Translation: Against Peruvian Cuisine
Daniel Alarcón: Did you know NPR has an app? It’s called NPR One and it offers the best from public radio and beyond. News, local stories, and your favorite podcasts. NPR One joins you while you travel, wait in line or wait for a friend. Find us on NPR One in your app store.
Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Now that we are part of NPR we want to share some of our favorite stories with our new audience. We begin today in the city where I was born, Lima, Peru.
We sent our producer Eduardo García Peña to the downtown area with a microphone to speak with people about the national cuisine.
Eduardo: What do you think of Peruvian food?
First Person: Umm, it’s one of the most delicious on this planet.
Second Person: Well, it’s the best food in the world. It’s just that simple, practical, and easy.
Daniel Alarcón: Simple. Practical. Easy. If you’re Peruvian and you live abroad, like I do, then this is something that usually happens to you: you mention your country, and after name-dropping Machu Picchu, people immediately talk about the food.
It happens all the time. Now you can find Peruvian restaurants in every major European city. Tourists from the United States travel to Peru just to visit the new chic restaurants in the capital. In Lima, there are more culinary schools than in Paris, and chefs are even interviewed by the local press about their opinions on politics, economy, and culture. I’m not exaggerating. A few years ago, I visited a maximum security prison, and to my surprise, I found that one of the prisoners had opened a gourmet restaurant. I remember the chef told me that his dream was for people on the outside to come to the prison to try his food. For him, that would be success.
Anyway, that is the situation. But there’s another aspect to this reality, something that has become very clear to me: if anyone speaks ill about our food, we don’t always respond that well.
Eduardo: If someone were to insult Peruvian food, how would you feel?
Third Person: Really, really badly because aside from insulting the food. I mean, it’s our… what can I tell you… it’s our heritage, you know?
Eduardo: How would you feel?
Fourth Person: I’d smack them. I’d punch them… if they insult me, I hit them. And if he’s Chilean, I would beat him up and kill him.
Daniel Alarcón: Today on Radio Ambulante, we’re going to risk getting beaten up. Our story is called “Against Peruvian Cuisine.”
We’ll take a look at two cases and get to know the two people that dared to insult Peruvian cuisine, because I think it reveals something about our idiosyncrasies, and because I think it shows that maybe, something has changed. And so that no one accuses me of not having enough national pride, let’s start by getting one thing clear: I love Peruvian food. In other words, don’t bother me about it.
Okay, so three years ago in Lima, a book called “Cocinero en su tinta” [Cook in its ink] was published.
Gustavo Rodriguez: Hey Dani!
Daniel: This is the author, Gustavo Rodriguez.
Gustavo Rodriguez: How are you? What a pleasure!
Daniel: Besides being a writer, Gustavo works as a communications consultant. Hence, he knows a lot about marketing. In the case of his novel, the publisher had decided to sell it in this way:
Gustavo: The first Peruvian novel dedicated to our cuisine.
Daniel: Something he didn’t appreciate at all.
Gustavo: It was a silly way of pigeonholing it because my book isn’t about that.
Daniel: But it makes sense in a way, doesn’t it? The main character is a chef. So if that detail is nothing more than a pretense for telling a more intimate story, in terms of marketing, it made sense. And well, the press release from the publisher found its way into the hands of another author.
Iván Thays: My name is Iván Thays. I’m a Peruvian writer and avid blogger. I live in Lima.
Daniel: At the time, Iván wrote a literary blog for the Spanish newspaper El País.
Iván: So I wrote a post, not about of the book, which I hadn’t yet read, but about the idea of how much time should have to pass before a new phenomenon could become literature.
Daniel: The phenomenon to which he is referring is the fascination with our food. It was 2012 and we were in the process of becoming a country obsessed with the cuisine. Frankly, it got to a cartoonish level. Remember that chef in prison that I mentioned to you? Anyway…
Iván: That was the topic of the post. And I asked myself if this supposed gastronomic boom in Peru would be able to become, inspire, and lend itself to works of literature that quickly, you know?
Daniel: But aside from that literary and theoretical question, in his post, Iván confessed something very serious: he didn’t like Peruvian food that much. And he didn’t say it in the nicest way either.
