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Savoring Nostalgia: Food and the Past in Peru’s “La Casa de Don Cucho”

Saboreando nostalgia: Comida y el pasado en “La Casa de Don Cucho” (Perú)
Amy Cox Hall


This article situates nostalgia as part of the current gastronomic boom and gastro-politics currently at play in Peru. Although recent emphasis on gastronomy as a national economic development plan is clearly rooted in neoliberal themes of entrepreneurship and marketization, idealized notions of the past are being invoked not only to foster food entrepreneurship but also a critical food politics. Drawing primarily on the work of Kathleen Stewart and Alberto Flores Galindo, this paper highlights two types of nostalgia currently at work in the food boom. The first situates the past as a potentially profitable commodity from which to build profit and prestige while the second invokes the past to critique modernity’s ruins. Consequently, nostalgia should not be dismissed as mere romanticism but rather a potentially political act rooted in current realities of loss and suffering, wielded to conjure a new way of being in the world.

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Palabras claves :

nostalgia, Perú, comida, nación, afecto, memoria
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“It is possible to be homesick for a place, even when you are there.” Don Delillo, White Noise

1Over the last decade, Peru has been working hard at becoming a global food destination. There are films (Buscando a Gastón, 2014, De ollas y Sueños, 2009), promotional videos advertised on The New York Times web page, and accolades from global tastemakers. For the past several years, three of the world’s fifty best restaurants have been located in Lima. There is now Mistura, a food festival, also in Lima, and English-language cookbooks promoting the recipes of Peruvian palates. In 2015, Gastón Acurio, Peru’s most well-known and successful food entrepreneur, published Peru: The Cookbook.

2Anthropologists and sociologists have taken notice of the recent boom and have begun to study not simply its origins, but its effects. In examining the antecedents of the boom, Raúl Matta notes that initially chefs from well-to-do families who had traveled abroad to study gastronomy carried out the boom. Returning to Peru they developed restaurants based on markers of taste that catered to a wealthy global and cosmopolitan elite through what was coined “novo-Andino” cuisine (Matta 2013). Media, including the films referenced above, were used to rebrand Peru from a developing nation to an entrepreneurial one at the forefront of global growth, invoking food as a form of gastro-diplomacy (Matta 2014). Rather than starting from a desire to safeguard cultural paradigms or traditions, state and local actors began to strategize about how to get Peruvian food listed on UNESCO’s world heritage list. World heritage designation was desired because of its income potential and viewed as an “elite-driven competitive global concept” (Matta 2016: 338).

  • 1 This is a term that means mixing and is often used when discussing the blending of “races” througho (...)

3María Elena García’s work has also critically engaged the promise of the boom, investigating its potentially detrimental effects particularly on indigenous communities whose foodways serve as the one of the foundational celebratory narratives of the boom. In her early studies, she set out to understand how Acurio and others drew on the idea of fusion and mestizaje1 to promote Peru and its cuisine around the world. She found that narratives of promise, tolerance, and acceptance ignored current and past struggles and had deleterious effects on both human and non-human bodies like guinea pigs and chickens (2014, 2013, 2010). In a forthcoming chapter on food sovereignty and affect, she deepens her argument noting that while “gastro-politics” in Peru “mobilize sentiments of nation in powerful ways,” such sentiments, even while creating feelings of belonging, also reproduce hierarchies and division (García forthcoming). The food boom may be wielded to suture a fragmented nation but in doing so produces cuts elsewhere.

4Skepticism of the food boom’s promise does not just come from academics however.

5In Mamá, Yo No Quiero Ser Gastón, the Peruvian journalist Ignacio Medina writes about the deception and disconnect that the boom has had with most Peruvians’ everyday realities. He says that while Acurio “changed everything,” the cooking industry is rife with underemployment, low wages, and few opportunities (Medina 2014:13). Moreover, the products so touted and celebrated by the chefs of the gastronomic boom are not as protected as they should be and the people who make the food boom possible are often denied access to its riches. In one essay titled, “Me duele Perú” Medina describes the way people talk about gastronomy as if they are in a grand neighborly patio, speaking as colonists only this time with a “new stamp” (2014:49).

  • 2 See Drinot 2011 for an exception. For work on Mexico, see Jeffrey Pilcher (1998, 2012) and Steffan (...)

6One area not addressed in Peruvian food scholarship is the use of nostalgia and the role of an invented historical past. Yet part of the work of the food boom is the construction of a collective sensuous memory of Peru as a food nation from time immemorial. Increasingly, nostalgia is appearing at the dinner table, in ads, and in new restaurants. That such a timeless history is foundational for nation building has long been established (Anderson 1991). However, much of the scholarship that examines Peruvian history, time and memory in relationship to nation building has focused on archaeology, particularly the Inca (Castro-Klarén 2003, Gänger 2014, Kohl, Podgorny and Gänger 2014). Food may have had a role in early nationalisms but, unlike scholarship on Mexico, this research is not as robust.2

7Whether or not food is consumed in highly stylized establishments meant to conjure global sophistication or in rustic lodgings that evoke longings for an imagined past, food is made and consumed with feelings and imaginaries, not only taste, in mind. Part of the power of current gastro-politics is that it is comprised of emotional, affective and corporeal sensations wielded and produced through consumerism. A historical memory is part of that imaginary and somatic sensation that has come to infuse Peruvian gastronomy with nationalist and political overtones.

  • 3 Robyn Marasco argues that despair never dismisses hope and is a critical engagement of everyday lif (...)

8Focused on the restaurant La Casa de Don Cucho, I examine how nostalgia operates as another facet of gastro-politics in Lima by offering a deeply affective and embodied imaginary of the nation. Drawing on a day-long visit and interview with the owner of the restaurant as well as fieldwork conducted in Lima on food and memory over the past three years, I examine how nostalgia has become a critical actor in the ongoing formation of culinary nationalism. Situated in literature on nostalgia and its role in modernity and politics, particularly the work of Kathleen Stewart (1988), I suggest that there are two types of nostalgia currently at play in Peru. The first, conducted by some of Peru’s most celebrated food entrepreneurs, situates the past as a potentially profitable commodity, acting on the world to fashion and sell a food nation’s future. The second invokes the glorious past, acting in the world, to critique modernity’s ruins while seeking refuge from its grip (Stewart 1991:228). I conclude that gastro-nostalgia should not be cast aside as mere romanticism or “armchair nostalgia” but might be considered a political act rooted in despair3 that draws on the current realities of environmental degradation, food industrialization, and urban chaos to conjure a different way of being in the world (Appadurai 1996:78). As such, it is a reflective nostalgia that “seduces rather than convinces” as it buffers against the teleological march toward progress; a palliative to the rapacious commercialization and loss that seems to surround people in their daily lives (Boym 2001:13, Boym 2007).

