One of the daily recurring events for me as a teacher is the sight of a child (often a boy) after school parading around the grounds proudly with a large chocolate crispy pastry known as a palmera in his hand. I grew up calling an elephant ear. Such is its width that the kid’s face is hidden from view. It is about the size of a manhole cover, and weighs nearly that much too. But somehow, with great determination, the boy manages to transfer all the contents in his hand to his stomach. He has just finished his merienda. Finding an exact translation for this isn’t that easy because how a person celebrates a merienda can differ from age to place and calling. In some ways it is akin to the British teatime with the main difference being that most Spaniards don’t drink tea. Kids for the most part can’t stand it. It’s simply that foreign to them. My daughters accuse me of mistreatment whenever I suggest having a cup.
So what should we call it? An afternoon snack? Perhaps. But here’s the thing: the merienda is taken some time between five and six in the evening. I sometimes used to have dinner then when I was kid. When I tell Spaniards this they look at me they way they do when I admit to watching baseball and even finding it intensely thrilling at times. They don’t get it. It doesn’t fit with their scheme of life. They think I am pulling their leg. But baseball can be exciting…it really can. As long as you have a pitcher and a catcher, you have a conflict which needs resolving. And when that resolution takes place at the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded, the tension is unparalleled. I tell them about how I remember the Mets winning the sixth game of the 1986 World Series (these are the few tales we fans have to tell so it is up to us to preserve the lore), but it’s pointless. They say it’s interesting because they want to be kind and feel sorry for me. Cultural stuff.
In any event, the merienda is exactly that; a snack to tide you over until dinner, which still looms hours away. My job in particular drains a lot out of me, so a nice piece of fruit or some coffee and a shot of sugar does me good. For the most part, the merienda is enjoyed mainly by students and the elderly. Cafeterías fill up with women who gather for some coffee and a roll of some kind. Some even go for some killer hot chocolate they serve in Spain. It is a steamy cup of cocoa which is sometimes prepared so thick you’d think you were drinking chocolate pudding. You dip sticks of deep-fried fritters which have been sprinkled with sugar into it and pop it all into your mouth. Then you wash it all down with some cool water, sit back and wait for the heart attack to start up.
Other kinds of food include pancakes, ham and cheese sandwiches, doughnuts and, of course, those dry old croissants which need ironing before being consumed.
For kids, there is no limit to what they can eat to recharge their batteries. The abovementioned qualify, but so do fruit, yoghurt, olives, cookies, salami sandwiches, chocolate spread sandwiches…and even pâté on a roll. Now, you won’t find to many kids back home thrashing open the screen door and calling, “Mom, can I have a pâté sandwich please?”
“Yes, honey. I’ve also got some fried squid too. Want two sandwiches?”