Growth and modernization bring dazzling new experiences to the people of the developing world. In Latin America’s growing cities, real shopping malls eventually appear. The larger the city, the more impressive the mall. And, sooner or later, that means food courts.
At long last, a deserving populace has the same shot at childhood obesity and diabetes that was until now the exclusive province of the most advanced nations.
Super-sizing has come to the Andes.
For the foreign visitor, the multitude of choices is largely unfamiliar and almost overwhelming. The flashy surroundings may be glass and chrome, but the fare is often traditional and regionally specific.
There’s menestra, the stewed lentils or beans that accompany a serving of meat and rice, or citrus-marinated ceviche made with shrimp from the coast and especially popular out there for breakfast. A warm, coconut-infused alternative is called encocado. There are specialties from neighboring Latin countries, and from China, sandwiches of a (sort of) US deli style, and of course burgers and fries. One outfit serves steaks on a thick wooden plank. The very biggest malls may feature a classy Colombian chain called Crepes & Waffles, known not only for its food but for giving jobs and career training to single mothers.
Here in Ecuador, there are a few familiar logos. Burger King, and McDonald’s, but not often. KFC has a big footprint in a country where more chicken is consumed per capita than any other meat, and with production capacity to match its national appetite: more than a quarter-million chickens a year, and a billion eggs.
“Are there any KFCs in the United States?” a young Ecuadorian once asked me. I tried to explain that the “K” stands for “Kentucky,” but he’d never heard of Kentucky.
Judging from the long lines at one food court, I concluded that KFC was by far the most popular choice of the local lunch crowd.
Until I tried it myself. And discovered that it was merely the slowest.
It seemed completely counterintuitive. The chicken was all pre-cooked and piled high. The pre-fab combo choices were all laid out on a bright menu board—with relatively more rice and arepas than you’d find in the typical US outlet. Yes, the employees had been trained to upsell, and they had to ask about beverage choices, but that wasn’t enough to explain twenty minutes in a motionless queue. Did these people know nothing about the basics of fast food?
A sign on the counter invited customer feedback, and in my mind, I outlined the withering critique I would email to the folks on Colonel Sanders Lane in Louisville. I thought about it as I strolled past a dozen other offerings, from pizza to Asian grilled shrimp—and suddenly noticed what was missing.
Nowhere was there any mention of “fast food.”
There was fried, boiled, barbecued and roasted. There was variety, convenience, and a range of prices. Nobody said anything about fast.
The curiously American creation of fast food, connecting kitchens with assembly line methods, probably had its beginnings in 1921, with the establishment of White Castle in Kansas. Others came later, including McDonald’s in 1948, and Burger King and Taco Bell in the 1950s. In time, much of the world adopted the cuisine, if not always its revved-up velocity.
US restaurants use a million tricks to achieve the fastest possible table turnover, getting customers in and out to make room for more. In contrast, I have one Latin friend who finishes the meal and then sits deliberately still, staring into space for 15 minutes while the food settles, believing it’s the healthy thing to do. Ol’ Dave at Wendy’s would break into a cold sweat.
In Latin America, mealtime can be time-consuming—businesses commonly close for two hours or more every day for the proprietors’ lunch. A trip to the mall often involves the whole family, and may include shopping and a movie as well as a meal. They’re not looking for a speedy experience any more than you’d want to be whisked in and out of your favorite upscale steakhouse in 10 minutes.
Those spacious food courts fill to bursting, especially on weekends, packed with adults and children, with soccer on big-screen TVs, sellers shouting out order numbers, and a steady clamor of clacking trays and lively conversation. Small kids chase each other wildly among the tables, and no one would think of objecting. It is, to borrow a vivid local phrase, like una olla de grillos—a big, scrambling “pot of crickets.”
It’s not precisely the slow food movement, but it is generally more social, more family-focused, and more time-consuming than grabbing a Big Mac on the run.
So, when time is short and hunger calls, what’s a rushed gringo to do? Ironically, the answer may be found in the old, traditional markets. There, where a vendor may have just a single table and a couple of benches, turnover is essential. The whole hog is already roasted, the fish already fried, and your plate is in front of you in seconds. It has to be fresh, because most cooks don’t have refrigeration under their tarp.
And the whole meal is likely to set you back less than two dollars. Not quite the original 1948 McDonalds burger price of 15 cents, but it’s a step in the right direction.