For six months, I carried a big, old goatskin bag across Africa, all rolled up in my fancy backpack. It's a large messenger-type bag, so I could have put plenty of stuff in it, but I didn't want to be the white boy who hitched across Africa carrying the goatskin messenger bag.
The reason I carried it so long, and the reason it's still all rolled up in a stack of big, old bags in my garage now, is that I also killed and ate the goat from which the bag was made.
It's both a souvenir and a testament to a profound moment in my life's extreme and sometimes brutal culinary journey.
That food journey wends its way from giant deli sandwiches on rye as a kid to radical vegetarianism as a teen, to rabid carnivorousness in my 20s, culminating in a penchant for extreme freshness, the kind of fresh that cannot be detailed in the expiration date stamped on a shrink-wrapped chop from Boise Co-op or from the tender, quivering pinkness of an $18 steak.
It's the kind of fresh that can only be found on a farm during the kind of shopping trip that involves rope, knives, sharpening stones and giant rolls of butcher paper. And a deep reverence for life and death.
In my Africa journal, on the final day of the last millennium (1999), I wrote about buying my first goat:
"We agreed I should pay N$50 (about US$8) and we would slaughter a goat. Next thing I know they grab a goat—Nico went off to take a shit. Josephat was sharpening a big old knife on a stone, the kid next door held the goat and Jo sawed at its neck over an old blood-collecting hubcap. It jerked and protested for about three minutes involuntarily. The five girls and babies from next door watched disinterestedly. Then they skinned it with my Swiss army knife."
That goat was our New Year's Eve supper and fed us for three or four days more. We cut chunks off the carcass as it hung inside a small hut, covered in flies. I eventually bought more goats and sheep, and learned the art of slaughter and the science of butchering from as many Africans as I could.
I learned to take deep, calming breaths, to shield the blade from the animal's vision until it was dead, to think grateful thoughts or pray as the life bled out of the creature, to press the sharpened steel a little harder and slice the jugular vein more rapidly than seems necessary or polite.
I learned the proper amount of time to wait before life is transformed into sustenance:
"First peeling the legs up, then slitting the belly, neck to genitals, and fisting the skin off. Then pulling the guts out, filling a bucket rather grotesquely. But of course we cleaned the stomach and intestines and, I think, ate them. The carcass was hung from a tree, halved and put inside the oms [hut]. The lungs were boiled in a pot ... I made rice, surprisingly good, in the cast iron pot. Added garlic and onion to the meat and after a long time we ate. Lung is not so good. A bit rubbery. They didn't cook it enough I think."
This kind of eating seemed impossible in our nation's capital, where I worked after returning from Africa. But soon after moving to Idaho, I came across a herd of sheep in the Boise Foothills, tended by a Venezuelan man sipping coffee outside a rustic canvas tent. He refused to sell me a sheep, but gave me ideas. Big ideas.
It took months, but I eventually found a small sheep operation south of Nampa willing to sell live livestock. One afternoon, I brought a big, fat sheep home to the North End and tied it up in my back yard. But there were a few problems: What is the city code on livestock, what to do with the entrails and, almost as important, what would people think?
My wife informs me today, years and many, many rib racks later, that people think it's strange. That first time, an activist friend attempted to "rescue" the sheep, going so far as to kidnap it.
So, lesson No. 1 in American slaughtering etiquette: Keep the details on the farm.
I did break this rule once, when we bought four lambs for our wedding feast and took them to the caterer's home for slaughter. But he had a special technique and a rather advanced abattoir in his back yard.
Lesson No. 2: Find a mentor. If you did not grow up on the farm, the act of procuring your own meat is both mentally and physically challenging.
A few weeks ago, I took a newbie friend to a small farm in Greenleaf, and we slaughtered three small lambs. I tried to gently guide his thoughts toward the inner peace of a life or death ritual, and he did well, though he kept referring to the act as a hunt—he a predator and the lamb, his prey.
For me, culling my own meat is neither the routine, mechanized brutality of the slaughterhouse nor the wild, ancient rhythm of the hunt. It is a practical, slightly ritualized means of providing for my family. It is a practice that many older generations of Idahoans hold dear—the Basques who first ran sheep in these hills, the ranchers to the south—and a practice among many of the newest Idahoans: Africans, Bosnians and Mexicans, who come from cultures that take meat consumption seriously and maintain their penchant for freshness.
Lesson No. 3: Ask around in restaurants, ethnic markets or the farmers' market to find a supplier. At least four small sheep farms in Canyon County will sell lambs for $60 to $120 each depending on size and current market price.
Lesson No. 4: You are not going to get perfect cuts of meat your first time butchering a lamb, but they will taste just as good. Several Web sites show various methods of butchering, but there isn't one authoritative, public domain source.
The Sunday night after our butchering weekend, my friend and I finished cutting and wrapping three whole lambs and our freezers were again full. The rice was steaming, the charcoal was hot, choice chunks of rib and a nice big shoulder were rubbed with garlic and onion and a bit of chili flake.
The kids had gathered around all afternoon, helping with wrapping, identifying the different parts. In Africa, where I learned not just to eat, but to feed myself, the adults chow first, saving bits of meat on the bone for the children to gnaw on. In my house, the kids, born with the knowledge of freshness, dig in to the choicest cuts.
I filled up on rice, leaving the best lamb bits for my daughter. I took a deep breath and thought grateful thoughts. Any day that lamb graces the table in my house is, in the most profound sense of the word, a holiday.