Iván: I said a lot of things that sounded pretty bad such as being unable to digest Peruvian food, that it was a bomb of carbohydrates, that I liked Italian food a lot more in general, and that I didn’t think Peruvian food was out of this world by any means.
Daniel: And that he wasn’t even thankful for this supposed gastronomic boom.
Iván: I wrote that at night and then went to sleep. The next day, a lot more people commented on the article, like 20 people, and some likes. I thought that it wouldn’t go any further.
Daniel: Gustavo also saw it.
Gustavo: I was coming back on a flight from Bogotá to Lima after the Hay Festival in Cartagena when I opened up Facebook in the airport and saw that Iván had tagged me in a note. Apparently, it was a link to his post on the El País blog.
Daniel: He read it quickly and thought nothing of it. Gustavo boarded the plane, but while he was in the air, everything changed. El Comercio, a newspaper in Lima, had published a link to the blog with an alarming headline.
Iván: “Peruvian writer in Spain says that Peruvian cuisine is bad.” And that was the moment the real story began, you know?
Daniel: El Comercio is the most important and most read newspaper in Peru, and with this blog, Iván and his comments on Peruvian food became news. Many also interpreted his comments as a critique on Gustavo’s book, and therefore, the author saw himself get involved in this mess.
Gustavo: When I landed in Lima is when I started to see… that is, a few hours later I already saw the media storm against Iván.
Iván: So there I realized that what I had said was going to be taken much more seriously than what it really meant to me, you know?
Gustavo: Television stations started calling me. Radio stations started calling me. Newspapers started calling me.
Daniel: Besides Ivan’s controversial comments, I guess the press also wanted to start a feud between the two writers.
Gustavo: And I tried to understand what it was that was happening, you know?
Iván: I’m not a cook. It wasn’t a food review. It was the opinion of someone who thinks Peruvian food is tough to digest, you know?
Daniel: But there was no going back.
Gustavo: If in Peru they had the guillotine, poor Iván would have been guillotined, you know? This… it was terrible, you know?
Daniel: Unfortunately, Gustavo is not exaggerating. The press loves this kind of story.
TV Show: So who the hell is this? He’s Iván Thays, the tasteless Peruvian that hates Peruvian food.
Daniel: They love making villains.
TV Show: For me, he’s being resentful. It’s the kind of person accustomed to eating fried eggs, mashed potatoes, and rice.
Daniel: He appeared on the front page of a bunch of popular newspapers as well as on social media.
TV Show: They have made groups like “I also hate Iván Thays for speaking badly of Peruvian food,” “Iván Thays, flush your words down the toilet,” “Traitor, terrorist against Peruvian cuisine,” “Let’s see if you can eat this.”
Daniel: Famous chefs went on television to insult him.
Chef: I would invite him to have a ceviche with ‘pipí de mono’ pepper so he can taste the spice –so that something burns on the way in and on the way out!
TV Program: Maybe this will make him more famous than he was. I’d never heard of him.
What do you say, Alfredo Salas?
Well, I think that when I found out about this guy, the first thing that I did was a Google search. And the Wikipedia page is pretty small. So this is just some guy that wants to be known. He lives in Spain…
Iván: That’s just what I was about to tell you. So the weird thing is that they came to the conclusion that I lived in Spain, you know?
Daniel: I suppose that happened since the blog was published in El País. They parodied him on one of the most popular comedy shows in Peru, with a slight Spanish accent.
TV Show: Today we have a special guest. Directly from Spain, the Peruvian writer Taliban Thays. Good morning, Taliban.
Good morning, my dear Beto.
Diego Salazar: It has to be the first time in history that a writer was parodied on a comedy show in Peru.
Daniel: This is Diego Salazar: restaurant critic, journalist, friend. I came to Diego with some of my doubts. It’s just that everything that happened to Iván left me really confused. Why is it so important if a Peruvian does or doesn’t like the country’s food? Who cares? Apparently, Peruvians do, but why?
That is the question.
Diego: I’m half-joking, but it’s simple: we’re really bad at football, you know? We don’t know how to play football so we make up for it in the kitchen.
Daniel: And he is only half-kidding when he says that. But like a lot of jokes, there’s some truth to it. Others have said it to me. Look at it this way: what do you build national pride with these days in Latin America? Is it our nature? Our landscapes? Our monuments? I guess.
