How to Eat a Pet
A gastronomic adventure in the Andes.
By Lynn Levin
I have been known to eat foods that others snub. As a student, I lived off back-of-the-store, reduced-price vegetables and fruits. Day-or-more-old muffins and danish were a treat. My best company dish was a cheap and tasty enchilada casserole that I made with chicken necks and backs. So it was only natural I should one day undertake a real gastronomic adventure. I should try to eat a pet, a nice small one. A guinea pig would do, and the place to accomplish that was Peru where cuy, as guinea pig is known, was said to be a staple of the traditional diet.
Of course, I didn’t travel to Peru just to challenge the frontiers of dining. It had long been my dream to explore the cloud-crested ruins of Machu Picchu and to glide upon Lake Titicaca in a reed boat. I wanted to brush up on my Spanish. I wanted to experience the Andes. I wanted to try a dish so repellant that I could brag about it for the rest of my life. No matter that the furry beasts were the hapless servants of science, or that my sister and I once kept them as pets, or that every single person I spoke to curled his face in revulsion when I announced my intention to dine on a creature normally at home on a bed of cedar shavings. The more folks made retching motions, the more I rubbed my palms together with anticipation over a dish of something I imagined as a kind of mammalian Cornish game hen. I pledged to myself that I would consume cuy and then return home to triumphantly proclaim to my sister that I had eaten Fluffy.
How fondly I remembered my sister Judy’s sweet-tempered little calico guinea pig. Fluffy loved to be held and stroked. We had tea parties for her. We made her salads with tough outer lettuce leaves. Fluffy nibbled on carrot tops and rabbit pellets. She didn’t exercise much, but neither did anyone in our family. She lounged through a placid life until we felt she needed a mate and introduced Mickey into her cage. A hefty albino, Mickey had beady red eyes, a nasty attitude, and a pair of tusks that drew more than their share of our blood.
The match, I think, was a cruel one. I have often regretted it. Therefore it would have been more fitting to imagine myself biting into the hostile Mickey in retribution. But I imagined him as bitter and tough. There would be no pleasure in his degustation, none of the delight of eating Fluffy.
In Peru, I learned that cuy was prepared in a number of ways. You could make it stuffed and roasted, piquant and quartered, or flattened whole and fried. And while my host family in Cusco, the Mariscals, never served it at almuerzo, our main midday meal, cuy is said to be widely consumed in Peru. According to the author of Unmentionable Cuisine, veterinarian and food expert Calvin Schwabe, cuy provides over 50 percent of Peru’s animal protein. Many people raise guinea pigs at home, and others buy them killed and cleaned in the meat section of the market. Ask a Peruvian if he or she eats cuy, and you will hear that person wax sentimental about the way his or her mamá prepared it – just the same way an American will rhapsodize about Mom’s apple pie or fried chicken. Still, as much as the Peruvians boasted of their favorite cuy fricassee or roast cuy, not once did I see an Andean or a Criollo actually eat cuy.
So why should my mind and guts rebel before a carefully prepared dish of pet? Was I just too ethnocentric? Did I think it barbaric or taboo? If I were starving, I would probably see things differently.
Cuy is by no means the most stomach-turning thing one can consume. In some parts of the Amazon jungle, people eat monkey, an animal whose genome is too close to human for my taste. Apropos of the human genome, food writer Jen Karetnick, who has done considerable research on Peruvian witchcraft, reveals that in some remote areas of Peru certain cooks may stir stew with a human femur or scrape bits of skull into a marinade of fish. Karetnick explains that this is part of a spell-casting ritual, adding that the use of human remains in cooking is strictly illegal in Peru. Good to hear that since fish with skull is another no-brainer for me. But in the Andes, what did I eat unawares? There’s a mystery.
The issue of cannibalism or quasi-cannibalism aside, food tastes and food taboos are relative. The Chinese eat cat and dog. Moses declared that locusts were kosher. The Japanese challenge death by indulging in the poisonous fugu fish. The Philippinos drink and chew the delicacy of balut, the nearly mature embryo of a chick cooked in its shell. And what about haggis, the stuffed sheep’s stomach so dear to Scottish palates and my own? I did not want to be ethnocentric. I wanted to overcome a food prejudice and eat a pet, a pet that, unfortunately, also happened to be a rat.
