Deconstructing the Almuerzo, Appeal Is In the Performance

In Ecuador, as in many Latin American countries, the ‘almuerzo’ is the axis around which the day spins.

It’s generally women who make this all-important daily meal and who, in a national ritual, carve out space to serve this three-course, hot meal between about 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m.

This meal shifts the public’s focus and values away from capital and business back to what is typically feminine — home, family, and food production. Men loosen their ties and women rest their high-heeled soles all before heading back to the office.

Almuerzo prep begins around 10 or 11:00 a.m. and it always consists of:

La Ensalada almuerzo
  1. Soup
  2. Main course — steamed white rice, a protein, vegetable
  3. Dessert
  4. Juice

Last week, I ate an almuerzo at a restaurant around the corner from my office in Quito, La Ensalada, ‘The Salad’.

My office and La Ensalada are located at one of the most expensive corners of the capital — the intersection of Shyris and Portugal Avenues.

La Ensalada, like a slew of other Mom and Pop kitchens that serve lunch to the city’s office laborers, bureaucrats, and construction workers in the area, still serves the hot meal at an accessible $3.00.

Most lunch-only restaurants serve each course at your table. However, it’s cafeteria-style at La Ensalada. First, you’ll pay the cashier/manager, Patricio Duran who has rented the long-hall space for six years.

Duran gives you a friendly look over the top of his glasses while saying “good afternoon.” He takes your money in exchange for a receipt to show the servers you paid.

Next, take a tray and utensils and pick a dessert off the metal counter. I went for the rice pudding rather than a small pineapple-filled pastry.

Down the line you’ll be served a juice. I asked the cook what the juice of the day was. Mango, she responded. Great.

Then choose your soup. I ordered the ‘sopa de carne de aji’, which the woman chef ladled out and handed to me. The other option was cream of chicken.

Sopa de carne de aji, left rear
Sopa de carne de aji, left rear.

An aside about soups in Ecuadorian cuisine — they’re a big deal.

In a 2010 paper, The Importance of Boiling Soup: Women and Culinary Techniques in the Andes, author Francisco Pazzarelli writes: “Pots with boiling water define the daily campesino kitchen.”

Pazzarelli adds: “The woman who cuts, boils and serves (a soup) is an … engine for the (re)production of life in the campesino world. … A women making soup is incorporating and releasing the energy necessary for the continuity of life.”

Soup is nothing less than sacred in Ecuador, particularly in the Andean region where campesinos, many who are Indigenous or influenced by their culture, still farm small plots for self-consumption. There, soup is sometimes the entire mid-day meal.

That’s in the countryside.

Ecuador’s urban residents, like most across the globe, aren’t producing the ingredients for, nor cooking their almuerzos. In Quito, nearly no one has enough time to return home, let alone prepare and eat an almuerzo during their (generally) one hour lunch break. Time and distance make this an impossible luxury.

Almuerzo restaurants in Quito fill this lunchtime void much like the first Parisian restaurants did in the 1760s. In the French capital at that time, restaurants, as they later became known, emerged just prior to the Revolution, because they served ‘restoratives’ — meaty broths said to be medicinal in nature that restored weary travelers’ energy.

After the Revolution, restaurants began to feed the capital’s expanding bourgeoise class, seating patrons at individual tables, a shift from the tradition of breaking bread around one communal table.

These two culinary establishments — the first Parisian restaurants and Ecuador’s present-day ‘almuerzos’ — feed those closest to capitalism, and quickly. In both cases ordering is easy owing to the set menu served during a busy lunch hour.

Influenced by Europe and the country’s rural culture, Ecuador’s urban almuerzo includes a ‘restorative’ soup followed by additional courses.

Pick your main & rice (a)side:

I chose the breaded and fried sea bass for my main entree. The other option was stewed chicken in tomato sauce.

All main courses get sides of fresh salad and steam white rice.

Let’s talk rice. It’s really important to the almuerzo, and most meals, in fact.

The average Ecuadorian eats 53.2 kilograms of rice per year, according to the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, compared to 47kgs in Peru and 40kgs in Colombia. Researchers say that Ecuadorians get 20% more or their calories from rice than any other food crop. This trend continues as its price remains low and cultural value, high.

Rice is culturally and cuisine-ly associated with Ecuador’s politically and economically dominant white-mestizo society, descendants of the 16th century Spaniards who took a patchwork control of the region. They introduced the grain and it is still cultivated in Ecuador’s humid southern coastal region, a region populated mainly by white, mestizos, Afro-Ecuadorians, and very few Indigenous.

Rice’s national popularity wasn’t always so. Not until major highways were built during Ecuador’s 1970s oil boom (and the Green Revolution) was rice transported to and readily consumed by the Indigenous and mestizo populations in the Sierra and Amazon where maize, potatoes, and maniac are the traditional carbs of choice. However, over the past five decades rice has reigned nationwide. Between 1970 and 1984 its production skyrocketed by 355% and other starchy commodities—wheat, potatoes, maize — fell significantly in production.

Rice remains the staple stand out of Ecuador’s almuerzo. Anthropologist M.J. Weismantel calls white rice the almuerzo’s “ validador” and highly associated with mestizo culture.

“White rice is the validator of the meal. … It is so central to the composition of the dish … that its presence defines the meal … as such,” she writes. Without rice, an almuerzo ceases to be one.

How’s it Taste?

Ashley

After I’ve put all courses on my tray I sit down to eat with my friend, Ashley.

The sopa de aji, which I’d never tried, was thicker than a broth but not by much. It had only a few lentils, bits of carrots and a couple of beef bits.

The corvina (red snapper) was heavily breaded, kinda tough and there was only a thin strip of fish found inside.

The salad was fresh, but the day’s vegetables, peas, were undercooked. This surprised me as overcooked vegetables are more the norm here.

The rice pudding was creamy and not too sweet. The juice, so watered down it no longer tasted of mango but a kind of unidentifiable fruity sweetness. The rice, as it generally is in the highlands, was dry and somewhat blown out.

I’ve had better, hardier almuerzos in this neighborhood for the same price.

I’m a little torn in writing that I didn’t really like the food that was served lukewarm. Who am I, a gringa, writing in English about Ecuador to say the food wasn’t that great.

What I realized is that what’s most pleasing about the almuerzo is not always the quality of the food, but the act of the meal.

The almuerzo allows you to take part in a national, daily ceremony when nearly everyone across the country communally takes a break at about the same time to eat this large, important meal they’ve been waiting for since the morning bustle began.

Almuerzo ordering is stress-free because, well, options are few, and everyone at the restaurant is eating the same thing (no a la carte at the almuerzo), creating a sense of communality, community.

Across the country, almuerzo restaurants are generally small-scale and run by proprietors who cook the meal fresh, or pay someone to, each morning. Every day you can have a hot meal (kinda) like Mom used to make.

Also, unlike a traditional U.S. meal — there are courses! So fun! It’s a pleasant surprise and interaction with the waiter when each plate arrives.

While I won’t romanticize the quality of the meal in this case, I have a soft spot for the appeal of the almuerzo —that is, its performance.

*M.J. Weismantel’s 1992 book, ‘Food, Gender, and Poverty in the Ecuadorian Andes’ looks at how food — who produces, buys, and prepares it — is a way to examine and interrogate gender, class, and ethnic relations in Ecuador’s Sierra. It’s a brilliant book that discusses how Indigenous food and farming traditions, white society, and capitalism all influence a rural parish, Zumbahua, approx. 2 hours south/southwest of Quito in the 1980s.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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