I’m on my way to the Kacllaraccay community to live there as part of an ethnographic study I’m conducting on Peruvian food cultures. During my one-hour walk to the village I pass several farmers working their fields, they ask me twice where I’m going. They’re not trying to stop me, but point me in the right direction. I walk past corn, fava beans, wheat and potatoes, even as I walk into town.
Kaclla is Quechua for cactus and raccay refers to half completed houses. I walk the mud road to the house of Santiago, where I will be staying. On my way through the village I greet all the villagers I pass, who respond with a sincere kindness.
Santiago and Seferina’s house is typical for the region, built with adobe bricks and wood. I’m being invited into the kitchen for a meal, a soup with potatoes, pasta and herbs. The kitchen has a cooking place where pans are heated with a wood fire, a table with chairs, a radio, and a closet with pans and plates. There’s guinea pigs walking freely on the mud floor, eating the peels and leftovers which are dropped on the ground. There’s a bowl of toasted fava beans on the table, which we peel and eat with our hands. When I’m done eating I’m asking where I should go to wash my plate, but my hosts are insistent that I let Seferina wash all the dishes, because that is how it works in the household. I give in part because I don’t want to influence the surroundings I want to watch, but mostly because I think I would have felt rude to Seferina whatever I thought about it.
After dinner we drink chicha, a flat beer made of fermented corn traditional across the Andes. As a well-known ritual for thanking Pachamama and the spirits, they spill some of the chicha on the floor, sometimes facing and thanking specific Apus around them. Although I’m not religious I follow their example. I feel like I want to perform in a manner that makes my hosts feel like I’m one of them. Even as I know this is not possible, I can’t help but perform my best all overt actions related to the ritual as I understood them.
Before the official opening of MIL, a group of villagers who work for MIL were invited to eat in the restaurant. Interestingly, they changed their eating behaviour drastically. The atmosphere was quite tense and quiet, and the way they ate differed a lot from how they use to share their meals during work. Food was served from dishes to their own plate, instead of passing them around. They ate products they would normally eat with their hands, such as corn, with their cutlery. It was obvious they have a very clear idea on how to behave in the restaurant. The same goes for me, I changed my behaviour to the social setting of the kitchen. This shows how strongly food and eating are connected to social and cultural performance, and also facilitates exchange.
People do things because of a biological and existential need and/or because processes on the neurological level make them to. As humans are social beings, social environments are also essential in inciting human action. The ways in which people execute their actions, however, are culturally constructed. Through performance, culture is being kept alive. A language doesn’t exist when there is no one who speaks it and writes it down; music wouldn’t be when nobody composes and plays it; and a cuisine is created when someone starts taking ingredients and cooks and combines them in a certain way, which is then being adopted by a larger group of people. In other words, culture is performed. Similarly, performance is cultured.
The cultural setting differed completely from the way we usually share our meals, which influenced our behaviour, the way we performed. I conformed my performance to the cultural setting of Kacllaraccay, as they conformed to the setting of a high-end restaurant. It is interesting how two spaces that are relatively close to each other can provoke completely different performances.
As Judith Butler (1990) states, “(…) identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.” Bessière (1998: 23-24) explains that eating behaviour follows the ‘principle of incorporation’, in which the eater “becomes what he consumes”, and also “becomes part of a culture.” “Both food and cooking, as they are culturally determined, place the eater in a social universe and a cultural order. Eating habits are the foundation of a collective identity and, consequently, of alterity” (Bessière 1998: 23-24). Culture, identity and performance produce each other simultaneously through their iconic actions: food preparation and consumption in this particular case. While it could be dancing, storytelling or anything else, for me there is something especially symbolic about the place food occupies in the construction of our intangible identity while literally – and quite tangibly – making us.