Specialty of the House
Experiencing new cuisine is an essential part of travelling â€“ it makes us feel like we are immersing ourselves in the local culture. The funny thing about that is that it is usually not really anything you couldn’t get at home. We go to South America, eat rice and beans, and convince ourselves that we could never possibly make this unique dish in our own kitchen. It’s rice and beans, for pete’s sake â€“ it ain’t that hard to find. You got a couple of bucks, a pot and a heat source, you can eat like a South American all day long, right in the comfort of your own home. In theory, you never have to travel anywhere in order to enjoy the culinary delights of foreign lands.
This otherwise promising theory begins to break down along that blurred line where “house pet” becomes “house specialty”.
The surprising thing to me is how accepting so many western tourists are crossing that line. Preconceived notions about what foods people should or should not eat are not only discarded while travelling, they are positively flouted. We relish the idea of sampling cuisine that would, to put it mildly, be frowned upon back at home, especially by your neighbour with the Saint Bernard. (“Morning, Bob, how was your weeken…oh hey, I just ate one of those!”)
And that’s one of the reasons we travel. You try this in smalltown America, you’re gonna get your ass burned at the stake.
I am, alas, no exception to this phenomenon. When I heard that guinea pig was a popular dish in Ecuador (where I was in the spring of 2005), I promptly banished from my mind the joyful memories of my sister’s pet guinea pig, Sir Fluff-A-Lot (who appeared in my memory in the form of a happy, slow-motion montage, set to a cheery soundtrack), and headed to a nearby restaurant in Quito with my friends Olly and Naomi.
The restaurant was completely empty; we easily secured ourselves a table, and opened up our menus with one thing on our mind. It didn’t take us long to find it, it was under a large banner that read “House Specialty.” It also didn’t take us long to find out that guinea pig, or cuy, as it was known, didn’t come cheap. It was about four times the price of everything else on the menu.
“Fourteen bucks for guinea fowl?” cried Olly upon opening his menu. “Is this a scam, or what?”
Naomi just shook her head. “Christ, Olly â€“ for the fiftieth time, it’s guinea pig. It’s a completely different animal.”
“Oh, and that’s supposed to justify the price? Is there a pearl in the middle of it or something?”
“It is meant to be a delicacy,” I offered, though in retrospect I’m not sure why I needed to defend the guinea pig or its price. After all, I was still of the mind that somebody should be paying me to eat Sir Fluff-A-Lot.
For some reason, in the center of our table was a small stack of glossy fliers, all of which were graced with a picture of an entire fried guinea pig on a large plate. Who could possibly have had these things printed up was beyond understanding. Surely they didn’t need to convince patrons already seated at a table? More likely it was part of a spectacularly unsuccessful marketing campaign; I can’t imagine that a bunch of full-color fliers of that cute little pet deep fried on a plate was too effective in getting a lot of customers in the door. It would be like Nathan’s Hot Dogs plastering billboards with scenes from the inner workings of a hot dog factory. (“Nathan’s Hot Dogs: Trust Us, You Don’t Wanna Know.”)
Olly picked up one of the fliers and studied it for a moment. “A delicacy,” he repeated. Right.” He sounded unconvinced. Nevertheless, we called the waitress over and placed our order for two guinea pigs, plus a more a lot more booze (just in case). Then we settled in and waited for the fun to begin.
The first thing that arrived at our table, in lieu of knives and forks, was a basket of what appeared to be plastic surgery gloves.
“What the hell are these for, exactly?” Naomi asked nobody in particular. Olly picked one up and pulled it onto his hand, studied it for a second, then grabbed a passing waitress.
“Sorry, but what the hell are these for, exactly?” he asked her, holding up his single gloved hand.
We watched her intently as she leaned her sizable form forward and peered over his shoulder at the basket of gloves. She drew herself up to her full height, her eyes scanning ours. Suddenly her smile transformed into a terrifying bearing of teeth, and she brought both fists together and wrenched them in opposite directions like she was wringing out a wet towel.
