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“Hay que Merendar”: Snacking in Spain

By: Callie Schaden |

One of the best parts about my semester in Spain was living with a host mom that was an incredible cook. My roommates and I were completely spoiled by the meals she prepared for us every day. It was probably weekly that she would joke about moving to the states to start an authentic Spanish kitchen—“Casa de Maria”.

Every day, me and the two other girls I lived with would walk 35 minutes home together through El Rio, the river-turned-park that runs through Valencia, chatting in broken Spanish about our day and our classes, and every afternoon without a doubt, someone would ask what we thought we were having for lunch. “Me pregunto qué vamos a comer.” For context, the meal system in Spain is different than the system we follow in the United States. The bigger meal, often called simply la comida, is typically served between 2 and 3 in the afternoon (although the Spaniards would tell you that la tarde doesn’t start until after la comida!). For this reason, most things shut down between 2 and 5, called the siesta, and everyone goes home to eat with their families. Then at 5, everything opens back up again—people even go back to work or school until the evening meal. Dinner, la cena, is more comparable to the typical US lunch and is served around 9pm. My roommates and I ate toast and coffee for breakfast at 7:30 and then usually didn’t eat again until la comida, so needless to say, by the time we got home after our classes, we were ready to eat!

Callie Schaden, “Tarta de Manzana”, 2022

Our host mom, Mariángeles, was very proud of the fact that she never served us the same meal twice in a week. Everything she made was delicious, but we each had our favorites. Mine was arroz al horno, a classic Valencian dish made with rice, potatoes, garlic, pork, tomatoes, and morcilla baked all together in the oven. But before we ate it we would have salad (although my host mom says this was not very Valencian of us), and most importantly, bread. In fact, if we found that we did not have any bread left before the start of a meal, we would not just go without it. Mariángeles would hurry down to the panadería and buy a bag of baguettes before we began to eat. After la comida, Mariángeles would “surprise” us with a tarta (it became such a habit that we were no longer surprised, although still equally excited). La tarta was most commonly a layered desert of galletas, pudding, and chocolate, topped with a sprinkle of cinnamon, but occasionally it would be more of a pastry, with baked apples and pudding and jelly. And of course, when we asked her for recipes she told us that there were none; she just made them up as she went!

The point of this very lengthy description of my experience with meals in Valencia is to emphasize the fact that before dinner is served there is yet another meal only a few hours after la comida. This meal actually has its own verb, merendar, which in Spain, very specifically means, “to have an afternoon snack”. Una merienda, as it is in its noun form. My roommates and I would often take our homework to El Rio after la comida to get some sun and fresh air, and although we’d eaten mere minutes ago, Mariángeles would rarely let us out the door without bustling through the kitchen, insisting that we bring a snack. The pockets of my backpack were hardly ever without a banana or a muffin or a handful of the tea cookies from the bag under the coffee table that would mysteriously refill itself every time we finished it off.

Callie Schaden, “Chocolate con Churros”, 2022

Although most shops and businesses close during the hours of that siesta, many cafés remain open and provide the people with a place to merendar. On rainy days, my roommates and I would trade El Rio for our favorite café, Fornelino. We would sit at the table by the window and listen to cars pass on the wet streets, drinking warm cappuccinos and having a merienda of mini croissants, empanadillas, or napolitanas (nothing healthy by any means, but definitely good for the soul). Sometimes we would meet friends at other cafés or try something different like smoothie bowls, or churros during the Las Fallas festival. Many of my favorite days were merendando with Mariángeles. We spent hours sitting around her dining room table, talking and laughing over tea and tarta we were too full to eat at lunch.

Callie Schaden, “Café Merienda”, 2022

Logically, I can conclude that the merienda exists in order to bridge the gap between la comida and la cena, but I like to think that it’s much more than that to the Spaniards—at the very least I can say it was to me. The more I understood this time of afternoon, the more I realized how it exemplified the Spanish values of family and community. All my afternoon snack experiences revolved around being with people, whether it was tea with my host mom, a picnic in the park with friends, or a trip to a café with my roommates. The merienda serves a dual purpose: to feed the stomach and to feed the heart!

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Callie Schaden is currently an English and Spanish student at Cedarville University. She grew up in a small town in Ohio and has expanded her horizons in El Salvador and Valencia, Spain, two places which have given her a love for the Spanish language and a desire to continue learning outside of her native tongue.

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