Nostalgia’s Food Past

9Luis Armando la Rosa Cabizza, or Don Cucho as he is more commonly known, welcomes me to his restaurant in the town of Pachacamac, about a 45-minute drive from Lima depending on traffic. The town of Pachacamac differs from the eponymous archaeological complex with pyramidal structures and burial sites that most tourists visit. In addition to its long archaeological past, Pachacamac boasts a small city center with central plaza surrounded on all four sides by shops, restaurants, and banks. Beyond the plaza are agricultural plots that seem to stretch for miles. Although some are shielded from view by imposing concrete walls, others are not, and expanses of crops reach toward the Pacific Ocean. Over the last twenty years, Lima’s sprawl has edged toward Pachacamac, and what used to be a string of independent hamlets bisected by the highway, are now engulfed by a constant snaking of honking cars, buses, trucks and plumes of exhaust. Still, the relentlessness of Lima finally gives way, and amidst the greenhouses, nurseries, and industrial farm plots are restaurantes campestres. Here, families from Lima and the surrounding area, dine al fresco, eating comida criolla while birds chirp and children frolic freely in park-like spaces that abut the open-air dining areas. The respite is palpable and families spend hours tucked away enjoying the food, company, and quiet, verdant atmosphere.

  • 4 Ají is a chili pepper foundational to many Peruvian dishes. Huacatay is an aromatic Andean herb, co (...)
  • 5 Pachamanca is a Quechua word (pacha means earth and manka means pot) describing a Peruvian dish typ (...)

10La Casa de Don Cucho is one such place. Nestled partly amongst the leafiness in a brightly colored former hacienda, guests pass through the house on their way to a rectangular covered outdoor dining area surrounded by lemon, apple, orange, and lúcuma trees. Like most restaurantes campestres, the kitchen and dining space of Don Cucho’s is outdoors. Entering the restaurant, visitors walk through a living area and hallway to a courtyard where several kitchen stations are set up. Large worktables are positioned underneath reed rafters or corrugated sheeting. Several microwaves, refrigerators, and stacks of pots and pans fill what looks like a makeshift camp. Orange garbage cans lined with black plastic bags are tucked under counters that hug the sunflower-hued concrete walls. A lengthy stovetop with multiple burners heats well-worn pots as chefs dressed in white watch over the station. In another area is the fry station and in front of that, a woman grinds salsa out of ají and huacatay on her batán4. She wears a waist apron and a long-sleeved black shirt with a grey tee shirt on top that says “La Casa De Don Cucho” in red lettering. In this outdoor venue, chefs prepare classics like tacu tacu (a patty of refried beans mixed with rice), ají de gallina (shredded chicken in a spicy cream sauce), chicharrón de cuy (fried guinea pig), carapulcra (potato and pork stew), and lomo saltado (beef stir fry). Beyond the kitchen and the dining space is a grassy expanse with one area fenced off for making their pachamanca5 and another, named “Cucholandia”, that houses jungle gyms and a play space for children.

  • 6 Stone food mill. See note number four.

11The space is unlike the aesthetic global minimalism that many Lima restaurants now share. There is no reclaimed wood, glass walls or gleaming grey concrete. There are no hand thrown ceramic dishes or potted succulents tucked in amidst pea-sized gravel. Instead, Don Cucho’s is a colorful cluttered menagerie that seems more like the house of your grandmother or Great Aunt where the attic or garage and the living spaces are not so much separate rooms as conversation partners. The courtyard entrance to the restaurant has a battery of batanes6 and mortars displayed atop rebar platforms. Amongst the stone slabs are discarded cooking technologies no longer of use in today’s kitchens. Connecting the hacienda proper with the outdoor kitchen is a hallway filled with 1950s white enamel stovetops and ovens, old radios, white and blue bowls, a cash register, framed record album covers, biscuit tins, meat grinders, lanterns, and old-fashioned irons. Along the outdoor path next to the dining area are installations of older kitchen cookers. A cast iron wood stove is set out, displayed with kindling and two large black cauldrons filled with logs. Another sits next to it, painted in grass green and black. In place of the two black cauldrons are oversized cooking pots enameled in azure blue. There is an old-fashioned scale, also of iron, that I cannot imagine ever moving and a coal heater about waist height that has a carmine red kettle sitting atop with kindling decoratively displayed below. On another wooden table is a stone batán. Above the woman grinding ají is an umbrella and above that is a rafter where a dozen or so battered pots and pans hang happily. There is a coziness and a criollo “Peruvianness” that has been cultivated, if not embodied, by its owner Don Cucho.

Figure 1. Hallway leading to dining area in La Casa de Don Cucho

Figure 1. Hallway leading to dining area in La Casa de Don Cucho

Credit: The author.

12Don Cucho may not seem to fit today’s food boom of fusion, international flavors, and best restaurant lists, yet he is also part of the gastronomic boom. An early chef of novo-Andino cuisine, Don Cucho was one of the first to popularize the ingredients that comprised Peru’s classic criollo cuisine. In a paid promotion on the New York Times website in 2017, PromPerú, Peru’s national marketing agency, named Don Cucho as one of the first generation of chefs who valorized Peruvian food. Gastón Acurio, referred to on the video-ad as a “second-generation chef”, said that Don Cucho helped “buil[d] the conditions and the dream and the purpose and the meaning of what we did later.” Once a nation characterized by “terrorism, a struggling economy and low morale,” Lima is now “considered one of the world’s leading culinary destinations.”

  • 7 Roca Rey is a food writer who promoted the concept of novo-Andino cuisine. His family owns several (...)

