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When a sandwich for lunch simply won't do

Article By: Laura Plum

How the concept of lunch changes across borders and how to deal with it coming from England and moving to Argentina

Submitted:Feb 6, 2009    Reads: 142    Comments: 3    Likes: 1   

When a sandwich for lunch simply will not do.
He came home from visiting clients and I finished teaching my class and then there was a space in time, which thousands of years have dictated is lunch time. It appeared by the look on his face that this was up to me. He was ready to pause, I just had, and the space was closing in towards the kitchen. I was being pushed by the stomach of my Argentine love. However, when it comes to the yearnings of an Argentine man's stomach, there is no avoiding the pitfalls of its clearest, deepest desires and the simplest complexities that frustrate and fathom me. Let me explain.
I am from England and have been living in Buenos Aires for two and a half years. There are many things born from this sentence, but let's focus on the subject in hand, or, more recently, in mouth. Lunch. As I grew up, lunch simply seemed to be one of those daily routines that really didn't have the impact I see here. I cannot deny the beautiful existence and familiarity of The Sunday Lunch; its smells, the colourful vegetables, steaming gravy from the china gravy boat that never matches anything, all the pots and pans owned being put on the table and the routine of Mum forgetting the onion sauce in the microwave. I remember, fantasise and often talk about it, but the fact is that lunch is not the important thing for me because in my family, with football or cricket matches taking place at peak time, The Sunday Lunch was often at 5, 6, 7 o'clock. There are other words we could use; 'dinner', 'supper' late lunch' ... but in the end it was just the Sunday Roast, whatever the hour. Lunch schmunch.
Then there is the lunch that exists Monday to Friday (do people even eat lunch on Saturdays? In our house, breakfast leads nicely into a beer/cider/gin and tonic which, in turn, becomes dinner). The weekday lunch obviously has nothing to do with The Sunday Lunch mentioned above. This lunch was as uninteresting and functional as a potato masher; you have to have it, it gets the job done, nothing more. What we really look forward to is dinner. Plus, that bacon sandwich/mountain of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes/pile of Marmite on toast/egg and beans was a breakfast that counts. None of this coffee and newspaper. I mean, what nutritional value does Clarin have? We had breakfast which literally broke a fast. So, lunch would be plastic wrapped sandwiches from Boots the Chemist; or a sausage roll and packet of Walkers; or a Granny Smith and pork pie; or maybe if we'd run out of Marmite that morning, there would be a jacket potato. And of course, lunch would last the duration of lunch; one hour or less. It does not take too long for anyone, not matter what nationality, to eat slices of ham and cheese and tomato slapped between two slices of bread. Back to it then; or some shopping, or solitaire, or marking or reading the newspaper. The whole crossword? Probably not.
Now, time in itself has a whole new meaning in Argentina, so that isn't completely the problem. It's the food that's required, and the effort that is needed. Buttering bread and halving it in two minutes or less is out of the window in favour of platters, steaks, vegetables, salads, breaded meats, pastas, all with the bread that should have been used in making a simple sandwich in the first place. Add a sparkling water and tea or coffee afterwards and at least an hour and a half of chatting and now we're really talking.
I go to offices where the English class is lunch. I mean, really lunch. We go out for lunch, eat a two course meal, talking all the while of course. A meal is never a meal for contemplation here; words must be exchanged, meaningless or otherwise. Today, I came out for lunch by myself, in an experiment. I cannot knock something until I've tried it in my own real life, not the one I present to students. So, here I am, post lunch hour, having arrived at exactly one-fifteen. It is now exactly two hours later, and they are still here. The man who had the steak is on his second cup of coffee and still going through the paper; the man who arrived looking exceedingly stressed and talking on his mobile phone is still talking on the phone, but looks a little better having eaten two desserts and a mini ice cream with his coffees and cokes; the woman who ate the chicken salad with water and a coffee is now paying, having read the pictures of all the glossy magazines and checked her emails on the accompanying laptop. And there is me, post quiche and 'mini salad' (I quote the menu) with my mint tea, feeling rather content, but rather full, and more than happy I am going back to my apartment, not to the office. So, here it is. It is more than OK, desired, normal to take time for lunch. As one of my students, in a lift with a group of newcomers to his company, said to me, "It's sweet. They will all be back within the hour this week, and then realise its OK and do what we all do." We continued walking out the building and went for a ninety minute lunch.
