Posted by: trevormeers | July 31, 2010

Sheep: It’s What’s For Dinner

The weirdest part isn’t that my dinner is staring at me. Anyone who’s eaten enough fish has experienced that staredown. I’m more troubled that my dinner is really staring at itself with a vacant, fixed gazed trained on its own parts simmering in an oven made of stones. But as unsettling as it is to sit beside a sheep’s head that’s keeping an eye—albeit a glassy one—on its own body quickly becoming an entree, I’m getting over it. The parts of him in the oven are already smelling mighty tasty.

Hungry gringos gather 'round to watch livestock start down the road to dinner.

Tonight’s dinner is a special treat cooked up by the native guides on our Andean trek. On the menu: pacha manka. It’s like the Peruvian hill country’s version of a Hawaiian luau, only there are no palm leaves, no hula girls, no ocean sounds and no middle-aged guys with tropical shirts unbuttoned far south of good taste. But there is an animal cooking in a hole in the ground—which came to pass with impressive speed in a culture that lets many things unfold in their own good time.

As our team of trekkers descended the mountainside a couple of hours ago, a guide ran ahead to town with about 200 nuevo soles (around $70 U.S.) handed to him by the trip’s leaders. By the time I dropped my backpack onto the town’s soccer field, the soles had bought enough mutton to feed the 30-odd people in our convoy. The real action was over when I walked up. The white ram was on his back, legs in the air, stomach about to be ventilated by a Quechua guide with a sharp blade. As a deer hunter, I was ready to watch and learn from guys who butcher animals like they’re changing the lawn mower’s oil. But I wasn’t so sure what my fellow suburban trekkers would think of an encounter with meat that’s closer to the grazing end of the cycle than the shrink-wrapped side. Within minutes, though, they huddled around as the guides slid the blade between the sheep’s hide and muscle, gradually pulling the fleece away.

When the hide came off in one big, furry mat, the men handed it to a local kid who had been hungrily watching the work. He wadded the fleece into a ball and ran down the hill toward an adobe house, ready to launch the legend of The Day The Free Sheephide Came.

In a few more minutes, the ram was parted out like an abandoned Caprice. His meat was wrapped in foil and stacked by the stone oven (the actual pacha manka or “earth oven”). His head lay beside the oven’s mouth, watching over the foil packets. During the next half hour, the guides would occasionally stroll by and nudge the head closer to the flames in the oven’s mouth, gradually burning off the fur until only a blackened block remained. In the morning, the head, feet, blood and unmentionable nether parts would all go into a breakfast soup the guides were already anxiously anticipating.

Eventually, the oven’s fire burns down to coals, and it’s time for the meat to go in. With the foil packets tucked in, the guides get to work like badgers in reverse gear, madly scraping dirt onto the tarps and eucalyptus branches thrown over the oven to retain the heat. In 30 minutes, it’s dinner time.

Potatoes go into the earth oven along with foil packets full of our sheep.

The gringo trekkers pull folding camp chairs up to the long table in the white canvas tent and dig into roasted hunks of ram. Conversation fumbles its way around mouths full of meat. “What do you think?” “Is this a vertebrae?” “Is yours kind of chewy?” In general, the jury of trekking connoisseurs judges the meat (rubbed with some appealing and possibly illegal blend of spices) quite flavorful, but fairly hard to eat since it has the consistency of mutton-flavored Flubber. We grab the sheep in our incisors and pull, stretching it away from the bone like a greasy rubber band. The conversation tactfully drifts toward if-you-can’t-say-something-nice-comment-on-the-side-dishes. “How about those potatoes?” “Wow! Are these yams?”

I pick as much meat as I can from the bone and toss the remainder to the town dogs huddled at the flap of the dining tent. They drag them away to gnaw until they’re satisfied and ready to howl out the legend of The Day The Sheep Vertebrae Came.

Someone offers me a tooth pick, and as I work on the gaps between my incisors, I think about a conversation I had with Adi, the head guide, as we sat beside the earth oven, watching the sheep’s head burn down to breakfast quality.

“Have you been to America?” I asked.

“Oh, sure. Many times,” said Adi, who’s married to a woman from Ohio.

“What do we eat that you can’t stand?”

Adi looks at the flames reflecting in the eyes of his breakfast and says, “Sour cream. I don’t get how you can eat that.”


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