The beginning of summer means one thing in Cusco, Peru: Corpus Christi celebrations.
The annual festival kicks off 60 days after Easter Sunday, and while it's celebrated all over Peru, Cusco's residents add a little extra flair. Celebrants parade through the city, resplendent in wildly colorful costumes and trailing creatively pious floats featuring a bevy of saints and — of course — the Virgin Mary. The devotees are pulled toward the Cathedral of Cusco, where they honor the body of Christ.
But of course, no true party is complete without food.
Eight days after the start of Corpus Christi celebrations, the Fiesta de la Octava del Corpus (Celebration of the Eighth) is marked with a traditional feast — although Peru's dish of the hour is far from typical to our American palates.
Countless vendors set up tables and carts to serve up plates of "cuy," a regional delicacy that foreigners will recognize as a roast guinea pig.
While the food sellers offer other meats like chicken and sausage, cuy is far and away the main attraction. Nearly 10,000 guinea pigs are cooked up for the Corpus Christi festivities, many of which land on the standard plate, called "chiriuchu."
For that dish, vendors start with a bed of crunchy, roasted, and salted corn kernels called "canchitas." From this foundation extends a mound of savory comprising the cuy; a piece each of chicken and sausage; a thick slice of regional cheese; a corn bread-style pancake; a spiraling mass of seaweed; and a generous helping of roe.
For those worried about cutting into a childhood pet, fear not: The guinea pigs are prebutchered. And they mark a centerpiece for a feast that is equal parts party — with people packed around small tables digging into heaping helpings of chiriuchu — and parade.
Street musicians abound, and not just the expected acoustic guitarist, of which there are many. On my visit to Cusco, I saw a brave man dragging a harp around the main square, another casually toting a saxophone, and many wielding trumpets, which are used during the Corpus Christi parades. Add to that the flurry of colorful traditional Andean garb the venders wear — full skirts and decorated top hats, bowlers, or fedoras — and Octava celebrations prove as much a feast for the eyes as for the stomach.
Walking by any given cart, visitors are greeted with shouts from sellers encouraging them to try the food — in my case, "Mamá, ¡ven a probar!" or "Come taste, girl!" — as they push food into eager hands.
Speaking of which, cutlery is an abomination at Octava. Finishing off the mountain of chiriuchu — which translates to "cold dish" — demands dexterity, a little bit of ingenuity, and, frankly, will.
As for what this skillfully crafted and consumed dish tastes like? Well...
If you can get past the fact that you're staring into the guinea pig's beady, frozen eyes and gaping, toothy grin (cry?), the meat — what little is available — is gamey, tough, and greasy. Sure, it's a regional delicacy, and having eaten guinea pig, I've probably availed myself of some strange bragging rights, but I wouldn't order it again.
For what it's worth, though, that cornbread pancake was excellent.