Have you noticed that Chileans seem to have a thing about napkins?
I wish I had a picture of those funky towering napkin cones that are so popular in all Chilean soda fountains and sandwich joints. It’s one of those things that everyone seems to notice when they come to Chile. But truth be told, it’s been a while since I’ve given much thought to the importance of napkins in everyday Chilean life.
There’s nothing like a break in the routine to shine the spotlight on daily quirks. I just spent a couple weeks in Germany, mostly amongst Chileans, and the topic of napkins-or rather their scant availability-came up surprisingly often. “Restaurants are stingy with the napkins” they would tell me. “They’ll only give you one, and sometimes you have to ask.” In fact, at one place, the waiter came out with 3 paper napkins for 5 diners and was promptly sent back for 2 more.
The fact that it was an issue reminded me of my earliest days in Chile, nearly 18 years ago, when I rented a room from an older woman who fed me surprisingly well, although our differing forms of napkin behavior came up at nearly every meal.
Napkins were not considered a necessity where I grew up, but I was taught that when present, a napkin (whether paper or linen) should be spread across the lap, lifted periodically to dab the mouth, and replaced, out of sight, on the lap. During my first meal in Chile, I was surprised to see a neatly folded cocktail napkin (you know, those little 4 x 4 inch jobs) next to my plate. I opened it and placed it on my lap and proceeded to eat. My hostess became flustered–maybe even embarrassed–when she did not see a napkin by my plate and insisted I take another one. I obliged and placed it too on my lap. I figured, okay, so she only has little ones and wants me to take 2 for good coverage. She, on the other hand, could not figure out what I was doing with those napkins and actually got up and handed me another one. When I showed her I already had 2 on my lap, she dropped the subject, but made a mental note to find me a copy of the Manual de Carreño (the Chilean version of Miss Manners).
Chilean napkin etiquette is amazingly specific.
Rule 1: All meals must be served with napkins:
I don’t think I have ever sat at a Chilean table that did not have a diagonally folded napkin at every place. Breakfast, lunch, onces (that’s afternoon tea) and dinner. Snacks too. They are often cocktail napkins (much cheaper than the larger dinner size) and almost always plain white (also cheaper). I’ve seen on numerous (admittedly informal) occasions a host tear the napkins in half to be sure there were enough to go around. And–I swear–I have even seen neatly folded toilet paper appear beside my plate because that was preferable than going without.
Of course there’s the material-paper or cloth-aspect as well. Let’s face it, cloth napkins sure are nice, but they’re much more bother than paper throw-aways (all that washing and ironing-yes, people iron here). Everyone I know here has cloth napkins at home, although they tend to come out for company, special occasions, or just before payday when the paper napkins have run out. In restaurants, cloth is a must for fine dining, while paper will do otherwise. In fact, my foodie friends use napkin type as a criterion for evaluating restaurants… heaven help the pretentious restaurant that skimps on linens.
Rule 2: Linen napkins go on the lap, paper ones on the table
And then there’s the whole placement during use issue. I bet I could walk through a casual restaurant and pick out the gringos by simply observing their napkin placement behavior. North Americans will have their napkins on their laps; Chileans will have theirs on the table. Ok, so where do Europeans and Asians stand on this point? (This is not a rhetorical question… I’d really like to know!).
As far as I’m concerned, napkins, paper, or otherwise, have 2 functions: spill protection and mouth wiping; but in Chile, paper is a mouth-only proposition. The flip side of this is that the paper types are left on the table-usually discreetly folded and tucked beside the plate-but queasy eaters have been known to lose their appetite at the sight of used napkins piling up on the table.
Side note: Soda fountain napkin cones
No Chilean napkin-use commentary could possibly be complete without at least a mention of the famous soda fountain napkin cone phenomena. Little 3-inch squares of 1-ply plasticky-papery material are swirled high in metal cones and left on the tables so that customers can help themselves to all they need. And they’ll need a lot. Since they have nearly no absorbency quality whatsoever, their only purpose is to scrape stuff off of mouths and fingers. Napkin cones are especially common in sandwich shops where there is goo aplenty and these things pile up on the table very quickly.
(Many thanks to Uwedoble (see comment below) for the picture of the napkin cone: http://tinyurl.com/napkincone).
Gringo Napkin-use Survival Strategy: get your hands on TWO napkins, keep one in your lap to keep YOU happy and another on the table to keep your Chilean friends happy…