Savoring a Guinea Pig Gift

by Michaela Barnett

A leap into the unknown Ecuador


The small, pink face stared up at me. I locked eyes with my meal, exhaled, and looked around the table. Everyone else was watching me too, not just the boiled, hairless guinea pig in my bowl of stew. I took a deep breath, forced my mouth into a smile, and offered up a silent apology before digging in, face first. My host family beamed. It was my second day in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and the first time I had eaten meat in nearly five years. The rumors were true: every family in the campo kept a small herd of guinea pigs, or cuy, in a pen near the house. On special occasions, a woman would go outside to the hutch and retrieve one of the small, sniffling animals, then slam its head and neck against the counter with an expert motion. One blow and it was dead. Coming from a country where meat resembles plastic more than flesh, the bloody reality of dinner was shocking. I was determined not to repeat the same mistake I had made years before as a vegetarian in Oaxaca, Mexico. I had turned down countless meals, not realizing that I was not declining only food when I uttered the phrase "No, gracias." My rejection was more grave, a refusal to accept a sacrificed-for gift and a cultural invitation. So when meat appeared on the menu in Ecuador, I picked up a fork. One morning I awoke to the sounds of a hog being slaughtered next door as the neighbors prepared to make a decadent fritada de chancho for lunch. None of the other patrons seemed to notice the blood that had leaked from their front yard onto the sidewalk, but I did. My host sister Silvana laughed at my face when I saw the hacked up carcass. It hung a few feet from where food was being plated. "Maybe I could try yours?" I asked her. "I don't know if I can eat a whole serving." She shook her head and grinned. "Michaela, you're such a gringa. You can try mine. Do you want a plate of choclo instead?" she asked, motioning towards the giant white corn kernels spilling from a bowl. I nodded. Without any greasy pork, they stuck in my throat like glue. I cautiously tasted some of the meat on her plate. It was salty and warm, but as I chewed the memory of a screaming hog filled my mouth. "Want more?" Silvana asked, and I shook my head. She laughed again. Through many more meals that summer, I learned to open my mind (and stomach) to savor the experience more than the food. The day before I left, my host family cried and made me a special goodbye dinner: roasted guinea pig. I ate every bite.