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Ode to a Chuño: Learning to Love Freeze-Dried Potatoes in Highland Bolivia

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Abstract

I like chuño. This statement sometimes surprises highland Bolivians but surprises Americans1 who know the region even more. The former find it pleasant that I like Bolivian food. But some North Americans believe that this is clear evidence that I will eat "anything"-something I certainly aspire to but cannot claim to have fully achieved.2Meanwhile, those who have never been to the Andes usually have no reaction at all. Chuño? It's just a potato, right? © 2010 by the University Press of Colorado. All rights reserved.
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Biographical sketch. Clare Sammells rst went to Bolivia during the summer of
1993 as an undergraduate to research the consumption of llama meat in the
city of La Paz. Aer graduating with a degree in folklore and mythology from
Harvard College and living for two years in Costa Rica, she began graduate
school at the University of Chicago in 1997. She returned to rural highland
Bolivia to conduct an anthropological study of tourism at Tiwanaku, that
nations most important archaeological site. She traveled to Bolivia again in
1998, 1999, 2000, 2007, and 2010 and lived there for two years from 2002 to
2004. She completed her Ph.D. in 2009 and is now an assistant professor at
Bucknell University. She loves Bolivian food and misses her comadres amazing
cooking when in the United States.
I like chuño.
is statement sometimes surprises highland Bolivians but surprises
Americans1 who know the region even more. e former nd it pleasant that
I like Bolivian food. But some North Americans believe that this is clear evi-
dence that I will eat “anything”—something I certainly aspire to but cannot
chapter Six
Clare A. Sammells
Learning to Love Freeze-Dried Potatoes in Highland Bolivia
Ode to a Chuño
CLare a. SammeLLS
102
claim to have fully achieved.2 Meanwhile, those who have never been to the
Andes usually have no reaction at all. Chuño? It’s just a potato, right?
Chuño is a freeze-dried potato, but tastes nothing like a fresh potato.3
When cooked, it looks like a whole true: small, round and wrinkly, dark gray
or black in color, and a little larger than a ping-pong ball although oen atter
in shape. Generally it is eaten with the ngers (sometimes with a spoon) and
breaks apart in sections radiating from the center. Its texture is rm, not mushy
like a fresh potato. It is dense, a little mealy, and slightly bitter. It is very lling.
It can be eaten with various sauces, such as llajwa, which is a sauce made of
ground tomato, locoto (an Andean chili pepper), and kirkiña (a green herb).
Breaking the chuño apart with one’s ngers, one uses it to scoop the spicy sauce.
Or chuño can be broken into smaller pieces and mixed with crushed peanuts
or scrambled eggs and served as a side dish. Raw chuño can be ground into a
our to be used as a base for soups such as chairo. Chuño can form an essential
part of a dish or be placed in a communal bowl for diners to complement their
individual plates. It is a versatile staple, and in my time living in Tiwanaku (a
rural highland village), it was included in one-third of all the meals I ate.4
In addition to being tasty, chuño is also a product of a pre-Colombian
technology that allows potatoes to be stored for decades and transported eas-
ily. e Inca empire had an elaborate system of storehouses used to provision
travelers and soldiers; among the items stocked there were chuño and other
freeze-dried foods, such as charq’e, a form of dried llama meat (and, later, sheep
or beef ) for which our own jerky is named. ese storehouses were so well-pro-
visioned and operated so eciently that in one area they continued to function
and in some places provision the Spanish for twenty years aer the conquest
(D’Altroy 2002). Indigenous miners sent to work in the colonial-era mines of
Potosí were fed with chuño produced elsewhere in the highlands, transported
by llama caravans, and either sold in enormous markets or brought to workers
directly by their communities. Many of the caravan llamas were then slaugh-
tered and consumed in the burgeoning city (Mangan 2005).
Despite its usefulness, the Andean technology of creating chuño did
not cross the Atlantic with the crop. Studies of the potato’s introduction into
Europe tend not to comment on the failure to transfer this knowledge (see
Messer 1997; Salaman 1949; Walvin 1997; Zuckerman 1998). Awareness of
this technology has fallen out of North Atlantic stories about their love aair
with the tuber. ese accounts also usually fail to return to the Andes to con-
sider recent misguided eorts to introduce North Atlantic varieties of potatoes
into the Andes. European and U.S. varieties of potatoes are considered by most
highland Bolivians to be watery and tasteless, and wealthy Bolivians who had
traveled to the United States told me in no uncertain terms that the potatoes
they encountered in their travels were inferior.
OD e t O a C Hu ñO
103
how to plant a chuño
In Tiwanaku some locals tell variants of a tale about the Spanish conquista-
dores who came to the highlands in the early colonial period. Impressed with
chuño, they forced the local people to plant it on the assumption that it was
a unique crop. When the locals balked at this ridiculous request, the Spanish
accused them of laziness. Of course, it was the Spanish who were disappointed
to discover that their elds of chuño did not sprout.
is story highlights the fact that from the point of view of those who eat
Andean cuisine without participating in its production, chuño seems so com-
pletely dierent from potatoes that it would be easy to assume they were from
dierent plants altogether. is is not true in a biological sense, but it is true in
a culinary sense. Socially and culinarily, chuño is not a potato at all.
In Bolivian cuisine, papas are specically fresh potatoes; chuño is not
included in that category by highland Bolivians. Nor are the two interchange-
able in all dishes. Without chuño, some dishes cannot be properly made. For
example, chairo is a soup that must be made with ground chuño. While other
ingredients are expected in the soup (grains of wheat, carrots, and other items)
these can be substituted or omitted without changing the identity of the soup.
Likewise, the soup jakonta must include whole chuño—otherwise it is some-
thing else. One cannot make chairo without chuño, just as one cannot make
French fries without potatoes.
Papas, chuño, and other tubers can be substituted for each other in some
dishes, similar to the way that side dishes can be substituted in U.S. cuisine.
