Consumed by Lunch

By Oakland Ross

Mexico City -- It's 3 p.m. in the land that time forgot, and the first patrons of the afternoon are strolling onto the shaded patio of a gastronomic institution known as Restaurante Bellinghausen.
Clad in dark business suits and all but universally male, they greet one other with hearty, back-slapping abrazos before settling down at hard-wood tables covered with crisp white linen cloths, eager to commence a daily ritual that's as sumptuous as the winter sunshine and almost as old as a land called Mexico. Behold: the famous - some might say infamous - three-hour Mexican lunch.
Where better to enjoy this slow-motion repast than on a fine and private terrace, tucked out of sight on a quiet cobblestone street in the Zona Rosa, Mexico City's central dining and shopping district?
Established during the bloody turmoil of the 1915 Mexican Revolution, Restaurante Bellinghausen has been catering to prosperous capitalinos ever since.
Regular lunch guests include a certain former Coca-Cola executive named Vicente Fox. Now employed as the president of Mexico, Fox still manages to drop by for a midday meal about once a month.
A stonework fountain burbles by a vine-enshrouded wall and songbirds twitter from their wooden cages as table captains in seersucker blazers and waiters in bow ties and white jackets glide through the balmy air, delivering buckets of ice, bottles of gin, glasses of golden tequila and sangrita chasers to a well-heeled clientele.
For the next three hours - perhaps longer - diners will feast on spicy mushroom soup, smoked marlin, red snapper in garlic sauce or Puebla-style roast beef, followed by something sweet, possibly a liquid digestivo or two ... and maybe a good, aromatic cigar.
"It's the comida fuerte - the big meal of the day," says Enrique Alvarez, the restaurant's elegant, octogenarian owner. "A hot soup, then a main dish - fish or meat - and then dessert."
More than six years after the Mexican government launched a controversial campaign to divorce Mexicans from their beloved if interminable lunches, it may safely be reported that the celebrated custom remains as deeply embedded in this ancient land as ranchera music, TV soap operas or the worship of Catholic saints.
Much about contemporary Mexico has changed. The siesta is dormant, if not dead. Big-box shopping centres have largely displaced Aztec pyramids as local landmarks. And the fates of governments are decided now by suffrage rather than civil war.
But no aspect of Mexican life has proved more resistant to the inroads of time than the cult of the three-hour lunch.
"I've seen no change," says Homero Campa, a senior editor at the weekly newsmagazine Proceso.
"As far as bureaucrats are concerned, they are keeping the same timetable as ever."
Now, as in decades past, government officials and business people in Mexico begin their working day at 9 in the morning before slipping out of the office shortly after 2 p.m. for a prolonged communion with a long succession of plates. Typically, they don't get back to work much before 6, and the Mexican business day finally winds down at 9 or 10 at night.
"If I want to get hold of a civil servant, it's still easier after 7 p.m. than during the day," says Jean Francois Prud'homme, a Canadian academic who has lived in Mexico City for many years.
"I myself still work till 9 o'clock in the evening."
A few years ago, Mexican authorities decided people here should really think about joining the "modern" world by adopting some of the professional practices favoured by the toiling classes in the United States and Canada.
After all, the country had signed on as a member of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Globalization was in the air.
Maybe, just maybe, it was time to cut back on lunch.
Interesting concept. But it didn't work.
"We haven't changed at all," says Julieta Garcia, who works for the Mexican Interior Ministry. "Lunch still lasts for three hours, in principle."
In practice, the midday meal a la mexicana can last even longer than that - a far culinary cry from the custom around King and Bay Sts., where office workers routinely swallow a sandwich and a fruit juice at their desks and purport to have consumed a meal. "In America, people apologize for going out to lunch," says a U.S. official who has lived for several years in Mexico City.
"In the U.S., you go to a restaurant at 12, and you get out at 1. You can't do that here."
Mexican authorities did their best to change things, even threatening to cut off electricity to government buildings at 5 or 6 p.m., the better to compress the working day into a sensible eight hours.
In response, defiant bureaucrats simply vowed to rent alternative premises - anything but abandon lunch.
And so the tradition flourishes still.
Or does it? At least one foreign resident of Mexico City says she has lately detected a worrisome trend.
"I have noted, over the almost five years I have been here, that long lunches are not as common as before," says JoAnne Butler, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Mexico.
Ay, caramba!
Thankfully, however, hers is a minority view. Besides, most Mexicans recoil at the thought.
"I hope that isn't right," says Alvarez, who has presided over lunch at Restaurante Bellinghausen, day in, day out, for four of his eight decades.
"It would be bad. It wouldn't be the same." Even many transplanted North Americans - people who grew up in a culture where workers race through their days on half-empty stomachs before knocking off at 5 p.m. - say they would sorely miss the leisurely Mexican approach if it were to go the way of the late, lamented siesta.
"Lunch does tend to eat up a lot of your time here," says the U.S. official.
"But it's such a civilized concept. We adapt to it pretty easily." Waiter - another round of tequilas, por favor.