Rodent eating, however, is not unheard of even in America. Squirrel is a classic ingredient in Brunswick stew. In some parts of New Jersey, fire companies and churches hold muskrat dinners. On the Internet, you can find recipes for muskrat, or marsh hare, as it is sometimes known. I also found a recipe for rottweiler with sweet potatoes. But I digress. The Peruvians think it is bizarre and hilarious that Americans keep guinea pigs as pets.
For the first two weeks in Peru I demurred when it came to cuy. I dined on ají gallina, a spicy chicken stew, and lomo saltado, a yummy stir-fried beef dish gilded with french fries. I particularly liked alpaca, a meat which I found a little chewy, but very tasty. Grilled and attractively plated, it looked just like scallops of beef. At most every meal I ate choclo, the bland, starchy, mega-kernelled corn that is a staple of the Peruvian diet. It didn’t taste as good as it looked, but served with a chunk of salty cheese — a bite of choclo, a bite of queso — I learned to like it better. I developed a fondness for mana, a kind of giant marshmallow-sized sweetened popcorn, a popular snack you could buy from street vendors. Peru, of course, is the birthplace of corn and potatoes, and one is served spuds of all types: yellow, white, purple, dried and reconstituted, and then some.
It was not until I was in the town of Aguas Calientes, a maze of repetitive souvenir shops, restaurants, and hostels that served the budget tourists to Machu Picchu that I bellied up to the challenge of eating guinea pig. It was now or never, I thought, for after Machu Picchu I would journey on to Lake Titicaca, and I didn’t know if I would be able to order cuy there.
This was February, the height of the rainy season. In Aguas Calientes, torrents Niagara’d off the awnings of the shops and restaurants. Deluges turned the staircase-like streets into tributaries of the Urubamba, the river that roared and rushed through the town and by the base of Machu Picchu. The town itself is called “Hot Waters” after its thermal springs, which are popular with the younger hikers. While my traveling partners, Michelle and Nancy, dared the spa, I passed, being fastidious, if not about eating strange things, then at least about stewing in a pool of backpacker bacteria. The rain had put a damper on our spirits. We did not look forward to hiking the ruins during a downpour, but magically the skies cleared the morning we were to visit Machu Picchu, and I even saw a flock of green parrots wing by a mountainside.
Never discovered, hence never destroyed by the Spaniards, Machu Picchu stands in silent majesty along the eyebrow of the rainforest. We spent a glorious morning exploring its emerald agricultural terraces and its common, royal, and sacred precincts. It was a sublime and strenuous visit. By the time we returned to Aguas Calientes, we had worked up an appetite. It was time for my next adventure. It was time to try cuy.
Together we searched for a suitable restaurant. We dismissed quite a few: too expensive, too pretentious, not clean, no guinea pig, overly expensive guinea pig. At last we settled on a homey little place called El Candamo, mostly because of its comically mistranslated menu, which was headlined: “Plates to the pleasure give the victim.”
Here, the Roasted Alpaca, or Asado de Alpaca, was known as Roasted He/She Gives German Nickel. Trout Roman-style, or Trucha a la Romana, was Trout to the Roman One. Milanesa de Pollo, or Chicken Milanese-styl,e became Milanesa Gives Chicken. Then there was my favorite: Milanesa a la Napolitana de Res, or Milanesa to the Neapolitan One Gives Head. Michelle ordered trout. Nancy asked for spaghetti. Though I regretted having to pass up that Milanese and Neapolitan combo, I went for the Cuy al Horno. Oven-roasted cuy. It cost 32 soles or about $10, and I watched with some trepidation as the cook took the small prepared mammal, lay it on a shallow white tray, and slid it into a wood-burning clay oven. Soon after I finished my Cusqueña beer, the dish was ready. The waitress smiled at me ironically.
Fluffy lay on the plate congealed and scorched, paws up, claws and head on, ringed with papas fritas, a huge log of choclo, and a few slices of cucumber and tomato. The garnishes surrounded her the way flowers garlanded the body at a funeral parlor. Fluffy was helpless. Her hind legs were splayed in indignity. Her orifices winked at me. Lest one take her for a pig, her two pairs of chisel-like incisors classed her at once in the order Rodentia. Fluffy had bits of herb over her eyes. Her mouth was frozen into an unmerry rictus, that sarcastic grin born by Death who always has the last laugh. “So, living stiff,” she chortled silently, “eat me. I dare you.”
