Breakfast and bread go together in Peru like beer and fiestas. It is hard to imagine the one without the other.
Mostly, the bread that comes with coffee or some other hot beverage to open the morning for people is one of the delicious, small round breads that in English would be called rolls, though these are far from the tall, fluffy things we normally think of as rolls. They are domed but fairly thin, crusty outside and light inside. They give a good chew.
On the plaza or in cafés such as La Bondiet, ones that promise a certain international style and status, that is they stand above the ordinary such as found in the market, the bread is more likely to be cold squares of toast made from Peruvian Wonderbread, what they call pan de molde.
These squares come with butter and jam on the side for you to spread over them if you want or you can eat them as they are. For most Americans these toasts are abominable. They are not at all like the toast we are used to, hot and moistened with butter that has melted into every pore.
The cultural difference here is strong and it requires some care in thinking through.
Americans like hot bread, warm and fresh from the oven that you can butter and watch it melt from the heat still there. It reminds of family and home. Even if people do not make bread anymore, the symbolism is still in advertising and recreates that notion of homemade goodness.
When I was young, (20 years old) and living in nearby Bolivia, I loved the scent of bread baking in the big ovens of local panaderías, and like a fly I was drawn to it. I had to buy some of that hot delight, whether the temperature outside was near freezing or in the nineties. It was like an addiction. The scent would already make me salivate and I just had to have some although there was seldom butter anywhere near.
Often, the bread maker would warn me to let the bread cool before eating it. “You cannot eat hot bread. It will make you sick. It is not good for the body.”
Needless to say, I ignored them and ate until full. I was raised on hot bread fresh out of the oven and loved their rolls still steaming hot from the oven.
This all came back to me when I was reading David Lebovitz’s recent post about breakfast in France. After writing about how people do not like their juice chilled (they prefer room temperature in Peru too), Lebovitz notes:
“One thing the French don’t seem to mind cold is toast, as evidenced by this aisle of boxes of toast sold at my local supermarket. I don’t know who wants to eat bread that could double as a ginger grater, but from the space it takes up, it’s obviously pretty popular.
Perhaps it’s because a number of people have warned me about potential dangers of eating pain chaud, or warm bread, which they say will give you a brioche, or a pot-belly. Which room temperature bread apparently doesn’t. Which may be one reason why it’s better to eat cold bread. Yet no one’s been ever to explain the logic of why warm bread will give you a brioche (pot-belly), but cold doesn’t. So until someone shows me evidence from a trusted medical or scientific source that says otherwise, I am going to continue to eat warm bread whenever I can.”
I have not heard that warm bread will give you a wata, a pot belly, in Peru or Bolivia but I have been warned many, many times about the dangers of hot bread. I also have complained many times about cold toast and how useless it is since the butter would not melt, all in my cultural arrogance and frustration. Lebovitz gives me pause.
The issue of hot or cold comes from a system of classifying foods as one or the other in order to grasp their impact on the body which is as old as Greek medicine if not older. The Spanish brought it to Peru from their Mediterranean and it probably combined with some sort of indigenous classification system along similar lines. When Lebovitz argues to modern medical science he is playing the American trump card of science against culture, science against common sense. That convinces no one, where hot bread is seen as dangerous. It is just saying “I am going to stick with my American way” on this even if he adapts to French culture in so many other ways and produces a compelling blog and books on his experience.
That I can eat hot bread and drink ice cold drinks, even at the same time, while not getting sick is an troublesome anomaly for people close to me in Peru. It causes us to talk about bodies formed under different ideas because my friends do experience digestive and bodily problems from cold drinks and hot bread, even when not consumed together.
Even after years and years of visiting or living in the Andes, I still prefer my bread warm and buttery. I just do not like a slather of cold butter greasy like lotion on cold toast. If I eat in one of those cafés that claim status and hence serve such, I often ask for local bread. I prefer it far more than cold toast.
As an American, I should also notice that there are different imperialisms here related to ideas of status. Right now the American empire might be ascendent and so you find Chilis, Malls, McDonalds, Burger King, and Starbucks centrally located in Cusco, but before this Europe ruled. The British brought sandwiches, tea-time (what in Peru is called lonche, an Anglicism), beer, and even created Inca Cola. They may have contributed to this notion of cold toast, although they also brought notions of French cuisine that was consolidated by the experience of Peruvians who traveled, studied and lived in France. Notions of status and cold toast came into being.
In any case, room temperature toast speaks to both the hot and cold system that is very old and well consolidated and to late nineteenth and early twentieth century Anglo-French power in Latin America. Toast means a lot.