Let’s talk about Goat Head Soup
By Gary Wayne Jentink
I used to not really care or think too much about food culture. I was not raised heavily religious and my family’s German heritage is largely ignored through the dishes we eat aside from some intermittent rouladen and kartoffel. I just was never very conscious of it growing up in a standard American suburb. Like most kids I could be really crass and loud about my distaste for certain foods. I would waste food and complain all the time, but when I turned seventeen years old I went through some drastic changes in my life that helped me look at different foods and the cultures that influence them in a new light. In this little story I want to share with you how I stopped being such a giant piece of human garbage, and I hope you enjoy the read!
2012 was a turbulent time, luckily I got to spend the majority of the year in the Hindu Kush mountain range in Paktika providence, Afghanistan. Despite what comes to mind for most people (of the land being a battle stricken desert), quite the opposite is true in many of the areas along the Pakistani border. These “Tribal Zones” as they are sometimes referred to are usually autonomous city states that share no real creeds with the greater Afghanistan or its Government. The region is highly mountainous with steep cliffs and plentiful water. The forests are filled with lush hues of color and deep green pepper the cliffs and hills beyond. In the springtime there are flowers of all conceivable colors of the rainbow that flower and move into senescence all in clockwork like order. Often, a racist stereotype is spread that the nation’s national flower is the poppy flower. In actuality the national flower is the tulip and you would see why if you were ever lucky enough to go, the tulips can cover massive areas in the region and add to the sheer beauty of the landscape that was already, in my eyes, marvelous in its own right. In short the nation’s ecological variance is highly diverse, going anywhere from mountainous tundra to lowland deserts and damn near everything in-between.
The majority of the folks who live in the Paktika providence are Pashtuns. They are the majority ethnic group in all of Afghanistan, however, there are also Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks and a handful of other family’s belonging to different affiliations. This land-locked nation has historically been used as a hub or crossroads of the old world and because of this there has always been an influx of travelers through the region and this becomes mostly apparent when observing the traditional dishes that they have adapted into their daily lives. Yes I mostly saw them eat the foods you would suspect, flatbreads, rice and most importantly Pine Nuts. Although they had many different farms that had everything you could think of, corn, rice, grapes, pumpkins, opium and beans of all kinds, nothing is more important than the mighty Pine nut. So much so in fact that the Taliban and other terror groups in the region agree to a yearly month long ceasefire towards the beginning of fall sometimes called “Pine nutter season” where people from every village in the area spends pretty much all day roaming the forests and collecting pinecones. Often the collectors are groups of men that travel with rifles, because they often get into gunfights with neighboring villages for collecting pine nuts in conflicted territories. You can imagine the chaos that would arise between all sides if there wasn’t a ceasefire during this integral period for the local people.
Imagine my shock towards the end of the season and upon walking into a village only to see a pile of pinecones fifteen to twenty feet in diameter and as tall as a one story house. Thousands and thousands of pinecones collected from the surrounding area, and next to that pile was a second one in equal size where the pine cones had already had the seeds taken out. The reason this happens is because the village peoples do not have enough foods to last them through the terrible winters. These villages have no plumbing, infrastructure or electricity. The houses are hundreds(?) of years old and made out of mud, clay, brick and straw and baked by the sun to harden stronger than concrete. Most houses also have no doors. So you can imagine in this environment it could be hard to preserve food, and it’s not like you could go out and get some more during the winter. Firstly, there are no stores, only homes of different families that live in the community and the occasional artisan or traveling merchant. You won’t see them in the winter however, firstly because there are no roads in the area. The land was too mountainous and forested and so only dirt footpaths made big enough for donkeys to go through are made. Secondly, it’s common to get anywhere from eight to fifteen feet of snow every single year and at night the temperature can easily drop into the negatives. Basically, if they run out of food in the winter, they will starve in their own homes and that’s why the people will literally shoot at and kill each other every year over these pine nuts. Something that is unthinkable to Americans.
