Guinea Pig With Garlic – Translation
[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Today we bring you a tasty chapter, served in two courses. We’re going to be listening to two stories about food. Two things that unite us and separate us when we sit at the table. Because we all have a dish that transports us back to our childhood or our happy place . . . But that same recipe, which can even get us excited, can horrify someone else.
That happened to my friend Fidel Dolorier when he moved from Peru to California in 1987. Any Peruvian who hears about that year can imagine what Fidel left behind when he got on the plane—an unstable country, a country plagued by terrorism and political violence.
A country that Fidel was beginning to miss desperately.
[Fidel Dolorier]: For many years, I was unable to return to Peru, because I was undocumented, but I really missed it a lot. I was very depressed, sad, and one of the ways, let’s say, to fill that void was with . . . with Peruvian food.
[Daniel]: For many Peruvians, food is more than just a source of nutrition. In our collective identity, it occupies that place where an Argentinean would perhaps put soccer, or a Brazilian a carnival—a place we have in common, where emotions and memories, pride and nostalgia, are mixed. One of those things that can affect the heart of an immigrant, especially of one who has just arrived in a country that he’s only beginning to understand.
[Fidel]: And well, my favorite dishes are . . . all of them, actually. You tell me it’s Peruvian food and I’ll eat it, whatever it is. Without a fuss.
[Daniel]: But Fidel had a problem. In the late eighties, Peruvian cuisine was not yet famous in the world, and in the U.S. it was almost impossible to find the ingredients. And worse still, in all his life he had never even put a pot on the fire.
[Fidel]: When I came to this country, I didn’t even know how to cook rice. I mean, it was a disaster. When I was growing up, they used to kick me out of the kitchen because, you know, we were three brothers, and three sisters, plus my mother and my grandmother in the kitchen. So not only did we get in the way, but the saying was, kind of sexist, right? “Men don’t belong in the kitchen.”
[Daniel]: Calls to his native Ayacucho back then cost a dollar per minute. A dollar that Fidel couldn’t spare.
[Fidel]: So I would say, “Mom, quick [laughs], how do you make rice?” And so, little by little, I learned.
[Daniel]: He asked his friends who were traveling from Peru to bring the ingredients for his favorite dishes. At first, Customs would confiscate them, but later he came up with a system so that they couldn’t be found. Over time, he became an expert smuggler of chili peppers, olluco, maca, and everything else.
[Fidel]: Now I have my own method, you know. And so . . . I can’t tell you [laughs]. But it’s almost one hundred percent successful. [laughs]
[Daniel]: He also looked forward to any opportunity to go to other Peruvian homes. At those get-togethers, everything revolved around the kitchen.
[Fidel]: You would really look forward to it. You were very excited because you knew it would be delicious. And they always criticize us Peruvians because any party we go to, we all end up in the kitchen, talking, being . . . being noisy and tasting from—from the pots. Socially and emotionally, we revolve around food.
[Daniel]: But there was a dish that he couldn’t get at any friend’s house, and it would have been crazy to hide it in a suitcase. A typical recipe from the Andean area that, as time went on, became an obsession: Fidel was dying to eat cuy chactado.
And you may be wondering: What is cuy? This is a key question in our story. If you ask a gringo, they’ll tell you that the cuy, or guinea pig, is a pet—a small, furry, even cute rodent, right? The kind of harmless, easy-to-care-for animal you would give to a child.
Someone from Ayacucho like Fidel, on the other hand, is going to tell you that sure, it can live at home with the children . . . until it’s old enough.
[Fidel]: It is an animal from the Andes. It was domesticated just five thousand years before Christ. And it is, let’s say, a great source of protein in the Andes, where there aren’t very many sources of protein.
[Daniel]: What leads us to view some animals as food and not others? That’s a difficult question—one that has puzzled anthropologists and cultural scholars. But it was far from puzzling to my friend Fidel.
[Fidel]: It happened that one day I was walking down the street and I saw a pet shop, a place to adopt pets. So I looked in the window and there I see they have a guinea pig.
[Daniel]: Imagine Fidel: He‘s standing in front of a pet shop, in a country he hardly knows. One in which a guinea pig, an animal that comes from his region and that he has eaten all his life, is treated as if it were a puppy. He looks through the glass. He sees it there, in its little cage, ready to go . . .