Unlike U.S. dishes, which tend to include only one staple carbohydrate, Bolivian
dishes regularly contain two or more staples—such as rice and papas, or papas
and chuño—especially in dishes that involve meat (such as beef, mutton, or
guinea pig). Chuño is a common option, but it can be replaced with multi-
ple varieties of fresh potatoes, oca (a sweeter, oblong orange-colored tuber),
or isaño (resembling a large oca but with a tart taste, which is also sometimes
turned in to a frozen ice-cream-like treat called thayacha). Non-tuber staples
include rice, pasta, and less commonly maize, quispiña (steamed biscuits made
from quinua our), sweet potato, and plantain.5
Making chuño
Bolivia has hundreds of varieties of potatoes with vastly dierent characteristics.
Only certain varieties are appropriate to be freeze-dried. Chuño is created from
bitter potato (“papa amarga”; for a description of potato varieties, see La Barre
1947; and for detailed descriptions of chuño processing, see Condori Cruz
1992; Mamani 1981). Potatoes are generally harvested in May. ose potatoes
chosen for making chuño are picked on the basis of variety and size; medium-
CLare a. SammeLLS
104
sized potatoes are preferred (slightly bigger than a golf ball) as very large pota-
toes may not freeze evenly. Also potatoes with many gusanos—large worms that
tunnel into the potatoes and are removed by hand aer cooking—are avoided.6
e potatoes selected for making chuño are placed outside in the month
of June, which is the coldest month of the year. e potatoes freeze during
the frosty nights and then thaw in the bright sunshine when temperatures rise
above freezing. is alternation of freezing and thawing is essential to making
chuño and may explain why this technology did not travel to Europe, where
winter temperatures oen remain below freezing even in the daytime.7
Once the potatoes have alternately frozen and thawed for three consecu-
tive days, the water must be squeezed out of them. My rst experience with this
was unplanned. I was walking in the rural countryside with my compadre.8 We
had gone to his village in part to see the raised elds, called suka kollus, that
were once a mainstay of the region’s pre-Columbian agriculture and had been
restored in the 1980s (Kolata 1993, 1996). Nothing was growing at the time,
because it was winter (June). But on the way back, we happened on two of his
relatives who were in the process of making chuño.
e chuño they were making had already been le to freeze and thaw for
three days and nights, and they were stepping on the tubers to remove the liq-
uid. ey invited me to join them. I am not sure they expected me to actually
do so, but I happily sat down and took o my shoes and socks. ey showed
me how to gather the potatoes into small piles with my bare feet and then
“dance” (bailar) on top of them. Here the Spanish verb meaning “to dance”
describes the movement, although there is no music or imposition of rhythm.
Each person steps on the potatoes while removing the potato skins with their
feet (although the process is incomplete and is continued by hand aer the
tubers have dried and then nished when they are soaked in water before cook-
ing). One alternates between stepping on the chuño and gathering them back
together in a pile, using only the feet.
I found that the potatoes were rm but spongy. A cool, dark-purple liquid
squirted through my toes and onto the hard ground as I tried to keep the slip-
pery tubers in a compact pile so they did not scatter everywhere when stepped
on. e ground was hard-packed with only very short grass on it, as is typical in
the dry, cold Andean winter, and this grass stuck to our feet as we worked. ey
insisted I had the hang of it, but I suspect—as was the case with the majority of
agricultural labor I helped with in Bolivia—that I was far slower than a woman
my age should have been at such a task. Nevertheless, we had a great time, and
they insisted on photos to commemorate the event. at moment was remem-
bered fondly when I saw them even years later.
Once the liquid is removed and the chuño is dried, it is light, easy to move,
and can be stored for years. I have visited houses of farmers who had rooms with
OD e t O a C Hu ñO
105
bags of chuño from oor to ceiling, some of which were more than a decade
old. is ability to store food is important in a region were periodic droughts
can destroy a year’s crop; chuño provides the food needed to survive.
In its dried form, chuño feels like Styrofoam packing peanuts. To cook it, it
must be soaked overnight in water. e chuño is then boiled and served either
in soup, as a side dish, or in a ambre (explained in the following section).
Two other varieties of freeze-dried potatoes deserve mention. One is
chuño esca, which is only consumed in June, when chuño is made. Lighter in
color, this is prepared by stopping the preparation process before the tubers
are stepped on. Having undergone the freezing and thawing process for three
days, they are immediately boiled and served, and thus they are only eaten a few
times a year. e other is tunta, where the tubers are placed in a body of water
or stream for a month aer the freezing and thawing process. e tuber is then
dried out and can be stored like chuño. Tunta is white in color, has a dierent
taste, and is generally more highly prized. Much as a chuño is not a potato, a
tunta is not culinarily a chuño. ere are dishes that require tunta to be prop-
erly made and are assumed to include it even though the name of the dish does
not mention the tuber (such as sajta de pollo).
The Beginning of a Love affair wiTh a noT-exacTLy PoTaTo
When I moved to the rural village of Tiwanaku in 2002 (having already lived
there for three months in 2000), I lived in a house with my compadres. I soon
learned—through experience and the grapevine—that my comadre was an
excellent cook. I miss her soups when in the United States. She told me that
sometimes others would ask her what she had to cook for me—and when she
replied that I ate what everyone else did, they were surprised. Apparently, some
assumed that foreigners would require, or perhaps insist on, specic kinds of
foods or preparations. But given my comadre’s and her daughters’ culinary
skills—which I tried, unsuccessfully, to learn—it is hardly shocking that I
found little to be picky about.9
At rst I did have to get used to chuño being a much larger part of the
diet than it had been for me during my previous time in urban Bolivia. On
these visits, which ranged from one to three months in 1993, 1994, 1998, and
1999, I lived in the capital city of La Paz with middle-class Bolivian families
or other foreigners and oen ate in pensiones. While my research in market-
places oen led me to eat market food, which included chuño, I encountered it
infrequently in other parts of the city. Chuño was eaten and enjoyed through-
out the highlands by Bolivians of all social and economic classes, but it was
eaten far more frequently by rural highland peasants and the indigenous urban
poor. Members of the urban middle and upper classes tended to eat chuño less
CLare a. SammeLLS
106
oen, although they still enjoyed it and considered it an important part of their
cuisine. Among Bolivians living in the United States, for example, chuño was
important for recreating a taste of home while abroad (Katherine McGurn
Centellas, personal communication). My own interviews with upper-class
residents of La Paz in 1994 revealed that many of them found potatoes in the
United States disappointing and bland compared to their more avorful coun-
terparts in Bolivia; the lack of chuño was part of their observations.
ere was a turning point in my relationship with chuño. My compadres
had hired a tractor that fateful day in mid-November 2002 in order to plant
a large piece of land. e tractor picked us up at their house near the vil-
lage—my compadres, their children and other relatives, the resident anthro-
pologist, and heavy bags of seed potatoes—for transport to their eld in a
nearby rural community. ere were few seats on the tractor so many of us
rode hanging on—I clung to the outside of the drivers door, hands slippery
with forty-ve-plus sunscreen to protect myself from the tropical sun at more
than 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) in elevation, and holding my three-year-old
goddaughter in her seat as we bounced along the uneven dirt track. A few of
the men came behind on bicycles, taking some of the smaller children with
them.
