Can you eat your guinea pig? In recent years, this deceptively simple question has become a classic example in classes of cultural anthropology of the subjective nature of our attitude toward food.
Think about it. On one side of the Great Cavia division, the indigenous cultures of the Andes, which have long treated the hairy mammal as nutritious food, are best roasted. On the other hand, European and American cultures, where the animal is considered a beloved pet that is cuddled by children, are not a frying pan.
While Western children would no doubt react with horror to the idea of eating these little animals, it seems equally strange to indigenous cultures in Ecuador and Peru to cherish them as pets. In other words, how we treat guinea pigs is one of the very small ways we define our sense of ‘exotic’.
As any anthropology class will teach you, it also makes it easier to demonize it by describing others as ‘exotic’ or ‘strange’ because of food or something else. Consider, for example, the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan in the Western media, along with scandalous stories about China’s wet food markets.
Anthropologist Paul Farmer noted that a similar demonization of ‘exotic’ foods during the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, when Westerners exaggerated the role that ‘bushmeat’ consumption plays in distribution. ‘The obsession with bushmeat from the Ebola era is neatly reflected in comments about the wet markets of Wuhan, where (one imagines) the pace of hockey sticks, eels and strange fish squirming and floping and shaking pangolins like golden tears, he wrote in April 2020.
However, there is another side to this. Culture can often be more flexible and fluid than we realize, especially in a globalized era. Gideon Lasco, an anthropologist from the Philippines, studies the question of how and why Andean cultures eat guinea pigs. His research, recently featured on the social science website Sapiens, begins by noting that this food is a social divide, not only between Andean cultures and the west, but also in countries like Peru.
Indigenous Andean cultures ate guinea pigs known as old, for centuries. But in recent decades, urban Peruvians, especially those of mestizos descent (i.e. with mixed European and Andean heritage), ceased knowing that Westerners viewed the practice negatively.
More recently, Lasco says, two striking trends have emerged. In the first place, some Western tourists began to regard the experimentation of guinea pigs as fashionable and linked it to ‘bizarre foods that boast rights’. While globalization has already brought numerous different ethnic dishes from around the world to Western supermarkets, chopped guinea pigs are not yet for sale in Walmart or Sainsbury’s, hence their value as an ‘experience’.
Second, some educated Peruvians have also become more interested in defining and advocating what makes them unique in a globalized world through a new form of old haute cuisine in Lima. “As more ‘local’ food is eaten worldwide, richer elites have rediscovered indigenous foods and beverages, ‘Lasco writes.
‘Culinary gentrification’ – a phrase coined by Raúl Matta, a Peruvian anthropologist, has a dark side. Especially the rising demand for old meat is running a cottage industry of old farming (which mostly involved families keeping guinea pigs at home) in an agribusiness (where they are often kept in unpleasant conditions). Peruvian anthropologist María Elena García says she was shocked to see that “female guinea pigs are constantly being fertilized until they are slaughtered”.
But this shift also has a more positive side by creating a new source of income and protein for some farmers. And now there is another unexpected turnaround caused by globalization: development groups are trying to import these ideas into Africa.
As Brigitte Maas, an associate professor at the Georg-August-University Göttingen, recently told The Conversation platform, countries such as Benin, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon already have local traditions of eating guinea pigs (or similar rodents), but in an informal, homemade and sometimes bulging way.
However, Maas says pilot projects have started to see if guinea pig farming can be a viable agricultural business to promote nutrition in these parts of Africa. “It is important that the entire value chain is developed,” she adds, praising the creation of “stakeholder platforms that [connect guinea pig] producers, traders and restaurateurs ”.
Those furry creatures, in other words, are no longer just a sign of global differences, but of cultural malleability. This may not make Western children feel better about the idea of having their pets fried. But the problem must be used to help them (and adults) realize how subjective our assumptions are, and that they do not have to sit in rocks or cages.
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