This essay was first published in The Learned Pig on 1 October, 2017. It speaks to a world that has since been suspended, and to a moment that—at the time of this reissuing—may or may not have been lost.
“The great press baron, Lord Northcliffe, used to tell his journalists that four subjects could be relied upon for abiding public interest: crime, love, money, and food. Only the last of these is fundamental and universal. Crime is a minority interest, even in the worst-regulated societies. It is possible to imagine an economy without money and reproduction without love but not life without food. Food, moreover, has a good claim to be the world’s most important subject. It is what matters to most people most of the time.”
—Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Food: A History(2001), p. xiii
A decade or two into the surge in regard for Peruvian gastronomy, chances are the well-read, well-heeled reader has engaged with it in one of three settings: the controlled environment of the restaurant, the street, or the home.
Though the ingredients for the three are (increasingly less) similar, dinner at LIMA Fitzrovia or in Lima’s own Central is a distinct experience from the one risked by the culinary flâneur who is lured into the city by the possibility of hidden gems—while staying open to the probability of poisoning. As for the home base, it is hardly a secret that reams of Peruvian specialties in less socialised form can remind one of vomit, or spew.
If, in the words of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the “purpose of a myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction,” then proof of this mythmaking prowess, and proneness, can be found in the recent chapters of Peruvian culinary history. It seems, however, that some elements required for its vaunted mythic stature have been omitted, denied or ignored in different measure.
Is what we’re witnessing the stirring success story we are being sold on, and happy to buy—the story that’s able to stand on one leg for all time—or is it also a defensive mechanism, meant to mask a deeper inability to integrate “too much reality” on other fronts?
To answer, it will help to take a slow, long turn towards our three-pronged roadmap of the restaurant, the street (la calle) and the home (la comida casera), all of which are accents in a broader spectrum which, when locked in stride, translates into the disconcerting ease with which Peruvian food is able to adapt—but also nearly transform—into any other given “national” gastronomy. The term of art for this adaptive strategy is fusion, and it has since become the obligate function in the branding of Peruvian gastronomy, and the trademark of its national and international campaigns.
In the physical process of fusion, two atomic nuclei collide at unimaginable speeds to constitute a new one. In its culinary variant, the blending of two (or more) traditions under cultural pressures can cook up a new one as well. Whereas the former results in a “loss” (or, more precisely, a conversion) of matter, though, the exchange that takes place in the latter will pass through a necessary complication of identity.
The question is thus best served cold: if Peruvian gastronomy has become so fatally defined by fusion, what is it? What is it not?
If one intends to cloud the water, one should first clear the air. The impact of gastronomy in Peru’s development has been inarguable and calculable. A February 22, 2014 article in The Economist—published at the terminus of several years of sustained economic growth—estimated that “restaurants alone account for 3% of Peru’s GDP and that the sector is growing faster than the economy as a whole”.
It is also a fact that every link in this particular chain of production has hit a lively, coevolving march, as a result of which the chain itself has become stronger. The most outstanding showcase for this synergy is Mistura, the largest food festival in Latin America, sponsored by the Sociedad Peruana de Gastronomía (APEGA), which has helped the public to a sample of the national food industry’s variety and breadth since 2008.
The picture is that of a country with a happier and healthier self-regard. The sentiment is tangible, and it is often said that prior to the culinary boom, few limeños would have ventured to invite a foreign guest to a Peruvian restaurant or, God forbid, a local dive. The opposite is true today: Peruvian restaurants hold three positions in the World’s 50 Best list, and tourists and natives alike have made a sport of tracking down the most esoteric huariques. When The Economist went on to claim gastronomy “has helped restore national self-esteem in a country that a quarter-century ago was wracked by terrorism and hyperinflation,” it was fair to say that, by appearances, it had.
What no one likes to mention in such optimistic cases is not only that appearances can be deceiving, but also that they are frequently designed to be. Beginning in 1988 with the ordination of the flagship spirit pisco, four Peruvian culinary hallmarks have been officially invested with the rank of National Cultural Heritage, with a premium being constantly placed on “identity”. In 2007, peak avowal was reached when Peruvian gastronomy in toto was granted the honour.