[Fidel]: So I come closer, I look at it, the guinea pig looks at me, we look at each other—and the guinea pig hides because it seems to have recognized something. It thought, “He is Peruvian.”
[Daniel]: Even worse for the guinea pig, he was a nostalgic Peruvian. So Fidel enters the premises and sees the lady tends the shop. She seems so kind, so willing to help him.
[Fidel]: She says to me, “Oh, can I help you?” And I say, “Yes, look, this . . . that little animal,” I say, “uh . . . is it for sale?
[Daniel]: The woman looks at Fidel. Her eyes seem to gauge the situation . . .
[Fidel]: She must have seen, I don’t know, a diabolical look on me, and she said, “Oh, are you Peruvian?”
[Daniel]: At first, Fidel thought it was the beginning of a dialogue. One that could be about the origin of the guinea pig, or perhaps about cultural differences.
[Fidel]: I said, “Yes,” thinking it was going to start a conversation or something. And she said, “No, no,” she says, “no, it’s not for sale” [laughs]. She denied me access to my guinea pig.
[Daniel]: Fidel could have told her many things—that the guinea pig has been eaten in the Andean region for millennia, long before it was domesticated. That in his city of Ayacucho, the cuy chactado, which would be a roasted guinea pig, is one of the typical dishes served at family celebrations, reunions with friends, weddings, and even carnival. That in traditional Andean medicine they’re used to make diagnoses: first, the guinea pig is rubbed, then the healer opens it and checks the state of its organs, to see if you have any illness.
Even their meat contains an enzyme, asparaginase, which could help prevent leukemia. But Fidel didn’t tell her any of that. He just laughed.
[Fidel]: It made me laugh at that moment, because I understood right away. Obviously [laughs], she was defending the physical integrity of the poor little animal. She saw me . . . I don’t know . . . with blood in my mouth, right? [laughs]
[Daniel]: It would be a few years before he could finally eat a roasted guinea pig. On a trip to New York, a friend took him to an Ecuadorian market in the Russian part of Brooklyn, where he was finally able to buy a couple of frozen guinea pigs. He took them back to California, where he was living, and then he had a party with other immigrants, to which he was kind enough to invite me.
Something as small as that, a dish that others would never dare try, can blur, for one night, the seven thousand kilometers between a group of people and the place where they left their memories.
[Fidel]: It also has something to do with . . . with your mother, I imagine. Because we grew up watching my mother cook, being close to her, in the heat of the kitchen, the smells. All that brings you a world of memories, doesn’t it?, that you really treasure and try to enjoy as much as possible.
[Daniel]: But culture always finds a way to break through. Today, if you are Peruvian, you live in the United States and you have a chat with a stranger, you will most likely end up talking about food. And what’s more, you may even have to beg them to change the subject. In San Francisco alone, there are at least 25 Peruvian food restaurants.
[Fidel]: They do not serve guinea pig today, so as not to offend local sensibilities. But still, people know about it. I mean, I talk to anyone, now, and they know about Peruvian beef stir-fry, ceviche, chicken chili, etc. In that cultural sense they do [laughs] . . . food has gotten through, it has helped to get through . . . more than ever before. Before, we were—we were only Machu Picchu, or we were the Shining Path (laughter). Now it is food. [laughs]
[Daniel]: Still, of course, there are situations like the one Fidel experienced at the pet store. In 2015, someone called 911 in Brooklyn to report a case of animal abuse. A man, he said, was roasting what he thought were squirrels in the middle of Prospect Park. The case reached the local media. Newsreels show a photo of an Ecuadorian man, alone and smiling, roasting a guinea pig on a stick.
A photo that might shock Fidel’s son. My friend, who 30 years ago wanted to eat a guinea pig to remember his mother, today has a son who is a militant vegan. In Lima, not too long ago, if someone said they were vegetarian or vegan, chances are they would be offered chicken. And if they didn’t accept chicken, well . . . fish. But things are very different today. There are vegan, raw, and every other type of restaurants. Culture, as we said, finds a way to break through everywhere.
We’ll be back after a pause, for the second course.
[Daniel Alarcón]: We’re back at Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Before the break, we heard a love story: Fidel and his roasted guinea pig, the Peruvian dish that made him feel closer to his family.
But now we’re going to hear a story of hate. Hatred of an ingredient that has united the family of our producer Lisette Arévalo for generations.
[Lisette Arévalo]: There are several things you probably don’t know about garlic.
