Thursday, January 31, 2008

Meeting the grandparents

I was invited to dinner at the house of the mother of my host, Miguel. This was a big family occasion, since it appeared Miguel's sister was to be introducing her new boyfriend to the family for the first time. I was relieved, since I felt that the traditional, rather over-bearing, Peruvian hospitality and attention that might otherwise have been directed at me, would surely be offloaded onto him. I looked forward to observing whether the stereotypical awkwardness of this sort of introduction existed globally.

Thus, I was slightly surprised and embarrassed to be asked to carve when the main course came. We had already eaten a palatable broth with its chicken drumstick, and the ubiquitous choclo [which resembles an English sweetcorn on steroids]. However, never one to shirk the call of duty, and having recently presided with modest success over a couple of Christmas birds, I was honoured to accept. The plate came out, on which was balanced 5 staring, brittle, guinea pigs. Standard 'breast or leg' jokes were not going to cut the mustard here.

Having taken a large swig of chicha (local, barely drinkable corn beer with strawberries), and much jubilant instruction, I set to the task, to the obvious relief of the sister's new beau.

Four observations about Andean guinea pig (cuy) eating.

First, though they enjoy a good cuy dish here, it is very much reserved for special occasions, so I was lucky to experience one.

Secondly, if faced with carving a cuy in future, please be advised that they serve 4 people. And there is no dignity to the carving: a simple quartering.

Thirdly, do not ask for cutlery. You will get laughed at. (This also appears to apply with Americans, since they don't use that word for knife, fork and spoon, but for industrial-type butchers' knives. There was some bemusement at dinner with my fellow volunteers last night when I asked if there was any cutlery for the salad.)

Fourthly, and finally, since this will surely see most readers off: the head is a delicacy. Do not simply discard it on the side of the chopping board. Head meat is actually preferred by some consumers. In addition, the fun to be had at the end of the meal is apparently endless. Within the ear drum of a cuy, there is a miniscule bone (all of maybe 2mm) named el sorito (the little fox) since that is what it resembles. I'm intrigued to know who first decided this; it was very difficult to find. As well as this, my Spanish teacher informs me that more ingenious cuy-eaters will create models out of the jaw bones. Favourites include a condor and, bizarrely, a Batmobile.

As conversation pleasantly bubbled over, I politely wonder of my host who the charming lady in the charcoal picture on the wall was. She was his grandmother, Miguel states with pride. She owned a lot of land in the area that is now divided between his large family. I make suitably complimentary sounds about the old lady. Yes, he muses. He looks at the picture again. You know, he says, in that picture, she's dead.

I take a swig of chicha.

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