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4th of July

July 6, 2010

(NOTE: In Mongolia, animals are just that—animals. They are not pets. What follows is a fairly detailed description of butchering a goat and Mongolian barbecue. If you have problems with these sorts of things, I do not recommend reading further OR looking at the pictures I’ve posted below)

Mongolian barbecue really does make the best tasting meat I’ve had here! The current volunteers were most definitely right. Our Mongolian-style American holiday was really one of the finest I’ve ever had if simply for the fact that it was just so very unique. For starters, I’ve never seen something go from being alive, to being dead, to being dinner all in one place, which is exactly how it happened yesterday.

We headed out to the river near Erdene in a caravan of sorts yesterday. The Americans piled into a meeker van while our host families jumped in their cars and onto the back of a truck carrying two goats: two goats that were very much alive. When we got to the river, the women started dicing the vegetables for our carrot and potato salads while the men prepared to slaughter the goats. Despite the natural violence associated with killing an animal for food, I was extremely impressed by the dignity and skill with which it’s done here. First, the animal is stunned. Then a small incision is made in the abdomen to reach inside and stop the heart by hand. There’s not a drop of blood that hits the ground in the whole process. The animals are skinned, cleaned, and butchered and all of this takes place in the space of about 10-15 minutes. It was amazing to watch. As I said in the note above, animals are animals in Mongolia—be they dog, cat, cow, sheep, or goat. There’s really no such thing as pets, at least not in the countryside. I’d certainly never really known what meat looks like when it actually comes from an animal, but I don’t really have a problem with it. I think I’m bothered less at the prospect of eating meat now that I really know how it got to my table.

After the innards had been removed from the carcasses, they were taken and boiled in a large pot over a portable wood-burning stove we’d brought with us. We started another wood fire and heated river rocks very hot while the goat meat was cut up into manageable pieces. The meat was then piled in layers with potatoes, carrots, and the superheated rocks into a pressure cooker with just about 2-3 inches of water in the bottom. The cooker top is closed and placed on top of the fire for just a little bit of extra heat. The cooking process takes about 90 minutes. The result was outstandingly flavorful and juicy meat; easily the best goat I’ve ever tasted.

In one of the more interesting things I’ve seen done here, as soon as the top is taken off the cooker, everybody reaches inside to grab a scalding hot rock to toss between your hands as it cools. Apparently it’s an old remedy to help increase circulation. A few more Mongolian barbecues and I’ll have some serious calluses on my hands.

Aside from the food, which was abundant and certainly the centerpiece, we had a great time playing games too. We gave a brief baseball tutorial and the Mongolians really seemed to enjoy it! Especially the whacking the ball with a stick part—many of them took to that with gusto (kids and adults alike). The Mongolian parents are extremely ready participants. I was very impressed to see Mongolian grandparents out playing volleyball (a Mongolian favorite) and even throwing the Frisbee around a bit.

We exchanged a little American culture aside from baseball too. We sang the National Anthem with a lot of help from Clifton and his wonderful voice. And we had french fries, onion rings, and fruit salad to share thanks to the culinary expertise of Cameron, Justin, and Nadra. I have no idea how they figured out how to make this stuff with the tools available in Mongolia, but they did a damn good job. I smell an “Iron Chef” Mongolia in our future.

It was a very memorable holiday, especially for the fact that just in case you forgot where you were during this gathering, the entire thing took place in the shadow of the massive Genghis Khan statue that is about a 20 minute drive from Erdene. It’s a towering, shiny metal statue of the greatest conqueror the world has ever known, mounted on his horse and looking stoically over the Mongolian plain. This was the backdrop to our 4th of July. No fireworks, but this was enough of a spectacle that none of us felt like we were missing anything, except for all of you back home…

A belated Happy Independence Day.

All my best,

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