In most of the world, guinea pigs are a peculiar source of endless absurdity and dark humor. They die by trauma in the thoughtless slam of a heavy door, explosion in a microwave as fruits of a cruel joke, and cannibalism by starving companions (I have anecdotal evidence for all of this). Their dignity is restored in Ecuador, where they are served with rice and potatoes. As a salty, crispy, deliciously dead creature, each guinea pig gains cultural significance and a new name: cuy.
On our Spring Break trip to Ecuador, the students in my Spanish class and I were eager to enjoy the tasty product of this cruel coronation. Our bus stopped at the first church in Ecuador. We bypassed the cobblestone treasure and sought out a more ephemeral treat. Outside the restaurant, a woman rotated a pair of metal rods that gutted two cuyos that, while lifeless, looked to be in mid-leap, charred acrobats warming up for their big debut with their seasoned starchy sidekicks.
Our disappointment at the presentation of the cuy revealed the nature of our curiosity—a desire that sensationalized everything weird and unfamiliar about tasting what we only knew as an adorable, pitiful creature. The woman cooking outside brought a freshly crisped fellow into the kitchen and chopped him up, almost destroying the illusion that the dish resembled a pet. With a few hacks of the machete, the little cuy looked like just any other plate of chicken. The body, divvied up into unassuming forms (an arc for a leg, the rib lined chunk of a side, the hunk of a head), was no longer intimidating. All zoological resonance was robbed by the knife. But clues lingered. Upon closer examination, its claws, nails, and fangs were among the features that provoked our empathy and disgust. We stared into the beady eyes of the cute and terrifying creature, swallowed our ethical concerns, and dug in.
But not before pinching its head between two fingers and smooching its muzzle. Not before scurrying its claws through the air, simulating an escape from the inferno of the rotisserie spit. We passed the dead parts around and smiled, pecked, laughed—one remembered that the meat was once a creature with instincts and needs—caught a whiff of its mildly fishy stench and nearly yakked. With the anticipated feast before us, we had to preserve—and create—the weirdness of the moment and do everything but eat the thing.
When we finally dug in, I chose a meaty thigh. Good. I went back for a strip of its crispy outside. I turned the head around and nibbled the meat from the bone. It was overwhelmingly salty but flavorful. The cuy is like any other meat when one realizes that it seems unique only because of its inconspicuous preparation. Unlike the classic chicken breast, however, the cuy goes from farmhouse, to fridge, to spit, to butcher block, to plate in a way that is probably more humane, yet also more graphic, and thus more disturbing. Guinea pigs are cute; cuy, as it turns out, is tasty. Problem: Even if only defensively, we Americans responded to these coupled facts in a way that was downright theatrical.
After leaving the restaurant, we were all a little ashamed. The cuy was mangled and spread across several plates but mostly uneaten. The rice and potatoes were similarly untouched. We took more pictures at our table in the span of five ravenous minutes than we took of the historical church—to us, a pile of stones—outside. Our shock was overt. Our curiosity was funny and also embarrassing. Our attempt at cultural immersion created a sense of hilarity that neutralized and sensationalized what we knew was, from the narrow lens of our culture, taboo. We leaned into this sense of freedom, all becoming spit siblings, as it were, with what was, to us, someone’s freshly roasted pet. Culture sets rules and exiles their contestants. In our rulebook, eating a guinea pig felt wrong, but kissing it, posing with it, staring it down—such ridicule was permissible. We ate not for the sustenance, but for the drama and the anecdote.
Kissing the cuy is not the first anecdote I have about strange foods in foreign lands. When I lived in Spain, I gladly tried most foods—but I was wary of pig intestines. My host family finally convinced me to try callos, and I did so reluctantly. It was slimy and strange, and I did not go for a second bite. But that’s not the point. After all, pig intestine is not what made spending time in another culture destabilizing and shocking in a beautiful way. It was the mundane differences that most altered my sense of what is normal and what is weird. It was talking around the table for three hours after lunch with every member of the family. It was staying out with my host sister and her friends until seven in the morning and wondering why we had not gone home yet. It was watching Semana Santa (the final week before Easter Sunday), seeing the tall pointy hats not as a horrific part of America’s history but as part of a separate, older tradition in a different country. Culture dictates what bores us and how we fill an hour, just as it determines what animal we stab with a rotisserie spit and crisp up with salt and oil.
Thus to death by microwave, death by door frame, and death by cannibalism, I contribute a new piece of lore to this macabre canon: Death by tourists.