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The Vacuum Issue 4 spacer Issue 4
The Social And Symbolic World Of Guinea Pigs In The Andes
by Eduardo Archetti
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The guinea-pig - cuy in Latin American Spanish and quwe in Quechua - like the llama and the alpaca is an edible animal that is native to the Andean region, domesticated before the Spanish conquest. The guinea-pig belongs to the family of Cabiidae, which is genetically closer - despite its appearance - to the chinchilla or the porcupine than to the mouse or the rat. Archaeological data suggest that the guinea-pig was domesticated around AD 1000. We may imagine that the guinea-pig was not only part of the diet but, from the beginning, became another occupant of the native dwellings. Therefore, their original captivity - within dark shelters - contributed to their rapid domestication. The result of this technique can be seen in the fact that the guinea-pig is undoubtedly a dusk and night animal. It tries to avoid both strong light and total darkness. Its physiological activities continue throughout the night, since it does not fall into complete relaxation or into sleep, as other animals do.
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During the Inca Empire, the guinea-pig was important both in people's diet and in the ceremonial world. Llamas and alpacas belonged to the state, whereas the guinea-pig was the 'popular' animal par excellence. There is clear evidence that guinea-pigs were consumed only on ritual occasions and were never part of the everyday peasant diet. Various chronicles emphasize that the guinea-pig was slaughtered and eaten only on festive occasions or when making offerings to the gods. At the same time, the guinea-pig was used as an instrument of divination. There is no evidence that it was used as a totem.
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Guinea-pigs were more widely distributed before the Conquest, and were found over a great part of what is now Chile and northern Argentina. Today the breeding and use of the guinea-pig are concentrated among peasants living in the areas of the central Andes in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador and part of southern Colombia (in the region of Narino). However, its consumption has spread outside rural areas, and is now found as 'typical' food in various large and middle-sized towns in these countries. But guinea-pig is still a peasant food par excellence.
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At first sight, it is difficult to distinguish the male from the female. The only criterion used is head size, since the male may have a slightly bigger head. The adult guinea-pig can grow to as much as 30 centimetres in length and 1200 grams in weight. Guinea-pigs begin to eat regularly when they are four months old and weigh 500 grams. Female puberty appears around 60 and 70 days, and for the male puberty is at about 80 days. The period of gestation varies from litter to litter. It is longer when there is only one offspring (nearly 70 days) and shorter with multiple litters (between 65 and 68 days). Guinea-pigs can live for up to eight years and are fertile - in theory - until that age. However, female fertility decreases from the fourth year onwards.
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If one wanted to defend the guinea-pig as a multifaceted and functional animal, one could say that it is strong, is not demanding, is tame, eats, in principle, anything and is docile and easy to handle if not exposed to changes in temperature. Moreover, it is an efficient and cheap source of protein: its meat provides 20.5% of protein against 14.5% for pork, 16.4% for mutton and 17.5% for beef. In a world where a slim figure is important, guinea-pig meat has little fat: only 7% against 40% for pork and 31% for lamb.
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The 'fate' of the guinea-pig in the Andes is to be turned into exceptional food intimately associated with the cycle of life and rites of passage of families and communities. It is eaten grilled, roasted or boiled and its cuisine is elaborated. It is therefore a part of the universe available for disposal, to be transformed into a source of both of life and of pleasure. It is a source of life because its protein becomes energy, a source of pleasure because eating guinea-pig is enjoyable. As in the past the guinea-pig holds a special place as an exceptional food in the context of the Andean peasant culture and economy, which suffers from periodic shortages of enough domestic food production. For the rural population guinea-pig meat is regarded as the best meat when compared with other domestic, edible and highly regarded meat: lamb, goat, beef, pork, and chickens. So why is it the best? In the first place its sweetness and its smoky taste. In the distinction between the sweet and the salty in peasant culture the 'sweet' is always seen as more flavoursome than the salty. The idea of sweetness is also associated with the ideas of 'pleasure' and 'satisfaction', and arises when people argue about the best kinds of potatoes or which kind of maize is the 'sweeter'. So a 'sugary' taste is an ideal aspect of flavour and taste. The importance of smoke seems to be linked to certain conception which contrasts dry and salty meat with smoked meat - even if the latter technique is used as much as the former. Obviously, in the case of the guinea-pig, smoke is conceived as something that transmits a certain type if taste to the meat in the process of breeding, without any actual smoking process taking place. But there is clearly another association, on the one hand, between drying and salting and, on the other, between smoking and not salting. It is common in the Andes to think that smoke is 'dry' and thus preserves the 'humidity' of the meat.
