Seeing and Being Seen: Hay Pan

Emily Guerin confronts Chile’s obsession with bread, and watches it get ugly when there’s a bread shortage on Christmas Day.

Chileans love bread. They eat an average of 216 pounds of it per year—one of the highest rates of per capita bread consumption in the world. Their preference is to purchase bread fresh every day at local bakeries or supermarkets, where it’s considered a bulk food and priced by the kilogram.

The bread section of a large grocery store will be mobbed around 6 p.m. Bread is baked on-site and sold out of wooden bins that each contain a different kind that all taste sort of the same — bland and a bit doughy. The popular pan batido, a fluffy white bread that could be easily ripped into quarters, is piled in a bin next to hallulla, a round roll that was often dense and spongy; pan amasado, similar to hallulla but less dense; pan doblada, triangular folded bread with a crunchy crust, and the least desirable, pan de molde, sliced bread. The warm rolls steam up the flimsy plastic bags that shoppers rip off a roll like Americans do in the produce department. If the bread bins are empty, people linger around them, waiting for the rolls to tumble into the bins from a slot that leads to the kitchen.

On Christmas, the wait for the fresh bread was the longest I’d ever experienced. Most stores had closed for the holiday, which left a horde of people that had waited until the last minute to buy bread wandering around Valparaíso looking for an open bakery. My friend Katie and I were among them, and we had all discovered the same tiny bakery.

It was located in a part of the city that was usually bustling, the sidewalks overflowing with people and produce stands. As soon as the bakeries and pocket-sized markets opened their gates in the morning, shoppers flocked to them like bees on blooming flowers. Normally shoppers would divide themselves evenly between the stores, lingering while they bought a cut of steak wrapped in white paper at one, then walking deliberately past a slew of identical stores to stop at another that seemed no different than the rest, where they would buy avocados. But today everything was closed, except for the bakery.

Outside a line had formed — remarkable in itself. I had found that Chileans initially formed lines, but quickly abandoned them in favor of elbowing and pushing to get what they wanted — the attention of a bartender, a seat on the bus, or admission to a club. The only orderly lines I had seen were in government buildings or post offices, where stone-faced people waited with their arms crossed, documents in hand, shifting their weight from one foot to the other.

I peeked over the heads of the people in front of me. Inside, no one was moving. Elegant pastries and cakes were displayed in the window at the front of the bakery, but everyone seemed to be keeping an eye on the bread bins at the back of the tiny shop. I knew that the bakers had dumped fresh bread into the bins when the line lurched forward, like we were all passengers on a stalled subway that suddenly began to move. Six or seven pairs of greedy hands quickly emptied the bins as soon as they were filled, leaving everyone else to wait for another ten minutes or so. The victorious shoppers hustled out of the bakery, holding their bread bags protectively.

After two rounds of this we had only just made it inside the door. A man behind me turned to face the person behind him, shouting to no one in particular and gesturing wildly. “This is ridiculous! It is unjust to have to wait this long for bread on Christmas! I cannot believe there are no other bakeries open today!” He slapped the doorframe for emphasis, and Katie and I jumped.

I was also frustrated by the wait, and would have deserted the line if I had stood there much longer. But no one else seemed to be budging, preferring to stand and wait for up to 30 minutes for a baggie filled with warm rolls. In the United States, I doubt anyone would have waited that long for bread, especially on Christmas.

But Chileans eat bread, in one form or another, at almost every meal. I experienced its ubiquity while living with a host family during a study abroad program. In the morning I awoke to find last night’s bread, just beginning to harden, covered with a cloth in a basket on the dining room table. Beside it, an oddly shaped block of white cheese and thin slices of ham were arranged on small plates. When I arrived home from my classes in the afternoon, the table had been cleaned and re-set the exact same way. This time a bowl of mashed up, salted avocados accompanied the now fresh bread, meat, and cheese. If I had been home for lunch, I could have eaten more bread with pebre, a mild, watery salsa.

Many travelers lament bread’s starring role in the Chilean diet. An Englishman I met at a hostel grumbled as we sat down to a breakfast nearly identical to the one I ate every day at my host family’s. “Oh wow, bread,” he grumbled, reaching past the basket of hallulla for the Nescafe instant coffee, another Chilean favorite. “What a surprise.”

Chilean’s reliance on bread can create chaos if it is suddenly absent from the table. An empty bread basket means a giant, bread-shaped hole in the universe has temporarily opened and must be filled before mealtime by a last-minute run to the store.

People on an eleventh-hour bread run don’t want to barge into bakery after bakery only to discover the bread bin is empty. Sympathetic (or savvy) shop owners, understanding the urgency of the bread run, frequently put up signs in their windows to let consumers know when bread is available; indeed, the hand-lettered HAY PAN (THERE IS BREAD) sign is nearly as ubiquitous as bread itself. The plethora of bread signage once led a sarcastic American traveler to comment, “Oh, great! There is bread! Because I was worried we’d run out.”

But on Christmas 2007, the impossible happened—there was no bread.

At least not for a while. After half an hour of waiting punctuated by frantic shuffles toward the store, Katie and I filled our own baggie with pan batido. As walked up the hill to our hostel, we were passed by some of the other last-minute bread-buyers. I tried to acknowledge them as they passed, but they blew by us, walking fiercely home.

Emily Guerin works as an environmental educator and newbie journalist in Maine, where she actively works to disprove the stigma that all people from Massachusetts are "Massholes." When she leaves New England, she gravitates toward Latin America or the American West.