Reaching the eld, I discovered that planting with a tractor is faster than
with ox-pulled plows, but also far more intense. e religious ceremonies asso-
ciated with potato planting were hurriedly performed. Four women quickly
ran to plant seed potatoes in the furrows created by the tractor before it turned
around at the end of the eld and came back to bury what they had just planted
and open new furrows for planting. Choq’ siwa! became a constant refrain—
“Potatoes, she says!” as the women demanded that the men bring them more
potatoes to plant (Figure 6.1).
Women plant potatoes (although in rare instances, if no women are avail-
able, men will do so). I was clearly the slowest planter in the group, which was
acceptable for planting behind an ox-plow, but not for keeping up with the
pace of a tractor. So I was sent to help the men cut larger potatoes in half before
planting so the seed would go farther. We did this in between rushing out to
give the women more potatoes for planting, pouring the seed out from textiles
wrapped around our shoulders for easier carrying. e planting was nished in
a mere forty-ve minutes—quite a feat for a half-hectare eld.
My compadres had assumed that we would have our ambre at the eld
and then walk the two hours back to their house. ey had brought the am-
bre, already cooked and wrapped in a large textile bundle. But it turned out
that the tractor was going most of the way back to the village. Since there was
leover seed that would be heavy to carry, we decided to take advantage of the
tractor to return. e tractor le us and the potatoes at the junction with the
OD e t O a C Hu ñO
107
highway, still a mile from the house. We waited for a passing public minivan to
take us the remainder of the way.
Finally, back at their house, we were ready for lunch, a ambre. Fiambres
(also called meriendas) are meals where a common pile of food is placed on
a blanket on the ground. ey can include any combination of mixed tubers
(potatoes of various varieties, chuño, tunta, oca, isaño, sweet potato), deo
(cooked pasta), rice, mote (maize kernels), choclo (maize on the cob), quispiña
(a salty steamed quinua biscuit), and postre (boiled plantains sliced into thick
circles with their skins, which are removed by the eater). During ambres, each
person is expected to eat the section closest to them in a wedge pattern, like a
slice of pizza. Only ngers are used. Late in the meal the remaining food may
be redistributed by one of the older women if it is clear that a particular indi-
vidual is not eating as much. Allowances are made for young children who are
still learning proper etiquette; small children sometimes raid preferred foods,
such as sweet postre, from outside their areas. Foreigners can discretely avoid
those tubers they dislike (Figure 6.2).
Fiambres can be planned events, such as when a family gathers friends,
extended relatives, and “ctive kin” (such as compadres, godparents, or god-
6.1. Preparing to plant potatoes on the Bolivian altiplano, November 2002. (Pho to by
Clare SammellS)
CLare a. SammeLLS
108
children) to help with planting, harvesting, or building a house. But they can
also be more spontaneous—for example, when a group of vendors who sell in a
marketplace gather at midday and collect together what each woman brought
for lunch, or when unexpected relatives visit around lunchtime and soup is
6.2. A woman and her two children dine with other family members at a ambre with
chuño, papa, mote, and a spicy sauce in the center, November 2003. (Photo by Clar e
SammellS)
OD e t O a C Hu ñO
109
made to go farther by adding a blanket of tubers, sometimes brought by the
visitors themselves.
During a ambre, one woman generally gives out portions of non-staple
foods to the diners to eat with the staples. ese are foods with higher status
and protein and fat content, including locally made “country cheese” (queso de
campo), fried eggs, portions of cooked meat (commonly beef or mutton, but
occasionally guinea pig, chicken, or more rarely high-status pork), and fried
or boiled lake sh, such as carachi or ispi. Also included in this category are
tortillas (not to be confused with Mexican tortillas), which consist of a dough
of wheat our, eggs, and onions fried into thick patties. ese non-staple foods
are categorized into one word in Aymara, irxata, which covers the non-staples
eaten in a ambre that give avor to the staples.
During impromptu meals, the staples each person has brought are mixed
together on a single textile on the ground. One woman may be given all the non-
staples to divide between those present, or each woman may distribute what
she brought herself. In ambres that take place in the home where the cook-
ing occurred, soup may also be served, ladled from a large pot into individual
bowls. People eat from the ambre while soup is served to each in turn. Soup
is served roughly in order of status, with men, visitors, godparents, and older
people served rst, and women and then children last. is order is extremely
exible, however, depending on the circumstances. For example, a particularly
hungry and fussy young child might be served sooner if there is the threat of
a tantrum. Likewise, if one of the older men is washing his hands when the
soup is being served, the women will serve others rst, tting him in when he
arrives. Oen there are not enough bowls for everyone, so those served rst eat
relatively quickly and hand the bowls back so that others can be served. No liq-
uids other than soup are consumed until the end of the ambre, when soda or
reesco (a non-carbonated drink) is sometimes served, again roughly in order
of status. As with bowls, there are fewer cups than people—sometimes only
one—so each person quickly pours a small amount on the ground as a libation
for Pachamama (the Earth Goddess), drinks, and returns the cup to be lled
for the next person.
On this particular day, aer our exhausting planting session, there was no
soup, no plantains, no cheese. And there was no leeway for pickiness, since the
blanket we gathered around was piled high with chuño with only a few fresh
potatoes scattered among them. A dish of sauce was placed in the center to give
the tubers avor; it was made with chopped hard-boiled egg and aji, an Andean
chili pepper that is commonly used to spice foods. e sauce was delicious and
reminiscent of deviled eggs. My compadre had quickly bicycled into town and
returned with a tin of Lydita-brand sardines in tomato sauce, which his daugh-
ter mixed with chopped onions to make a second sauce. I was very, very hungry,
CLare a. SammeLLS
110
and I ate more chuño that day than I ever had before. My love of chuño was
sealed. I now oen prefer it to fresh potatoes.
chuño-Less TourisTs
When my partner (now husband) rst visited Bolivia in 2000, I wanted to share
chuño with him as part of the Bolivian experience that he was signing up for.
