We’ve all heard that there are supposedly six degrees of separation between people in today’s world. With the global economy and social structure that we have, the world is quickly becoming smaller as our relationships become more and more intertwined. Recently I began to think about the increasing degrees of separation between many of us and the food that we find on our plates daily. Becoming more connected to my food has been a constant goal for the last few years (though is admittedly difficult while living on the road). My time in southern Ecuador has brought a heightened appreciation for those who truly are living in close relationships with their food sources. Here in many cases there may only be one or two degrees of separation between a person and where their food comes from, if any at all, and none of it goes to waste.
Every Sunday in the small village of Gualaceo, people from surrounding villages flock to the large market to buy their provisions for the week. Hundreds of people weaved through the umbrella lined outdoor market shopping for vegetables. Inside were permanent booths filled with potatoes, herbs, and fruit. Both women and men carried large sacks of produce on their necks or tied to their backs as they left the market. The variety here was incredible. South America hasn’t seen the consequences of seed patenting and the subsidizing of crops that the US has. As a result, there are still numerous varieties of corn and potatoes readily available. When I asked one vendor how many different types of potatoes she sold, she quickly pointed out the 10 that she sold in her small booth. I’ve had the pleasure of trying several of them and the flavors and textures are as varied as their shapes and colors.
A short walk away is another market that, while you can still buy some meats and produce, is mostly dedicated to cooked foods. This is THE place in town to eat lunch. Gualaceo is well known for its tortillas. These cheese stuffed pancakes are either de maiz (corn flour), de choclo (a different type of corn, coarsely ground), or integral (wheat). The tortillas de choclo may be one of the best things I’ve tasted in the last year. They are the perfect combination salty and sweet with a wonderful texture. Upstairs, two to three dozen whole chanchos (roasted pigs), lined the balcony. Outside women sat around small fires cooking cuy (guinea pig). While we watched this process for a while, we opted for the pork. As we drove out of town we passed street-side cafes where these same typical meat and tortilla dishes were being served to locals in the surrounding towns.
Cuy is something that I have wanted to try since my first visit to Ecuador in 2003. At the same time, it’s something that I have never been brave enough to order. While I never had a guinea pig as a pet growing up, they still seem to belong in a pet store and not roasting over a fire in my mind. It’s a delicacy here, and is actually quite expensive. The cuy at the Gualaceo market cost $12 each. Restaurants in Cuenca sell them for $30. The cost coupled with the fact that it’s a lot of food have been my “excuses” for not trying it to this point.
One of the benefits of living with a family here is that I get to share in their daily life. The weekend following my trip to Gualaceo, we went to a friend’s home for lunch. They were hosting a large feast that evening and had butchered a pig and lots of chickens. Due to some family obligations, we weren’t able to attend the evening festivities but joined Isaura and her family for lunch. My initial understanding was that we too would be eating roasted pig, but I quickly discovered that it was another sort of “pig” we’d be having. We were greeted upon our arrival by a couple, cooking cuy over coals in a wheelbarrow in their front yard. It takes about an hour to cook them, so I had plenty of time to prepare myself mentally for the meal.
Isaura lives in a compound with her mother, sister, brother-in-law, and two nieces. They grow almost everything that they need. In just a few small acres they had fields of corn and wheat. Their fences were densely planted raspberries, peach and other fruit trees. Gardens beside their homes provided vegetables and medicinal herbs. Chickens roamed freely, while the pigs were housed by the cornfields, and the guinea pigs were kept in a section of the crawl space of one of the homes.
The meal was large and starch heavy, as Ecuadorian lunches are. Chicken and rice soup was followed by cuy with potatoes and rice. The first few bites were difficult psychologically, but the flavor was good. I was thankful that I wasn’t handed a plate that included a head. The toddler next to me, Nati, gnawed on the head of one of the guinea pigs with the same voracity with which I ate ribs when I was not much older than that. And much like ribs, you eat cuy with your hands, and finish by the licking your fingers clean. After lunch, we drank cane liquor mixed with sweetened herbal tea, which is supposed to help with digestion after a heavy meal like this one. The only things that were not produced on Isaura’s land that we ate that day were the rice and liquor. It was very satisfying, and I was thankful that my cuy experience was homegrown and not from a market or restaurant. I was also happy to be able to mark it off my to-do list because as much as I enjoyed the meal, it was not something I felt the need to doing again.
Whole roasted animals are a common sight here, especially at roadside restaurants. Seeing them one after the other, day after day, can be a little uncomfortable, as can eating directly from one of them. I am someone who values using as much of an animal as possible and am often looking for different ways to use as many parts of the deer that I harvest as I can. So, being a hunter who is involved in every part of the process from pasture to plate, I didn’t understand where this discomfort might be coming from. Then I realized that all this meat, in the market, in the cafes, on the plate next to mine, still had their faces. The vast majority of meat, aside from fish, we buy in markets in the States come nicely packaged in cuts, or in the case of chickens, with their heads and feet removed. Not everyone can raise animals at their home and have access to freshly harvested meat. But if we had more faces in our markets, would we think more about where this food comes from? Would it register that it took a life to bring this nourishment to our plates? Would we hesitate before we threw out pounds of leftovers every day? Would we try to eat as much of the animal as possible, so that next to none of it went to waste? If there were fewer degrees of separation between us and our food, would we appreciate more the daily miracle that a huge portion of our health comes directly from plants and animals that are tended by human hands? Would we realize that real food does not come from the box and jar lined supermarket but from fields and pastures, and in an ideal world, from our own backyards?