Though foreign plaudits are too numerous to name, they usually refer to the domain of restaurants and their related universe of products. Peruvian culinary propaganda is a property now bordering perpetual motion, with the restaurant as its creative engine; and it is in playing out its role as catalyser that the restaurant itself has worked aggressively towards establishing a rapport with the street.
This is also where we find the merging of structural/structuring opposites into a mythic whole at its seeming best. Especially through the evangelism of chef Gastón Acurio, Peruvian haute cuisine appears to have accepted—even subsumed—its “shameful origins” to an extent in which the overlap of restaurant and street has become a discernible emergent feature of the Peruvian culinary phenomenon. A nod from the anointed is often all it takes to morph a food-cart into a reputational explosion, and it is generally agreed that every grand pronouncement or interpretation of Peruvian gastronomy depends on the vitality of the street scene, itself dependent on a first sufficiency in home cooking.
This is still, of course, an incomplete anatomy, and details that should help inject savoir/saveur into the country’s culinary doctrine—like reminders that the installation of the revolution’s Directory was predated by, and predicated on, a glorious (Lobster) Thermidor, with pre-boom Lima having once served as an enclave for superb French dining; or that the formula that pulled Peru’s gastronomy out of the furnace and into the fires of success is inextricably, rather than circumstantially, indebted to Cordon Bleu trappings and Old World techniques—are briskly glazed over, and spared garnishment whenever possible.
Would this be the case if there were genuine confidence in the character, integrity and identity of Peruvian cuisine? Probably not. Even so, or because of it, gastronomy has been emotionally and strategically invested as the genius of “our place”.
What fine dining, with its need for a “lab” in which to turn base metals into gold, and the culinary dérive—which unfolds in the street—have in common is that both are typically urban experiences. The city stands to gain from them too, and on this level, Lima goes about the business of officiating as the Culinary Capital of Latin America™ like any other similarly burdened city would: by promoting, cross-promoting, pollinating and cross-pollinating, and so forth.
Almost inconspicuously absent from this symbiosis is the realm of the home, which is where this essay will venture to go out on a limb. To grasp it, one must first conceive of “Peruvian gastronomy” as the defensive construct of a troubled urban mind-berg that is at odds with its identity, even as it strives to mask or neutralize this struggle under the pretence of being robust. In this light, it is possible for us to visualize the super-socialized arena of the restaurant, and the increasingly well-integrated world of the street, as if they were respectively the superego and the ego of the city’s anxious psyche.
This also leaves us with a “home” space that defies description, lest it be—to paraphrase Eliade—“in the terms of negative theology.” The home is every prefix—just as it is also in excess of every prefix—that could possibly be added to the urban. It is the rural and the feral. It is at the verge of where the street meets the phreatic. The home is the Real. It is pre-contradictory and past contradiction. It has no mind for what might be appealing or nutritious (and ordinarily, it is neither: recall the upchuck aspect that is openly denounced as such by those who are in a condition that allows the id a foot in the door). In Lima, most notably, the “home” is the unbounded, the unfamiliar, the undomesticated—and in an aesthetic sense, the homely. In Lima, this “home” is Peru, though not as identification, but as a projection.
In brief, if Lima’s food-based ego-complex had a body, home is where its tell-tale heart would be.
While this psychoanalytic analogy should not be read so closely as to miss the forest for the trees—let’s not forget that this is simply a convenient fiction meant to point towards another—it should be taken vividly to frame the otherwise impressive workings of the “Peruvian” gastronomical PR machine.
As stated, the restaurant—symbolized by the parental and paternal figure of the gentleman chef—plays the superego in this scheme. It is the theatre of operations where the prestige and morality plays of the Peruvian culinary epic are enacted, and the world-stage for its consummation of approval. The street, with its soft and subsumable “self”, would be the ego, an interface affixed and nourished by the culinary movement’s celebrated chaperones (most of whom are, symptomatically, based in Lima and/or abroad). This is the place—these, the circumstances—in which the movement’s personality has more or less successfully developed until recently.
Both this ego and this superego are embodied by the city and, in the context of Peru, “the city” has been Lima since its founding in 1535. There is a long and certain history of re-iterations behind this, and we must note that, for the better part of their (frequently parallel) histories, the concept of Peru was a synecdoche for Lima, and not the other way around.