The body of the cuy was pierced at various points to let the fat run out. With much difficulty I split it open with the dull table knife. Inside there was a dark green stuffing, made mostly of parsley and flavored with various herbs. It was potent and aromatic, but as I dipped in a second time, I came up with a fork of noodle-like stuff; the animal’s intestines were mixed in with the green. So much for the stuffing. I took a deep breath for courage then cut and mostly combed at the meat with my fork. It was a labor- intensive dish. I found I had to separate the thin sheets of meat from the leather and subcutaneous fat. After giving Michelle and Nancy as much as they would accept – about two teaspoons each, I tried the meat. It was pungent, perhaps from the herb stuffing. There was a slipperiness to it. It was stringy and chewy and tasted like pork. And that was enough cuy for me.
Partly out of respect for my companions, partly out of respect for the corpse, I drew some tiny flimsy restaurant napkins over Fluffy’s face and body. Thankfully Nancy was generous in sharing her spaghetti, and Michelle gave me some of her guacamole. The Cusqueña beer helped. All that plus a serious loss of appetite made for an adequate lunch.
My friend, Odi Gonzales, who is not only a noted Peruvian poet but also a genuine ethnic Inca with a passion for cuy, later told me that you are supposed to pick up the cuy whole with your hands and suck the meat off the thin bones. You then draw out and discard any bones that end up in your mouth. Clearly my knifing and forking had not contributed positively to my rodent-eating experience. I thought of the waitress at El Candamo and her sly smile. It must have been routinely funny to see the tourists struggle with the varmint. In her heart I think she knew that I would have been better off with the Milanesa to the Neapolitan One Gives Head.
Those of us who are not vegetarians eat dead things. This is the common fact. If you accept that humans are omnivores, which I do, we as a species kill and cook so that we may eat and live. I have never had much patience for sanctimonious vegetarians who tell me that morally I should be able to kill a cow if I want the right to eat steak. Nevertheless, there is something shocking about the frankness of seeing the cooked body entire. Of seeing the thing with its teeth. Many people, said Dr. Schwabe, have a bias against eating an animal served whole. Some will not eat fish with the head on or roast suckling pig. Well, it was that, of course, but it was also that the darn thing was a rat. As far as the gastronomy of disgust goes, I’d give whole roasted guinea pig at least an eight. So when it came time to report to my sister about eating Fluffy, I had to confess that I had eaten her, but not very much.
On the other hand, I obtained a new degree of self-knowledge. I discovered that when it came to eating strange things, I was not as brave as I thought. Some might even call me chicken.
Yet, if you, too, wish to overcome a food prejudice and eat a pet, you may want to know how to prepare cuy. I came across this recipe for stuffed guinea pig in Peru.
You will need:
one clean guinea pig
ground chili pepper and ground red chili pepper (both very spicy)
huaycatay (an herb that tastes and smells like a blend of black mint and marigold)
The recipe, obviously not one for the beginning cook, instructs you to open the guinea pig ventrally, then to salt and drain it. After salting and draining, remove the organs and intestines, but do not wash the cuy anymore. Parboil the innards separately, then pierce them and dress them with onion, chili pepper, and oil. In another container, prepare a finely chopped mixture of the parsley, mint, oregano, huaycatay, walnuts, and salt. Combine the mixture with the cooked organs and intestines and stuff all that back into the body cavity of the guinea pig. Coat the guinea pig with butter and ground red pepper. Place the critter in a roasting pan and cook it in the oven “until it’s done.”
Revised American instructions: First, go to a pet store…. • 17 September 2007
Lynn Levin is the author of two poetry collections, Imaginarium (Loonfeather Press, 2005) and A Few Questions about Paradise (Loonfeather Press, 2000). She teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, where she is also executive producer of the cable TV show The Drexel InterView. This story first appeared in Alimentum.
Photos by peterme (Creative Commons) and Wildwood72 (Creative Commons) via Flickr.