Food and Chileanness
When considering food visuals are often as far as we get; if a meal looks good we eat it, reflect on the taste, smell, and presentation, and, for the more culinary-inclined, perhaps we inquire about the ingredients. Yet food is an important window into the lives of those who make, not just in what is used, but how food is talked about, prepared, consumed, even conceptualized. While I could go into an analysis of what ingredients characterize the culinary landscape of Chile ––carne, mariscos, pan y queso, if you’re interested in a quick primer–– but what has intrigued me are the number of meals each day. There used to be five (kinda) and now there are four (kinda) though it’s really more like three with a conceptual nod to a fourth. Let me explain.
The first meal of the day. To Chileans breakfast does not carry any of that complex rhetorical baggage that it does in the U.S. ––only reason I make the comparison here is to draw the attention to the fact that while breakfast is proclaimed as the most important meal of the day it is often skipped, and the cultural emphasis is placed on dinner. To many bread with butter or marmalade (and perhaps a glass of milk) is a fairly standard breakfast. Of course, this is by no means the rule, but while the fare may deviate desayuno is a practice most Chileans partake in.
In all respects this is the most important meal to Chileans. People leave work at 2pm, return around 4 or 4:30pm, and eat with friends or family. Given the size of the meal it can be broken down further into several parts:
Aperativo: This is a drink which proceeds the meal, usually a wine or pisco sour. Served with the beverage are nuts, cheese, crackers, and preserves (such as eggplant, red pepper, and garlic spread for crackers). Restaurants feature some variation of this, as do middle to upper-middle class households. Chileans, ever aware of class, will be the first to tell you that if someone serves mani (usually on its own) they most certainly lack class.
Entrada: Soup, salad, or some other dish which many would call an appetizer. Salads are common year round, with soups gaining prominence in the fall and winter months, when Chileans use it as a source of warmth in the face of a nation without central heating ––it’s probably not needed here, but that’s not why it’s absent.
Plato principal: This usually consists of meat and a starch, such as potatoes or rice. Veggies, while inexpensive in Chile, often do not make it past the salads ––okay, they are present just not in any nutritionally recommended amount. Hearty, large, and the focus of the most important meal this is what really brings the desenlace that follows the meal (contrary to popular belief, not all people that speak castellano fetishize the idea of a siesta).
Everyone, perhaps with the exception of students, eats this meal. That’s not to say that students go hungry at lunch, but that they often don’t have as grand of a feast. School cafeterias sell food and many parents pack a sandwich or microwaveable dish and some snacks, but there’s never any pisco.
La hora de té
Tea time is exactly what it sounds like: a midday moment set aside to drink tea and eat a snack ––usually cookies, or bread with marmalade. However, this meal is all but not existent, its presence exist more or less in vernacular only. University life pushed this out of the way, as many students were not returning home until the late afternoon, a gap in which eating would have jeopardized the next meal.
Sandwich (palta, queso, tomate, mayonesa) is the standard far. Though equally common is bread with cheese, marmalade, butter, tomato slices, and egg (obviously the consumers elect which of those ingredients share space on their bread). At this moment once and la hora de té are synonymous concepts, thought with distinct connotations. Most people call this meal once and never mention tea time (though tea or mate is consumed during this meal). Restaurants serve once, families say once, and, for all intents and purposes, the meal is once. Yet to some it is la hora de té, and those tend to be families of higher classes, almost always with a maid that visits the house. It’s a slightly more refined idea to the Chileans that use it, the lexical change serving only the purpose of reinforcing identity distinctions to themselves and their friends. From what I’ve gathered the idea very much comes from the west ––with no origin in pre-colonial Chile–– meaning it could even be another attempt to align oneself with a western identity. Once definitely exists, la hora de té, kinda.
A larger dinner, usually later in the night, dishes larger than sandwiches or bread and spreads, but not as extensive nor grandiose as almuerzo. Not many Chileans eat this anymore, nor can many afford to. Logically, if tea was pushed back into once (which itself had occupied a later hour as tea first encroached) then cena would have moved so close to bed time that eating it would have seemed foolish. Indeed, Chileans no longer see any rational for a large meal in the evening, an ethos captured in the popular saying: “Breakfast like a king, lunch like the middle class, and sup as if you were poor”. Now the adherence to this is not exactly spot on, with breakfast not being a large affair while lunch is most certainly more “fit for kings”. What we can see is another injection of class-based rhetoric into dining, which, for those who can afford to eat like kings and joke about the impoverishment of their quantities, masks otherwise visible inequalities.