13Don Cucho opened La Casa de Don Cucho in the mid 2000s in what used to be the hacienda Casa Blanca when he went into “autoexilio” in an effort to escape the tumult of Lima and the demands of his life so that he might make some money and retire. He is not as well-known as Gastón Acurio or Virgilio Martínez, the celebrated chef-owner of Central, but he has been cooking for longer than either of them. He started when he was a teen, searching for a way to make money that did not involve school. He then managed various restaurants, taught in a cooking school, and continues to have a long-standing radio show, “Divinas Comidas” on Radio Programas del Perú. He is friends with Bernardo Roca Rey7 and Gastón Acurio, and as the promotional campaign points out, was an early advocate of novo-Andino cuisine. He continues to be concerned about the homogenization of foodstuffs and the disappearance of Peru’s vast varietals of various agricultural and marine products. However, he loathes Lima’s food scene and no longer attends Mistura, saying he has no interest in participating in the crowded and commercialized food fever. Instead, he seemed to look forward to retiring and focusing on his passion of Peru’s food past. In many ways, his restaurant is a stark contrast to Peru’s food scene that seems to perpetually face North. It fascinated me the first time I experienced it.

14I have come to La Casa de Don Cucho on a beautiful Saturday in May because Gastón Acurio suggested I do so. I approached Acurio after a talk he gave at the Latin American Studies Association in 2017 held that year in Lima. Although I wanted to interview him for an article I was writing about a cookbook from the 1940s that he used in an episode on his cooking show, he demurred and suggested I speak with Don Cucho. So, I wrote Don Cucho explaining my interest and he graciously invited me to his restaurant. I arrived at his restaurant before the weekend lunch crowd unprepared for Don Cucho’s collecting passion and his restaurant’s homage to a Lima long past. Within five minutes of our meeting, he began to show me his restaurant, his collection of cooking antiquities, and to talk about the Peru he loves, and misses; a Peru seemingly steeped in family, shared time, social values, and of course food.

ACH: Why are you interested in all this history?

DC: Nostalgia, I imagine. I don’t know for sure. I have a lot of nostalgia for everything. Nostalgia is not sadness…The truth is that [he shows me a door] it is a tool to help travel to another time. This is my idea. It is easy to travel, easy to travel.

ACH: Why do you need nostalgia to travel to the past?

  • 8 Machas are a type of clam that were once extremely popular. Because of overconsumption and climate (...)

DC: Because the present is so ugly, the future is more so…. Look, today, the corvina or mero (grouper) or … sardines – look they are no longer, do you see? There aren’t machas8 or choros (mussels). This will probably be the last fish we eat, the last that provokes our pleasure. We have to take advantage of it because the sea isn’t giving more. You realize? There enters the nostalgia. We are super powerful, super abundant. The pre-Hispanic culture had respect for the sea, for the hills, for the climate, for foodstuffs. What happened? We are bad. Now we are bad. We do not respect anything. You have to terminate, you have to finish it off until there is nothing more. The end. [It is] commerce for immediate gain. What are they going to do with all that wealth? It will take years. There is no more. So rich, we have so much production…. [In the pre-Hispanic world], they never wanted for animal protein. Now we create chickens that people will eat and it is not important if it has hormones or antibiotics or has vitamins or if it is reared well. No, nothing is important. We are going to rear them. Boom! In your face. We eat chicken, noodles, rice, junk food, sodas. There is where nostalgia comes from, this is where it enters.

15Invoking travel, Don Cucho freely admits that his nostalgia is a way to escape the present. His journeys, however, are not to faraway places, exotic locales on the other side of the globe, or even to speculative futures. Instead, he time travels to a longed-for past. Comparing environmental degradation, species loss, and the collapse of social mores around eating with the righteousness of Peru’s pre-Hispanic ancestors, Don Cucho uses a timeworn Peruvian nostalgic political imaginary to critique modernity and all its ruins. His is a postcolonial politic performed in the twenty-first century that, amidst the current despair, looks to the past for a way out.

16Don Cucho led me to a wall where a glass frame hung protecting a page taken from an old magazine. He adjusted his glasses and stared closely at the image looking for something. He then began to read to me. “The area of Pachacamac where we are right now, was a district that possessed potatoes, yams, yucca…corn, cucumbers.” He turned to me and said, “and now? Nothing. Everything is cement.” Continuing, he read that while there once was a great diversity of food products, such as the myriad varieties of sweet potatoes, all that has disappeared. He continued, remarking that there were goats, donkeys, cattle, and ports where goods could be shipped in the area. Then, he skipped a few sentences as if searching for something and finally read, “It has a lot of fish. 2,000 people were dedicated to fishing. And now? Nothing. It is the end of abundance.”

17Nostalgia and an exaltation of the past as a broad cultural phenomenon in Peru is nothing new. Alberto Flores Galindo in his landmark studies of history and politics suggested that Peruvian social movements tended to invoke the idea of an Andean utopia. Placing nobility at the feet of the Inca, protest discourses critiqued the present by highlighting the Incan past as an era of equality, prosperity and abundance. However, instead of cultivating a Thomas More-like utopia located in a distant, nowhere future, Flores Galindo demonstrated that Andean utopias were rooted in an imagining of history and the past (Flores Galindo 2010). This longing to return to a world no longer, marked a variety of post-colonial political discourses from the eighteenth through the twentieth century, situating then present-day struggles through the lens of loss.

18In addition to framings of the Incan past to motivate political change, Ricardo Palma, the mid-nineteenth century writer and politician of the literary genre referred to as tradición, portrayed Lima as an archetypal “creole arcadia” in his writings. Elisa Vera Tudela argues that although Palma seems to dismiss historical proof in his writings, he was profoundly attuned to archival and oral histories, situating the Peru of his day in the colonial period. Thus, Palma’s framing of Peru as a colonial creole nation was also an example of a desire to recuperate the glory of the past. Blending fact with fiction, Palma’s writings were a potent and romantic form of storytelling that helped popularize the historical mode for understanding the current human experience, situating memory in the political present (Vera Tudela 2012: 13).

