By Amelia Earnest
The vicuña, a mountain dwelling mammal of the camel family, is Peru’s official national animal. But though this elegant alpaca-wannabe graces the center of the Peruvian flag and can be spotted scenically munching on grass in the open countryside, the vicuña seems to serve little other purpose to Peru, symbolic or otherwise (after all, I received exactly zero requests from folks back home to bring back a “real vicuña wool sweater”). There is a more worthy candidate waiting in the wings for this center stage symbolical honor: the cuy.
Known as “guinea pig” in other corners of the world, the cuy may not bear a dignified air or quite stir patriots to arms, but what it lacks in sophistication, it more than compensates in popularity. I myself prefer pets that don’t consume their own young, have never been a huge fan of guinea pigs, and as such was initially surprised to see a vast abundance of cuy breeders in my community. A clothing line adorned with dozens of playing-card sized tawny hides soon elucidated my confusions—the cuys of Lima are destined for the pan, not the gerbil wheel.
Prepared with a dry rub that seems disproportionately laborious for the scant quantity of meat reaped, cuy has long been an Andean classic. First begun by native peoples, the breeding and consumption of cuy is still widespread across all regions of Peru. These little squeakers are an all-around crowd pleaser and can be and found along with fine cuts of steak in the luxury section of restaurant menus just as often as they can be found atop a dinner table in lower income, traditionally indigenous homes.
But the influence of the cuy doesn’t stop at the plate rim. These little fur balls are omnipresent in tourism—restaurant names, t-shirts, even expensive dolls made from baby alpaca skin all bear testament to the popularity of the cuy.
Further demonstrating their infinite versatility, I witnessed yesterday yet another use for these pocket-sized would be pets: entertainment! Because of the vastness of the cuy’s popularity, there exists an entire category of games called “juegos de cuy” (games of cuy). Played at street festivals, fundraising events, and the like, these games are utilized like a cakewalk or raffle might be in the United States. I was fortunate enough to witness one of these games— “Cajas de cuy” (boxes of cuy).
The game begins as such: First a guinea pig inside a box is placed atop a small platform, spun around for a minute or so, and released into a circle of miniaturized houses. With all the coordination of a ball of yarn dragged from a truck fender, the dizzied cuy stumbles out of his formerly reeling cardboard prison and seeks refuge in one of the box-houses. If the disoriented little fellow selects the house with your number, you win a prize! A lovely time is had by all—save, perhaps, the anxious cuy, who really is still significantly better off than his compatriots in attendance, most of whom are certainly out on platters by that point.
The hulking influence of this half-pint rodent came through to me last week, while I was touring the Cathedral of Cuzco. Walking the gaudy golden walls of the cathedral, I came across a 1753 oil painting rendering the Last Supper, by Marcos Zapata, an indigenous artist well known for his nationalistic themes and native perspective. With an elaborately set table, the apostles’ adoring gazes glued to the wan face of Jesus, and furtive Judas clasping a sweaty palm of silver, this painting is of classical da Vinci form in all manners but one—a roasted cuy lies legs-up, served on a golden platter, front and center in all of its rodent delectability, ready to satisfy saintly palates.
So there you have it—food, identity, and culture—the cuy has become Peru’s life of the party, while the “official” vicuña is still playing wallflower. Hats off to you, cuy, you add a little extra flavor to Peru in more ways than one. After all, it’s not every rodent that has Jesus Christ as a documented sponsor.
Amelia Earnest is a junior in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.