South American Lifestyles: The Ecuadorian meat market

As our regular readers will recall, my partner, Marina, and I are travelling for the summer throughout South America as a means to celebrate the successful defense of both of our PhDs (Read about our travel adventures). Last week I discussed the dietary habits on the Galapagos islands.

This week I will discuss my experience at a local indigenous food market in Latacunga, Ecuador - a town a couple hours south of Quito.

Sitting on a filthy butcher's table with legs spread open, a toddler drinks fresh cow blood out of a plastic cup. Our eyes meet, as he finishes a gulp, and his face breaks into a grin while blood dribbles out of the corners of his mouth and adds to the Pollock-like splatter of drying blood on his shirt.

"That is the creepiest thing I've ever seen", I tell Marina.

The vampire boy was just one of the interesting sites we witnessed at the Latacunga market, which we crossed on the way to Lake Quilotoa after sleeping among volcanoes the night before. Although the large produce market, containing a myriad of colourful fruit from the coast along with vegetables from the mainland was interesting, it was the meat market that we found particularly alluring.

In North America, we're used to seeing our meat completely separated from the animal to which it belongs. For all I know, chicken breasts, salmon steaks, and pork chops were grown on a tree. It is certainly easier on the conscience to separate the grilled chicken breast on my plate from the fuzzy, sometimes obnoxious and funny looking animal which likes to run in front of passing cars.

Not so in Ecuador.

If you want to purchase some pork, you better have the guts to stare into the eyes of one of the decapitated pig heads on the counter. Not only are these pig heads massive, many of them exhibit disturbing expressions; mouths open in a grin, tongues sticking out through the crooked teeth, almost mocking you.

I must admit that this kind of close connection between the whole live animal and the piece of carne on your plate would certainly encourage me to at least significantly limit my meat intake. There is simply a much greater level of guilt experienced in purchasing a pork loin, when the decapitated head of the animal is staring at you during the transaction.

Also, while much of the animal goes to waste in North America (or otherwise ends up in a hot dog), every single tissue is consumed or at least sold in Ecuador. Apparently, soup can be made with the most random of animal parts. Also, you can eat deep fried pig skin.

When I think of how industrial and mechanical the processing of meat has become in North America (see Food Inc. documentary for an example), it certainly feels as though we have lost something in the process; particularly, appreciation for the animal from which the meat is derived.

In Ecuador the animals live among the people, and can even be seen grazing on the side of major roads. Even on the Galapagos Islands, the number of chickens I saw easily rivaled the number of blue footed boobies. On the other hand, despite the amount of beef or chicken I may consume back in Canada, these live animals are a complete novelty - I never really see them.

This in itself seems somewhat perverse.

The beef section was equally interesting.

Of course there were a few cow heads hanging around to see how their remains are sold off.
There were also a few calf fetuses on sale.

These are sort of like the fetuses you saw in high-school science class. Unfortunately, these were not in a jar of formaldehyde, but simply laid across a cold metal table right beside the uterus which once contained them.

One calf fetus goes for $15, and makes an excellent soup, according to the woman at the counter.

While it may seem odd to most of us to eat these other parts of the animal, it certainly makes more sense than slaughtering an animal just for its breast, loin, or wing.

Right after posing for a picture with the calf fetuses, I noticed the sound of flesh and bones being decimated at the butchering station in the corner of the market. Three individuals worked in tandem, almost like an assembly line, smashing open the heads of cows and then separating the contents therein.

Apparently even the insides of a cow's skull are an ingredient included in some recipe (probably soup).

While I openly commend the locals for not letting anything go to waste, I'll be the first to admit I have serious reservations about consuming many of the animal parts I saw on display - regardless of the deliciousness of their preparation.

Years and years of buying my meat deboned, neatly cut into parts, and Ceran-wrapped has clearly left its mark on me.


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Given the amount of chicken I eat, I think it's profane that I've never been forced to kill or even de-feather one.
Could you kill a chicken?

By Phillip B (not verified) on 09 Jun 2010 #permalink

You see a lot more of the animal when you shop at a farmer's market in North America than you do at a conventional grocery store. Still, not nearly what you describe here. For those who are curious about the meat industry here, read "Eating Animals" by Jonathan Safran Foer. It will open your eyes.

I haven't had a chance to read that yet, but I found both The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food to be incredibly entertaining and informative.

Oddly, one of my fondest memories from my childhood was helping my dad butcher a hog that would feed my family. I remember being quite anxious to get to the eating part as I watched (and helped) the animal become further and further subdivided. I can't imagine being in that market would have done anything to me but make me hungry. Chalk it up to simple differences in being raised, perhaps? Or am I just primitive?

Eh. I grew up on a ranch, and worked on a family farm for a while; I was more used to knowing my meat. I never killed anything larger than a chicken or a rabbit myself, but I did help take the larger animals to the abattoir. I personally think that the profound disconnect that most Americans have between their food and their ignorance of its source is not only dishonest, but harmful to both understanding and sustainability.

It isn't just the undeveloped world which still uses all the bits of the beasts. I remember the delight shared between my husband (Scottish) and our Navajo host near Monument Valley one year, when swapping recipes for blood pudding. Many "traditional" national foods are starvation foods, too; it's the stuff the peasants ate, when the good muscle meat and liver got taken by the upper classes. Cf. haggis. (Which incidentally does not deserve its reputation. Even the stuff made the traditional way, out of the lungs, trachea, and other "lights", tastes just fine. Ground small it isn't that chewy.)

