Adorable pets and fluffy companions to many, Guinea pigs have long been a sought-after food item for the South American working class in New York.
Unfortunately, the rodents for sale in the City don’t belong to the domestic, spoiled and fattened class children play with. They are instead an extraordinary import from the abroad, or – when the need for freshness is higher – a homegrown Yankee breed: nourished and confined in the backyards of America, far from the sight of Health inspectors.
When months ago, on a Sunday morning, I went visit my friend Narciso in Jackson Heights, I knew we wouldn’t eat ordinary food. The day wouldn’t be ordinary at all: we were about to attend the wedding of Narciso’s sobrina, not far from the casbah of Roosvelt Avenue.
Every South American society makes wedding the event of a lifetime, and Ecuadorians make no exception. Food abounds in every square inch of floor space. There’s no room for budgeting on a prime quality banquet.
In a rental ceremony hall adorned with all sorts of flower compositions and multicolored dresses, the much celebrated cuyes made their first appearance.
The father of the bride, a forty-something short and gaugy construction worker, made his way through the crowd with an unusually large tray. Soon the treasure was unveiled: a pyramid of large, roasted rodents, stacked one on another, skewered with long sticks.
The presentation is certainly the least exciting part of the guinea pigs experience. If probably nobody looks good when dead, cuyes are particularly unpleasant. And for a reason many choose to remove their head and feet before serving at the table: with their grashing teeth, leather-like flattened skin and dramatic expressions of pain, these critters look nothing short of roasted subway rats. While this can be a put-off for middle-class foodies, many diners eat every last morsel, literally from head to toe.
In fact, statistics say guinea pigs imports are rising. The website NPR reported a company in Connecticut whose imports have nearly doubled since 2008 — from 600 guinea pigs per year then to more than 1,000 today.
Guinea pigs are usually killed with a stun gun or a neat cut to the throat, then boiled in large cauldrons for about 20 min., slit open, their hair and viscere removed, flattened and grilled. Crispy brown deep fried cuy is another appreciated variation. They can be served in quarters or whole, with rice, potatoes or vegetables.
Many compare the taste of cuy to chicken, others to rabbit. Overall, most people agree on greasy quality of the meat, yet high in protein and low in fat and cholesterol.
Most Ecuadorian immigrants in NYC are originally from the countryside of Quito, the capital city. In this area it’s a well-established ritual to present newlyweds with a substantial amount of cuyes. The parents-in-law usually donate the most conspicuous gift, but in many cases all the households invited to a boda show up with at least one cuy, already skinned and prepared.
Since the 1990s, when Ecuadorian immigration peaked. this tradition moved to the streets of New York. But the city has one of the strictest pet laws in the country, which bans the ownership of otters, badgers, weasels, furrets, and all types of large rodents. What’s worse: eating domestic pets is prohibited.
The result is that cuyes are available mostly on import, through Latino American businesses, at an average price of 30$ per animal. Or served in small family-oriented, Ecuadorian-run restaurants in Queens, like Urubamba or El Pequeño Coffee Shop. It’s an expensive item in the menu, exclusively made to order, ranging from $20 to $45 per serving.
Narciso has many relatives still living en el campo, in the rural areas where guinea pigs have been bred in granjas (farms) over many generations. In fact, about 65 million cuyes are eaten in Ecuador ever year – a tradition going back to the Incas, and widespread also in Peru and Bolivia. “But folks in the Capital now don’t fancy this food anymore”, my friend says. “Cuyes have almost disappeared from Quito’s tables.” This is why migrants are the proudest defenders of the ritual. “My great-grandmother has the best animals in her village, and I makes orders of 15-20 cuyes at a time, right before Christmas or for a special occasion: a wedding, a newborn baby, a quinceanera.”
Not everybody wants to wait for expeditions though. So a few Queens residents had the idea to transform their backyards in underground farms, and breed, butcher and sell their own guinea pigs. The Ecuadorian community in the city (about 200,000 people) was in constantly growing demand.
That’s how the black market of cuyes in Jackson Heights was born and exploded.