Thankfully, we don’t start wars with neighboring countries. Instead we resolve our South American conflicts through the international court at The Hague, or inside football stadiums. And we Peruvians have suffered for many years on the pitch. Meanwhile, outside of that, what do people know about my country? Internal conflict, inept or corrupt politicians. Actually, inept and corrupt. And until recently, an economy that wouldn’t take off.
Diego: So when we found something that made it so when you said Peru the first thing that came to mind wasn’t Abimael Guzmán or Fujimori, but rather a ceviche, we clung to that like a drowning man to a life raft, you know?
Daniel: In other words, our food has become our brand.
Commercial: Read your rights as Peruvians. You’re from Peru. You have the right to eat delicious food!
Daniel: That’s the audio from the first successful public ad campaign for Marca Perú.
Commercial: Anticucho! Ceviche!
Daniel: Maybe you’ve seen the logo, the word Perú, with the P in a spiral. They put in on everything: baby bibs, hats, underwear. In the spot, a group of chefs, musicians, and Peruvian public figures go to a town in the United States called Peru and show the residents what it means to be Peruvian.
Anyway, in Ivan’s case, his comments hurt our national pride. If our place in the world depends on whether or not foreigners like our food, then obviously what Ivín said is an attack against the nation.
I asked Gustavo at which point he felt the scandal hit bottom.
Gustavo: You know when? When a Peruvian chef here raised his knife and said, “If I see that son of a bitch, I’ll kill him.”
Daniel: So it ended like that: one month of noise and media pressure. A bunch of interviews rejected by Iván, a couple of them accepted by Gustavo as he tried to defend Iván. Conspiracy theories put out by people claiming that it was a setup, something prepared between both writers to sell more books. Another little scandal.
But as we’ll see in a minute, this was not the end of the story. We’ll be back after the break.
Thank you for listening to Radio Ambulante. Before we go back to our story I want to tell you about another NPR podcast, one about music, called Alt.Latino. It’s hosted by Felix Contreras, and Felix is your guide into the world of Latino arts and culture. An alternative approach to traditional music. Interviews with cultural icons like Rita Moreno and Carlos Santana as well as contemporary vanguards like Calle 13 or author Junot Díaz. Find Alt.Latino on the NPR One app and at npr.org/podcasts
You’re listening to Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the break, we met the story of Iván Thays and the media scandal that originated when he confessed he didn’t like Peruvian food. But he wasn’t the only public figure who dared to say it out loud. A couple of years passed and another guy showed up, my friend and namesake Daniel Titinger or Titinjer.
Daniel Titinger: Sometimes I say Titinjer or Titinger, depending on my mood. I don’t really know… I swear that I don’t really know how it’s pronounced.
Daniel: Well, I know him as Titinger. We’ve been friends since we worked together at the Peruvian magazine Etiqueta Negra. He’s a journalist, an editor, and right now manages a sports newspaper and several magazines in Lima.
In August of 2014, he was finishing a book, something that I know isn’t easy. And to break up the monotony of work…
Titinger: No big deal. Sometimes you stop to do push-ups or turn on the television or log on to Facebook. Well, it occurred to me to make the front cover of a fake book.
Daniel: He looked for a funny image.
Titinger: And I found two cuy doing it.
Daniel: A cuy is… well, in English they say guinea pig. Cobaya, conejillo de indias as they say in other countries. It’s like a giant hamster.
Titinger: It’s a pet.
Daniel: But in Peru and in other Andean countries, they eat it. Delicious, by the way. And these two guinea pigs weren’t just in a sex position, but they were…
Titinger: In a frying pan.
Daniel: Fried. Charred. It seemed like the perfect image for a book he decided to call: Against Peruvian Cuisine. And that was it. Titinger sent it out, through Twitter in specific. And he didn’t think much of it. But…
Titinger: After a while, I logged on to Twitter and saw that this thing had exploded.
Daniel: Well, let’s not exaggerate. We’re not talking about it trending worldwide or anything like that. But it was being shared a lot.
Two things worth noting: nobody seemed to doubt that it was a real book. And unlike what happened to Iván two years earlier, everyone praised Titinger.
Titinger: I got praised for what in this country would be a suicidal act.