19Invoking the past seems to increasingly haunt Peruvian gastro-political projects. Whether it is the specter of violence from the guerilla warfare of the 1980s and 1990s or the romance of domesticity and early cookbooks (Cox Hall, forthcoming), the past is a growing undercurrent through which the present food nation is fashioned. In 2011, the Museum of Peruvian Gastronomy opened. Housed in a magnificently renovated colonial structure, the museum builds a historical trajectory of Peru as a food nation beginning with pre-Hispanic civilizations (referred to as “Antiguo Peru”) and their relationship to food, cooking techniques, and practices. Organized in chronological time through Peru’s imagined past, the museum showcases scenes of Andean cooking technology like the huatía, Criollo bakeries, and a replica of a nineteenth century kitchen replete with an Afro-Peruvian mannequin tending the stove. There are installations of various foodstuffs, a display of typical table settings from each era of Peru’s past, and stories about itinerant vendors selling everything from chicha to baked goods. Through a celebration of the nation, the museum convinces visitors that food has always been central to national aspirations and imaginings through a historicism that glosses the hardship required in preparing, selling and consuming food.

20Similar to the museum’s use of history, chefs like Gastón Acurio and Virgilio Martínez have also mined the past as both evidence of a food tradition and potential future opportunity for the nation. In Acurio’s cooking shows, for example, he draws on early cookbook recipes or sets up his cameras in the homes of grandparents to illustrate how food is the most important cultural trait in Peru. This narrative is not simply nostalgic or nationalistic but also opportunistic. Cookbooks and grandparents provide techniques, stories and recipes that help sell Peru’s invaluable ingredient - the nostalgic past. Similarly, the renovation of Casa Moreyra for his flagship restaurant Astrid y Gastón, is not so much homage to an earlier era but a beautiful display case for the food to be consumed. Located in the upscale district of San Isidro, Moreyra, which had long since fallen into disrepair, once overlooked the acres of olive trees that now comprise Parque El Olivar. Reclaimed by Acurio in a masterful use of nostalgia as a “central feature of modern merchandising” (Appadurai 1996: 76), the stately building transforms taste in his restaurant through a sophisticated class-infused pseudo-memorialization that invokes the notion of Lima’s glorious past as a “City of Kings” to sell bourgeois food nationalism.

21Virgilio Martínez also relies on the past as an aesthetic and formidable display technique. His multi-course dining experience riffs on earlier ethnographies of Incan verticality in agriculture to conjure a successful and pleasurable aesthetic and ecological platform for his tasting menu of Peru’s biodiversity through 17 different Peruvian ecosystems (García, forthcoming). The meal costs s/510 or about $170 and begins below sea level and climbs to 2190 meters. Guests eat playful interpretations inspired by rock spiders, jungles, river scales, lagoon floors and green heights. Recently relocated and with a new menu, Martínez continues to play and imagine food offerings through the same trope of verticality. In one of his most recent dishes he uses frozen piranha faces to serve a laminate of fish skin over a thin film of cassava to represent 450 m above sea level.

22Martínez’s latest restaurant, Mil, sits next to the Moray ruins outside the tourist mecca of Cuzco. The restaurant is focused on food grown at 11,500 feet and looks to “ancestral cuisines” to inspire its menu. Martínez remarks that, “The way we are conceptualizing the whole thing is trying to give the diner a sense of time and place and people and view and landscape and produce” (Dixier 2018). Martínez and his fellow chef-partner-wife, Pia León, are now working with a biologist, botanist and an anthropologist to source edible products. Both Mil and Central emphasize food as resource, though in Central this is represented most blatantly in the glass-walled laboratory installed in his restaurant. The purpose of the on-site research lab, replete with glass beakers, is to learn more about Peruvian foodstuffs, though it also provides an aesthetic of futurism and sophistication for the people eating inside. These examples, the museum, Casa Moyrera and Martínez’s restaurants’ Central and Mil, demonstrate a businessman’s view of food nationalism: the past as commodity and potential for value added profit making.

23In contrast, loss seems to nip at Don Cucho’s heels. The disappearance of bygone eras and the fragility of booms exemplified in Peru’s guano tales or collapsed gold mines, lurks menacingly. The future is nowhere to be found. His collections of cooking pots, batanes, and kitchen technology, once discarded to make way for progress, have been repurposed to memorialize. Of his growing collection of mortars and batanes, he told me that you could buy a beautiful new one, but it does not have the “history, the DNA, the soul.” Instead, his collection of the everyday speaks to a politics of despair amidst the loss, both real and imagined, of the past, of futurity, and of abundance. His nostalgia is a search to gather and to hold, to try desperately to catch a universe before it slips away. The past for him is not simply a commodity in which to add value for profit but to wield as an example of what the world was and what might yet be.

24In 1988 Kathleen Stewart suggested that nostalgia was a temporal and relational cultural practice interpreting space. Focused on nostalgia and its pervasiveness in the U.S., she located the then sudden profusion of nostalgia as a response to the superficiality of life, the pastiche of images and groundlessness, and the way that the United States was becoming diffuse, decentered, and distant. Because the world could no longer act as a referent, cultural production she said “was driven back inside the mind” (Stewart 1988: 231). People played with the past, often gleefully, through reified culture codes, living in, and with, fragmentation. Nostalgia, she concluded, gave both direction and hope (Stewart 1988: 229). But she cautioned that there were two types of nostalgia: one that individualized and promoted the self, acting on the world; and another that was painful, brimming with desire, acting in the world that surrounds (Stewart 1988: 228).

25The last part of Stewart’s statement is critical to understanding the operation of nostalgia for Peru’s cooking past as well as Don Cucho’s object-centered gastro-politics. Don Cucho’s is a politics of nostalgia that acts in the world that surrounds, while Acurio, Martínez and the state have managed to promote themselves and the nation through the idea of Peru by acting on the world. Although Flores Galindo posited that resistance and political critique was often manifested through a discursively linked Andean utopia centered on the Inca, with Don Cucho there is a kind of utopia Criolla in action. By collecting and displaying a cooking past that includes the twentieth century, Don Cucho hopes to materialize a Peru that is ever elusive. His is not a Disney-like nostalgia from which there is no escape, all corn syrup sweetened. Instead, his nostalgic efforts bleed like freshly torn scabs if one picks at them a little. His restaurant is a memorial to a time past that may or may not have existed but the objects themselves are “vibrant matter” in his politics and in his menu (Bennett 2010).

