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While researching sites for student immersion trips in Ecuador, art professor Doug Calisch visited a cheese-making operation in the highlands and tasted the essence of rural Ecuador.

IMAGINE A SINGLE-ROOMED ADOBE house with a dirt floor. The women roll out a grass mat, then toss a sheet over it as we watch. Steam rises as they start spilling out hot food along the sheet.

First there is corn. Then rice. Then potatoes and yuca, a starchy, bland tuber. Then some carrots, peas, a little bit of chicken.

But the meat of choice is cuy—pronounced "kwee," like the sound made by a guinea pig, which is, in fact, tonight’s meat of choice.

It’s all topped with cold, wet lettuce.

We each have a space on the mat as we sit on the floor with logs as backrests. Only the men are given utensils, but we mostly eat with our fingers.

I’m still full from the leaf-wrapped quinoa grain I peeled open earlier as we sat around the outside kitchen being bathed in wood smoke and watching this meal being cooked. Maybe it’s the altitude, or maybe it’s the chicha liquor I was welcomed with (and which some of them have been drinking all day), but my head is swimming.

I dig in to the vegetables, seasoning the rice with aji, a hot sauce reminiscent of chipotle. I pass on the guinea pig, explaining that I’m a vegetarian. They seem to understand.

Our conversation is warm and relaxed as words are translated from Quechua into Spanish to English and back again.The time between responses lets me savor the meal, this remarkable hospitality, and our conversation. They tell me how the people come out of the mountains to work together and how these meals celebrate that work. They explain the many different ways they can prepare yuca.

Glancing around the room at the women eating guinea pig, I realize there appears to be a glaring omission from our beverage choices.

"You make cheese on this farm," I say. "Why aren’t we drinking milk?"

They look at me like I’m nuts.

"Milk is used to make cheese," one woman explains. She would not think of drinking it.

—Contact Professor Calisch at


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