Politics, the economy, your neighbor, how your sister looks, how your wife drives. Everything. It’s the truth. You’re allowed to criticize everything, except for the food.
Daniel: And to Titinger, it all just seemed like good fun.
Titinger: That’s where it gets weird, Daniel. I saw that I had support from a lot of people. And I saw that they were saying to me, “Good! It’s good that you criticized Peruvian food!” I felt like there were Peruvians that were sick of it.
Daniel: According to Titinger, they were fed up with the propaganda, the false image of a country where everyone eats delicious food, where every lunch is a spectacle. They were fed up with new restaurants, chefs that sold you the same plate your grandmother used to make every Sunday, but in a smaller portion that costs 50 dollars.
Titinger: We made our chefs our biggest idols. People take selfies with a plate of food. Tourists come here just to eat Peruvian food.
Daniel: And according to Titinger…
Titinger: I think people got fed up. Enough. So much about food in a country where people die of hunger.
Daniel: So with that critical spirit, Titinger decided to continue with the joke.
Titinger: The next thing I did was put my real book aside and start to create this fake book on Facebook in small chapters.
Daniel: He posted it as if they were advances of his book. He wrote them in his car, on his way to work, while he was stuck in Lima’s horrible traffic.
Titinger: I wrote them on my phone, Daniel. Nobody can write anything serious on their phone!
Daniel: In the first chapter of this supposed book he openly criticized a Peruvian chef –one he invented, obviously– who, in an effort to seem trendier…
Titinger: Had… instead of seasoning the guinea pig, what he made were hamster anticuchos to shrink them and make them more French. You get it? And people believed me. It was amazing. People said to me, “Hey, congrats on the book. That’s incredible and disgusting, I couldn’t eat hamster, but…”
Daniel: He would post crazier and crazier things on his Facebook wall. With every post he assumed people would realize that it was all a joke, but no.
Titinger: And they started to send messages to my inbox, you know? From newspapers in Chile, a country with which we have certain kinds of idiotic conflicts. Newspapers from Spain, Mexico, and even Peru, that wanted to publish advances of my book.
Daniel: And Titinger rejected every interview, every request. In the next post, he revealed that one of the most emblematic creole dishes…
Titinger: Huancayo-style potatoes were created by a Chilean. That was just to make it even more controversial. But nevertheless, people believed it.
Daniel: And he kept going.
Titinger: After that, I praised the Peruvian belly.
Daniel: The national stomach that grows during the boom.
Titinger: They kept sending more queries to my inbox, to my email, asking me for advances.
Daniel: Until he dropped a bomb.
Titinger: The book wasn’t going to be published –the fake book, the book Against Peruvian Cuisine– because it had been vetoed by the food lobby that controlled the country.
And people got upset. They said, “How is it possible that chefs can censor a book?”
Daniel: But there was a way out. Publish it abroad.
Titinger: Afterwards, I said that since my book had been censored in Peru by the food lobbyists controlled by Gastón Acurio and his followers, I was going to publish a translation in French through Gallimard, the prestigious publishing house in France.
Daniel: Let’s see. Gallimard, the same publisher that published Borges, Cortázar, and Vargas Llosa, was going to publish a book whose cover featured two fried guinea pigs having sex.
Titinger: That’s what I said. That’s what I put so that they would realize that it was ridiculous, that it was a lie, and let me live in peace so I could finish my real book.
Nevertheless, they congratulated me for publishing the book in France and for having the courage and bravery to say it outside of our borders.
Daniel: Which is surprising, right? Iván said the same thing more or less in the pages of a Spanish newspaper, and they almost took away his Peruvian citizenship. Now, Titinger was going to publish his fake book in Europe and they supported him.
It was time to ask for the help of friends. This is Diego Salazar again.
Diego: For me it was obviously a parody. Later on, I realized that for a lot of people it wasn’t.
Gustavo: I found out through Facebook.
Daniel: Gustavo Rodriguez again.
Gustavo: And I told him right away, “Hey, you’re messing with us, right?” And he told me, “Yeah, brother. But you have no idea! A journalist from Spain just called me and another from Chile. You don’t know the whole mess that this has turned into!”
Daniel: Gustavo and Diego would become accomplices to the joke.
