A person’s life is a blur marked by a few moments that shine out. Everyone remembers where they were on 9/11, those older than I can point to the Challenger, Berlin Wall coming down… The Cuban Missile Crisis? I’m reaching now. Weddings, graduation, birth of a child, first day on the job, the last… The points of light in my life are certain meals, everything still comes back clear and vibrant. The roar of the fire, the bones cracking in my hands, the sharp burst of wind when the pelt covering the opening was lifted up, most of all the gleam running down my chin and onto the floor.
When I was in the eighth grade my father went to Mongolia for a mission trip of sorts. My mother was supposed to go with him but had to back out last minute for work. So my father decided to pull my brother and I out of school and take us with him. The trip was a drag, about ten old Korean pastors and their wives, the longest flight of my life, and my father — who probably regretted bringing two obnoxious boys within the first few hours of the flight. In retrospect we saw some pretty cool things and I should have appreciated the opportunity, but I was miserable. I didn’t give a damn about traditional dances, old churches, Chingis Khan (I was confused for a while until I realized that’s just Genghis in Korean), prayer meetings. The more I fidgeted the crankier and sharper my father would get.
All of it was worth it for the lamb. The bus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere, an ocean of short brown grass, a faint silhouette of mountains in the distance, and wind. I live in Chicago now, whenever I hear ‘Windy City’ I think back to the steppes. We trekked for hours (when I asked my father recently he told me it was more like 10 minutes), single file, holding onto the jacket of the man in front, trying to stand upright would have been idiotic. I’m still confident that the best way to do the Michael Jackson Lean is to go to Mongolia, if I balanced it right I probably could have sat down in the air. I didn’t even see the yurt until the person in front of me crouched under the lifted wolf pelt and I followed.
Inside was the biggest fire I had ever seen (indoors), surrounded by a circle of large stones. Where the hell did those stones come from? All I saw outside was grass. I sat down on a clump of fur next to a wooden table… where the shit did they get the wood? On my left was my brother, in front of us sat our guides, two guys in their early twenties the closest people to us age wise that we encountered throughout the entire trip. Honestly, their Mongolian, facial expressions, and hand gestures were more understandable to me than the old pastors’ Korean. (Teaching them how to play Egyptian Rat Screw… that name looks wrong now… was the crowning achievement of our trip).
I lied, there was a Korean missionary’s daughter that we met briefly, she was gorgeous. I distinctly remember thinking that she looked like an Asian Jessica Alba… is it creepy that I’m thinking of a 14 year old girl?
I was pretty disoriented and cold as hell, so I didn’t notice the lamb rotating off to the side of the fire, skewered on enormous stakes until I had defrosted a bit — where the fuck are they getting all this wood? My dumb ass didn’t even think about what they were burning for the fire until right now.
A shriveled, leathery, stooped old man came around and plopped cups down in front of the four of us, the contents of which was the richest velvetiest (holy shit velvetiest is a word) broth I have ever had. They were cheating though because it wasn’t really broth, it was melted fat, with some sliced mushrooms and scallions in there to make it healthy. The cup was grainy and woody against my fingers, I followed our guide’s suit and only took the occasional sip, although I was still so cold I wanted to swim in it. It was only when I put my cup down that I realized the inside of the yurt was covered in furs.
After we had finished the sherpa came around again – sherpa is easier than grizzled, leathery, old asian man – he set down an enormous wooden platter with a mountain of meat in the middle of the table. My brother and I gingerly reached for a couple pieces on the edge but our companions grinned and waved our hands to the prehistoric Tyrannosaurus bones in the middle. So meat, bone, and gristle in hand we started eating around the bones as best we could. We must have looked like a pair of plump, milk drinking, vanilla, city boys that had never seen a piece of meat outside the confines of a bun. They started laughing again, good naturedly, grabbed their own hunks of meat and began tearing them apart.
It was liberating, a revelation, they taught us how to crack the bones open to suck out the marrow, to choke down the gristle, cartilage, and tendons, to revel in what was dripping down our chins, gleaming in the light of the fire. It was visceral, manly… primal, never before had I felt so in tune with my humanity, never before had I felt so… alive.
It seemed to be over in the blink of an eye, when I came to there were animal parts strewn across the table. It was only at that moment that I realized there were no napkins, we didn’t even have plates but it was too late for that. My brother held his hands up to our companions and rubbed them together in a cleaning motion. One of them smiled and pointed to the furs lining the walls, so my brother turned and wiped his hands and then face on one of the furs, looked like a wolf’s to me (I have no idea how to tell the difference but that’s what popped in my head). Not to let him have all the fun I quickly followed suit. Apparently that part wasn’t really kosher because the sherpa quickly swung ’round and started berating us while our guides started howling with laughter. My father started laughing too, with the rest of the pastors quick to join, still… it was all worth it… plus Jessica Alba.