But, remarkably, he spent a week in Bolivia without ever trying chuño, despite
my best attempts to put one on his plate. When he visited Tiwanaku for a day,
my comadre made a local specialty for him that did not involve chuño—pesq’e,
a quinua porridge served with milk or cheese, which he has been fond of ever
since. Once traveling on the tourist circuit, we ate in places accustomed to serv-
ing foreigners in Copacabana and the Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca. Chuño
simply was not on the menu or even, as became apparent once I started asking
specically for it, in the kitchen.
Chuño was almost never oered to tourists because it was assumed they
would not like it. One tourist restaurant owner in La Paz whom I spoke with
in 2000 had even removed chuño from the menu because of the negative reac-
tions of clients. is situation was not immutable, however. In my own eld
site, two of the restaurants began in 2004 to oer buets to tour groups that
included chuño. Neither put chuño on the individual plates ordered by tour-
ists; it was served as a culinary curiosity rather than as a standard side dish.
By 2004 some tourist-oriented restaurants in Copacabana had begun to oer
chuño as well (Elayne Zorn, personal communication, 2005).
Despite the importance of chuño in the local diet, the tour books that
inuenced so many travelers in Bolivia oen warned their readers away from
experiencing it. Of course, descriptions of food in these guides are extremely
brief and focus on guiding the visitor toward understanding the unfamiliar,
nding the palatable, and experiencing the típico (a term that we can gloss
in the Bolivian context as “authentic”). ese books give tourists a food
vocabulary that allows them to negotiate menus and advertisements, ensuring
that readers know what they are getting into when confronted by unfamiliar
foods.
Many of these books oered ambivalent descriptions of chuño, such as
“[f ]ew foreigners nd them [chuño or tunta] particularly appealing, mainly
because they have the appearance and consistency of polystyrene when dry
and are tough and tasteless when cooked” (Swaney 1996:108; see also Swaney
1988, 2001; Swaney and Strauss 1992), or described the tubers as “gnarled
looking and tasting, though some people love them” (Gorry et al. 2002; Lyon
et al. 2000).10 One even made the unusual comment that chuño “is rumored
to be used by Bolivian women to suppress their husbands’ sexual desires
OD e t O a C Hu ñO
111
(Murphy 2000), a rumor I never heard elsewhere (although Coe [1994] pro-
vides evidence that this eect was attributed to the tuber isaño in the colonial
period). A more generous description tells us that “these dehydrated potatoes
have an unusual texture and a distinctive, nutty avor that takes some getting
used to. ey’re oen boiled and served instead of (or as well as) fresh pota-
toes” (Read 2002). Descriptions are oen repeated, verbatim, in reprintings of
guides. Most guidebooks mentioned chuño as integral to dishes such as chairo,
while others mentioned it only in passing (Cramer 1996). But none presented
chuño as an integral and essential part of Bolivian cuisine that must be tried by
the visitor.11
So why is it that chuño was so central to the highland Bolivian diet and yet
so neglected by those trying to explain Bolivian cuisine to the foreign tourist
market? Most Bolivians and North Americans seem to agree that the unfamil-
iar taste of chuño was the primary reason why it did not appear in Bolivian
tourist cuisine—simply put, tourists did not usually like it.
I do not nd this to be a complete explanation, however. Restaurants make
money from what is ordered, not from what tourists discover that they like to
eat. Touristic cuisine is constantly being re-presented to new diners who are at
least partly willing to try unfamiliar local specialties, even if they are uncon-
vinced they might enjoy them. Additionally, serving food to tourists is not
entirely about money: most people take pride in their own region’s food and
want visitors to try, appreciate, and respect their cuisine.
Tourists, in short, do not single-handedly determine what they eat while
traveling. ey are limited, in large part, to the oerings of the establishments
they visit. ese establishments may be chosen by tour guides, recommended by
tour books, or chosen by tourists on the basis of location, availability of menus
in their language, appearance, or any number of other factors. Additionally,
because of the networks of their travels, tourists oen do not have the opportu-
nity to eat in locals’ homes or cook for themselves.
Touristic cuisines are predetermined by negotiations that occur on mul-
tiple levels of interlaced perceptions, such as what locals think are their tastiest
dishes and those most appropriate to serve in a restaurant context; the sea-
sonality, availability, and price of ingredients; what restaurant owners think
tourists want to eat; what restaurant cooks think their employers want them
to cook as well as what they think tourists want to eat; and what tourists think
are the best choices available to them based on a variety of criteria (taste, fresh-
ness, exoticness, price, perceived sanitation, and the advice of tour books and
guides). Tourists are sometimes served foods that they may not readily like
(e.g., poi in Hawaii) because these foods are locally meaningful and presented
as part of a local experience that tourists should participate in. But for tourists
to try a particular dish, it must rst and foremost be on the table.
CLare a. SammeLLS
112
Instead of focusing purely on taste, we must consider seriously the struc-
tures in place that reinforce chuño’s neglect in tourist cuisine. In the touristic
context—and every other eating context—there are dierent ways in which
foods can be palatable. To make this point, I will compare chuño to llama meat,
another Andean food I have researched (Sammells 1998, 1999; Sammells and
Markowitz 1995), on three levels: the sensory experience of what is considered
“good to eat,the cognitive aspects of what is “good to think” about these foods
for both tourists and those who feed them, and nally what tourists nd “good
to relate” about their dining experiences once they return home.
Despite emphasis on the touristic search for the “authentic,the fact that
some foods are locally produced or consumed is not sucient to make them
“good to think” or “good to relate” for visitors. Both chuño and llama meat
were local to Bolivia. Both foods are indigenous to the pre-Columbian Andean
highlands, currently produced locally, and served in few places outside the
Andes. Llama was consumed less than other “non-native” (but still locally pro-
duced) meats, such as beef and mutton. Chuño, on the other hand, was ubiq-
uitous. Nevertheless (and perhaps because of this discrepancy), llama garnered
touristic attention in ways that chuño did not.
