The Cuy of Cooking

In the main cathedral in Cuzco, the Inca capital of Peru, hangs Marcos Zapata’s richly painted mural of The Last Supper.  True to the biblical story, Christ, surrounded by his devoted disciples, is sharing the bread and wine of his last earthly feast.  And there, in the middle of the table, in the traditional place of honor for the main course of such a significant meal, lies a guinea pig—whole, skinned, and waiting to be devoured.

Guinea pig, or cuy, is a delicacy in Peru, attentively raised in the mud houses of Peruvian families and reserved for special occasions. I first heard about it from my sister-in-law, a first generation Peruvian-American, who related the story of visiting a pet store as a young girl and being mortally embarrassed by her mother’s lip-smacking amidst the cedared aroma of the “Small Household Pets” aisle.  Intrigued, but not quite convinced that Jenny’s story was entirely true, I decided to find out for myself on a recent trip to Peru.

The day before I left for Lima, I called my best friend Christine for a quick bon voyage chat. Christine and I had known each other since we were seven, when she would put Ginger, her beloved pet guinea pig, in a pink “Let’s Go Barbie!” convertible and take her for walks around the neighborhood.  Over the next several years, Christine would raise and breed at least a half dozen generations of guinea pigs, until a one-eyed mutant convinced her that too much inbreeding was weakening her prized pigs’ genetic lineage. The Cyclops and his brothers and sisters were abruptly whisked off to the nearest PetLand, but Christine has never given up her devotion to guinea pigs.  It goes without saying that she was horrified when I told her of my quest to locate my own Ginger, or at least her distant cousins, in the culinary halls of Peru.

Sure enough, there it was on nearly every menu I surveyed:  oven-roasted cuy, baked cuy, and the ambiguous “Peruvian-style” cuy.  My traveling companion Carolyn, who sported a stomach of iron and a palate of steel, couldn’t wait to get her hands on some. I was a bit more hesitant.

Two days before our visit was set to conclude, Carolyn and I found ourselves seated at a quaint outdoor café in Aguas Calientes, a small, somewhat seedy village nestled in the shadows of Machu Picchu.  Carolyn didn’t even need to look at a menu. Without a moment’s hesitation, she happily ordered her cuy and waited expectantly for me to do the same.

I couldn’t. The thought of eating something that closely resembled a sewer rat made my stomach turn, and I wondered if I would even be able to look at the thing when it reached the table. Disappointed by my lack of adventure, I meekly ordered the ceviche and waited apprehensively for our food to arrive.

Forty minutes later, Carolyn and I were still nursing our Cusqueña beers, waiting for our waitress to appear with lunch.  I wondered what was taking so long. I couldn’t erase the mental picture of the chef retreating to a living room above the restaurant, selecting a squeaking guinea pig from a cage packed with his brothers and sisters, bashing him over the head with an iron skillet and skinning him as he eked out a final, desperate squeal.  My stomach tumbled again and I quickly excused myself and darted toward the bathroom, carefully averting my eyes as I passed the open kitchen door.

Shortly after I returned to the table—only slightly less green—the waitress arrived carrying our lunch.  When she laid the cuy on the table, Carolyn’s smile quickly morphed into a grimace.  There, staring back at us from his bed of limp lettuce, was a charred, furless guinea pig.  The waitress had set the plate so that the poor animal was facing me, and I found myself looking past huge, razor-sharp teeth into the dulled eyes of the dead creature.

“You have to take off its head!” Carolyn shrieked. Through my own stupor of mortification, I felt slightly confused. Hadn’t she seen the mural?  Didn’t she know this is what it was going to look like?  Then I realized I had the luxury of being rational—I wasn’t faced with a plateful of dead rodent for lunch.

I had to hand it to her, though; Carolyn was a trooper. She bravely picked up her knife and fork and began sawing away at the overcooked little body.  My ceviche sat untouched as I studied her in awe.

“How do you eat these little suckers?” She mumbled to herself as she sawed away at a hind leg.  When she finally wrestled a morsel free, she popped it into her mouth with nary a second thought.

“So?”  I asked.

“I’m not sure.  I can’t get enough meat to distinguish its taste.”

My stomach flipped again. I looked down at my plate of food and thought how nice it could have been, knowing full well I’d never get a forkful anywhere near my mouth under the current circumstances.

“They have to take the head off.” Carolyn pushed her chair back from the table, knocking a skeletal yellow cat off the empty chair next to her as she scrambled out of her corner seat.  “How do you say ‘head’ in Spanish?” she shot over her shoulder as she headed toward the kitchen.

“Cabeza,” I answered softly, preoccupied with the thought of how beheading the little beast was going to make it any more appetizing at this stage.

Carolyn returned to the table a few moments later, headless guinea pig in tow.  The chef had even been kind enough to hack it up into more manageable pieces, no doubt inwardly laughing at the culinary naiveté of this blonde gringa. She again took up her rigorous sawing, trying desperately to carve free an edible chunk of the dark purple meat.  But her efforts were futile; the guinea pig seemed to be all bones.  My mind’s eye was blinded by a ghostly vision of its enormous front teeth and its dull eyes staring up at me from the table.

Carolyn, too, must have been suffering some post-traumatic stress from the initial site of her entree, for she finally dropped her knife and fork in exasperation and hastily excused herself to the bathroom.

When she came back to the table, my friend was a sickly shade of olive. On her way to the bathroom, she had had the misfortune of catching a glimpse of our waitress gnawing on the abandoned head of Carolyn’s lunch.

“See, this is how you eat it!” the waitress exclaimed in a thick Peruvian accent as she took a colossal bite out of the guinea pig’s cheek, making sure not to miss out on its succulent right eye.

Carolyn’s decision had been made.  Realizing she had neither the patience nor the inclination to make a meal out of the charred rodent, she deserted the carnage on her own plate, picked up her fork, and reached across the table for mine.

 

**This story appeared in The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2007.