You gotta eat something to soak up the pisco
Santiago, Chile, has never been on anyone’s list of the world’s, or even South America’s, most interesting cities. (Except perhaps in 2011, when the New York Times inexplicably declared it the world’s top travel destination.) Santiago lacks Lima’s colonial charm or its world-class cooking. It doesn’t have the cosmopolitan glamour of a Buenos Aires, the spectacular setting of a Rio, or even the mercantile vibrancy of a São Paulo. It’s a staid, pleasant place— well-behaved, but plain, its river a concrete trough, its palm trees a kind of afterthought. Even its prettiest, most bohemian neighborhoods are overwhelmingly gray, shrouded in a heavy pall of pollution trapped there by the mountains that form the city’s eastern boundary. It’s a nice enough place, but not much more.
What Santiago does have is two of the best markets I’ve seen anywhere. For the year that I lived there, I ate most of my lunches at La Vega, a mammoth produce market on the northern bank of the Mapocho River that forms a sort of gateway to the working class neighborhoods in that part of town. Across the river from La Vega is the Mercado Central, the city’s famous 19th-century seafood market: a grand warehouse with wrought iron ceilings behind a peach neoclassical façade where locals come to buy their fish and tourists lunch at one of a dozen or so restaurants. During work days, I almost never crossed the river to the Mercado, preferring to eat chicken soups and corn-and-beef casseroles and Peruvian food at cheap stalls across the river. But on early weekend mornings (which were also late weekend nights), the Mercado was my favorite place to be.
Like most Latin American cities, Santiago parties—not like Buenos Aires (Porteños do not, evidently, sleep, which maybe has a thing or two to do with their ceaseless economic and political woes), but more than New York. Dinner is barely a thing. Instead you’ll have onces, a light snack of tea and avocado toast, around 11 p.m., start drinking shortly after, hit the bar by 2 a.m., head to the afterparty at 5 a.m., and leave there sometime before noon. On my favorite mornings, I would stumble out of some party or other, likely through the door of an abandoned townhouse, down the washed out banks of the Mapocho, across the bridge by the oddly proportioned Museo Bellas Artes (even the Beaux Arts didn’t quite achieve beauty in Santiago), and eventually, with the sun already up in the sky, through the gates of the Mercado Central, which opens daily around 5:30 a.m.
I’d go with friends, and we’d make our way up a rickety set of stairs into a low-ceilinged dining room where light, thank god, barely penetrated. We’d order a cheap bottle of white wine and huge bowls of Chile’s classic seafood dishes: caldillo de congrio, a fishy eel stew; chupe de locos, a stodgy casserole of pacific abalone baked with bread and cheese and cream; or, my personal favorite, a mariscal (also called a paila marina), essentially a giant pot of steamed mussels, clams, prawns, and Chilean razor clams (called machas) served in a murky broth and topped with an incandescent red knob of piure, a type of tunicate that, when harvested, looks like a giant rock with pulsing red guts and tastes like a mouthful of seawater (it’s the single weirdest thing I’ve ever eaten). You’ve heard of breakfast for dinner? Eaten at 6 or 7 a.m., this was dinner for breakfast: a big bubbling bowl of fish to carry you out of your dingy pisco-soaked night into the sated drunkenness of a new day that would end before it properly began.
The idea that breakfast is the most important meal of the day in any real nutritional sense might well be bunk, but breakfast—the breaking of the fast—is essential in marking the transition from yesterday to today. No other meal sets such a clear temporal divide. It happens before daybreak when you go out hiking or deep in the afternoon on a lazy Sunday or at the reasonable times of 7 or 8 or 9 in the morning if you’re a responsible working person with a life that needs ordering. Whenever you eat it, breakfast marks the moment when the future becomes the present.
On those mornings at the Mercado, that transition happened more slowly, the food coming out of a kitchen where it was already tomorrow to my table where it was still last night. Time was happily, perhaps even magically, slurred, yesterday dragged out and made momentarily special before slipping into the undifferentiated past.
Even though I usually followed them with many hours of dead-to-the-world sleep, those big bowls of seafood woke me—to the empty Sunday cobbles, to the conspicuous morning quiet, and to the obscure beauty of that dove-gray city washed in dove-gray light. Breakfast at the Mercado broke my fast from enchantment.