Diego: It was in that moment that I told him, “Shit, let’s keep it going! You have to keep going!” From there, he asked me to write a prologue. A fake one.
Daniel: Or rather, a real prologue for a fake book.
Titinger: And he did it. It was the best Diego has written in his life!
Daniel: In the text, Diego imagines what would cause a journalist like Titinger to commit this suicidal act and go after the machine behind the gastronomic boom in Peru. His conclusion: hatred. That simple. Hatred.
Diego: “With this hate, with this bile spewed on to the pages…
Titinger: Diego psychoanalyzed me in the prologue, like a Freudian analysis.
Diego: “The journalist-turned-essayist is merely bringing up an unhealthy penis envy.”
Titinger: And that’s how the prologue ended. So I said, “That’s it. To say that this is penis envy, nobody is going to believe that.”
Diego: The level of absurdity and ridiculousness in these jokes always keeps getting bigger.
Titinger: And even so, people believed it.
Daniel: They didn’t just believe it.
Diego: In fact, there were people insulting me on Daniel’s wall saying that I hadn’t understood the book. A book that they hadn’t read because it didn’t exist!
And so I was like, “I can’t believe that people still believe us when it’s becoming more evident that it’s a joke.”
Titinger: I think one characteristic we share as a nation is an undeveloped sense of irony.
Daniel: It’s possible. Or rather, it’s hard for me to deny it. My Colombian wife most likely agrees.
But well, how do you end a joke that’s gotten out of hand? Remember that Titinger was about to finish a real book, a book that he had been working on for years, and his concern was that of any writer: that nobody would read it. What would happen if the world found out that the book about gastronomy was fake? Would rejecting so many interviews have some kind of impact if in less than a year he would be looking for the press to give his real book attention?
Titinger: Gustavo Rodriguez, one of the people that wrote something for the cover of the Gallimard edition –so Gustavo was going to be translated into French as well– had the magnificent idea to do a presentation of my book. And that the whole joke would end in a restaurant.
Daniel: They would announce it like a book presentation, up to the point they would print books with blank pages. They would find a chef to present the book. They would prepare a show.
But Titinger thought about his real book and said no. It was too much. He ended it.
Titinger: I wrote a final post, a chapter on Facebook with the title “For Public Opinion.”
Daniel: He confessed everything. From beginning to end.
Titinger: That is, I wasn’t a kamikaze. I wasn’t this brave guy. I kept being the guy with high cholesterol that ate steamed fish and boiled potatoes. You understand?
Daniel: It made him feel bad to abuse the naivety of the people that believed something so improbable. The book didn’t exist. It never existed. But if a lot of people believed so it was for a reason, right? They wanted to believe. They wanted to believe that someone would dare to say what they were thinking.
Titinger: In the end, I think that’s my message to the nation, if you could call it that. I love being Peruvian, but I think that it’s foolish to have forged our national identity on the basis of a plate of food, you know? You can’t do that. I think that’s wrong.
Daniel: The event, the book presentation that never happened, would have been something special. Remember that Gustavo, the novelist at the center of the controversy with Ivan, is also a communications consultant. He would have made it something big. A joke with an echo that would force us to think about this national obsession.
I asked if it made him sad that they never did it, that the joke was incomplete. He told me no. But it would have been…
Gustavo: The making-of of the joke that showed how we are as a country with regard to this topic. But in the end, you’re the one who is doing it.
Daniel: I guess so. And maybe Titinger saved himself. Maybe the same people that threatened Iván could have found out and sharpened their knives against him. Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe something’s changed in two years.
Titinger: Yeah, I think that people are ready for someone at the table to say, “I don’t like it.” And it’s likely that no one grabs a knife and murders them. There’s a good chance that doesn’t happen. Five years ago, that would have happened.
Daniel: And maybe we can call that progress.
Thank you to Iván Thays, Gustavo Rodriguez, Diego Salazar, and Daniel Titinger.
This story was written by me, edited by Camila Segura and Silvia Viñas, with sound design by Andrés Azpiri. Thanks to Eduardo García Peña for helping us with recordings in Lima.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Fe Martínez, Luis Trelles, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Barbara Sawhill, and Caro Rolando. Our interns are Emiliano Rodríguez and Luis Fernando Vargas. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO.
Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website www.radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thank you for listening.