On January 7, we went to the festival de cuy (guinea pig). Cuy are an important traditional food of the indigenous people in the area and this was the place to celebrate Cuy. The festival site could be any country fair site, a running track, bleachers, a bandstand, vendors and beer sellers. There were tented restaurants in a circle around the entire running track with chairs on the outside of the circle and rotisseries on the inside.
The rotisseries varied in size and capacity but they all had only one thing spinning around- whole cuy, claws, heads and all. The Cuy vary in size from the size you see at a pet store to disturbingly large poodle sized ones.
Cuy varied in price from 16,000 (US$3.50) for a “reproductor” to a princely 27,000 (US$9.00) for an “adulto”. There was also an “exotico” for 18,000. You also got to choose between the macho and the hembra.
My first reaction was gross! I thought the huge pig with head and all was bad enough but a mass rodent BBQ was really pushing it. However, when I looked around I noticed that this was not gross to the huge crowd. They were really into the festival not just the village folk. Although there were many people in traditional garb most of the crowd were in modern dress and likely lived in the modern city of Pasto with its sandwich shops and chicken joints. I guess this was just another tradition that had gone to the wayside with modern life and the festival was a way to keep it alive for the next generation.
It was like my dad z’l taking me and my brothers to deli boys restaurant as kids to eat kishka and other eastern european Jewish soul food that he had grown up on but had given way to chinese food and pasta.
Cuy were not only for eating, they also provided entertainment and the crowd just went wild for the Guinea Pig races and I could not get close enough to see one (or maybe they were running too fast):
There was even a Cuy Puppet dressed in Colombian colours.
After seeing the crowd, I knew I was not going to leave without eating some Cuy. However, there was no rush so we went to the bandstand and listened to this Andean girl band that were really rocking it in their Chola skirts.
The MC thanked the sponsors and told the crowd that this was the festival’s 22nd year and that they expected to sell 80,000 cuy today. He then asked if there were any tourists in the crowd and we raised out hands along with a bunch of Colombians from Cali. I was interviewed for a local TV show. Somehow they found me to be exotic (or maybe they were disappointed that Eliot was Colombian. It is fun to be in a town that does not get many tourists. We then went to the desert area where there were woman making ice cream by spinning a brass bowl with cream in a larger bowl of ice. Despite the hot sun, the cream coagulated into ice cream.
After seeing all that there was to see, we decided to sit down and eat. The sun was very hot and we found a table under a canopy next to two older ladies that had about three teeth between the two of them. One of them gestured to Eliot to sit next to her and told him that if he comes closer she will tickle him. Eliot responded, that’s ok as long as you do not bite to which she retorted without skipping a beat, I would love to bite you but I have no teeth. These gals had no inhibitions, they made eyes at David and told Angela that they can find her a Colombian man if she lets David be their boyfriend.
Eliot, Angela and David ordered trout, I ordered a Cuy. My little guy came on a plate with popcorn and potatoes. He was all brown and crispy with his little head and teeth and claws. The skin had bubbled up in some places. This was not some boneless chicken breast or other food that masked its origins You knew you were eating something that once lived. My first thought was to look for the cloven hooves though I knew there was no way this could be kosher.
But being unkosher never stopped me in the past so I dug in, ok gingerly. The meat had the consistency of dark meat chicken and an odd taste that is hard to describe. Eliot and Dave had some as well and I ate his little leg.
As I finished up, I could not help but think of my friend Andrew in his parallel universe of the Ritz Carlton Hong Kong who was sending Facebook reports of beijing duck and gourmet cantonese meal.
The funny thing is that his roast duck served with white gloves is not that different from my guinea pig. All people eat and many people eat animals to get protein. At the molecular level the cuy is not that different than roast duck at the Ritz or the best Kobe steak. Both are animals, sentient beings.
We do not base our food choices purely on utilitarian considerations such as taste, nutritional value, cost, environmental impact etc. Instead there are all sorts of social cultural considerations. What does this food say about me the consumer? Jews, Moslems, Hindus and christians all have some rules relating to food. Social status and individual identity also plays into it. The Donald Trump’s of the local villages would never eat the 18,000 peso “reproductor” Cuy, no he will order the 27,000 “adulto” so that everyone knows he is a macher (big shot). The intelligentsia of the village will show their sophistication by having the “exotico” and savouring the head. The everyday Joe shows his affiliation with the working class by having the reproductor- the Mcdonald’s version.
An old man came up to me to ask for money. I had no change, and he was looking at the Cuy. So I offered him some and gave him the thigh and breast and as much as I could. He then asked for the head which I gladly gave. Turns out the head is the most important part. I guess it was his lucky day and mine.