Food and Language in Peru

Lasater_Amy_Peru_0604, originally uploaded by CLACS – NYU.

Hello from Lima, Peru! I’ve been here for two weeks now, and I’m pleased to report that I’m finally starting to get a sense of the city and the people who live here. I should begin by saying that one of my goals for the summer was to sort out my initial thoughts about my dissertation research (which is still a couple of years in the future), and one of the ideas I’ve been interested in exploring is how perceptions of national and regional identity are reflected in Peruvian food corporations’ advertising practices and research and development plans. Accordingly, I’ve been trying not only to familiarize myself with food and ads here but also to get a sense of what, exactly, Lima’s identity might be and how that fits into consumption practices.

To that end, last Saturday (May 30) I found myself in Lima’s Plaza de Armas to celebrate one of Peru’s newest holidays, National Potato Day. The program included a parade, a speech from the Minister of Culture, a play about the benefits of potatoes for Peru’s economy, statements from representatives from private corporations, and a surprise visit from an actress from Ayacucho. (The picture I’ve included is from the parade; the potato-shaped vendors carts are actually used in Lima’s downtown.)

In large part, the speakers discussed the need to reinvigorate a sense of national pride in the potato. Although the potato originated in Peru, its consumption in many parts of the country (including Lima) has been decreasing in favor of imported rice and noodles. This decrease in consumption is in turn catastrophic for the mountain communities who rely on potato farming for their survival. Accordingly, National Potato Day exists as a means of trying to promote potato consumption throughout the country – largely (as far as I can tell) through the device of marketing to the rich rather than reaching out specifically to the poor. Speakers throughout the day emphasized the fact that Andean potatoes’ exotic qualities could attract tourists and provoke new gastronomic delights. Furthermore, they suggested that farmers would be able to earn more money for their crops if their potatoes were packaged in plastic and sold in value-added forms like potato chips. The overall effect was to cast the consumption of potatoes as something that was not only patriotic but also clever; the speakers encouraged the audience not only to eat Peruvian potatoes but also to do new, creative things with them.

Overall, the ceremony articulated Peruvian identity as an amalgamation of unique historical and natural resources and modern ingenuity. But I was intrigued by the way that it also hinted at a tension between the ways that Peruvian identity is often articulated (through the evocation of Andean indigeneity) and the relative lack of indigenous cultural displays in Lima itself. For instance, the play included an unflattering and stereotyped pair of bumbling altiplano characters, and the actress chided the audience for not speaking Quechua, Peru’s indigenous language. These are the sorts of things that I’m hoping to look at further during the rest of my stay in Lima; with luck, maybe I’ll have material with which to address them in my next post!

Amy Lasater
PhD Candidate, Anthropology

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