First: The sticky fluid that comes out of a garlic clove is used to make glue.
Second: On average, each person eats 302 cloves of garlic per year.
Third: The word Chicago—yes, the city—comes from garlic.
‘Shikaakwa’ is the indigenous word for garlic, and in the 17th century, garlic grew wild in the southern part of Lake Michigan.
And fourth, and the most important thing in this story . . .
Everyone in my family hates it.
And when I say everyone, I mean every one.
My first memory of hating garlic is from when I was 5 years old and we used to go to a mall with my mother. There was a huge food court where they sold meat, ceviche, pizza, roast chicken, everything . . . And every time we walked by, my mother would grab my hand, cover her nose and hurry through, just fleeing the place.
I didn’t quite understand why she was doing this, but I would always imitate her, like some sort of a game, walking as fast as I could. Until one day I asked her what was wrong, and she said, “It stinks of garlic.” At that time, I didn’t even know what garlic was or what it smelled like, but I still nodded as if I knew what she was talking about.
My mother’s answer made sense as I grew older. First, because it was repeated by my grandparents, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, my great-aunts . . . And second, because I learned to identify that particular smell, which I thought really did stink. Little by little, I developed a kind of “family superpower.” I was able to smell garlic from several meters away in a restaurant, on a plate of food . . . or even on a person.
One thing was clear: I had joined the clan.
And while garlic has always been a sensitive topic in my family, I never knew why or when exactly this aversion began. So, I decided to find out . . .
When I asked my grandfather, José Antonio Gross, this is what he told me:
[José Antonio Gross]: I think that ever since birth, we knew that we shouldn’t eat garlic, but I don’t know where all that comes from . . .
[Lisette]: My grandfather also remembers that from an early age his aunts, his mother and his grandmother always repeated that garlic was strictly forbidden, that it was something the Godoy family could never eat. And everyone ended up accepting it.
But hey, if I couldn’t figure out why, I wanted to at least know who started all this, who said, “We don’t eat garlic in this family, period.”
After I searched everywhere, the only person who had a possible answer was my great-aunt, Gloria.
[Gloria]: That comes from the Godoy family, from their grandmother . . . Hortencia, and from the mother . . . from Viviana Molina Becerra.
[Lisette]: So, my great-great-great-grandmother, Viviana Molina, seems to be the one who started it all. She passed it on to her daughter, my great-great-grandmother Hortencia Becerra . . . who in turn passed it on to her children: Neptaly Godoy and Celina Godoy . . . Who passed it on to their children: my grandparents . . . who are also cousins: José Antonio Gross and Norma Godoy. And, of course, finally, to my mom, my two sisters, and me.
But the aversion doesn’t end there. Because just as my grandparents passed it on to us, their brothers and sisters passed it on to their children and grandchildren. It’s something that is present in my entire extended family . . . If you don’t believe me, let’s see: let’s listen to some of my relatives. Here, in order: Michelle, Alejandra, Josette, Alex, Paul, and Chaby.
[Michelle]: Garlic tastes . . . well, it tastes like indigestion to me.
[Alejandra]: It’s a smell that comes from your stomach and comes out of your skin.
[Josette]: It smells like armpit.
[Alex]: Burnt espadrille.
[Paul]: A smell like sour, fermented—like an acid, like some kind of sulfur.
[Chaby]: It’s pretty nasty, nasty, nasty.
[Lisette]: As I talked to my family members about garlic, I realized that it has been a fundamental part of our lives for generations. Although we hate it, it’s one of those few things that unite us and define us as a family. It has been prohibited when catering weddings, at girls’ quinceañeras, at all birthday celebrations.
And the aversion to garlic is so important to us that it could have affected even my family tree. I’ll let my grandparents explain:
[José Antonio]: If Norma had eaten garlic—and I’m going be truthful about this—I wouldn’t have fallen in love with her (laughs). Just picture it. Well, with the smell of garlic, no . . . I wouldn’t even have let her approach me.
[Lisette]: And you, Granny? What if my grandfather smelled of garlic?
[Norma]: Same thing—I would not even welcome him at my door (laughs).
[Lisette]: Fortunately, this didn’t happen. But narrowing the possibilities of loving someone only to non-garlic eaters is not the only extreme measure in my family.
My grandfather’s uncle, for example, used to do this:
[José Antonio]: My uncle Lizardo Godoy was so specific about his food that whenever he made a trip to the coast—where garlic is widely eaten here in Ecuador—he would bring his own frying pan, his own pot . . . he would get there and say, “Cook for me using this pot.”
