My first week as a foreign college student was filled with embarrassing confessions about my home country. I told my friends that in Peru we’d had seventeen presidential candidates in our last election, one of whom declared himself a direct descendant of the warrior Inca Pachacutec. In return, they vowed to never again complain to me about Obamacare. But I knew I had crossed a line when I told them that, back in Peru, I ate guinea pigs.
The reaction was instant: wide eyes, gasps, nervous laughter, disbelief. One of them spat out her Mountain Dew. How? When? Why? Doesn’t the guilt consume you? Doesn’t it keep you awake at night? How could you, Micaela? It was as if I had eaten their grandmothers.
I found it difficult to understand eating guinea pigs as anything other than completely ordinary. In museums in Peru, I saw ancient ceramics decorated with portraits of roasted rodents. In the Cathedral of Santo Domingo at Cusco, I stood in awe before the huge painting of the Last Supper hanging over the altar, in which Jesus Christ and his twelve apostles look down reverently upon a plate of baked guinea pig. The Chavín ate them. The Incas ate them. The Conquistadores ate them. We have eaten them for centuries.
Guinea pig tastes, yes, like chicken—with undertones of rabbit! But its taste is not the only thing that makes it popular in Peru. Guinea pig is affordable for even the poorest of Peruvians. The animals reproduce rapidly, require little space, and can subsist off of the vegetable scraps of a small family. This makes make them ideal livestock for subsistence farmers in the mountain regions.
Guinea pigs became popular as pets after they were brought to Europe from early voyages to the Americas. Transported across the oceans on Spanish galleons, a growing number of guinea pigs escaped the pot to become the pampered companions of the nobility.
Their descendants now live comfortable lives in the homes of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Friends here tell me that the guinea pigs they know luxuriate in fully furnished cages and know how to perform tricks. They are company, not food. That they could ever end belly-up with a side of sweet potatoes is, understandably, horrifying.
The guinea pigs have taught us a lesson in tolerance. They have pattered their way up and down the barriers of our cultures. My friends now know Peruvians have a reason for eating their guinea pigs, just as I know Americans have a reason for teaching tricks to their own. Maybe one day my friends will taste guinea pig. Maybe one day I’ll get one for a pet. For now, my friends will still look askance at me every time we pass a squirrel.