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I Am Vegetarian

One of my best friends, Yusuf, made fun of me a few weeks ago when I told him that I, although vegetarian, was willing to eat Peruvian dishes with meat for the sake of finding out what they taste like. Flavor, I told him, is one of the basic substances of life. If I really want to approximate life as a Peruvian, I have to know what life here tastes like.

“I’m gonna be real and just call you out on your bullshit,” he responded.


In Peru I’ve eaten ají de gallina (chicken), lomo saltado (sirloin), spicy goat, and guinea pig, to name a few. For those who haven’t eaten guinea pig, know that it is not for the squeamish. The animal is tiny, and you have to nibble and suck on its bones to extract even a morsel of meat. There’s also the option to eat the head: brain, cheeks, and other bits of joy that I could never stomach, no matter how open I try or claim to be.

But now, Yusuf, I finally feel I can refute your “BS” call. First, allow me to offer a citation: Mary J. Weismantel, author of Food, Gender, and Poverty in the Ecuadorian Andes, says

It is not only a physiological truism that we are what we eat; what we eat and how we eat it also defines us as social beings. Cooking ensures the material production and reproduction of the social group, but this material process is culturally structured. To cook is to speak and to mean, as well as to make and to do.

It’s obvious but important to realize that indeed without food we would neither reproduce ourselves nor produce anything. All of our actions are based in or dependent upon what we eat. And what we eat is dependent upon where we live, our economic status, our identity, etc. Decisions as simple as whether or not we buy brand-name products or their generic variations, or whether to make or buy a tomato sauce, imply not only our priorities but also what luxuries are available to us. Does that mean that tasting salsa huancaína gives me a profound insight into Peruvian life? No. But it has given me a new perspective on my own.

Over the years, my diet has seen several profound shifts. As a tot, I ate hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders and the occasional popcorn shrimp with mozzarella sticks or French fries. There was fruit, too: applesauce. With lots of sugar. And I was crazy about Lunchables. As I entered middle school and then high school, I began to take my physique and sports more seriously, and I entered into the paradigm that is protein loading. I ate several eggs in the morning, followed by lunch and dinner based upon meat dishes. In my senior year of high school, I was eating red meat for lunch and dinner every day. It came from Wal-Mart, and it was cube steak, one of the lowest quality pieces of an already low quality cow. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I even tried a salad, and shortly afterwards I finally started replacing diet soda – 3 to 5 cans per day was my usual – with water.

I’m not sure when I realized that I was rapidly doing my body in, but by December of 2007 I decided to give vegetarianism a try. It was my best chance to undo the damage I had done. After a few weeks, I realized I had more energy than before. The sluggish feeling that a heaping plate of meat brings to me was no more. A few months later I lost the taste for meat (though not the smell for bacon, never). Then I started reading about the food production process and I realized that being vegetarian makes sense not only for my body but also for the environment and, I believe, the animals themselves. People who say “humane slaughter” have never sliced a chicken’s throat, but that’s another story.

In December of 2010, I was still eating my normal vegetarian diet – lots of fruits and vegetables, a few whole grains, nuts and legumes for protein and the occasional egg or cheese. I cooked all of my meals (taken from Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian) and often shared them with friends. I made my own coffee in the morning, first by grinding the beans and then brewed via one of three methods – moka pot, pour-over or Aeropress. My life in the States has hundreds of flavors from all over the world – Claudia and I make sesame-tahini chard, miso soup, an Argentine pumpkin soup, dal (Indian lentils), and more, just not all together. I knew where my food came from, having purchased most of it at the farmers’ market, and I ate whatever se me daba la gana. This was my status quo, a diet I thought I would always stick to, until I realized in my travels that sometimes it’s just not possible.

My first stop out of the country was Venezuela, where I had fresh, fresh orange juice and coffee with an arepa or two for breakfast, followed by lots of yucca, plantains, and salad throughout the rest of the day. I invented a salmon yucca burger  (salmon, yucca, onions, ají dulce, rosemary) that is to die for. Perhaps Gertrudis and I overindulged in chocolate in the night while all of us sipped on red wine. And with a goodbye dinner at least once a week, we ate our fair share of three- to five-course meals out on the town. I was now pescatarian, but still eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and still indulging (responsibly, sometimes) in alcohol and sweets.

And now I’m in Lima where I have grown accustomed to the following regimen:

  • Breakfast: papaya juice, instant coffee, bread with margarine and jelly
  • Lunch: juice drink, white rice, potatoes, and fish or beans
  • Dinner: instant coffee, white rice, potatoes, and a soy meat dish with sauce

Every day. And I feel like I’m going crazy. Why? Because a large part of who I am is based upon health – not only do I want to work in health later in my life, but I also invest part of my identity in the fact that I do exercise daily and I do shop at Whole Foods and I don’t eat refined grains or artificial flavors. But it’s more, too – I believe in the virtue of eating food in its most natural state. Full fat, full flavor. I like a full-bodied red wine and dark chocolate and a thick espresso. And I want real butter and yogurt that hasn’t be “de-creamed.” The less processing and packaging, the better.

And the implications of food go beyond personal health and culture (check out Bittman’s Food Matters Cookbook or Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma). What we eat has vast economic and environmental consequences that have also become intertwined with my identity. I try to nourish myself with foods whose sources I can identify, who don’t use GMOs or toxic pesticides, and who have been paid a fair price for their labor. In my world, it’s an obvious choice – healthier, tastier food, less pollution, better wages – even if it means 75%+ of my paycheck. It’s more sustainable than the alternatives, and if I were to save that money, what purpose would it serve? More consumption?

Deprived of whole grains, brewed coffee, and fruits and vegetables in general, I had a bit of a meltdown last Monday. “How do they manage to so perfectly divide the plate between white rice and potatoes?” I asked another IFSA student. “Why doesn’t the salad bar at Vivanda have raw vegetables? Why don’t they get tired of eating the same goddamn breakfast every day?! Do you realize that my digestive system no longer functions properly because of all this abuse?”

I’m not sure why we eat the things we do. I eat what I believe is the healthiest – not just nuts and berries, but a natural and varied diet that allows regular treats and, therefore, mental as well as arterial health. But I do know that other people do not concern themselves so much with the nutritional value of their food. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, people in the Northern Sierra often sell one of their few sources of proteins in order to buy white rice and pasta, supplements to a diet heavy in other carbohydrates like corn and potatoes. They are habits – cultural as much as personal – that we learn and live, customs that are familiar and comforting to us. I didn’t stay in the Sierra long enough to hear it, but I have no doubt that all the foods they eat are believed to contain various properties that fortalice the human body in one way or another. We are, after all, what we eat.

A side note, for those considering travel to Peru: Peruvians do eat wonderful food. There’s chifa (Peruvian Chinese food), the uber-famous ceviche, chicha morada, and causa. They have chirimoya (custard apples), lúcuma (eggfruit), and maracuyá (passion fruit). And there are the condiments, like ají and rocoto, that can never be duplicated outside of the country. I think of the sopa seca I ate in Carmen, the afro-Peruvian region south of Lima, a noodle dish made with various Peruvian herbs, spices, and peppers that very well may change your life. And there’s the beer (Cusqueña) and the coffee (Tunki), the best in the world according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America. But you won’t find any Cusqueña or Tunki in my house. No, you won’t find us drinking much alcohol at all, and if we’re sipping on coffee it’s instant, Nescafé. I can’t explain the former, but I assume the later may have something to do with saving the best products for exportation.



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