Looking Dinner in The Face (Slightly NSFW Look at Markets in Peru)

Posted on
Nov 22, 2011
Posted in: Food, Random Musings

On occasion, I like to think of myself as a badass.

I’m not, mind you, but I like to think of myself as one. I also like to think of myself as elegant, demure, clear-skinned, and clever. Compared to those far greater delusions “badass” doesn’t seem so unreasonable. Especially when it comes to food.

A few weeks ago, I stood on my soapbox and prattled on about this precise subject. How I fearlessly gobbled guinea pig in Peru, and how in the past I’d tackled tripe without thinking about it, polished off pig’s feet with panache.  Food, it seems, is the one area of my life in which I’m not a coward.

In fact, when it comes to cuisine, I may actually be a badass. A little bit, at least.

But a trip to the market in Cuzco has me reconsidering all of that.  It was gritty. It was dirty. Parts of it smelled awful. And at times, it made even me – the supposed epicureal tough gal – get more than a little squeamish.

Things started out well enough. Hundreds of vendors crowd into the market, which has a roof but no actual walls. The stalls along the perimeter caters to tourists: you can buy souvenirs and scarves, Peruvian ponchos and tiny toy llamas. It was here that I haggled with a shopkeeper so furiously that I worked up a sweat, so Rand could bring home 50 Peruvian hats – one for every person at his company.

She still seemed happy, so we must not have gotten THAT great a deal.

Deeper in the market, where the light shone less brightly and the smells of the different foods – some familiar, others not – were more concentrated, was where the locals shopped. The stands here were arranged roughly the same way a grocery store would be. Fresh fruit down one aisle, dairy products down another. We milled around, outsiders fascinated by the what was, for people who live in Cuzco, rather mundane.

I asked a few questions to shopkeepers, requesting clarification. Sometimes I got it, other times I did not. Many of the women working there did not speak Spanish – only Quechuan, an ancient language prominent in the Andean region of Peru. When I inquired about a bumpy, greenish brown fruit (seen at the center bottom of the photo below), I received only an emphatic, “You can’t eat it.”

I don’t know if she meant me, personally, or in general.

Even familiar foods were unrecognizable – distant cousins to what we might find in grocery stores back home. It took me a moment to realize these large donuts – so smooth and dense they looked to be made of stone – were actually loaves of bread.

Other things proved universal – this is basically what the bulk section of any Whole Foods looks like:

Of course, none of this was really anything to get squeamish about. It was simply a market in Cuzco. Grittier, less-shiny and sparkly than what we were accustomed to, but not remarkable or shocking in any way. Not, at least, until we found the meat aisle.

Let me tell you now: if you are a vegetarian, if you dislike the sight of blood, if you are at all delicate of constitution, please do not read on. Instead, why not enjoy these adorable photos of baby animals? You can come back to my site tomorrow. Really, I’ll understand.

Have they gone? Are those of you who remain ready for this? You were sufficiently warned.

Rand spotted the meat section of the Cuzco market first, and walked down the aisle fearlessly. Whatever bravery I may profess to have when it comes to food is NOTHING when compared to the chutzpah my husband has. He bounced from table to table, eagerly pointing things out and saying, “Whoa!” and “Honey, take a photo of this!”
– 

And per his request, I did. Here is the partially butchered head of a cow, the snout still intact.

Yes, I eat meat. And I’ve noted that in my world, it’s all or nothing: I won’t nibble on fishsticks and then balk at trout served to me with its head still attached. In either case, an animal has died, and we need to realize that. We need to accept it.

I strongly believe this, but it was nevertheless shocking to see the dismembered heads of animals lined up on a table. The bulls’ heads below still had their horns attached. The pile of sheeps’ heads sat nearby, blood matting the still attached fur. Their vacant eyes, cloudy and open, looked up at us.

The smell was intense: heavy, pungent, and unappetizing. A mixture of rotting meat, blood, and the grassy, earthy smell of live animals. Odors from an entire life cycle.

By the time I saw this display of snouts and pigs’ feet – foods that I know well, I wasn’t phased at all. I’ve cooked up some of these in my very own home, pulling the remaining prickly hair from a trotter before tossing it in boiling water.

As we left that portion of the market and headed towards a less gruesome section, I took a deep breath in. I didn’t realize it until that moment, but I’d been breathing shallowly.

“That was,” Megan said, looking back at the scene we’d left, “really intense.”

I nodded. So intense, in fact, that when I saw a woman fishing living frogs out of a basin, rapping them against a board to kill them, and briskly peeling off their skin, I didn’t think much of it.

Funny enough, this actually got to Rand. He adores frogs, and won't eat them.

That was the market in Cuzco. It seems like a ridiculous, somewhat privileged thing to say, but on some level, I was proud of us. We’d looked our dinner in the face, and still had the nerve to eat it.

A few days later, in Lima, we found a grocery store closer to the ones we might find at home. Vivanda is pricier than most in Peru. It is a luxury shop of sorts, and it looks the part. The fruits and vegetables are glossy and clean, arranged in neat displays:

The meat is packaged in plastic and placed on ice.

 –

It’s clean and bright, prepacked and hygienic.

And the food you wish to purchase has already been killed.

Was I more comfortable in the meat section of Vivanda than I had been in Cuzco? Absolutely. There’s no question. But I can’t kid myself. Behind every pristine, pre-packed piece of steak, there’s a scene like the one we encountered in that market high in the mountains. There’s blood and entrails, odor and dirt. That’s something I can’t lose sight of, if I want to continue eating meat.

And miraculously, after everything that happened, I still want to.

So … that’s a little badass, right?

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