[Lisette]: His own frying pan and his own pot. And I really don’t blame him for being so paranoid. The way they talk about garlic in my family has influenced how we behave. My mom, for example, was worried about her love life when she was a teenager. And my great-grandmother said she had to be more careful not to accidentally eat any garlic.
[Gina]: My grandmother used to say, “They don’t have a sweetheart because they use garlic. Stop eating garlic and you’ll get a sweetheart.” Then I would think, “Whoa, yuck! They would find me really stinky.”
[Lisette]: I asked my mom to describe what garlic smells like to her.
[Gina]: It is a penetrating thing . . . that is, it reaches my brain . . . it’s a rejection. I do not know. It is like when you smell strong thinner; it goes up to your brain. That’s what it smells like to me. I cannot stand it . . .
[Lisette]: Thinner . . . paint thinner. For me, the smell of garlic is more like the smell of the subway . . . full of people . . . in the summer . . . without air conditioning. Paint thinner, a full train, an armpit, a burnt espadrille . . . it’s as if we all smelled something different when we smell garlic. As if our noses remembered what we dislike the most.
As you can imagine, our aversion to garlic really reduces our options when we go to a restaurant. Because there is garlic in everything. I mean, I can’t eat the obvious—garlic shrimp, garlic bread, or hummus, of course, but garlic is so common that it takes a lot of effort to avoid it. Garlic is used to season chicken, meat, fish, it’s even found in some salad dressings . . . And watch out for this: There’s even garlic ice cream!
This is a journalist welcoming people to a shop in Gilroy, California, considered one of the garlic capitals of the world.
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[Journalist]: Hello, everybody. Chris Bate is here reporting live from Garlic World and we’re going to buy and consume some garlic ice cream.
[Lisette]: Garlic World! The world of garlic. Garlicland. Just imagine. My worst nightmare. It’s in that store and at an annual festival held every year in Gilroy that this famous garlic ice cream is sold. And people love it:
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[Woman]: Let me tell you, this garlic ice cream is amazing.
[Man]: It’s sensational, how about that!
[Lisette]: What about it? It’s nasty.
Oh, but that’s not all. There’s always the one who says, “But you don’t know what you’re missing! Garlic is good for preventing gastric cancer, for curing the flu, treating arthritis, insomnia, asthma, pneumonia.” Or, in the words of this supposed metabolism “specialist” on the Internet:
(ARCHIVE SOUND BITE)
[“Specialist”]: Miraculous garlic. Ladies and gentlemen, garlic is miraculous. Its effects have been more than scientifically proved, and over thousands and thousands of years it has been known that garlic is very, very beneficial.
[Lisette]: Anyway, there is no safe place.
My uncle José knows what I’m talking about.
[José]: Well, once I went to a place that was highly recommended on the radio, wonderful hamburgers, grilled and everything. And the owner was Argentinean. However, I thought, “Argentineans don’t use garlic, but I’m going to ask.” So, I asked the man and he said that he used very little in a lot of meat—I wouldn’t even taste it . . .
[Lisette]: But of course, he did . . . And he just rejected it.
[José]: Right in front of him, I threw the hamburger in the trash and I told him, “McDonald’s sells”—at the time, they sold two billion hamburgers, they announced—“and they don’t use garlic. Now you come along and ruin their product.”
[Lisette]: Okay, I admit it, the reaction was a bit extreme.
But I’m also guilty of leaving restaurants because the whole place smelled of garlic . . . or holding my breath in an elevator with someone who has just eaten a lot of garlic . . .
Anyway, I think you get the picture: All of us, we really hate it.
And since my family couldn’t answer me why we are like this, I found three possible explanations:
One: we have—listen carefully to this word: alliumphobia. It exists. It is the phobia of smelling, being around, or eating garlic. We fit this description more or less, but when it comes to stronger symptoms, such as dizziness, rashes, loss of control, fear of dying . . . well . . . not really. So, this may not fully explain it.
Two: Genetic or epigenetic memory. That is, how trauma or aversion can modify people’s genes and how this can be passed on from generation to generation.
So in my family’s case, maybe my great-great-great grandmother Viviana got sick from eating garlic . . . or someone threw some of garlic cloves on her . . . or she ate it once and couldn’t get rid of the unpleasant odor on her skin. Anything could have happened to make her hate garlic in such way that it affected her genetic code. And as a result, we ended up hating it.
