Eating together and offering food to each other is one of the most important actions in Cuzco. It is so focused and yet common that it would be ordinary and un-remarkable in the face of the very human need to eat, were it not that the Imperial City receives more than a million tourists a year from many different countries. As a result, different cultures of food stand out.
In Cuzco people prefer to not eat alone. That would be to deny the fundamental sociality of food and, of course, of being. A meal brings people together. However, if one looks closely one can see the inroads of eating alone in a pressured urban, modern life. Nonetheless, it is something that is not valued.
The importance of food and meals was captured in recently published article by the eminent linguistic anthropologist and student of linguistics Bruce Mannheim. He writes:
Commensality and the serving of food are among the most structured domains of everyday life at every scale of social life—from the chanciest of encounters between individuals to the interactions of the state with other like entities—and with every kind of entity (or being) that can be ascribed sociality, including parents and children, affines, guests and hosts, people and their herds, people and their fields, people and places . . . places are named social entities . . . Humans emerge as persons — in a material as well as in the moral sense — through this web of social interactions with beings and entities, including places.
Mannheim argues that kinship, the nature of being family, is created not so much by the act of birth or shared “blood” as English might have it, but by sharing other substance, especially food and eating together. To this end he quotes Mary Weismantel: “by taking a child into their family and nurturing is physical needs through the same substances as those eaten by the rest of the social group, can make of that child a son or a daughter who is physically as well as jurally their own.” . . .
He continues to quote Weismantel “Food is the substances that constitutes and relates Quechua bodies: ‘Flesh is made from food . . .Those who eat together in the same household share the same flesh in a quite literal sense: they are made of the same stuff.'”
Mannheim argues that this method of building family and kinships, relatedness, by eating together is also a basic ethos that connects people with the cosmos and with the land around them. You will see people, as he notes, in chicherías pour a few drops to the earth, or flick some to the mountains before they themselves drink. The same custom tends to be performed with beer.
When away from their family people say they “blow the food” to the missing persons in order to continue to share it with them and maintain the ties and relationships that knit them together.
Even though Quechua faces strong competition from Spanish, as well as English, in the city of Cuzco, this indigenous culture of food continues to be strong. Isolation, individuality, and eating alone are growing among some social sectors, but the norm of commensality and the ways it is understood to tie people together continues.
Bruce Mannheim, “Wak’as: Entifications of the Andean Sacred”, in Tamara L. Bray, ed., The Archeology of Wak’as (The University Press of Colorado, 2015).
Mary Weismantel, “Making Kin: Kinship Theory and Zumbagua Adoptions” American Ethnologist 22: 4: 685-704.