It is inevitable to talk about work when discussing the experience of eating lunch. Lunch in itself was shaped around work. “It was the Industrial Revolution that helped shape lunch as we know it today. Middle and lower class eating patterns were defined by working hours. Many were working long hours in factories and to sustain them a noontime meal was essential,” notes a BBC article.

Even in the early history of restaurants in the Philippines, work was also possibly a variable.

Tracing the history of Chinese food in the Philippines in the book “The Globalization of Chinese Food,” food historian Doreen Fernandez wrote that panciterias are possibly the first iteration of restaurants as we know them. Unlike the open counter setup of carinderias, panciterias had tables and chairs in an indoor space as well as menus that also appealed to the Spaniards. These establishments, according to historian Carmelea Ang See, emerged from Chinese hawkers who sold affordable, ready-to-eat meals to factory workers during the Spanish colonial period.

When I hear the expression “natutulog sa pansitan,” which means slacking off, I imagine that it’s derived from the idea of extending lunch breaks at panciterias. A quick Google search though suggests another version of its origin: That workers tended to take long naps in shady patches where the weed pansit-pansitan thrives. But it wouldn’t be too far off to think of panciterias in the context of rest and work.

It is in restaurants that we find true respite amid a busy day at work. This was my truth back when I had an office job in Makati two years ago.

I often treated eating as a secondary activity. Like breathing, I didn’t pay much attention to it. Breakfast—usually two pieces of maruya or a cup of taho picked up along Leon Guinto in Malate—I eat on the jeepney ride on the way to work, my cold packed lunch consumed in front of my laptop on busy days and my dinner? Either a takeout meal eaten, again, in front of my laptop or nothing at all. When the pang of hunger didn’t make itself known, I always chose to sleep with an empty stomach.

It is not impossible to eat the same food I ate for lunch back then. With businesses turning to food delivery platforms and social media, ordering from a restaurant based in another city is easy now. Add to that the emergence of meal kits. But is it really the food that I miss?

But of course, there were days when I savored my meals. Those moments were spent away from my cubicle and without any regard for time. On good days, my colleagues and I would brave the midday heat for lunch at a nearby pares joint. The eatery, which could seat no more than 20 people at once, was always brimming with diners at noon. The lunch scene here was always frenzied. But amid the chaos, I always found respite with lumpia dynamite on the side.

When the pandemic arrived, lunching out—or dining out in general—was one of the simple joys that was taken away from us. Restaurant operations came to a full stop. And even when restaurants can operate at a limited capacity, dining out in general has become worrisome. And of course, with the emergence of work-from-home arrangements, lunching out has been eliminated from our daily lives.

Like days melding together in a blur, I consider eating as a mere part of the shapeless cycle we are in
Like days melding together in a blur, I consider eating as a mere part of the shapeless cycle we are in | Photo by mikoto.raw from Pexels

Still, many of us turned to food to find solace in this period. Both eating and cooking have become one of the most accessible means of coping during a time of uncertainty. And perhaps now more than ever, workers—given that their offices have adopted a remote setup—could join every family meal too.

At the same time, eating during the pandemic feels so strange too. Perhaps this is what I feel because the structures we adhere to have proven to be more intrusive. And eating now sometimes feels so lonely.

I had no work in the latter half of 2019 and only found a freelance arrangement in May last year. As a freelancer, I have always felt the need to grab as much work as I could to make up for the lack of security in the gig economy. This didn’t result in long work hours. Instead, I spend my lunch breaks working.

I still live with my family, so I do not have to worry about food most of the time. All I have to do is assemble my meal in a small bowl, rush back to my workstation and eat in front of my laptop in less than five minutes.

with the emergence of work-from-home arrangements, lunching out has been eliminated from our daily lives.
With the emergence of work-from-home arrangements, lunching out has been eliminated from our daily lives. | Photo by John Matthew from Pexels

For those who have to prepare their meals themselves, this change reveals another layer of work. After all, eating entails the arduous task of planning, doing the grocery and then washing the dishes.

When I think of eating now, I think of it as something that must be done. We eat for the sake of eating. We put food in our mouths not to indulge in it; sometimes, we eat because we need to survive. Like days melding together in a blur, I consider eating as a mere part of the shapeless cycle we are in.

Sometimes, I scroll through my Instagram archive and stumble upon images of lunch break meals from two years ago. We always ate the same things for lunch: katsu curry, chicken inasal, lugaw and Korean barbecue. But I remember that these dishes were the ones I always craved.

So, this is what my lunch breaks looked like? I wonder as I look at a boomerang, which in itself is a thing of the past, of me and my colleagues clinking mugs of cucumber mint shake. After a year of not eating out, it feels bizarre to reconcile with the fact that a time like that once existed.

It is not impossible to eat the same food I ate for lunch back then. With businesses turning to food delivery platforms and social media, ordering from a restaurant based in another city is easy now. Add to that the emergence of meal kits. But is it really the food that I miss?

I miss my indecisiveness when looking at the menu. I miss eating with unfamiliar utensils. I miss eating with strangers around me. I miss eavesdropping on the conversation at the next table. I miss being able to leave my workspace. I figured lunching out was my only true escape from work.

The experience restaurants offer is never directed to the palate alone. Sure, the primary reason diners visit a restaurant is the food. But it’s not all there is. What I yearn for is the experience of being in a restaurant again. I miss my indecisiveness when looking at the menu. I miss eating with unfamiliar utensils. I miss eating with strangers around me. I miss eavesdropping on the conversation at the next table. I miss being able to leave my workspace. I figured lunching out was my only true escape from work.

In my Instagram archive, I didn’t find any image taken from the pares place I mentioned earlier. Instead, what I found was a trace of yearning for it. Sometime last year, I posted a screenshot of a meme I found on Twitter. It was an image of Lorde holding a plate of dynamite lumpia. “Lorde and her ‘Homemade Dynamite,’” the caption reads. If only I could change my relationship with work, maybe I could take a worthwhile break with homemade dynamite on the side. Until the risk of contracting the virus is gone, escaping work by lunching out will remain an object of nostalgia.