So, if you have the time, and only had a miniature croissant for breakfast, or nothing, as the Argentine I live with often does, then it makes sense that lunch is something grand and important. Let's go back to that space in time, which became lunch last Friday. Knowing I had a little more time, skill and knowledge of contents of the kitchen than he, I asked him what he fancied. This was met with a warped face and whiny noise, which in any cross cultural exchange means, 'Oh well I don't know'. But he did know. It was a lie. So, to keep things simple, I offered to make soup and a sandwich. You would have thought I'd offered dog's head with tongue of rat for the face I then got. "No, no no no no NO. I'll go to the supermarket," he declared. I was dumbstruck. We had food. Lovely food that fills sandwiches, and I make good sandwiches, I really do; with attention to detail, layered correctly and chopped right. Then I realised. He hadn't glanced any milanesas (breaded meat), meat or any left over chicken steaks in the fridge. There was no accompanying pasta, salad, stir-fry, mashed potatoes I could deliver (or so he thought). Why do we have cutlery? Not to eat a sandwich, obviously.
So, I sent him back to the bedroom to get on with some work, while I, also, went to work. "What will you make?" he demanded, looking over his shoulder as I pushed him towards his laptop on the bed. I could see in his eyes he was hoping to see a leg of lamb/beef ribs/homemade spaghetti hanging in the background. "You'll see," I told him, "You'll see."
I am not the most wonderful cook in the world, but I can cook and pretty well. I really don't mind it, unless it's been too many lunches (the un-sandwich kind) and dinners on the trot and I feel I've been stuck in Ma Larkin's world; a world of never ending opening of stuff (cupboards, packets, fridges, pans, ovens, taps) and creation. You simply can't serve the same thing twice. So, knowing this world, I went about making pasta and vegetables in a red pepper sauce. I chopped and boiled and stir-fried and added and stirred and grated. I arranged a table, I laid out bread, I seasoned and finally, I served.
"Up the table!" He came bounding in, as if he'd just spent twelve hours harvesting rather than twenty minutes writing emails. It's got nothing to do with Argentine men, it's just men. When they are hungry, they expect (and that doesn't just go for food). He sat down and I delivered: a pile of spinach pasta, with aubergine, onions, courgettes, peppers, red cabbage and sweet-corn, served with a sweet red pepper sauce (hold the chilli at this time of the day for the Argentine love) and banana and strawberry smoothie to wash it down. His face said it all; this is what he had been talking about. FOOD! Food with bread on the side. Food with heat. Food with colour and variety, no bite the same. He gobbled and munched and added bread with every mouthful, as if it was going out of fashion. He delighted in its realfoodness; it's simplicity beyond the sandwich, its unfussy flavour. "Thanks, Baby," he replied to raised eyebrows after the first few chomps.
It's easy to please people when you know what they want. It's just less fun when it's the opposite of what you want, or you simply cannot see the point in their desires. But seeing his contentment that Friday afternoon, I realised I was missing the point. Lunch goes beyond body fuel; it's time away, an investment, shared moments and idleness. A ham and cheese sandwich doesn't bring you this. Putting cutlery down, looking at each other, sitting back, forgetting those things pending when your plate becomes empty; these are the reasons for the lunch I so mocked. I smiled. He was slowing down, happily full, knowing a coffee and some biscuits would be coming in a couple of hours. You see, the routine of the Argentine stomach works like this, so very differently to their English counterparts. It's almost a law to eat something like a small pizza between lunch and dinner, or a round of toasted sandwiches (at six o'clock!) and all will still be well a few hours later when more mounds and rounds of food appear at dinner time (bed time for you English readers). Their cycle exists to engorge and sleep; then wake and fast. No wonder Clarin has all the nutritional content they need at that hour of the morning.
He pushed remaining pasta and vegetables to the side. I looked at him, at first calmly. He looked back, then down. His plate was still half full, and I hadn't even filled it to try and prove a point. He eyes weakened apologetically. "I'm full, Baby, but it was great. Thank you."
Ma Larkin would have said something about him having a sparrow's appetite. My Grandma would have replaced the plate with some Kit-Kats and hoped for the best. My brother would have taken his plate and finished the lot. What did I do? I vowed to serve it again in a few hours and so lunch becomes what it should have been all along; dinner.


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