Commentary, Food Culture

Two Questions in a Cuzco Café

Margarine Balls for Breakfast in Cuzco

The sun shines brightly amidst intermittent clouds. The rains have ended and Cuzco’s bright dry season has begun This really is a beautiful and charming city, but not one without contradictions and conflict.  Today demonstrators marched and chanted around the Main Square.  Though not about that, and really very minor issues,  nonetheless two concerns sting my mind.

The first is why so many otherwise good cafes and restaurants insist on serving balls of chilled margarine to put on bread rather than butter?

Now this is really not a big issue and neither butter nor margarine are probably all that good for you. But as someone who grew up in the days when margarine was the grease of choice for the American table, I got used to its chemical spread and no toast seemed complete without a smear of industrial product.  There was no other option.

This was, after all, the time when we ate peas from cans –yuck–and Spaghettios were a child’s diet, if we were not eating Chop Suey, also–you got it–from a can. Ok, some days we did have the inevitable tuna casserole with potato chips from a bag, Cream of Mushroom Soup, and tuna from cans.

You get my point. When I was young Americans believed in industry and its ability to lead us into the promised land of the future, including health. Of course, now we see the effect of all that.

The Mediterranean Diet in Spain is too expensive for all but the wealthy and so people eat industrial food. As a result, obesity is exploding there, at home and seemingly everywhere.

I will never forget the first time I tasted real butter, not the faux, industrial stuff also covered by that term in our speech. It was so flavorful. I could not see how I could ever butter my toast again with margarine.

Packaged Butter in the Supermarket Cooler
Packaged Butter in the Supermarket Cooler

Of course, back then they said margarine was better for you than butter. It was not. Butter may not be as good as the olive oil of the Mediterranean but it is so much better than the margarine balls sitting on my table here in Cuzco, both in appearance and flavor, as well as in health.

So, back to my question. Why the margarine?

There are plenty of cows around from which cheese is made and, if local cows are not good enough, the dairy industry in nearby Arequipa, could easily provide all the butter the city could use, in those aluminum foiled single serving packs found seemingly everywhere.

Toast and a Foil Package of Butter
Toast and a Foil Package of Butter

In fact some one could start a high quality, artisan butter business for the restaurants.

But, I suspect the issue of margarine shows how strong the desire for modernization of the 1960s messianic industrialist variety still has a hold on many people in this delightful city. Somehow they distrust their local foods, unless a Gastón Acurio or some other famous person gives them a stamp of authority and preferably puts them in a plastic bag or some can.

In fact, I — as someone from the North where I try to eat local and increasingly organic and love my farmer’s markets — can too easily sit back in my first world privilege and be snide, instead of trying to remember how much it meant to me when my family first got television in my little New Mexican town, or the first time I ate at McDonalds or Taco Bell. It is too easy to forget how much we all argued about whether Wendy’s or McDonald’s was better. It is also easy to forget how excited we were when margarine came in a tub and was creamier and spreadable. Oh my.

Our tastes were increasingly attuned to industrial labs, until there was a slow-coming backlash and Whole Foods opened nearby.

Though I can’t deny people here the chance to claim modernity and the hygiene of the lab, I still would so much prefer butter with my bread for breakfast and bet most tourists would too.

Louisiana Tabasco on Supermarket Shelf, Downtown Cuzco
Louisiana Tabasco on Supermarket Shelf, Downtown Cuzco

Since I said I am from New Mexico where chile is cherished, I must acknowledge that during the time butter started being preferred over margarine, people in my country started eating more hot sauce than ketchup, even if most of that also comes from a bottle, tub, or can.

So my second question. In a land where hot peppers originated and where they are on the table constantly in homes or restaurants for locals, why is it so hard to get local hot sauces?

In fact, it is far easier to find ketchup in the tourist area here than good, local hot sauce called ají.

My eggs would have been so much better with some rocoto pepper or a mix of diced limo peppers and onion in lime juice, not to mention llantén, or the peanut aji sauce. There are many hot sauces here and almost every garden has a rocoto bush in it.

Yet in the tourist restaurants, which is where eggs for breakfast are mostly served, you would think you have committed a sin to ask for hot peppers. If you are lucky, they might bring you a bottle of tabasco sauce from Louisiana or foil packages of hot peppers blended with monosodium glutamate from the supermarket. Yet, it is almost impossible to get just a pepper to dice, or even better some pepper smashed with tomatoes.

Hot Sauce of Ground Rocoto
Hot Sauce of Ground Rocoto

Again, I think the answer has to do with the strong devaluing of local foods and ingredients and an assumption that tourists would never be interested in local cuisine. At the same time there is a preference for industrial products and a stereotype, that like most ideas of the other is the inverted image of self, that tourists will only want industrial foods, or foods stamped with some international seal of approval.

Oh well. There are good reasons why this is the case. But I am still going to keep asking for my rocoto with breakfast. It is a delicious pepper and is very local.

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