I was at one point lucky enough to be invited for a traditional meal with a couple of my comrades. I was very nervous at first, hearing it’s quite common for people who are not used to the foods here to get sick, but being so desperately tired of the “food” I was eating for months already I was looking for anything that would be different, and did I sure get what I asked for. Firstly, when we entered the room we met everyone with a traditional Afghan greeting. Where you clasp each other’s right wrists, put your left hand over your heart, say the words “Salam Malakem” and lean forward to make each other’s left ears touch. After greeting everyone in the room one at a time, we were seated at a large circular table using a pillow as a seat as the table was maybe only two feet off the ground. Then the plates were bought out, no silverware, followed by drinks first. During this time it was more like a social get together, with everyone sharing and trading cigarettes and the interpreters working fast to translate our conversations between English and Pashtun. I remember them asking things like “Is it true America has been to the moon? How can you have been to the moon and not the sun?” and some American guys making jokes like; “How can you stand four wives? I only got one and she drives me nuts!” The whole experience up till this point was fun and light hearted, but then they bought out the food. A massive cylinder shaped dish with rice, pine nuts, beans, and chopped vegetables. Though, the most shocking thing, was in the very center was the entire skull of a goat that had been boiled(?) along with the food, its head was cut open so that the brains would be more easily mixed with the rest of the food. Then, the lower enlisted Afghans started to pass the food out to us and I was told prior to this that refusal of food or gifts is a huge insult in this culture and I was to accept any gift or eat any of the food they offered me while I was their guest. I was feeling pretty green around the gills, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the goat skull, its teeth and horns looking so nightmarish to me at the time. Maybe all these years later my memory betrays me and it didn’t look as bad as I remember, but one thing I certainly do remember is the taste.
When I took my first bite my eyes shot wide open because I was so surprised by how good it was. The goat meat was so soft you didn’t even need to chew it, it would just fall apart in your mouth. And the rice and vegetables complemented it perfectly. There were some kind of spices in it too that made it even better and I still kick myself today for not asking what it was. This is also the first time I tasted the Pine nuts. They were truly delicious and surprisingly buttery, an exquisite gift for the palate. The pine nuts must have been prepared separately, roasted seasoned and salted, they were so good it was almost as if they were showing off by treating us with it. I was finally beginning to really understand what all the fuss was about with these little pine nuts. I hastily ate my whole plate with no more issues with how it looked. I only cared about how it tasted now. Next thing I know, the server puts another huge serving on my plate but this time, when I looked down at my plate I almost jumped out of my skin, because there was an eyeball on my plate looking back at me! I at first was eating around it as best I could but I was reminded by my friend that it could be unwise to offend anyone by not eating, so eventually, and against my better judgement, I ate that eyeball too, and guess what? Not as good as I was hoping, it was salty and had a consistency I can only compare to a concord grape. It was extremely hard to chew, and it tasted like it was not “cooked” properly, but it may have been, I’m no expert on the subject matter. After eating the eyeball, I started to feel a little sick but I still didn’t want to make anyone upset, and so I finished the plate again. Immediately after that list bite was in my mouth, that same server, who at this point was starting to make me pretty angry, came up and gave me another massive serving of the dish. I did my best to power through and it that one too, but a little over halfway I started to feel suspicious. I must have made a face or something because then all the American guys around me started to laugh. They kept slapping my back laughing before someone finally said “They keep giving you more food because they think you are still hungry” I could have been done the first time if I had only left a little amount on my plate. In their culture finishing all the food on the plate is essentially the same as asking for more, and I was being kept in the dark on purpose.
Coming back to the states after some of those experiences was a little funny. I no longer viewed food as something I could just take for granted whenever I wanted. I found it especially difficult to go to our famous all you can eat buffets at the Casio where I would see severely overweight Americans waste tons and tons of food scraps. It took me a while to relax around it, but all I used to think was;
“People I know personally are killing each other right now over pinecones because they are starving and In the United States people are killing themselves with consumption.”
I could never again go back to insulting different foods that I thought was “Gross” or anything like that because I’ve come to realize how important food can really be. That is why I eat the way I do today with as many new foods as I can possibly eat, after all, variety is the spice of life, even if that means eating an eyeball.