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Our Food and Traditions Through American Eyes



The Casper Star-Tribune, Wyoming, January 1, 2003

Let me confess right up front: My vegetarian habits are on hold.

Take that one more step: I spent most of November eating horse meat, drinking mare's milk and marveling at the social niceties involved in serving baked sheep's head.

I am just back from Kazakhstan, where machismo is measured by how much meat one can eat and hospitality in how much a guest is fed. Suffice it to say, the Kazakhs are extraordinary hosts and I am eating more macho than I used to.

During a month in the Central Asian nation, numerous table-filling feasts were spread before me. A spyglass across time, they recall the days when a guest who arrived at a nomad's yurt would have traveled very, very far, across the steppe, with little in the way of clothing or fine food.

Often, I was given a velvety tunic or overcoat decorated with traditional swirled ram's horn designs in gold braid and beads and seated near the head of a long dining table.

Salads took the form of grated beets and carrots blended with light sour cream, walnuts and shaved horse meat.

Appetizers were thinly sliced horse meat sausage, sheep intestines and cheeses.

There were many other side dishes served, but the centerpiece of the meal was a huge platter or two of the national dish, besparmak.

Besparmak is huge chunks of horse meat, boiled on the bone and served with a broth on top of wide doughy noodles. The word means "five fingers" and it is still OK to just reach out and grab a chunk of meat and noodle and pop it into your mouth.

Horse meat tastes, well, like meat. I liked it. It was a little sweeter than lamb or beef, and had a very nice texture. It wasn't gristly or tough or stringing. But it was horse. I really don't know why we don't eat horses, but it is a little like eating dog. It's got a name and sometimes comes when you call it.

It made a big difference to me that some horses are raised to be eaten and some are raised to be ridden. I went to a feedlot and met some future dinner. I hate to say this: They were soooo cute.

A little cowlike, the eating horses were fat and fluffy from living outside and not running around much and they followed me around their corral as though I might be delivering them some food. They let me hug them.

Let's move on.

Occasionally, a feast was crowned with the arrival of a baked sheep's head, which was laid at my place, staring up at me. Fortunately, this item was not so much for eating as it was for serving. I learned to cut a symbolic little piece off, then pass the whole thing on to an honored person more familiar with tradition than I.

Here is how to serve a sheep's head:

-- Cut off an ear and give it to the youngest person so they listen to their elders and learn well.

-- Cut a piece from near the eye and give it to a person who is important to you so they will be attentive.

Cut a piece from the forehead and give it to someone with a challenge to help them be smart about it.

Gastronomically, I thought the shift from eating mostly vegetables to eating mostly meat would be tough on the gut. It wasn't. I attribute this to the addition of a great deal of cognac to my diet.

That, and the leisurely pace, aided digestion. Many a feast was topped off with a truly wonderful round of songs.

So I hope your New Year's celebration was tempered with song, honored with tradition and celebrated with new and old friends. Sally Ann will be back next week with more tales of the real food editor.

Nadia White is the state editor for the Star-Tribune