Once the guinea pig arrived, I confess, I regretted having ordered it. The cuy lay on its side on a white china plate, whole and ungarnished, its tiny teeth bared and its eye glaring at the Infinite with an affronted expression. Although the menu declared that the creature had been pressed beneath a hot brick in the traditional manner, it resembled nothing so much as a New York City rattus norvegicus that had lost a quarrel with a Q train.
Of course, there are no subways in Arequipa, Peru. There are Spanish colonial churches, and a looming volcano, and Quechua women wearing bright shawls and bowler hats; and there are hordes of Yankee tourists, the bulk of whom leave town without having sampled this particular delicacy. Americans, by and large, follow no formal code of kashrut, yet there are certain foods that strike us intuitively as taboo. The association with urban vermin (and kindergarten pets) is enough to make most of us say no, gracias to any species of roasted rodent—with the exception, on special occasions, of a respectably dressed rabbit. But I had said sí, and I was determined not to let the little beast defeat me.
It was putting up a good fight. The carcass resisted my laborious sawing, and the scraps I pried away were almost impossible to chew. Bits of hair clung to the singed hide, pricking my tongue in an unpleasant way. My wife looked on helplessly, her face cycling between sympathy and nausea. A trio of uniformed waiters stood at attention against the sunlit wall of the restaurant’s patio, beneath a spray of bougainvillea; I could feel their furtive glances as I struggled with my opponent. The youngest one kept coming by to refill my glass of gaseosa. Finally I sought his counsel. “No se come el piel, señor,” he murmured, emptying the bottle.
Don’t eat the skin! How could I have been so dense? I cut a long slit and peeled away the casing. The dark meat underneath was stringy but tender, a tad gamy, and pungent with wood smoke. Belying the old joke, it tasted nothing like chicken; it was closer to rabbit. But above all, the cuy smacked of Peru and its ancient culture. For 5,000 years, guinea pig had been the principal non-marine animal protein of Andean civilization. It lent strength to the Incas and nourished their descendants, who still trudged down the mountains with llama-loads of preindustrial commodities to sell in Arequipa’s markets. Each morsel of slightly overcooked flesh was a synecdoche, a concentrated metaphor for something vast and ageless. It was a medium for communion with a radically foreign people. It offered a form of carnal knowledge—a way of transcending otherness by eating it. I was flooded with a sense of Edenic oneness, as free of national boundaries as an infant at the breast. Seeing my bleary smile, Julie sighed with relief and tucked into her ceviche.
I have pursued such difficult ecstasies throughout my adult life. Like any other perversion, my fetish for un-American meat began with a childhood trauma. My father was a junior high school French teacher, and in 1964 he took his sabbatical in Switzerland. At the age of 7, I was transplanted with my two smaller brothers from Los Angeles to Lausanne. Our adopted city was beautiful but cold, in every sense of the word, and baffling in its Alpine insularity. Strangers corrected my parents’ pronunciation and the entire family’s table manners. We lived outside the medieval downtown in a Stalinoid apartment block, where the hall lights were on a 30-second timer and the super barked at us for building a snowman. The kids at my blue-collar école primaire enjoyed spattering non-Swiss classmates with ink from their quill pens.
And then there was the food. My senses, weaned on Velveeta and fish sticks, were barraged daily with disconcerting tastes and smells: the mushroomy stink of ripe Camembert at a lakeside picnic; the ammoniac tang of unrefrigerated cakes brought home from the boulangerie; the too-intimate odor of unpasteurized milk issuing from the delivery man’s pail; the brawny aroma of ground espresso beans wafting from the corner grocery.
All of it repelled me, except for the coffee. After a few months, though, some instinct hinted that mastering the local comestibles—as much as the local language—would help me feel less lost. I began to grapple with the strongest cheeses and the fiercest charcuterie, and to relish each victory over the apparently inedible. In reality, the inedible was winning me over. By the time I turned 8, I had learned to lust after toothsome mold and bacterial funk and the flavor of the barnyard, to covet foods redolent of life and death in a strange and specific place.
Such an appreciation has become commonplace in the United States over the past couple of decades, but when I returned home in ’65, my peers were going gaga over Fluffernutters and Space Food Sticks. My mother, who had never found her emotional or culinary footing in Europe, was happy to revert to the routines of tuna casserole and store-brand wieners. It was not until I left for college that I could begin chasing that old, transcendent thrill—that food-borne feeling of being at home in the world.
It was possible, I discovered, to score a portion of such joy by eating the easy stuff. For a boy raised on Stop & Shop apple pie, a first encounter with tarte tatin can reveal more about the mysteries of Frenchness than hours spent reading the Larousse Gastronomique. But the sharpest epiphanies came from the most challenging dishes, and there was nothing more daunting than certain deeply indigenous meats. In Iceland, I have dined upon tough and liverish puffin doused in blueberry sauce. In Spain, I have eaten larval eels. In a Dijon brasserie, my first wife burst into tears after tasting an andouillette bursting with offal; I gallantly passed her my omelet and wolfed down the fecal-scented sausage. I have crunched fried crickets at a Oaxacan dive in East L.A., and sucked on cartilaginous duck’s tongues at a Szechuan palace in Manhattan.
I have not enjoyed all of those meals. The crickets were particularly vile—musty-tasting mouthfuls of chitin and grit, like shrimp shells stuffed with burnt toast crumbs. I could eat only two before my gag reflex kicked in. To be bested by an insect was mortifying, especially in the presence of my father-in-law, who had goaded me into trying it. “Clean your plate or no dessert,” he scolded, smirking, as my stomach churned with peristalsis and shame. Yet such failures are instructive. To learn the limits of one’s intrepidity, whether in mountaineering or gourmandizing, is an essential form of self-knowledge.
And when the quest succeeds, when the inedible proves to be delectable (those eels! that cuy!), the reward is more than sensory. I leave the table in a state of heightened consciousness, neurons crackling, pores opened as though by a cosmic sauna. In part, no doubt, this is the high generated by broken taboos. The Greek root of the word “ecstasy” means to go out of oneself—an effect that can be achieved, among other means, by the shedding of a gustatory skin.
The buzz comes from a hotwired connection as well. In cultures that practice cannibalism, the point is not to assuage hunger, but to absorb the mana, the ineffable power, of the person consumed. Catholic communion, as has often been observed, is a way of sublimating that impulse; in a pure white wafer, the worshipper swallows the very body of God. Eating alien meat is a similar, if secular, exercise. The aim is to take a bite of another nation’s soul. This, paradoxically, is an act of submission on the biter’s part, in that it requires a lowering of defenses, a stifling of revulsion, an opening of the mouth to the unknown. It is an act of love. But it is also an act of violence.
Fortunately, no one is harmed but the poor guinea pig. And some Peruvian would have eaten it anyway.