Within and about Lima, with its restaurants and streets, churns the id-like, carb-intensive, low-on-fibre, often deep or stir-fried Hades of home-cooking that makes up the daily diet of millions of Peruvians, and which is the source—material, and otherwise—of so many dramatic sublimations. Symbolically speaking, this is the space of the unvarnished female cook, working with minimum quality produce and artisanal methods on a survival scale, or at the fringe of it. And though laudable efforts are being made in this direction by burgeoning movements such as “Generación con Causa”—with its dedication to alimentary security, and food and waste recycling—these are not pervasive yet.
The id is thus the unexamined—and, to some degree, the unexaminable—domain, in which Lima is, of course, entirely included, and over which it has no clear or conscious command as civilizing agent. It is not psychogeographically hemmed in (or hedged out) by anything, nor can it be “put in its place” by the very mechanisms that it underpins. A “home” that is at least the size of a country—and feasibly larger—will not be gentrified or governed. It’s far more likely instead that, every now and then, it will pay visits to the city in unwanted guises.
It’s possible that this is where el Perú profundo—the Peruvian repressed itself – sits at the table. The term, which means “deep Peru”—and the counterpoint for which is, tellingly, el país legal—was coined in 1943 by historian Jorge Basadre in proposing a heuristic for Peruvian nationhood. Writing at the start of the Andean migrations that would inundate Lima for the next two decades—one of those returns of the repressed that changed the city’s character and countenance forever—Basadre was optimistic in his prognosis. He banked on the inevitable progress of mestizaje as the core of a Peruvianness that was already everywhere, in everyone, a latency about to flourish into self-awareness.
So would it be a stretch to claim Basadre was providing an unstoried nation with a framework for cathexis? Though mestizaje is usually and rightly understood as a cultural process, has the strong libidinal investment it requires been too rapidly dismissed? And should it cause us any wonder that, if one word could be chosen to describe the country’s culinary renaissance, it should be fusion?
Though Basadre was, in many ways, correct in his prediction, his nation-building process remains fraught and maybe definitionally unfinished. An incompleteness theorem could be postulated for Peruvian identity wherein only the tritest of attributions could lend themselves at all for operation. Well into the twenty-first century, the claim for a Peruvian identity may have no demonstrable consistency, authenticity, originality, or any other foundational claim.
This is aligned with a position according to which “Peruvian gastronomy” is, at its core, inessential; the mask of a faceless (non)entity that has taken this structure upon itself, and internalized/externalized it in the shapes described above. This quiddity is not, thus, “Peruvian gastronomy”—that (bitter)sweet nothing—and it may not be “Peru”. It could, however, be Lima.
As a former colonial metropolis, Lima has the calling of a pit-stop, and the culinary boom may have been but the latest vehicle through which to satisfy that craving for recognition. This is not a city one will visit to, amongst other things, eat: rather, one will only visit Lima to eat, and to eat well, despite whatever else it has or fails to offer.
The hierarchies are clear: here is a city that’s entirely beholden to its founding complex. Lima flagrantly presents itself as something to be, first, in-taken, and then, just as rapidly, excreted.
Welcome to the Land of the Lotus Eaters!
“I was driven thence by foul winds for a space of nine days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters…”
– Homer, Odyssey IX (translation by Samuel Butler, 1900)
Because the symptoms are so generalized, they have grown difficult to see. The casual visitor may have a hard time spotting them—to do so would require time and distance and the ability to snap out of an entrancing cavalcade of meals—but the expat comes to know them in due course.
He knows whomever seeks to change the tune and have, say, Indian for a change, will not have much to choose from. A fistful of Indian venues in a city peopled by eleven million gourmands? Don’t let it get to you. (And if you ever feel compelled to make your own Indian at home, good luck with tracking down all those ingredients.) Let’s have some sushi, instead, by which we mean Peruvian-Japanese, of course. And while you’re at it, you allow a half-assed mention of Cambodian food to slip into the conversation. Cambodian? No such thing here. Predictably, the conversation always circles back to what is “ours” being best, and you should chew on that a little because this-here-is, hands down, the finest food you’ll ever eat, and every other national cuisine would like to fuse with us, to fuck with us, and nor should you complain, since you brought up that talk about libidinal investment in the first place.
