by María Elena García, author of Gastropolitics and the Specter of Race: Stories of Capital, Culture, and Coloniality in Peru

I never intended to write a book about food. And certainly, I never planned to write a book that critiqued the chefs credited for transforming Peru—the country of my birth—from a place of terror, violence and poverty, to a vibrant, global culinary destination. But as I conducted research for a different project in the early 2000s, it became clear that Peru’s so-called “gastronomic revolution” was central to any contemporary exploration of culture, politics and coloniality in this Andean nation. I was especially intrigued by the ways particular histories of violence haunted hegemonic narratives of inclusion, racial harmony, and economic success, all made possible (as the story goes) through the rediscovery and revalorization of Peruvian cuisine.

As I write in Gastropolitics and the Specter of Race, backstories of violence matter. After over two decades of political violence that claimed at least tens of thousands of lives, not to mention the countless lives destroyed by kidnapping, torture, displacement, sexual violence, and more, the argument made forcefully by prominent chefs in the capital city of Lima is seductive. They claim that gastronomy can offer a path to economic opportunity and support Indigenous livelihoods through chef-producer alliances that make possible farm to table dining. Culinary festivals can showcase cultural vibrancy, biodiversity, and indigeneity to the world, and help Peruvians rediscover and fall in love with their country. In short, Peruvian food and the country’s culinary history of racial, cultural fusion have the power to unite and to heal.

But a closer look at these narratives and practices, at high-end menus and well-meaning chefs, and at the gastropolitical machine that became central to national projects of restoration as the country transitioned to “peace” and democracy, reveals a darker side. Gastronomy in Peru is implicated with ongoing forms of violence—colonial and otherwise.

Colonialism shape-shifts. Its Peruvian echoes and forms can be felt in multiple ways through gastropolitics. At times, writing and researching this book felt like thinking with ghosts. I remember two moments in particular, which both took place in Astrid & Gastón, the flagship restaurant of Gastón Acurio. Acurio is one of the architects of Peru’s gastronomic revolution, and perhaps the leading chef and culinary spokesperson in the country.

The first moment was during my initial visit to the restaurant, located in a restored Casa Moreyra, the 300-year-old main house of the old hacienda in San Isidro, one of the most affluent districts in Lima. We were seated next to a painting called “historia de un huaquero afortunado” by Cuban artist Jose Bedia. As I looked at that remarkable painting, which is also on the cover of my book, I suddenly knew my project had shifted. Huaqueros are looters, persons who clandestinely excavate archaeological sites in order to find pre-Hispanic artefacts to sell illegally, usually to foreign collectors. Huaca means sacred in Quechua, and often refers to sacred objects and places. The painting depicts a figure at the top of a mound, with a clear path leading to a huaca, drawn as a simple white triangular outline with a small, round face. The huaquero is fortunate as he has found his treasure.

To me the painting spoke to the extractive and appropriative dimensions of the Peruvian gastronomic revolution. It brought to mind in particular the ongoing theft of Indigenous lands, sacred objects, and intellectual property. But the painting also evoked the Huaca Huallamarca, a striking pyramidal mound located only a few blocks from Astrid & Gastón. When I visited that Huaca during my last trip to Peru in January 2020, I thought back to that painting. Rather than see only the commodification of this space, I felt a powerful refusal to be swallowed up. Could the Huaca not stand instead as a testament to the survivance of Indigenous peoples?

The second moment took place during my last visit to Astrid & Gastón, while on a brief tour of Casa Moreyra. Hoping to learn about how (or if) restaurant staff narrated the histories of violence intimately entangled with an hacienda economy—one that involved the importation of wheat from Chile, cacao from Guayaquil, indigo from Guatemala, and slaves from Panama—I asked about the catacombs under the building. As soon as I mentioned them, our guide shook her head: “Oh no. We don’t go in there. One of my colleagues heard screams coming from there, the screams of a little girl.” I asked how they knew it was a girl. “We saw her,” she whispered.

“In Peru, we need ghosts to continue their work. In a context where so many want to forget the violence of the past and refuse to see the ways that violence lingers powerfully in the lives of so many, ghosts can offer productive disruptions.”

Ghosts, whether emanating from paintings or buildings, embedded in landscapes, or lurking in the midst of cultural performances at culinary festivals, invite us to reconsider gastropolitics and its multiple impacts. Eve Tuck and C. Ree write that haunting does not “hope for reconciliation. Haunting lies precisely in its refusal to stop…. For ghosts, the haunting is the resolving, it is not what needs to be resolved.”[1] In Peru, we need ghosts to continue their work. In a context where so many want to forget the violence of the past and refuse to see the ways that violence lingers powerfully in the lives of so many, ghosts can offer productive disruptions. As I write, the Covid pandemic continues to take even more lives, disproportionately from the poor segments of society that rarely benefit from the aesthetic or economic rewards of the gastronomic boom. The victims of the political violence of the last century and the pandemic of the current one will haunt Peruvian society for many years to come, as the drastic and obscene inequalities that produced them show no signs of abatement.

This post is part of our #LASA2021 conference series. Visit our virtual exhibit page to get 40% off the book.

[1] Tuck, Eve and C. Ree. 2013. “A Glossary of Haunting.” Handbook of Autoethnography, Stacey Holman Jones, Tony E. Adams, and Carolyn Ellis, eds.: 639-658. Left Coast Press.