Since 1997, llama meat became an important authentic highland Bolivian
dish served to tourists (Sammells 1999), even though many Bolivians (espe-
cially urban Bolivians) ate llama on rare occasions, if at all. is situation might
seem counterintuitive. Llama meat was more highly marked as a food of the
poor (especially the rural indigenous poor) than chuño. Despite the prejudices
against its consumption, it underwent an incredible transformation into a meat
lauded by expensive tourist-oriented restaurants.
Why has llama meat become widely popular in tourist cuisine since 1997,
even though chuño—which was more widely consumed throughout Bolivian
society than llama meat—has not? Llama captured the imagination in multiple
ways. As a live animal it was depicted and photographed everywhere, appear-
ing on tourist postcards as well as the Bolivian coat of arms. As meat it made a
tasty dish lauded for its low fat and high protein. It was “good to eat” in that it
was similar to red meats that North Atlantic visitors were familiar with. It was
also “good to think” because of the position of llamas in both Bolivian cultures
and touristic imaginaries. And llama meat was “good to relate” once tourists
returned home to share tales of their culinary adventures in places where llamas
were exotic animals and potatoes were boringly quotidian.
good to eat
We should start with Mintz’s (1996:93) warnings about ignoring the experien-
tial aspects of food. We cannot ignore that tourists are seeking something that
OD e t O a C Hu ñO
113
is “good to eat” within a cuisine that has both familiar and unfamiliar elements.
e amount of space in tour books and other tourist literatures dedicated to
describing, explaining, and promoting food and the large proportion of tourist
budgets spent on dining indicate how important eating is to travelers’ overall
experiences.
In this respect, llama meat was “good to eat.” While it is a common joke
in the United States that all unknown meats “taste like chicken,” llama actually
tastes like beef or mutton—so much so, in fact, that stories abounded of llama
being added clandestinely to street food, sausages, and hamburgers (Sammells
1998). As a steak, llama meat is slightly paler in color but similar in taste to
other red meats. For a North Atlantic tourist, and even for many Bolivians, the
dierence would be dicult to detect. For tourists who like beef, llama tastes
familiar.
In contrast, chuño could never be substituted secretly for potatoes. It is a
completely dierent sensory experience from a potato in both taste and texture.
In highland Bolivian cuisine, where tubers are eaten at least twice a day, these
dierences among fresh potatoes, chuño, tunta, oca, isaño, papaliza, remola-
cha, and other tubers are prized and relished. But what made chuño prized
among Bolivians—the fact that it does not taste like a potato—was what made
it dicult for some foreigners to appreciate. Tourists who were in Bolivia for
a relatively short time might not become accustomed to the taste or texture of
chuño.
good to think
Foods are not just “good (or not) to eat” but also “good to think,” as famously
stated by structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. e understand-
ing that foods have social meanings beyond the purely nutritional, and that
these meanings interact with social structures in other parts of society, has
been elegantly demonstrated by Levi-Strauss (1963, 1969, 1978 [1968]) and
Mary Douglas (1966, 1972, 1983 [1977]). Tambiahs work on food and incest
taboos (1969) showed how animals can have related meanings in the realms of
sex and edibility. All these authors discuss how foods are eaten or avoided for
reasons that are not entirely based on how they taste. Food is part of a coherent
system of meanings, interwoven with the other ways that people make sense of
their lives and relationships.
Llama is “good to think” for tourists in part because it is a meat and there-
fore forms the centerpiece of meals where it is included. e now-outdated air-
line-food joke “chicken or beef?” highlights the emphasis we put on meat as the
identifying feature of a meal, the key item on which decisions of edibility and
preference depend. To give an example that may be familiar to some readers, in
CLare a. SammeLLS
114
U.S. holiday meals such as anksgiving, the turkey is an essential part of the
meal. Even vegetarians are pressured to replace it with something turkey-like,
such as tofurky. Other anksgiving dishes can be modied or substituted to
suit individual taste or preserve ethnic traditions; one can serve either corn or
wheat bread, baked or sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie or English trie. Even in
quotidian meals, staple foods—the everyday carbohydrates that make up our
daily bread, such as wheat, maize, rice, manioc, millet, and potatoes—tend to
play second ddle to the more glamorous meats that avor them.
is explains why meats are the focus of more food taboos than vegetables
or grains (Douglas 1966; Fiddes 1991).12 When Americans think about strange
food experiences, they oen focus on meats. ey tend to be easily disturbed
by meat products and the processes (especially industrialized ones) that create
them (Sinclair 1906). I am not immune from this cultural bias. I, like many
of my fellow Americans, was unaccustomed to consuming organ meats and
preferred muscle; oering delicacies such as sheep’s head to me was a source of
mirth for Bolivians who found it amusing to watch me squirm (although I did
eat it the rst time). is focus on meat as potentially more upsetting to travel-
ers oen sidelines the importance of staples. In this sense, chuño is less “good
to think” for tourists, who are more likely to choose their meals on the basis of
the meat rather than the side dishes served with it.
Of course, llama was “good to think” for tourists precisely because it was
unfamiliar to them. Llama had pseudo-pet status in the North Atlantic (simi-
lar to horses), and some North Americans reacted to the idea of eating it with
pseudo-cannibalistic horror. My thoughts on this are informed by the reac-
tions I received from U.S. residents when describing my undergraduate thesis
research on the consumption of llama meat in La Paz (Sammells 1998). is
topic quickly broke the ice at any party. Many would ask if llama meat tasted
like horse meat—not because they had eaten either animal but because the two
animals had similar social positions in the United States as four-legged luxury
pets. (As I have not tried horse meat, I am forced to make more mundane com-
parisons.) Interviews I conducted with U.S. llama herders indicated they had
mixed feelings about the possibility of consuming the animals. One who did
occasionally slaughter camelids asked not to be identied for fear of negative
reactions from peers. is concern was not misplaced; the editors of a U.S.-
based llama magazine sent me a nasty letter rejecting a short article I wrote for
them on the topic of eating llamas in Bolivia, even though I had rst queried
and they had indicated their interest. Clearly the topic was a sensitive one for
the editors.
