Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Capybera Jerky - Not here in time for the Super Bowl

News Flash: The Latin American nation of Bolivia plans to export capybara jerky to neighboring Venezuela, which considers the meat of the world’s largest rodent something of a delicacy.

Capybara jerky is a Bolivian export plan to find a sustainable income for indigenous communities in the country’s eastern lowlands. A group called the Friends of Nature Foundation is spearheading this project. The Friends believe that somewhere between 200 and 500 capybara can be harvested every year while maintaining a sustainable capybara herd, or tribe, or whatever you call a bunch of oversized rats, so don’t figure on finding this delicacy in the snack food section of Walmart in time for Super Bowl Sunday.

However, the story reminded me of one of the tales told to me by Kathleen
“Misti” Wilcox. Misti is one of my editors and also a friend of many years standing. I was delighted that Misti took over the cooking in our household for the summer while she helped me launch my third novel, One Big Itch.

Misti arrived at our summer home base in the San Juan Islands with a truckload of gear, including her private stash of exotic spices and kitchen paraphernalia. Soon Misti will be launch her food blog, She Drives with Knives, a blog that can’t happen soon enough as far as I am concerned. Misti is full of entertaining tales. She’s a gutsy world traveler and a fine cook and Misti happens to be the only person I know who has not only eaten capybara, but cooked one.

A mature capybara weights about 130 pounds, Misti tells me, and it resembles an enormous shaggy guinea pig. Misti, whose former husband was a project director of the World Wildlife Fund operations in Latin America, was once faced with inventing a capybara stew in order to feed a passel of hungry scientists who were working in the forbidding lowland country of Venezuela, Los Llanos, a vast rolling lowland which lies at the foothills of the Andes mountain range to the west, and is drained by the Orinoco river. In the dry season, daytime temperatures hover around 110 degrees. The whole territory has the desiccated smell of one vast bouillon cube Misti says, which strikes me as the type of metaphor only a committed chef would come up with.

The rugged llanero people, Venezuelan cowboys, also have canoes outside their huts, Misti said, which she thought was totally bizarre, until she found out that in the wet season Los Llanos floods, the primitive roads disappear in the deluge. Canoes and--not horses-become the main transportation.

As for the capybara, these huge rodents spend half of their time wallowing in ponds, where they also choose to do their mating dance, Misti said. It was for this reason that in the 16th century, the Catholic Church ruled that the capybara is a fish, allowing capybara consumption during Lent. Possible starvation of the native population might well have had something to do with this timely decree.

How to cook a capybara? First you have to get rid of the fishy taste, Misti said. “I learned from one of the native women to rub the meat all over with lemon juice.” Misti then winged it by putting the meat into an enormous pot, filling that with liberal quantities of beer laced with every kind of spice she could find, ginger, mustard, and Chinese spices, and stewing it for hours.

What does capybara taste like?

“Not like chicken,” Misti said, laughing. “More like pork. White meat, but mostly capybara tastes like nothing else.”

Except beer?

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