Growing up in a society where food insecurity is relatively rare, American culture is permeated by this idea of plenty, that there will always be food on the table. In other cultures where ample food supply is not taken for granted, ritual around eating is a part of daily life, something that is only true today in the United Sates on major holidays, and in some families still, on Sundays.
In Mexico, social norms around eating are very much in affect. As in many parts of the world, being invited to “share a taco“, this most humble of invitations to dine with your Mexican friends, is a real honor (this does not literally mean you will be having tacos, but is rather a reflection of a humility that is truly a Mexican trait and would apply even if one were invited to a feast). In any culture which is familiar with hunger, being invited to share a meal has much broader implications than it does here, at home.
So what should you expect? First, the hour that was announced at the time la cena would be served is not accurate. In fact, it is expected that you will arrive at least a half an hour late, and arriving on time is frowned upon. Secondly, it is customary to say “provecho” before starting a meal or when you enter a room where Mexicans are eating, or even if you pass a group taking their lunch break in front of a construction site; provecho, literally translated from Spanish, means “privilege”, and speak volumes about the difference between a culture that lives with food security and one that does not. The very act of eating is considered a privilege in Mexico, certainly, that is not the case in most households in the US. Next, the table conversation will revolve only around pleasantries; topics like war, politics, or issues that came up at work are considered poor accompaniments to something as treasured as eating a good meal.
That table will most like have a chiquihuite at the center, filled with piping hot tortillas, in fact, you will probably arrive at the table only to find your host still heating tortillas on comal. There may very well be a small bowl of homemade Escabeche, or pickled vegetables (see my recipe in The Right stuff for a great Taco bar), especially if your find yourself in central Mexico, or your host is from there. The only person who will get up during the meal is whomever is heating more tortillas (the meal is over when everyone agrees that no more are needed). No one get’s up to go to the bathroom or takes a phone call- again, a reflection upon the value of the dining experience. You may very well find a fork and a soup spoon (for your beans, without which no meal is really complete), but no knife. Your tortilla is something between food and silverware, used to scoop up the food is you are eating en confiansa, or among a trusted circle of friends.
In terms of formalities, expect the host to introduce you (as opposed to introducing yourself). Always keep your hands visible. Do not sit until you invited to and a seat is indicated as yours. Flowers are a universally appropriate hostess gift. And finally, it is considered polite to leave some food on your plate, an indication that the meal you shared was not only ample, but a compliment to your host’s success in providing more than enough to eat.