Llama meat may be transgressive for tourists, but urban Bolivians avoided
eating it for completely dierent reasons. Middle- and upper-class residents
of La Paz (whom I interviewed in 1993–1994) assumed that llama was some-
OD e t O a C Hu ñO
115
thing eaten by poor, rural, and indigenous peoples. ey avoided llama meat
and even places that served it—although few establishments did.13 Llama meat
was nevertheless sold in large quantities in the street markets of La Paz, where it
quietly found its way into ground-meat products. Urban La Paz residents oen
denounced cheap, no-brand processed meats sold in street markets—sausages,
hamburgers, and the like—as being made of llama or even stray dog. Stories
abounded about cheap locales that would surreptitiously serve llama instead of
beef to unsuspecting customers. Many that I spoke with believed that despite
their best attempts to avoid it, they might have consumed llama unknowingly.
Others were convinced that they had eaten llama disguised as beef, only later
realizing the truth. ese stories invariably placed suspicion on meals eaten
while traveling in rural areas or on street food.
Despite these prejudices on the part of some urban Bolivians, llama meat
had become integral to Bolivian touristic cuisine by 1997. Peña Huari in La Paz
began oering llama meat to tourists and the local upper class in 1997—one
of the rst restaurants to successfully do so.14 Located on Sagarnaga Street in
the center of the tourist district, an area that sported colorful artisan stalls, tour
operators, and backpacker hotels, the restaurant oered a nightly two-hour
peña show of folkloric dances and music from all regions of Bolivia. e restau-
rant’s walls and tables were decorated with masks, ceramics, and other contem-
porary Bolivian art, all of which the menu declared to be for sale. Llama meat
was rst on the list of house specialties on what was, by Bolivian standards, a
very pricey menu. e owner, who was from the city of Oruro (where llama
meat was more accepted restaurant fare than in La Paz), estimated in 1999 that
65 percent of his foreign clients ordered llama rather than beef, lamb, chicken,
or Lake Titicaca trout.15
In the rural touristic village of Tiwanaku, home to that nation’s most
important archaeological site, llama meat had entered the menus of several tour-
ist restaurants by 2002. Ironically, while urban La Paz residents oen associated
llama meat with rural cuisine, in this particular part of the altiplano there were
few llamas—thus the meat was imported from La Paz to be served to tour-
ists. Locals in my eld site almost never ate llama meat themselves, although
they valued it. For these Aymara people, eating llama meat was associated with
strength. One man correlated the success of a neighboring village’s soccer team
with the fact that they had large llama herds and thus ate the meat frequently.
Despite the taboo against their meat among some, llamas have long been an
undisputed symbol of Andean authenticity. Llamas appeared on the Bolivian
national emblem and on many of the national currencies. is was neither con-
tradictory nor coincidental. Trouillot (1991) has provided us with the useful
concept of the “savage slot”: while the content of the meanings attached to
“othered” concepts and objects—and foods—may change, their position of
CLare a. SammeLLS
116
alterity does not.16 It was precisely because the llama was so marked—that is,
as a rural and indigenous animal, to the point where it was even questionably
edible to some Bolivians—that it also became a national symbol and useful as a
representation of a national cuisine to present to outsiders.
Despite llamas’ symbolic importance, consumption of llama meat had
declined precipitously since the colonial era, corresponding to similar declines in
the consumption of other native foods. Today rural Aymara purchase imported
and processed foods, such as cooking oil, rice, bread, and cookies, and oen
view the cuisine of the past with nostalgia. Many in Tiwanaku agreed that their
ancestors’ better health and longer life spans were the result of eating llama and
other traditional foods, including chuño. Quinua, cañahua, p’itu,17 and other
native grains are now eaten far less oen than bread, pasta, and heavily sugared
mates (herbal infusions). Rural Bolivians told me that their current dietary
patterns were less healthy. ey and their children consumed far more sugar,
pasta, and bread than their grandparents, which had a negative impact on their
health, strength, and life expectancy. e increasing incorporation of Western-
style foods into rural Bolivian cuisine and an accompanying decrease in nutri-
tion have been noted in rural Bolivia and elsewhere in the Andes (Orlove 1987;
Weismantel 1988). Llama and guinea pig are now far less common in the high-
land cuisine than mutton and beef (although individual diets depend on the
region, and there are areas where llamas are still the dominant meat source).
Llama meat is generally higher in protein and lower in fat than beef or
mutton, however, and the animal is less damaging to the highland environ-
ment. is motivated several groups to make eorts to promote its consump-
tion both within Bolivia and as a foreign export in the hopes that this would
result in increased incomes for llama herders, better nutrition for the rural and
urban Bolivian poor, and less damage to the environment (McCorkle 1990;
Sammells and Markowitz 1995; Valdivia 1992). At the same time, there is a
small but growing movement by Bolivians to promote llama as both a healthier
meat and a source of national pride.
In short, llama meat is local and “authentic.” It is neglected, yet available;
promoted as both traditional and healthy for the future, but under-consumed
in the present. MacCannell (1976) observed that tourists oen take particular
interest in things perceived to be part of the disappearing, premodern world.
While Andean peoples are not premodern in any sense, tourist literature tends
to present them as both descendents and members of ancient Andean cul-
tures, always on the brink of suering the consequences of incorporation into
a global capitalist economy. (In reality, Andeans have been participating in that
system for centuries.) e llama, as the animal most closely associated with
this pre-Columbian past and the indigenous present, therefore takes on special
meaning in these touristic narratives.
OD e t O a C Hu ñO
117
ere are many accounts of locally denigrated foods becoming part of
national cuisines or touristic fare (e.g., Wilk 1999, 2006). Llama meat’s trans-
formation from undesirable meat to authentic Bolivian cuisine is not at all sur-
prising. Its clear association with the poor and indigenous was exactly what
made it interesting to tourists—it served as a truly authentic representation
of the “indigenous culture” that many came to highland Bolivia to see. In the
touristic imagination, “Bolivianess” is intimately connected to indigenousness,
with representations of Bolivians ranging from the “real” indigenous people
who line the market streets of the city (who, despite being touristic attractions,
receive little benet from this industry) to those who play and dance to folk-
loric music at peñas.