26The aesthetics of restaurants are foundational for the way in which food is consumed and meaning created. Sounds, images and objects are all used strategically to build a sensory effect within the restaurant space, often creating a feeling of home, familiarity and social intimacy (Pardue 2007; Yano 2007). Central’s laboratory, for example, functions as a scientific laboratory but also an aesthetic which reminds viewers of the clean scientific sophistication of its offerings.

27Restaurants are also a “key to politics” with nostalgia and a sense of the past playing crucial roles (Hubbert 2007). Jennifer Hubbert, for example, demonstrates the way in which memories of the past were memorialized in Cultural Revolution restaurants in China to help construct and valorize entrepreneurial subjects. Although not wanting to perpetuate a romantic remembering of the past, the restaurants justified the past as necessary for the creation of the then consuming subjects. The deprivation of the past was transformed into a necessary passage point, foundational for entrepreneurialism; a historical object that permitted pleasure without the need for resolution (Hubbert 2007).

28Similar to the display case of Casa Moreyra or the laboratory of Central, the antiquities of Don Cucho’s created an aesthetic and also affect, which found its way into the bodies that consumed the meal served. Unlike Casa Moreyra, however, the ruins of capitalism surrounded Don Cucho both in the kitchen and beyond, producing a despair that could only find safe harbor and hope in the imagined past, visualized so tellingly in the aging batanes and photographs that papered his walls. His audience was not a global elite but rather his fellow Peruvians. These were his compatriots, brethren whom he never knew, but whom he imagined life with (Anderson 1991). It was this deep horizontal comradeship he cultivated, as opposed to a vertical or transnational one, that made his gastro-nostalgia a political act for an alternative present and future. No doubt Acurio and others are deeply invested in speaking to fellow Peruvians but they act on the world through a neoliberal perspective that values growth with hopeful futurity. In contrast, Don Cucho longed for a return, the present-future too bleak to consider.

Materializing A Utopía Criolla

29In one room, off to the side of the entrance, Don Cucho erected an exhibit of memorabilia from the War of the Pacific. In our interview, he compared the invasion of Peru by Chile with that of Paris being invaded by the Nazis. He told me that although it has nothing to do with cooking, it was one of his passions. I got the sense that this was his restaurant and if he wanted to have a war room that was his prerogative. The remaining rooms housed his burgeoning collection of Peruvian cooking ephemera and cookbooks. Photographs of Peru, mostly dating from the 1930s to the 1960s, served as gallery-like wallpaper covering the plaster of the sighing hacienda walls. Most captured the smiles and stares of national relations never known. A few were of his family but most were not. Showing me one of the few photographs of his family at the beach, he turned and said, “Ah, this beach no longer works (ya no sirve).” He’s not sure what happened, but the beach no longer exists. Over the last twenty years, all of the sand has disappeared. He dejectedly moved along to show me old slave contracts that he had also rescued and displayed on the restaurant’s walls.

30Nearly all of the photographs were black and white, framed with the same tan-toned wood. The majority of them, like most photographs, marked a special occasion (Urry and Larson 2010). In one studio portrait, a couple embraced a toddler and an infant. The father stood in a suit with pocket square while the mother sat atop a table, her hair carefully composed, dressed in a pleated skirt and jacket. Another was a lovely snapshot of a couple outside a stately building. The man wore a suit with tails accompanied by a woman in a printed dress who donned a pearled netted hat while clutching a pocketbook with white-gloved hands. Another was a series from a wedding that felt remarkably similar to my parent’s wedding thousands of miles away in Detroit, Michigan, US in 1967. Their dresses, their veils, and their hairstyles eerily reminiscent of each other.

Figure 2. Portrait of a couple

Figure 2. Portrait of a couple

Credit: The author.

Figure 3. Family portrait

Figure 3. Family portrait

Credit: The author.

31There were so many unanswered questions in the photographs. In one there was a curious photograph of a man and a priest standing next to a seated woman who was dressed in black with a scarf covering her head. It felt like the lead-in to a potential joke and I became fixated on why there was a priest in the photograph. Another was a beautiful portrait of what I assumed to be a mother and her son, her face carefully painted, her eyebrows plucked to thin lines, her son’s serious face staring into the camera. A certain melancholy shrouded my viewing and I was not sure if it was coming from the image itself or the context of seeing so many decontextualized photographs together, the forgotten lives of so much humanity. There were more wedding portraits, family portraits at the beach, lovers showing off new cars, and bridal portraits from what looked to be the early 1900s. Don Cucho did not know the vast majority of the subjects pictured but he collected the images hoping to save the memories the images only faintly indexed.

Figure 4. Newly Married

Figure 4. Newly Married

Credit: The Author.

  • 9 Keightley and Pickering (2014) note that along with recorded music, photographs are particularly po (...)

32The photographs and memorial to the War of the Pacific were specific to Peru but somehow not. I began to get caught up in Don Cucho’s memories.9 The gowns and the cars, and the sense of order with clear and defined social values became elixirs, a tonic to the chaos that awaited me when I left. I caught myself. There seemed to be such nobility and genuineness to his presentation – the value of cared for products, of labor done, of a middle-class, of pre-mechanization, of an era when people had time, when women curled their hair and sat for portraits.

33I know these memories stem from a serious case of decontextualization. One could easily point to the whiteness of the subjects or ask who performed the labor of ironing clothes or wonder who had the wherewithal and time to have their portrait taken. But I also do not want to dismiss his longings wholesale either. Instead, I want to consider Don Cucho’s historic travels as that “space of contingency and desire in which people roam” (Stewart 1996: 90). I want to stay in that space to see what events get chronicled, and what is remembered. The effect of seeing all of the black and white portraits together encouraged me to inhabit another time, traveling imaginatively on the wave of Don Cucho’s longing to an era contrasted with the one in which we were sitting. He may have been glossing over the “tears in national sovereignty” through his selective imagining of a Criollo past (García, forthcoming) but he mourned them just the same.