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Another characteristic, not related to taste, but to a certain intrinsic, odourless and invisible characteristic, is the 'heat' of the meat. In the logic of hot and cold, the guinea-pig is ranked higher than pork, lamb, beef and goat meat. The idea of 'heat' is firstly associated with the generation of energy, and secondly with other aspects: it is considered, for instance, to be 'pure' and 'nutritious'. These last two aspects become salient when guinea-pig meat is compared with other meats - especially with pork, a popular meat also considered very 'hot'. Pork, though 'hot', is less pure and nutritious, and is 'fatter' and 'heavier'. Consequently, a pure and nutritious food is assimilable and digestible.
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The guinea-pig meat is also defined as 'therapeutic food' because of its qualities. Guinea-pig broth is recommended for some types of disease but is one of the best remedies for cold and the discomforts that come with it - temperature, general weakness, sweating and subsequent dryness. This is because it is immediately efficacious, since it is possible to 'sweat temperature' by taking a good quantity of very hot guinea-pig broth. By the same logic, guinea-pig meat should not be eaten when a sick person suffers from diseases that are caused by excessive heat moving from the outside to the inside of the body. Among these illnesses are malaria and yellow fever. But tuberculosis - normally identified as an illness caused by both microbes, by hard living conditions and by conditions of poverty - can be cured by rest, plenty of warm clothes and nourishing food such as guinea-pig broth or roasted guinea-pig.
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This 'therapeutic food' is only a small part of the knowledge and cultural practices that constitute the vast field of Andean popular medicine.
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Traditional healing (limpiadas, limpias, sobadas, sobas o curadas) using guinea-pigs is still much practised among Indian population, but also among mestizos. The traditional healers specialised in this activity are called sobadores. This practice is a ritual of diagnosis, which simply consists in rubbing the body of the sick patient with a live guinea-pig until the animal dies. Then, the process of diagnosis begins. The guinea-pig is normally cut into halves, and after taking out the entrails, a careful examination of the organs takes place, which aims at identifying the disease. It is important to remember that the sobador reads, sees and observes other signs, some of which are ambiguous but not all of them. Therefore the animal is nothing more than an instrument, and 'aid' in the process of interpreting a diagnosis. Moreover, the sobador is in possession of a set of data which were given by the sick peoplethemselves or by their relatives. The guinea-pig consequently enables people to 'objectify' a set of hypotheses that the expert has gathered beforehand. For these reasons, the sobada has been considered to be a sort of primitive X-ray. The guinea-pig, thus, is an instrument which makes it possible to read the illnesses that affect a specific patient. Therefore is a tool for investigation, which, in the hands of an expert, permits an early diagnosis of a disease. This is because of the idea that a certain mimesis exists between the patient and the animal, since the animal has a set of qualities that allows the transfer of symptoms. The guinea-pig is part of a belief system in which there is not a qualitative difference between a mountain, a huge stone, an insect, an animal, and a human being. There are, therefore, as this example proves, no rigid boundaries between the marvellous and the real, and there is neither much difference between the religious, the magical, and the objective worlds. A mountain is god, a river is god, and animals have natural and supernatural values. The material and symbolic importance of the guinea-pig springs from this logic.
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Roast Guinea-pig:
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In order to keep what is called the 'gleam' of this dish, it is necessary to marinate it a day ahead. The best dressing (for two or three guinea-pigs) is:
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2 red onions, roughly chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
cumin (2 teaspoons)
one teaspoonful of white pepper
salt (approximately two teaspoonfuls for each animal)
2 tablespoonfuls of water
2 tablespoonfuls of oil
annatto as colouring
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Mix all the ingredients well and spread them both on the inside and the outside of the animal. Instead of oil, lard with annatto may be used.
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Before roasting the guinea-pig, it is necessary to remove any excess dressing from the previous day to avoid burning the meat. The animal is roasted in charcoal, on a stick, preferably at its extremity, so that it can be turned without burning. The animal is this way spitted on the stick inserted in the back part, the anal region, and exiting from the jaw. Once spitted on the stick, the usual technique is to tie the front feet and stretch the legs. Once it is stretched out, it is put on a grill or in a basin. During roasting, lard is spread over it to avoid drying out the meat. The guinea-pig is ready when the skin is almost ready to burst.
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Despite the addition of the dressing and the lard, guinea-pig meat is very light and may then become hard and chewy. Roasted guinea-pig is therefore traditionally eaten with peanut sauce. Among many recipes, this is my favourite:
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2 tablespoons of lard
annatto colouring
2 white onions, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic
salt
a pinch of cumin
1 large cup of roasted and ground coffee peanuts
3/4 cups of milk
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Obviously, roast guinea-pig has to be served with other things. There are various possibilities, but the most common is to serve it with boiled potatoes and chillies. Coriander is normally chopped over the top of the boiled potatoes. The guinea-pig is also served up, especially in mestizo communities, with slices of fresh cottage cheese and a few boiled beans.
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The Social And Symbolic World Of Guinea Pigs In The Andes
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