In my case, I wrote in the middle of the night, usually, when my kids were asleep. There would be times we’d be going to dinner and my family would be sending me really mean texts because they’d be all waiting in the car and I’d be like — I would’ve been in the shower, and I would’ve gotten something. I’d have a turban in my hair. I’m writing. I have them all in the car. You can become very self-absorbed writing. I would just say keep doing it. The other final thing I would say about it is, if you’re writing, protect your work. Protect your ideas. Protect your heart. If you start telling too many people about it, not everyone is going to see it like you see your work. You really have to find your voice, whether it’s a fictional character’s voice — if you’re writing a memoir, it’s really your voice. If you start sharing it with brothers, sisters, a couple friends here, your voice gets lost. You start taking in all these ideas before you’ve really fleshed this thing out yourself. I kind of learned that the hard way. You have to really protect yourself. Remember, what we remember in life, what is our truth, someone sees it through a different lens. Really protect your work until you’re ready to share it. Choose two or three people that you really admire. Let’s just say if you’re writing a memoir, maybe someone who you know professionally but doesn’t know your life. That’s always a good thing to have someone read it who doesn’t know you well, and then one or two confidants. You have to remember, if you start wanting the approval of all, it’s just not going to happen. You sacrifice yourself for that approval.

Zibby: Good life lesson too.

Josephine: Certainly.

Zibby: Josephine, thank you. This was so fun to talk to you. I hope that one day you do become a full-time writer and that the dream comes true and the spirit guides lead you down that path. I say get to work on the children’s book, on the middle-grade series. I think that sounds awesome.

Josephine: I know. I will. Thanks so much, Zibby. I appreciate it. Good luck with your own writing.

Zibby: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Josephine: Buh-bye.

Josephine Caminos Oría, SOBREMESA

SOBREMESA by Josephine Caminos Oría

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