Cuchuflis, Churros, Alfajores, Calzones Rotos, and Mil Hojas–Cavity-inducing pastries at their finestSantiago, Spring 2009

If the U.S. is known for having a Starbucks on every corner, then every one of Chile’s corners has a “pasteleria” (pastry shop). And they’re all delicious.

I’m pretty confident that I’m going to leave Chile without sampling all the different ways in which they combine cookies, marshmallow, manjar, dulce de leche, chocolate, fruit-fillings, etc. into concoctions of all shapes and sizes. I do, however, seem to be making a pretty good attempt at this mission.

The giant U.S. style supermarkets definitely exist here, but they’re far less frequent than the following shops which surround my apartment (keep in mind, that I do not need to leave this one small block to find several of each of these): (1) minimarkets that have a little bit of whatever you need (fresh-baked bread, lots of soda, a smattering of fresh vegetables, empanadas); (2) individual specialty shops selling pastries, fruits and vegetables, alcohol, or meats; and (3) the ubiquitous street vendors hawking drinks, chips, sweets, and tabloids.

I never shop like this in the U.S., but here I find myself spending 50 cents for a Coke from the man on the street, 20 cents for an apple from the kiosk outside my apartment, 75 cents for a fresh creampuff at the library. It’s definitely a nice pick-me-up when slogging through my homework.

Unfortunately, however, not all the news on the food front is good (and it’s at least partly related to the easy access to all these shops). Chileans’ obesity rates (and the rates of accompanying cardiovascular diseases and other health-related problems) have sky-rocketed in the last decades (in previous decades hunger and inadequate food supplies were bigger problems).

It’s not hard to see why. For instance, this weekend a friend and I went to visit her host mother’s family who live about 6 hours from Santiago. They were so gracious and accommodating, giving us a great tour of the city. No complaints about the weekend, just an observation that the food was a bit of a reminder for me. My host mother in Santiago eats pretty healthily, but this weekend was a bit closer to the “typical” Chilean diet. For example, breakfast? White rolls and marmalade, tea/coffee, cake. Lunch? Big helping of lasagna. Iceberg lettuce and tomatoes, white bread. Onces (a light snack eaten in the evening rather than dinner)? Ham and cheese sandwiches on white bread, tea/coffee. Sprinkled in there? Cookies and bonbons. We were missing a few good groups.

Part of the problem is that unhealthy food is so cheap (not that this is at all a problem unique to Chile). For instance, I can buy a delicious roll in the grocery store for about a dime. The most common foods to see students eating on their lunch break or after school are completos (hot dogs loaded with ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise and avocado) or sopaipillas (fried dough made from wheat flour, lard, pumpkin and salt). Admittedly, both of these are pretty delicious, but it can be cringe-inducing to see a mass of twenty school kids walking by with the equivalent of doughnuts in both hands.

I think that’s what makes observing the different attitudes about food here so interesting. Yeah, I’m pretty conscious about what I eat so that makes me more aware of how my diet is changing. But I’ve also spent a summer researching how social and economic structures shape people’s food behaviors (often unconsciously). Therefore, I’m considering my (informal) study of the “Chilean food culture” to be more than just a quest to sample a little of everything (haven’t tried the horse jerky yet, but I’ll be sure to let you know!), but also a bit of a sociological look at a country that’s transitioned from hunger-related to obesity-related nutrition problems in very few years.

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