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May I have a Guinea Pig for lunch, please?

Published by on March 20, 2011 – 3:52 pmNo Comments
by Joe O’Connor,
National Post


His name was Max, or maybe it was Sam.  I can’t quite remember, but I do remember him.  He was small, with four little legs, white fur with black splotches and a cute little nose that twitched and twitched.

Max, or Sam, was a guinea pig.  He even had his own guinea pig house, an orange plastic tube, but an abode nonetheless, where he slept when he was not being fawned over by his owner, a childhood friend, from the days of yore.

I had not thought about Max, or Sam, for more than 30 years until this week, when I thought about whether or not I would eat him for lunch.

It is a vexing culinary question that has landed Marco Rodriguez, an Ontario man from Peru, in a bubbling pot of legal trouble.

Mr. Rodriguez, a self-made guy with-a-rags-to-modest riches story to tell, came to Canada in 1999. He drove a delivery truck, shovelled snow, cleaned offices -did everything -to buy a truck and start his own business importing foodstuffs from his native land.

Corn, vegetables and assorted dried goods were his stock and trade, until he decided to branch out into guinea pig meat.

Guinea pig, or Cuy, Cobaya o Conejillo de Indias in Spanish, is a tasty delight and a dietary staple that doubles as a Peruvian cultural icon.  Peruvians consume 22 million of the critters annually.  Traditional healers use their innards to diagnose illness.

Church paintings in Cuzco, the one-time capital of the Inca Empire, depict Jesus and his disciples enjoying the “Last Supper” with guinea pig as the main course.

The Incans even had a saying about an animal that has been domesticated for 5,000 years: “Raise guinea pigs and eat well.”

Import guinea pigs -and hope they sell well -would appear to have been Mr. Rodriguez’s motto. Alas, for him, and for Canadians with a taste for cuy, Peruvian meats are a banned good under Canadian Food Inspection Agency guidelines.

“The issue here is not so much one of guinea pig, but of the safety of food imported into Canada,” said Alice d’Anjou, a spokeswoman for the CFIA. “Canada has one of the best food safety systems in the world, and one of the elements is a robust, risk-based import control system.”

In other words, any country looking to export meat to Canada needs to meet Canadian food safety standards and be certified, a certification Peru lacks.

Such was the problem for Mr. Rodriguez, who ran afoul of the regulations and Canadian law in April 2009 when customs officials pried opened a shipping container with his name on it and found 20 crates of frozen guinea pig carcasses inside.

Now he is in court, facing smuggling charges, while the business he built is in tatters.

Whatever way the scales of justice tilt, the question remains: Would you eat a guinea pig for lunch, if you had the option?

And is the roast beef, mashed-potatoes and buttered-bread nature of the traditional Canadian palate, and the fact that, well, guinea pigs are just so darn cute, standing between us and the gastronomical thrill of a lifetime?

Peruvians think so.

“It is like chicken, jerk chicken, well-seasoned, and not too fatty,” says Pepe Bustamante, a native of Lima and manager of El Plebeyo Restaurant in Toronto. “If it’s well cooked, it can be really tasty and surprisingly meaty for something that is so small.”

Lirio Peck, the Peruvian owner of the Boulevard Café -a Latin American landmark among Toronto eateries -compares the taste to rabbit.

Others liken it to pork.

“It is delicious,” Ms. Lirio says. “It is a common thing in Peru. It is part of the culture. But in this culture people cringe at the thought of eating them because they associate them as being pets, and also being rodents.”

And one culture’s Big Mac is another culture’s sacred cow. Rover, the pet dog, is dinner for two in Beijing. There are a 1,000 horse-butcher shops in France. That is not a typo. Sales of horse meat there topped $234-million in 2005.

We are what we eat. But it is where we come from, how we were raised, socialized and sent out into the world that largely determines what is on the menu. Food is interwoven in the cultural fabric. In North America guinea pigs are the second grader’s classroom mascot, not a religious icon, ancient cold remedy or culinary staple rural folks in the Peruvian highlands lovingly fatten up with alfalfa sprouts before tossing on the grill with a spicy marinade.

“I would feature them on my menu if I could,” Ms. Peck says. “People ask for them all the time and I say, ‘I could cook one for you, but I would need to go the pet store first.’”

Article originally published in National Post

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