In contrast to llama meat, potatoes and chuño are staples for all highland
Bolivians (albeit in dierent proportions). Because chuño is eaten by all social
classes, it was never clearly associated with only the poor or indigenous. us,
it never became emblematic of “Bolivianess” (meaning, indigenous Bolivian)
in the touristic imaginary in quite the same way. Chuño was part of an only
loosely hierarchical arrangement of staples (in order from lowest ranked to
highest ranked, chuño, tunta, potato, rice). However, this hierarchy was not
stable; certain dishes and contexts required specic staples and granted them
higher values. Chuño was not marked enough to keep on tourist plates and
therefore was easily replaced with higher-status staples more familiar to tour-
ists and more appropriate to their economic status in the Bolivian context. is
suggests a self-reinforcing eect. ose who wrote tour books and marketing
brochures did not write about chuño (or said little that was positive or inter-
esting about it), perhaps in part because it was not oered. us, tourists who
visited Bolivia did not think to seek it out.
good to relate
I argue that there is another reason why chuño has not been fully incorporated
into Bolivian touristic cuisine. Chuño was also not good to relate” in the sense
that the tuber did not serve as an emblematic marker of travels in Bolivia spe-
cically. In North Atlantic countries, the potato is a quotidian part of diets
and national histories. It is common knowledge that the potatos nutritional
and agricultural qualities led it to be adopted as a staple peasant food and
later incorporated into several national cuisines (Salaman 1949). Whether we
consider the spread of McDonald’s French fries or the devastation of the Irish
Potato Famine, the potato has been omnipresent in North Atlantic history for
more than two centuries. Tourists were oen told about the incredible variety
of potatoes in the highlands but were less well-informed about the extraordi-
nary qualities of chuño.
CLare a. SammeLLS
118
Potatoes are integral to the diet of the “modern” world and thus are gen-
erally ignored in the touristic imaginary. e potato is not disappearing—on
the contrary, it is an important part of North Atlantic diets. e potato is
Andean, but mentioning this fact in touristic marketing does little to dis-
tinguish “local” cuisine from what North Atlantic tourists believe they have
already experienced. e chuño was not “good to think” or “good to relate”
because tourists categorized it as a kind of potato—which, as I have argued, it
is not.
Llama meat, in contrast, was “good to relate” for a number of reasons.
When tourists talk about their experiences aer returning home, their audi-
ences probably know what a llama is but have rarely eaten one—if the idea has
occurred to them at all. Eating llama has a certain shock value that adds to the
value of the tourist’s tale. For North Americans, eating llama was transgressive,
much like the tales of eating guinea pig discussed by Goldstein (this volume).
at made such tales all the more captivating.
Eating while traveling—whether as a tourist or an anthropologist—is not
only about eating what is familiar. Travelers generally want to experience foods
with unfamiliar tastes that will be interesting to talk about later. e popularity
of cooking magazines and TV shows like Iron Chef demonstrates that we love
to read about, hear about, and watch others eat unusual things, even when we
are not in a position to replicate the dishes we see or even imagine what they
taste like. In fact, this is one of the premises that underlies this book. Nothing
I write here will allow you to taste chuño or any of the other foods described
by my coauthors. Nevertheless, here we are—we as authors trying to create a
taste in your mouth that we oen cannot even recreate in our own kitchens at
home, and you as readers trying to imagine these dishes and wondering if you
can trust our assertions that you might like them.
touriStic cuiSineS
is comparison of llama meat and chuño brings me to my nal point, one
that I think can be expanded to an examination of touristic cuisines more
generally. Bolivian touristic cuisine—meaning, the cuisine served to tourists
in Bolivia—is not a watered-down, bland version of local food. Nor is it an
attempt to cater to North Atlantic desires for McDonald’s (which is itself not
a uniform monolith; see Watson 1997) or other familiar dishes. Touristic cui-
sines have their own logics, ingredients, spices, styles of presentation, and din-
ing contexts that derive from the cultural situations in which these dishes are
cooked and served—specically, the structured interactions between locals
and visitors within a touristic context. e status that foods have within both
Bolivian and North Atlantic societies entered into the cuisine that one pre-
OD e t O a C Hu ñO
119
pared for the other, and ingredients and dishes were transformed by a distinct
culinary logic that emerged from a touristic encounter fraught with inequali-
ties and anxieties as well as steeped in cosmopolitan sophistication and entre-
preneurial acumen.
Bolivian touristic cuisine is certainly dierent from the highland Bolivian
cuisine typically consumed by locals. is is true of touristic cuisine in most
places—the claim may be made that it is authentic, tipico, or local, but what
is served in tourist restaurants is usually not the same as what people cook in
their own homes. Some travelers might see this as an obstacle to be overcome
in the search for the “real” or the “authentic.” Some anthropologists might even
consider their knowledge of local home cooking to be part of what separates
them from tourists (Crick 1995). I prefer to see this division as part of regional
culinary diversity; in other words, touristic cuisine is one part of the diverse
culinary knowledges and practices that make up local cuisines rather than one
that is external to them.
ere is a long debate on how to best dene the word “tourist” (for exam-
ples, see Boorstin 1961; Chambers 2000; MacCannell 1976; Nash 1996; Smith
1989 [1977]; Urry 1990). Any universal denition of this term is inherently
unsatisfying precisely because this word takes on meaning through specic
local interactions. ese encounters are not limited to “host and guests” but
include infrastructures that facilitate exchanges of currencies, images, goods,
literatures, and services. An important part of these interactions is culinary.
In the context of Bolivian touristic cuisine, restaurants catered to a cli-
entele that was not only foreign but also seen as upper-class. e word tur-
ista—which did not apply to all leisure travelers within that nation—carried
the connotations of a short-term, foreign visitor (usually European, U.S., or
Canadian but also those seen as racially “white” from other nations, including
Latin America). is term also had class connotations, as turistas had substan-
tial economic resources compared to most Bolivians (Sammells 2009:84–97).
In this context, where turistas were not dened solely by the activity of travel
but also by their race, nationality, and economic position, llama and chuño
acquired very dierent meanings.
us, llama meat served with rice, a common dish in Bolivian touristic cui-
sine, combines ingredients with dierent class associations for Bolivians into a
tourist cuisine with its own culinary logic. Llama is presented proudly as the
truly Andean, quietly accompanied by rice and perhaps potatoes, both higher-
status staples. Chuño and tunta generally go unmentioned and unserved in this
context.
