Guinea pigs are beloved pets in North America, serving as fluffy, docile household companions. They are beloved in Peru and Ecuador as well, but their role more closely resembles that of livestock: They are raised to be eaten. In the Andes, where guinea pigs originated and are known as cuy, they are a popular meat for grilling, frying, and roasting.
In the beginning, cuy were not pets at all. Guinea pigs were domesticated by indigenous people in the Andes for their meat, which is often compared to rabbit. Cuy remains a major part of the cuisine in highland regions in Peru and Ecuador, where they are farmed.
All over Peru, towns honor the importance of cuy to their cuisine. Pachamanca, a traditional cooking method involving earthen ovens, often features guinea pig meat. A mural in the main cathedral of Cusco depicts Jesus and his disciples eating guinea pig at the Last Supper. During an annual festival in the town of Churin, residents celebrate cuy by dressing the animals up in colorful costumes. And across the country, townspeople gather and eat guinea pigs in honor of folk saints as part of a celebration known as jaca tsariy.
Because of South American immigration to the United States, the consumption of cuy has spread to North America. But Americans haven’t exactly embraced the tradition. In 2015, a New Yorker called 911 on a man from Ecuador who grilled cuy in a public barbecue area. While grilling cuy is legal, the few restaurants in New York City that serve cuy often keep it off the menu or require that diners order it in advance. For now, a dish celebrated with Last Supper murals in South America has to remain clandestine in the food capital of the United States.