34Like all photographs, there was a slipperiness to the intent of the meaning (Poole 2005). We will never know the context in which the image was taken or the feelings of the subjects pictured, but seeing them together produced a particular type of utopía Criolla, warm and comforting even if melancholy. As we turned to sit down to peruse his extensive cookbook collection, I wondered how Peruvians might make sense of the homey display of ephemera. Do they have similar photographs at home? Do the photographs provoke them to remember purchasing their first new car or their wedding night or their family vacation at the beach? Will they begin to treasure their photographs tucked away in molding boxes or will the images be rescued by Don Cucho and added to his collection?

35Beyond the two side rooms, Don Cucho had transformed the main area of the hacienda into a living room replete with couch, chairs, and a coffee table. Along the length of one wall was a glass-enclosed shelf. Inside Don Cucho carefully curated a display of some of his cookbook collection. Excitedly he showed me the books, opening their pages to share a knowledge-treasure in a phrase or description. Reading a recipe, he noted how this book was the first to mention aguadito, a flavorful brothy soup brimming with cilantro, onions, garlic and chili pepper. The dish surely existed before, he said, but not with that name. Another cookbook was not filled with recipes but instead detailed meal concepts, offering a variety of options for different menús del día. He pulled his favorites out of the case showing me them so quickly that I interrupted to ask if I could come back and sit with the cookbooks with more time. There was so much, particularly for somebody interested in Peru’s cooking past. “Of course, of course,” he said. He asked me if I lived in Lima and when I replied no and that I would be headed home soon and not returning for a few months, I sensed what I think was disappointment, if not pause. We were two people interested in the same thing and that produced a feeling of camaraderie. He had lots of questions about Peru’s food past and wanted to examine the different versions of each recipe to see how their preparation has evolved. He mentioned Lima’s prestigious university La Católica, saying that he hoped they could compare recipes from all of the cookbooks to catalog the changes through history.

36I shared my story about finding the 1947 cookbook Cocina y Repostería: Viandas tipicamente Limeñas y de Origen Europeo, Peruanizadas (Cooking and Baking: Typical Dishes from Lima and Europe, made Peruvian) in the used bookstalls on Amazonas street. I then confessed that I looked for other copies, even in the popular used bookstores in Arequipa, where I had just visited, but had difficulty. He scoffed, telling me that I would never find any book there, or at those types of stores, because those sellers never leave their seats. Even if you ask, he said, they never get up to look through their towering stacks. We were two time travelers swept up in a history neither of us experienced. I asked him how he found cookbooks or kitchen ephemera and he said he either found things in sales or rescued them from condemned buildings. People also knew about his interest and called him to sell him things. Friends also gave him items as gifts. Increasingly, he said, there was more interest in Peru’s cooking past and in all things “vintage,” so items were more expensive. He said he had always wanted to collect things related to cooking.

  • 10 Fernet is an Italian botanical spirit.

37After inviting me to eat pachamanca, he sent me to his two other restaurants in the city center of Pachacamac. I had no idea he owned two other establishments but he called ahead and told them I was coming. I went not knowing what to expect. These restaurants did not have cookbook displays or war rooms but were decorated with old advertisements for food products like tonic, syrups, and bottles of fernet10. There were labels from pisco bottles and cellophane wrappers that once protected crackers mounted like nineteenth century butterfly collections, ten to a frame. Instead of wedding portraiture, the restaurants had photographic depictions of large group outings. A map of colonized Peru hung on one wall and old magazine and newspaper ads of bodegas, restaurants, and inviting hotels of yesteryear hung on others.

Figure 5. Pisco labels

Figure 5. Pisco labels

Credit: The Author.

Figure 6. Various snack packages

Figure 6. Various snack packages

Credit: The Author.

Gastro-Nostalgia as a Critical Food Politics

38Sebastían Salazar Bondy (1968) takes issue with what he views as the omnipresent nostalgia that looks to Lima’s past as idyllic and critiques authors such as Palma for their narrow idealism. He suggests that such romantic nostalgia ignores the entrenched hierarchy and pervasive inequalities that have existed in Lima since colonization. Because the past is always present, he says Peruvians have difficulty looking toward the future.

39Dismissing Don Cucho’s romantic viewing of the past is tempting. We know that Lima was not all bliss and that deeply unequal structures were mapped onto bodies differentially. Domestic help worked long hours, had lowly pay, and were often abused and exploited in live-in situations. These arrangements continue and are as much a manifestation of the past as the photographs decorating Don Cucho’s restaurant. But to dismiss his longings wholesale as a sort of creole arcadia would be to miss a critical point of his feelings and to the gastro-politics of which they are a part. I do not think Don Cucho was longing for an unequal or violent past, indeed at one point in our conversation he lamented that employees were often shut-in, seemingly undeserving of seeing the light of day. Instead, he longed for a world that differed from what he saw and experienced in the present. Consequently, Don Cucho’s nostalgia was political in a way that differed from the food boom’s most successful entrepreneurs. The past for him was not so much an ingredient for fusion or an opportunity for creation or even evidence of a national myth of mestizaje. Rather, his cooking and his restaurant offered an opportunity to inhabit and imagine a world that once existed, one that might potentially be his again.

40Michael Pickering and Emily Keightley argue that nostalgia is not always defeatist or a romantic overlay to hard truths or the impediment to embracing progress. Rather, nostalgia’s meaning and significance are multiple, and address a “range of ways of orienting to and engaging with the past” (Pickering and Keightley 2006: 926). Nostalgia is a feeling of loss, lack and longing that is a consequence, outcome and alternative of the present modern condition (Pickering and Keightley 2006: 921). Similarly, Svetlana Boym notes that nostalgia is not “anti-modern” but is a mirror image of modernity, grappling with reconfigured time and space (Boym 2007: 8). Although nostalgia is often understood negatively, it operates as a “historical emotion” in a multiplicity of ways that is not always retrospective but can be a mode of creation, survival and counter-cultural practice (Boym 2007: 13).

