Sunday, February 1, 2009

Cinghiale and Cuy

It was 'Restaurant Week' in Baltimore from January 23 until February 1. By chance, I had arranged to take a friend out for her birthday (which was in November but she was in Costa Rica for her birthday and then it was Thanksgiving followed by Christmas and then I was in Ecuador) and finally we both had a night free. We decided to try a new restaurant called 'Cinghiale' which had stellar reviews. For $30 we could choose an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. I looked forward to having wild boar for dinner. I was familiar with the dish, because at my sister's home in Tuscany, wild boar were often in season, and a specialty of the area in which she lived. The farmer who worked her fields would complain about the cinghiale and how they would destroy his crops. In the morning, one would often find the hay matted down where they had been foraging. If I visited in November the hunters would be about, ready to shoot at anything that moved and looking for cinghiale. Spaghetti with wild boar sauce was often a special at the local restaurants and every time that I visited my sister she was sure to cook her own version for me.

There were pictures of wild boar on the walls of the restaurant, but sadly no wild boar on the menu, so I was dissappointed. I wondered if it was simply that wild boar would not sell well here, or that it was difficult to find. I wondered if Americans would choose such an item on the menu. Why call the restaurant 'Cinghiale' anyway?

What would not sell at all in the United States would be cuy, or guinea pig. Ecuadorian Andean people traditionally ate domesticated guinea pigs and this continues to be a specialty in Ecuador. Cuy is expensive and used for special occasions. In the past, people kept guinea pigs in their homes, and not only were they convenient food, they also played a role in healing. Guinea pigs could read the bad energy in people. Shamans would rub the live guinea pig all over an ailing person and then cut up the guinea pig and read the inside of the buinea pig as a clue to what was wrong with the unheathy human. If for example the liver of the guinea pig looked sick then that was the illness of the person.

After my first visit to Ecuador, I could not look at guinea pigs the same way. I cannot imagine eating a pet. I suppose it is no different than living on a farm and eating the cow or the pig one has raised. But I am not a farmer and I buy my meat cut up in chunks and wrapped in plastic and there is little personality in a slab of beef. Having this conversation makes vegetarianism look like a reasonable option. I am not sure I will ever try 'cuy' in Ecuador.

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