So, if you go to Bolivia, try the chuño. But wherever you go, recognize that
it is not just your head and heart entering into a relationship with the people
you visit, but also your stomach.
CLare a. SammeLLS
120
Acknowledgments. My deep thanks to Helen Haines and my fellow con-
tributors to this volume, who gave many helpful suggestions, feedback, and
food for thought. Conversations with members of the Gringo Tambo, includ-
ing Maria Bruno, Stephen Scott, and Katherine McGurn Centellas, and com-
ments specically on this paper from Alison Kohn have been indispensible. I
also thank Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Alan Kolata, Manuela Carneiro da Cunha,
and John Kelly for their support and comments. I thank my compadres Paulina
and Anaclo for making sure I was so well fed in Bolivia and for all the wonder-
ful conversations we had in their kitchen. is research was supported by the
Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Program, the Tinker
Foundation, the Orin Williams Fund, and the University of Chicago Center
for Latin American Studies.
noteS
1. By “American” I mean people from the United States of America. It is a mis-
nomer, since “American” should rightly apply to people from the entire hemisphere.
But this term is far more elegant in English, which lacks an alternative word such as
estadounidense to describe those from the United States more specically. My apologies
to those who might be oended.
2. For example, I strongly dislike olives. is is a matter of some amusement among
my friends.
3. I should note that chuño was the word applied to the raw product by Aymara
speakers. If cooked and served whole (such as a side to a meal, or in a ambre), it was
referred to as phuti (also written p’uti). Phuti also referred to cooked tunta. In this es-
say, I will use the term “chuño” to refer to both the raw and the cooked product for the
simplicity of those readers who do not speak Aymara and also to distinguish it from
tunta.
4. I kept a detailed food diary for twelve months while conducting dissertation
research. e one-third gure includes midday and dinner meals in Tiwanaku but ex-
cludes tecito, which usually consisted of only a hot drink and bread and was served
twice a day, at breakfast and in the early evening.
5. In rural areas, the exact proportions of consumption of each staple depended
on the climate and agriculture of the region. Regions that grow maize or quinua will
obviously consume more of those grains. is paper shows my own bias in having done
research in La Paz and Tiwanaku, but I recognize that cuisine can change radically even
over short distances. For example, communities on Lake Titicaca eat far more lake sh
and have a microclimate conducive to growing maize, whereas Tiwanaku, a mere ten
miles (seventeen kilometers) from the lake, grows little maize, and residents tend to eat
sh only on Sundays when it is sold at the weekly market.
6. One particular type of potato, pitikilla, was actually more delicious when it had
worms. e worms were not eaten—they were removed while eating—but as a result of
the worms, the potato’s avor resembled that of chestnuts. It was generally agreed that
while the worms are troublesome to remove, the avor was superior.
OD e t O a C Hu ñO
121
7. Informants in Tiwanaku oen found it strange that although Chicago was cold-
er in the winter than the altiplano and Chicagoans ate potatoes, no one made chuño.
My description of bitter cold even during the day, high snowbanks, and short daylight
hours seemed odd to them indeed (as did my description of the long daylight hours
of summer). When I brought them a photograph of a Hyde Park, Chicago, street in
winter, they were as interested in the parked cars lining the street—a clear sign of wide-
spread wealth—as in the thick layer of snow covering them.
8. A compadre is a “ctive kin” relationship where two unrelated individuals are
linked through one being the godparent—for the baptism, wedding, high-school grad-
uation, or other kind of sponsorship—of the other’s child. I had a number of compadres
in Tiwanaku.
9. Again, this is not to claim that I ate everything with equal relish. I did try every-
thing, but it quickly became clear to those who knew me well that there were certain
dishes I was less fond of. My comadre did not insist I eat these things, because that
meant there was more for everyone else. Fried liver (fresh from a slaughtered sheep)
was a particular treat that I ate conspicuously less of than everyone else, but the children
were happy to divide up whatever I did not want.
10. e 2002 edition of Lonely Planet’s South America on a Shoestring displayed
on its cover a photo of two of the artisans of Tiwanaku, Bolivia, playing soccer. When I
contacted the publisher, they sent a complementary copy of the book for each of them.
11. Compare written guides’ treatment of chuño to that paid to salteñas, a meat-
lled pastry, which almost always received high praise and a detailed description.
12. I do not wish to suggest that all food taboos involve meats. In Bolivia, there
were food taboos involving non-meat foods in particular contexts, such as in the diets
of postpartum women.
13. No La Paz establishments oered llama meat openly during that time, al-
though in the city of Oruro dishes made of llama meat, such as charquekan, were sold
as specialties and very popular.
14. In addition to Peña Huari, another La Paz restaurant aimed at tourists also
began serving llama meat around this time, although it had closed by 1998.
15. Trout from Lake Titicaca was another mainstay of Bolivian touristic cuisine
that was rarely eaten by Bolivians, who tended to consume smaller native species of sh.
e trout are not native to the region and were oen farmed.
16. In fact, from the perspective of North Atlantic nations, Bolivia itself could be
seen as squarely within the “savage slot”—as an underdeveloped, poor, “ird World
nation—or, as postcards and tourist brochures declared, as the “Folklore Capital of
South America” that drew foreigners to see its vibrant indigenous culture and un-
spoiled natural landscapes.
17. P’itu is a preparation that can be made from quinua, cañahua, wheat, or fava
beans. It involves toasting the grains and then grinding them into a powder. e pow-
der is then served in a bowl with a mug of a sugared hot drink (usually an herbal tea).
e drink is poured into the powder and then mixed to form a porridge. is was usu-
ally served for breakfast but has been largely replaced with bread. When made more
watery, p’itu can also be served as a reesco, or beverage. P’itu falls somewhere between
a food and a drink.
CLare a. SammeLLS
122
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... In this context, llama meat has become a symbol of "authentic" Bolivian fare, and is advertised prominently on signs outside many establishments (Figure 9.1). Llama meat is rarely seen in nontouristic restaurants in La Paz; indeed, in the early 1990s no La Paz restaurants would have served this kind of meat, and even now llama meat is rare in La Paz establishments outside the tourist district (Sammells 1998(Sammells , 2010. ...
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