In Cuzco people love guinea pig. Not only is it a common animal kept in the house, it is also provides meat for Cuzco’s favorite dishes, and it has all kinds of stories and customs around it. Though many tourists may find it strange to eat guinea pig, or cuy as we call it, the people of Cuzco find it a delicacy and expect in on special occasions.
Interestingly, when eating cuy, people compete to find what they call atuqcha, or dear little fox. This is a bone found in the cuy’s head. People love to have a whole guinea pig served them so they can compete to find the fox. Submerged in the good flavors of the head meat, and the small bones, lies this fox. In family, while people eat, they do so carefully in hopes of finding this bringer of good luck and the mystical animal inside the cuy.
The fox is very important in the Andes. It is a kind of trickster and a bit of a fool, but in its mistakes and daring it often brings good things. One story locates the origin of food in a fox who brought it from the heavens to ground, even though that adventure led to its death. This is but one of a whole corpus of stories about the fox.
The competition among family members to find this tiny fox in the midst of the flesh they love from an animal who lives very close with them, requires care and patience. Many times people get carried away by the delicious food and give up looking. Only a few people have the patience and luck to find the fox.
In our family we tend to carry out this activity when we have special events at home that bring the whole family together. On those occasions we generally eat guinea pig. While eating together, people tell stories and jokes. We laugh and have fun, all the while enjoying the delicious flesh of this rodent who lives among us. The table has a colorful table cloth, and with the food and all the people around holds a really special banquet. Every person is served a whole cuy, with only its entrails removed, which is flavored with our amazing and traditional herb, huacatay, called black mint in English.
When we arrive at the head, we all start paying close attention competing with one another to see if we can find this tiny bone, the fox. After carefully looking, one person will find the bone and all will comment in joy or frustration that they did not find one first. But the person who finds it is happy and proud, as if it were a great deed The fox will bring good luck, we believe.
We receive the bone with joy and then offer k’intus of coca–three leaves of coca together–and bury it in the ground so that the family will enjoy a fertile year, in which the gardens and animals will produce strongly giving us a good year. In this we treat it like the illas, the little figurines, the Incas would bury as an offering to the earth in order to get fertility and good fortune. Like the Incas, we invoke the Apus, the mountain lords, when we bury the little fox.
Sometimes the bone is put into the drink which will be served to all. In this way when family and friends come together, all will receive the blessing of the little fox. We generally do this when the fields are producing well and there are lots of guinea pigs in the house.
So, when we eat cuy, we not only remember the importance of the fox for us, and the importance of the guinea pig, we also recognize food as a kind of medicine which can bring good fortune. The cuy is key for our joy on special days and family gatherings. Food for us is not simply about nutrition, it is culture.