Having said that, not all those things are safe any more. Because of the CJD the central nervous system is off-limits in North America and Europe, and for good reason, and there are stricter controls over use and storage of blood products. That is not a bad thing.

...And having said all that, I'm still not sure what the hell would explain lutefisk.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 09 Jun 2010 #permalink

Here in Arkansas there's a camp of sorts run by the Heifer Project that they call the "global village" and people there are exposed to the experience of how life works in specific third world countries.

At at least one point the curriculum involved cleaning (IE Butchering) a rabbit and cooking it. I don't know that they still do that, but I honestly think it's an experience people should be exposed to.

Then again, it's also less controversial in a state like this one where hunting is very common. Although a deer or a turkey isn't quite the same as a chicken or a pig or a cow, I think it gives people a better appreciation for meat. Although I do have to say, being exposed that sort of thing hasn't really had the same impact on me. I don't have much of a problem realizing the meat in supermarkets comes from living animals, although I do have some distrust of factory farming methods.

I must admit it's charming to read such naivete. The only parts of animals which are "wasted" in Western nations are the ones that are illegal to sell as food product, and that is almost nothing at all. Nothing at all is lost on cows which are under 30 months old. Not brain, not intestine, not skin, not bones, not blood. It's all used in food.

Ever eat jello? Candy? Headcheese? Anything with beef broth in it? If so, nothing you've seen on display in these markets is new to you. And the toddler drinking blood is doing no worse than a toddler eating gummy bears - much better, from a "the origin of that is disgusting" point of view.

If anything, Western AMR (Advanced meat Recovery) machines mean that the waste is even less where you come from, and you have eaten things even the people on that meat market might recoil from. If they knew where it came from, that is.

PS. Lutfisk is one of the tastiest dishes in the world.

@theswede: I didn't realise the ban on beef brains had been lifted in the US. I do agree with you on "mechanically recoverd meat." But gelatin doesn't come from blood, at least not last I checked; bones and hooves, yes, blood no. In any case, though, it is infinitely less likely to transmit blood-borne pathogens or parasites than simply drinking raw blood is.

As for Lutfisk is one of the tastiest dishes in the world.
...Are you on drugs, or simply insane????! Because that thar represents some SERIOUS delusion. ;-P

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 10 Jun 2010 #permalink

From the pathogen perspective:

With respect to the germy conditions from lack of sanitary controls at the Ecuadorian market, one finds considerably higher risk in the public water, wastewater and solid waste disposal methods in many parts of South America.

Fortunately, antioxidant and nutrient-rich traditional cuisine and daily exercise help to bolster natural immune protection.

I think a visit to a CAFO or two is in order for our blog host when he returns home.

Mmmm. Brain quesadillas.

Americans eat pig skin all the time. Haven't you ever heard of pork rinds? Or cracklings? You know, soul food? You're right that in the US we are psychologically distanced from the fact that we kill what we eat, but you're wrong when you say that we kill for only certain parts. As theswede explained, we use it all.

@Luna: Gelatin does not come from blood, but blood is used for animal feed. Ew.

on market day in PNG highlands, you might find a child fully cooked and laid out for sale. mad cow disease? PNG has about 40 cases of mad human disease each year (from eating raw human brains)

Cannibalism is not common practice in Papua New Guinea and kuru disappeared after the ban on mortuary feasts in the 1950's.
Where do you get this crap about cooked children on market day and 40 cases of 'mad human disease' a year?

Beef brain from under 30 month old animals is fair game, at least last time I checked. It's used in broth and is of course part of "meat slurry" which is used for all manner of processed meat foods.

As to blood vs. gummi candy, I was referring to grossness (I consider hooves and horns a lot more gross to eat than blood), not risk, as I see very little connection between the two. And the toddler can certainly handle it - he's had worse just drinking water, I'm sure.

If people actually knew what was in the stuff they eat they'd either be a lot less squeamish or be a helluva lot more picky about what they eat. This post is excellent support for this, as are many of the comments.

PS. Lutfisk pales to insignificance next to surströmming. No, I won't explain it. You consider liking lutfisk insane, so I wonder what your reaction to surströmming would be.

ha! Luna, my Swedish/Irish father likes to explain lutefisk with a story [joke, I think] about how his Irish ancestors, tired of the intermittent raids from viking marauders, attempted to poison them by uncovering their buried food supplies, covering them with lye, and re-burying them. The story goes that the vikings/Swedes liked the fish so much they kept coming back.

It's not bad, really, if you like the combination of soap and rotted fish.

We have just moved to Central America and it took a while to actually buy just looked disgusting...but when we did finally attempt to buy was the most amazing tender chicken either of us had eaten. Simply delicious, naturally raised.

I think in the US we get too 'phobic' of so many things that the government has told us are bad (like having meat sit out for any length of time). But this has been happening all over the world for centuries and people are fine.

It's an amazing experience and I wish you well!

I used to help skin rabbits and gut seabirds as a small child. Well, I remember thinking I was helpful. I remember moose butchering parties in the backyard- gruesome but delicious. I remember caplin scooped with a bucket out of the surf and fried whole. I remember fishing for my breakfast with my dad. I grew up in rural Newfoundland.

When I lived in Malawi as an adult, I ate less meat. I probably could have butchered a chicken and cleaned it, but it was easier to simply be a vegetarian, as I lived alone and would have really felt badly about spoilage. Years of sanitised Canadian meat made me more squeamish than I expected, though, but what cured me was a goat we bought to barbecue for a party. He had been allowed to roam in the village. Little bugger destroyed so many veggie patches, it was a relief to eat him.