Just as quickly, her smile reappeared, and she cantered off.
“Holy crap,” I said after an uncomfortable pause. “You think that’s how we are really supposed to eat this thing? Pick up its wee little body and rip it apart?”
“If that’s the case, these gloves are pretty useful things, eh?” remarked Olly, looking at the gloves with new respect.
Before long, Naomi’s lamb had arrived at the table (she and Olly were sharing one cuy), which only served to build the suspense. We didn’t have long to wait: a few minutes later two more plates arrived and were placed ceremoniously before Olly and myself.
The contents of the plate were an immediate disappointment. We had somehow expected to see a fully-intact guinea pig, perhaps splayed out on the plate as if in mid-stride, fleeing a predator. Or better yet, it could have been positioned rearing up on its hind legs, claws bared like a stuffed grizzly, frozen in a desperate fight for its very survival.
It looked nothing like this at all. It looked like six pieces of fried chicken. We contemplated it in silence for a few moments. At last Olly picked up the flier with the marginally more interesting photo of the guinea pig, which was at least still intact in the picture.
“How do we even know what this is? I was expecting to be utterly disgusted…” he said with a sigh, looking down at his plate.
But I wasn’t listening. I was studying one piece in particular, camouflaged amongst the others in its deep-fried brown coat. It was an odd shape, not instantly recognizable as a leg or a thigh or a breast. No, this was slightly ovular in form; one end slightly squared off, while the other tapered down to a rounded point. It was this latter end that I gazed at now â€“ there was something there, a tiny spot where the brown grease had found no purchase….it took a few seconds for the terrible realization to hit me: I was staring at a
For a second I thought it was me who had shrieked this out loud. But Olly’s sudden recoil was directed away from Naomi, not me; she the source of the outburst. She was pointing at what was clearly a tooth â€“ a tooth that was clearly attached to the jaw of what was clearly the head of a deep-fried guinea pig.
“Sweet baby Jesus…” said Olly, whistling softly. He glanced over at Naomi’s plate of lamb steak, and back at his own of a now all-too recognizable guinea pig, cut up into six all-too recognizable pieces of said guinea pig. He pulled on the other latex glove and tentatively pushed a couple of the pieces around the plate, finally picking one up to examine it.
“Right, sweetheart, you want leg? Or face?”
Naomi was still hypnotized by the tiny incisor. “I’m not sure I want any…just find me something that I can’t immediately identify.”
“Alright then…that would be….”
“The leg, please, Olly,” Naomi interrupted him holding up the head and turning it around slowly in his hand.
I turned my attention back to my own plate. I pulled on a pair of gloves, picked up one of the suddenly tantalizing non-head pieces of my own little guy, and took a bite.
Let me say here that the taste was not horrible â€“ it was a kind of cross between chicken and rabbit. No, the taste was not the bad part at all. The bad part was that there was so little meat on it that both Olly and I had very soon exhausted the five reasonably-shaped pieces of this our respective animals and had been forced to address the issue of the final piece, the head of a deep-friend guinea pig, complete with ears and a tooth or two.
Let me go ahead and spare you the hideous details of what happened next. Suffice to say that I basically chickened out, only tearing off a small piece of snout and a bit off the back of the head. While I was trying to remove a scrap of non-vomit-inducing meat off this poor little beast with surgical precision, I heard a crack from across the table, accompanied by Olly’s head snapping away in horror, his face scrunched up in a desperate attempt to ward off further stimulus from the insane world around him that now contained flying brain and eyes.
In fairness, he had done this to himself. The local explosion had been an attempt to imitate the waitress’ twisting and snapping movement. He would later argue that this seemed advisable, as she was the expert on guinea fowl. Naomi would counter that argument by saying he had just ripped apart the head of a dead rodent with his bare hands and eaten it. And it was a guinea pig, Olly. Jesus!
Check out Conor’s blog at How Conor Is Spending All His Money.