41Andrea Smith and Anna Eisenstein also demonstrate that nostalgia is not just a lament of the present but can be a motivational force and engine of change that locates past ideals for the present (Smith and Eisenstein 2016: 131). Drawing on Stewart’s notion that history lives on in the marginalized, they consider nostalgia “back talk” and a method for repairing the present and building a future. They suggest that it does not matter if the nostalgia experienced is rooted in a daily reality of the past. Instead, they counter that nostalgia acts as a political and moral effort to “rebuild a shattered world in the present through recollection” (Smith and Eisenstein 2016: 151).

42In my conversation with Don Cucho, he critiqued the population boom, unfettered growth, pending ecological disaster, the way in which things were currently done in Lima and the lack of a future. It is undeniable that in La Casa de Don Cucho there was no valorization of the Andes, or of the indigenous, or sustained acknowledgment of the Afro-Peruvian labor that helped fashion Lima’s Criollo past. Other than the slave contracts, his memorabilia seemed to overlook much of the inequalities and racial anxieties of Lima past and present. Still, although Don Cucho celebrated the past uncritically in multiple ways, his concerns were not simply imperialist. Instead, through food ephemera, photographs and cookbooks, Don Cucho’s nostalgia and fascination with the past were the mode and motivation for a social critique that evolved into accusation, the “political unconscious becoming readable” as social text (Stewart 1996: 94).

43Don Cucho’s gastro-nostalgia upended the food boom’s celebratory futures and attempted to unthread the master narrative that has been in careful formation for twenty years. Rooted in this world, Don Cucho cannot help but recall time past to try and interrupt tropes that have existed since colonization about economic development, privatization, modernity and wealth creation. His nostalgia offered a specific aesthetic and spatial rendering of nationalism but was not a global aspirationalism inspired by elite palates, nor did it traffic in the mannerisms of fine dining or chic interiors. Nobody was dressed in traditional dress and the staff wore tee shirts. Although the diner-traveler played in this Creole history just as clients of more upscale establishments played in global cosmopolitanism, in this gastro-nostalgia lurked the haunting critique of the now.

44Jeff Malpas argues that nostalgia is generally characterized as a mood or disposition and is a philosophical reflection of longing to return to something that cannot be achieved. Pointing out that nostalgia is often discussed in a positive light, Malpas brings the ancient idea of pain back into the consideration of nostalgia. In contrast to Arjun Appadurai’s treatment of nostalgia as fundamentally about pleasure and fantasy in consumerism, Malpas notes that nostalgia, as a product of modernity and its unceasing change, produces a need for release. Nostoas (home) and algos (pain) become fused to form nostalgia as an expression that recognizes the permanence of absence (Malpas 2012:173). Svetlana Boym refers to this form of nostalgia as a “defense mechanism” against the acceleration and change associated with modernity (Boym 2001: 64; 2007). Thus, nostalgia acts a “physical ache and as a metaphysical longing for the lost cosmology of the world” (Boym 2001: 262).

45Nadia Seremetakis says something similar but highlights the role of bodily and emotional pain in nostalgia. In her book, The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity, she writes, “nostalghía [sic] is the desire or longing with burning pain to journey” (Seremetakis 1994: 4). An exploration of nostalgia through her own identity as a migrant and what she experiences in her return to Greece, Seremetakis argues that nostalgia is connected to the experience of exile (Seremetakis 1994: 4). Objects and materials become part of a “sensory landscape” that provoke, calling upon the perceiver to work through the “emotional and historical sedimentation” (Seremetakis 1994: 7). Critically she notes that these acts are not mere repetition of the past but instead are transformative, as the past into the present becomes generative (Seremetakis 1994: 7). In this “sensory cacophony of modernity”, nostalgia offers “refuge” (Seremetakis 1994: 125).

46On the one hand, there seems to be a gastro-politics in Peru that is couched in a neoliberal promise. Such projects transform alpaca meat from “dirty Indian food” into a delicacy and healthy fare for non-indigenous bodies (Markowitz 2012: 35). They refurbish crumbling haciendas for tourists and elites to fantasize about class position and to avoid thinking about the structures that make that possible. This mode of nostalgic invocation of the past takes once-scorned dishes, repurposing their ingredients for Euro-American palatability, importing the North’s production values, hygiene protocol, and labor hierarchies in the kitchen. But there is also a gastro-politics that laments as much as it sells. Maybe rather than depoliticized romanticized meaning making, nostalgia is also a political act born from loss, an attempt to argue for a future through feeling.

47Don Cucho does not traffic in novo-ecology nor does he make aesthetic frippery from earth’s bounty. Rather, he laments the real environmental degradation that is happening all around him. After reading the article to me and telling me of his desperation and pessimism, he looked out from his restaurant toward the sea at what extended between him and that celebrated Humboldt current. He did not even need to articulate with precision to what he was referring. Rather, we both felt it and saw it. Yes, his nostalgia was romantic and ignored many of the travesties of the past. But there was something that lay beyond. His present concerns were too real to do otherwise. Perhaps Don Cucho saw one long catastrophe and paused to relish in the ruins, hoping “to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed” (Benjamin 1968: 257). Perhaps in his autoexilio, he was aching for restoration.

La Casa de Don Cucho

48Streams of patrons walked through the door as I interviewed Don Cucho. If they caught his eye, he greeted them warmly. Some of them wanted their picture taken with him and he cheerfully obliged. He made people feel like they were special, calling out “Hi Niece!” To others he said “Por favor, por favor, adelante, adelante” motioning with one hand to enter the restaurant. An older woman accompanied by her daughters told him that they came for the lomo saltado and that a friend of theirs told them that the best lomo saltado was at Don Cucho’s. He graciously and humbly accepted their praise. To another group he said, “Come in! You are in your house.” Another group called back to him, “We are coming to savor!” “Don’t go,” he said to another group. Dressed in a turquoise colored polo and khaki pants, he was all warmth and hospitality. For me, and perhaps for others, it seemed like coming home but better because you did not have to do the shopping or clean up the dishes.