Soon enough, some orange flags will start to wave closer to red as you become increasingly attuned to local colour (or, in this case, to a certain spate of local flavours). It’s also likely that, at least at first, you’ll make an honest effort to dismiss all of this nonsense because, frankly, how could such enthusiasts for fusion be reductive in their tastes? There’s no red to see here.
But then you start to hear things, disquieting things, from people who have sometimes never crossed the border, and who may have no real wish to do so—not to eat, at least. Pass me some of that Peruvian lotus, and let’s not wax too long about the scope and grandeur of Chinese cuisines, or of the worlds-within-worlds of Italian…unless you’re referring to our own local variations. You may eventually get wind of how a once popular writer’s beef with certain aspects of Peruvian food—which he had the audacity to voice abroad—provoked such furious outrage that the matter escalated quickly into talk of treason. But: what and why? Whatever for? Because to criticise or dislike “our” consensus is not merely unpatriotic, but degenerate.
Of course, you know a claim like that would be unthinkable if food, in Lima, were not so peculiarly politicized. And because you know it you say nothing. People everywhere feel viscerally about food.
Friend! Comrade! I present to you: Peruvian superfood(s), the social lubricant before which every other earthly interest pales. Gastronomy is now Peru’s official history. It is the word and the truth, and the spotlight under which Peruvians of all stripes can congregate and ever agree on. It is the one thing that should concern all Peruvians at all! That. And fusion.
This is the point in which, if you are honest—and you think you are—you’ll stop square in your tracks and ask yourself: what kind of doublespeak/doublethink is this? And suddenly you’ll be confronted with the fact that you have come to tolerate, and even like life, in a gastrofascist state.
So all that chatter of restored self-esteem on a national scale may have been disproportionate and premature. The national scale may not (yet) apply or exist. An urban scale, however, does, but it’s the only one available so far. Lima is where the ego-complex isn’t only left to surface, but the place from which it gives rein to its gamut of expressions. And it is here where one may find the signs of profound disturbance pertaining to mixing, stirring, blending just beyond the cozy sanctum of the pot, where anything unsavoury can be trashed and restarted.
Gated (and bolted) communities? Check! But we adore our food. Social integration? Not quite—not really, not ready—but we are on the right track since we stand united by our food already. Can there be serious talk of any manner of entrenchments there where everyone shares such a passion and commitment to food and strives for its success as one? Don’t we all want the same thing (a serving of wedge fries)? Education is important, yes, and grossly underserved, but we have food and food is culture, so. We are what we eat, after all, and have no qualms about mixing stuff outside the kitchen—that is what a bar is for.
Though Basadre was, in many ways, correct in his predictions—mestizaje was and is unstoppable, and unavoidable, and urgent—Lima seems to have subsisted on some level of denial about what fusion must eventually entail. Perhaps the best, unwitting, way to circumvent such matters is to accelerate them to a point in which they can become dislodged just enough from immediate apprehension. Perhaps the trick is to deflect and to project the issues onto someone else’s bread plate, where they may remain untouched. By the looks of it, it almost works.
There are grounds enough to think Peruvian gastronomical awareness may be exiting its infancy and going through an anal stage of sorts. If so, it has already benefitted from, and will continue to avail itself of, the presence of competent stewards who should be able to guide it past the need to mark its turf at every turn. After all, if the bodily integration of food is known as nutrition; its proper psychic integrations are maturity, and culture, and self-love.
But another, less flattering picture can also be imagined at this crossroads. In this scenario, Lima is a sick city. It is an angry city. Lima may suspect that there is something awry with its liver (though it knows beans about what that may be). So far, it has not done much to address the matter, and though it likes to self-efface by claiming that it is just superstitious enough to value medicine, it could be that resentment, ignorance or fear–the untranslatable, unspeakable byproducts of hostility, stupidity and envy—have a great deal to do with its condition.
And so? “Let it get worse!” the bigot will say, with a flash of the party-card under his sleeve. “Gentlemen: let’s raise a toast! To you, who had the gall to say we might be coming from a fragile place, when we have never had a place at all!”
The id prowls round the corner, sight-unseen, with feelers hovering too closely to the fire. Squint narrowly enough, and it can be mistaken for two springs of thyme, or a cockroach.
Image: Spice rack at Central, lab-kitchen, ca. 2016.