Stalking 3: The Importance of Food in Peru

Food. What is food? Why is food of vital importance to the human race? For starters, it is the reason I am able to be here writing this and you are able to read it. Food is the reason we are able to keep on, but is much more than merely a means of survival. In cultures all across the world, food defines communities of people. Folks take pride in their traditional meals, whether they are made possible through availability of regional food resources, or have just become hometown classics. A major part of traveling a foreign country is the cuisine you have while visiting. During our time in Peru, we travelled to several different areas, each with their own traditional culinary dishes. While in Peru, I had the chance to try Alpaca, Guinea Pig, Cow heart, and a huge variety of seafood. However, the three places that I found food of immense importance to the local culture, economy, and ecology were Paracas, Punta San Juan, and Parque de la Papa.

In Peru, the food distribution of the country is very unique because of how quickly the coast meets the Andes mountains. At different elevations a variety of foods are able to grow. The Inca empire realized this and decided to make the most out of what the natural landscape could provide. Trade was established from the mountains to the coast, and the Inca had very balanced diets because of this system of trade. In this system there was no currency, but instead a reciprocity agreement between the people of different areas. The days of no currency in Peru are long gone, but the trade from the coast to the mountains is still an important part of the Peruvian society.

In the coastal town of Paracas, the major industry sustaining the local economy is the artisanal fishery. We passed several dozen port facilities and harbors completely dedicated to the Anchoveta and other coastal fish. While in Paracas, I had a classic Peruvian sea food dish called Ceviche for lunch. Ceviche is raw local fish that is usually Corvina (sea bass), Chita (Peruvian Grunt), or a mixture of other seafood like octopus, squid, and shrimp. The fish is “cooked” by marinating in lime juice and sometimes Pisco liquor for 8 hours. It is then prepared with Cancha (roasted corn), red onions, sweet potatoes, some greenery, and a special dressing. I found this meal to be an explosion of flavors that only Peruvians could conceive. While I thought the unique means of preparation were very interesting, I kept thinking about the Anchoveta that the fish preyed upon, and all the other species that were being out competed by the plethora of fishermen who perpetually capture the bounty of the sea to make ends meet. Later that evening I had my first Peruvian Anchoveta, and found that it was surprisingly delicious. Why not harvest them for food and not for feed? The fish meal industry, not human consumption, is the driving force behind decreasing population of Anchoveta along the coast of South America. So why is a this tasty little fish so rapidly depleted? Fish meal producers will tell you it is Because they are full of protein and nutrients that are good for poultry and livestock like pigs. However, they are good for humans too, which is why people take fish oil tablets.The fact that this major food source for wildlife isn’t being used for food but instead as an input
to a reduction fishery industry didn’t resonate fully until we made out way to Punta San Juan.

Home to thousands of Fur Seals, Humboldt Penguins, and Guano Birds to name a few, Punta San Juan is a ecological reserve teeming with life. When the Anchoveta isn’t abundant, as is the case during El Niño years, populations of essentially all organisms in the area suffer tremendous population losses. It is because of the Anchoveta that the food chain is stable off the coast of Peru. Punta San Juan, being a reserve, protects these animals and the waters around the point so their food source is preserved. However, tracking devices in Fur Seals installed by the PSJ biological research center show that the seals are traveling far away from shore to get food. Since there is no serious, or any, regulations on the borders around the reserve fisherman still go in and take whatever they can get. The times that buoys have been put out to show the boundaries the have been stolen by fishermen. Fighting for this food source is tough competition without human intervention, but now with overfishing has put serious stress on wildlife. In a way the culture of these animals is being threatened by a new world order that increasingly inhibits their ability to live well in their natural habitat.
As for of our food at Punta San Juan, we ate quite well. I enjoyed our host Alicia’s home cooking, and the big beautiful mangos we had everyday we were there. I never lost sight of how precious this food was because of how much effort goes in to getting to a location as remote as Punta San Juan. This time and energy focused on food accessibility was accentuated by our visit to Parque de la Papa just a few days after our time at the wonderful Punta San Juan.

Parque de la Papa, as I have written about in a previous blog entry, is a semi isolated community high up in the Andes mountains within the giving realm of the Sacred Valley. The valley they live in has provided the fertile soil and precipitation necessary to have a variety of crops to ensure their prosperity and way of life. 3600 edible potato varieties are grown in PDP, each one more unique than the next. As you can imagine, this is the reason the name of their home is Parque de la Papa (Potato Park). Of the many crops they are able to grow in be valley, the potato is the most prevalent and most consumed as a result.
These experiences with food showed me how any place in the world can be defined by the food that comes from that place. Whether it be a food in the Chesapeake like the oysters of Virginia, the Blue Crabs of Baltimore, the Smith Island Cake of Smith Island, or the potatoes at Parque de la Papa, Peru, food is a huge part of culture and traditions.

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