49Before I left, Don Cucho took me to his office where he showed me digitized images of Pancho Fierro, the famous watercolorist who documented Lima’s everyday life in the 1800s. Then he opened a cabinet and pulled out a binder that housed some of the effects of Rosita Rios. He mentioned that he did not know her personally but he told me that she was a famous restaurateur. Someone apparently just tossed all of her papers into the street. He found the pile one day and rescued it. He seemed to be building an archive and we looked through her stained receipts that he had thoughtfully and carefully placed in transparent plastic sleeves. He told me that she was a grand lady and personality and that everyone who dined in her establishment was treated with respect. Her restaurant was in Rímac and was emblematic of the 1950s and 1960s.

  • 11 Caretas is a popular magazine in Peru.
  • 12 Arroz con pato is rice with duck. Pato is similar to the word “pacto” which in this context, refers (...)

50I did not know who she was so I Googled her when I returned home. I found out that her great granddaughter had recently opened up a restaurant bearing her name at a location on Avenida Primavera. Their website said that Rios, the Morena, hosted lavish parties in an elegant setting replete with music. I kept searching, finding a recently published account in Caretas11 that said her restaurant was the biggest and most successful establishment in the country of the 1950s and 1960s (editor, 2017). An abundance and variety of food was served, while friends gathered or had business meetings, to talk “pseudo-political conspiracies and to make compromises” (the classic they say was “arroz con pacto”, a play on a traditional dish of arroz con pato).12 On YouTube there was an audio of her singing songs from an album she made of criollo music. I wondered why her granddaughter opened the restaurant. Was it to capitalize on the reputation of her kin so that she might make a profit or was it a longing to return to a glorious past? Or perhaps both?

51Scholarship on Peru’s food boom has not yet taken note of the element of nostalgia. This may be partly because the past has primarily been viewed as a commodity in potentiate, lying in wait for some ingenious entrepreneur to mine it, adding value in the form of European technique and flavor fusions. Or, maybe it is because up until recently there has not been much nostalgia. Maybe nostalgia, from a sociological perspective, only occurs after the boom. In this sense, maybe Don Cucho’s is an imperialist food nostalgia. Akin to the vanishing Indian, maybe it is a food feeling that rushes in after the practices, social values, and politics that went into eating a home cooked meal have been annihilated; a longing for the very thing it helped destroy.

  • 13 Aryballos are large ceramic spherical pots that have a wide body and narrow neck.

52I do not think so though. Isabel Álvarez opened her restaurant El Señorío de Sulco in 1986, very much pre-boom, and was as much a nostalgic turn toward eating as any. She has written longingly about growing up in her mother’s kitchen and learning to cook alongside her in Las Manos de Mi Madre (Álvarez 2015). Her restaurant does not have cast iron stoves on display, dozens of batanes, or walls teaming with old photographs, but it does have Incan aryballos13 dangled decorously along an entire wall.

53Instead, I argue that nostalgic memory can be a political act in an effort to create a new present and imagine a different world. Emerging in the same historical moment as the food-boom, it is as much a part of neoliberal gastro-politics as fancy fusion food. Rather than dismissing Don Cucho’s longings for the past as imperialist nostalgia or a romantic penchant for a lost creole arcadia, what Don Cucho’s nostalgia does is provide both a critique of the present and a respite from the despair. Like an Andean utopia, the Criolla utopia is born from dissatisfaction and the collapse of a future. Looking to the past, however romantically, Don Cucho relies on gastro-nostalgia to conjure a path out. Painfully inspired, this nostalgia marks a human desire for a life that makes more sense if not is more pleasant. As much as the go-go optimism of food entrepreneurialism, food nostalgia is a part of a gastro-politics that tries to piece together the fragments of the nation to suture a future to live beyond mass marketization. Stewart says that both nostalgias, acting on the world and in the world, exist in tandem. Maybe that is because, at least in the case of food, the first obscures the way people profit off of human and non-human bodies, while the latter feels this devastation deeply, even if hustling to make enough to retire.

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1 This is a term that means mixing and is often used when discussing the blending of “races” throughout Latin America.

2 See Drinot 2011 for an exception. For work on Mexico, see Jeffrey Pilcher (1998, 2012) and Steffan Igor Ayora-Díaz (2012).

3 Robyn Marasco argues that despair never dismisses hope and is a critical engagement of everyday life. I thank Nusrat Chowdhury for bringing the work to my attention.

4 Ají is a chili pepper foundational to many Peruvian dishes. Huacatay is an aromatic Andean herb, commonly known as black mint, that is used in many sauces. A batán is a large flat stone widely used throughout the Andes for grinding foodstuffs such as grains.

5 Pachamanca is a Quechua word (pacha means earth and manka means pot) describing a Peruvian dish typically comprised of meat, corn and tubers that are stacked and cooked in a pit with hot stones. The earth oven is called a huatía and, although the cooking technique is common in the Andes, eating pachamanca in restaurantes campestres has been popular in Lima for decades.

6 Stone food mill. See note number four.

7 Roca Rey is a food writer who promoted the concept of novo-Andino cuisine. His family owns several media outlets including the newspaper El Comercio. For more, see Matta 2013.

8 Machas are a type of clam that were once extremely popular. Because of overconsumption and climate changes they are nearly extinct. Since 2014, there have been programs to repopulate ocean beds around Camaná.

9 Keightley and Pickering (2014) note that along with recorded music, photographs are particularly potent sites for memory making in everyday life.

10 Fernet is an Italian botanical spirit.

11 Caretas is a popular magazine in Peru.

12 Arroz con pato is rice with duck. Pato is similar to the word “pacto” which in this context, refers to a business deal.

13 Aryballos are large ceramic spherical pots that have a wide body and narrow neck.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. Hallway leading to dining area in La Casa de Don Cucho
Credits Credit: The author.
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Title Figure 2. Portrait of a couple
Credits Credit: The author.
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Title Figure 3. Family portrait
Credits Credit: The author.
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Title Figure 4. Newly Married
Credits Credit: The Author.
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Title Figure 5. Pisco labels
Credits Credit: The Author.
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Title Figure 6. Various snack packages
Credits Credit: The Author.
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Electronic reference

Amy Cox Hall, « Savoring Nostalgia: Food and the Past in Peru’s “La Casa de Don Cucho” », Anthropology of food [Online], 14 | 2019, Online since 17 June 2019, connection on 04 July 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Amy Cox Hall

Amherst College, Massachusetts,

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Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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