And well, the last possible explanation is that . . . we’re vampires. And that I can neither confirm nor deny. I will only say that people have always said our skin tone is very pale . . .
When I tell people about this, the first reaction is: But how do you manage? There’s garlic in everything. And yes, as I have said before, that’s true. So, when we go out to eat, we do everything possible to avoid having it on our dishes. We announce loudly that garlic is not eaten at this table, we tell the waiters to please tell us which dishes don’t have it, we ask to speak to the chef or the owner. But it doesn’t always work, and they sneak in a little garlic from time to time. So as a family, we have found a safer solution: we lie. This is my mom.
[Gina]: When I go to a restaurant, I tell them I have an allergy because they respect me that way. Because if they think it’s just a whim, “I don’t like garlic,” they put in a little bit, or who knows . . .
[Lisette]: None of us have been tested to see if we really are allergic. Well, except for my Canadian brother-in-law. And, this is absurd, he turned out to be very allergic. I don’t know what the odds are, but in our family, we interpret that as a sign that he and my sister were made for each other.
So of course, coming from a lineage of people who don’t eat garlic, it was strange that I ended up falling in love with someone who has eaten it all his life. When we were dating, I had to ask Agustín if he would eventually stop eating it. He said he didn’t know.
[Agustín]: But I do know that I’m going to reduce the amount. Because we’re a couple, and I can’t eat garlic if you don’t eat garlic, because garlic is going to affect you, and I’m going to smell like garlic. So it’s best to keep garlic out of our lives.
[Lisette]: It has been 4 years since I asked Agustín that question. And the truth is that in my mind I knew this was not a negotiation. He had to choose: either garlic or me. I came back from studying abroad, we moved in together, we got married, and I have to say that he chose well. Garlic has not entered this house.
And that’s not all. Little by little, he has also developed that “superpower” of smelling garlic from a distance, and when he does eat something that has garlic in it, he finds it horrible. And the same thing has happened to several people who have joined our family, either by marriage or a romantic relationship.
What’s more, sometimes they even end up hating garlic more than we do. Like my cousin Alejandra’s husband, for example:
[Alejandra]: Now he won’t eat garlic anymore. He’s worse than me. He walks into a restaurant and now he’s just like my mother. “It smells like garlic,” or “Your food smells like garlic.” Or if I accidentally eat something at school that has garlic . . . I come home and he says, “You stink!”
[Lisette]: It’s as if doing this makes them feel part of our family, like the last test they must pass to be accepted. And I think that’s why it has lasted from generation to generation . . .
I talked about it with my Canadian brother-in-law, Matthew, who came to Ecuador and became part of our family over 10 years ago.
I asked him if, after living with us for a decade, he had any theory about what is going on with us. What does garlic mean in our lives?
[Matt]: Garlic is a fortunate way to belong to the family. It allows the person to belong to a tribe. Oh, and on the other hand, it is a constant topic of conversation. It’s a way of life; whenever we go to a restaurant, whenever we go anywhere, it’s the first thing we talk about.
[Lisette]: And he’s right.
I must confess that I was often ashamed to tell this to people outside of my family. I remember when I was little and my mom called my friends’ houses to ask them not to give me food with garlic, I was mortified.
I would often eat what they served me without a fuss, to avoid giving a bad impression, to avoid a never-ending conversation about how strange my family is. But after talking to them for this story, listening to their anecdotes, seeing how, despite any political position or disagreement, we’re united by the aversion to garlic, that has changed for me.
So now I say, very proudly, I’m Lisette Arévalo and I do not eat garlic. And if you’re like us, well, you are not alone.
Welcome to my family!
[Daniel Alarcón]: This episode was produced by Lisette Arévalo and Nicolás Alonso. Lisette is a producer and lives in Quito, Ecuador. Nicolás is an editor and lives in Santiago de Chile.
This episode was edited by Camila Segura, Nicolás Alonso and me. Désirée Yépez did the fact-checking. The sound design is by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano, with original music by Rémy.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Aneris Casassus, Xochitl Fabián, Fernanda Guzmán, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Jorge Ramis, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas.
Emilia Erbetta is our editorial intern.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast of Radio Ambulante Estudios, and is produced and mixed in Hindenburg PRO.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.