Tonight, sheep’s head fried together with cabbage and portabella mushrooms accompanied by beetroot salad. Sheep’s head, sheep head and every last bit of it. To prepare this delicacy one used to go out and sacrifice the slowest from the flock, but now a trusted butcher or even a gem find in a supermarket will suffice. Ours was air sealed in a plastic bag.
From the roof of the mouth to the crown of the head, this pillar of nomadic soul food is as deeply rooted in me as my tolerance for below freezing temperatures.
The more laboring and skillful route to preparing sheep’s head would take place in the endless rolling hills and blue skies outside the city. Begin sawing off the horns, well at least after the process of obtaining the head and head only, carried out in the most humane and dignifying way. Give tongue to kids for wisdom, the palate of the sheep was saved for the women to bless them as skillful tailors and scalp for the guest of honor.
The sun was set but dinner was causing a bustle in the kitchen. A stainless steel pot that glistened and gleamed was beginning to bubble and skittishly shake it’s lid up and down. My mom sliced across to the other side of the kitchen and from the array of knives drew the most pointed and deadliest one we had.
The kitchen became warm with the steam of dinner and the density of her presence.
My mother, being born the eldest daughter of three siblings inherited good posture and a sharp tongue, with volumed black hair never not put back in a low pony and ending in the crevice of her shoulder blades. I gradually learned how she spent the entirety of her childhood in summers wearing dirty shorts with bruised knees and black cheeks.
I, her eldest daughter of three inherited the hair but not the childhood that could sharpen a child’s grit and moxie.
“I remember being little” –the portabellas seemed to trigger an anecdote- Plenty of stories already floated around the dinner table of my nerves of steel mother getting lost in the woods, chased by angry goats, licked by thirsty cows and the absolutely blood curdling herbal medicines. Maybe it was because I was just that fed up of the city and quarantine or because I could so vividly imagine every detail of my mom and her surroundings but, I found myself desperately clinging to these images.
“and looking for freshly sprouted mushrooms in the forest. After the rain stopped.”
“You did what?”
“Well,” she concluded her last slice with an exaggerated slash “during the wet season your uncle, aunt and I waited for the rain to subside.” Twirling around and reaching into the fridge she produced a wonderfully full head of cabbage and revisited the cutting board “after particularly large rain clouds, mushrooms would start poking out. Then we would go pick them.”
Huh, I stood for several moments reliving the fresh smell of damp air after thunderstorms and the milky smog rolling through the spruce trees down to the foot of the mountains.
My mother spoke in monotone “Of course we double checked to make sure the ones we picked had worms.”
Of course, you did.
“Where is the um- oh, here.”
“You’re being dead serious?” I retorted with unhidden exaggeration, it’s not that I didn’t believe her, but I knew pressing harder would make her recall more. Picking wild mushrooms wasn’t a particularly scarring or childhood defining reminiscence; it was simply a whimsical and fantastical token memory, echoing the minute fractures of brightness I found in boredom and solitude. The insignificant but warm and feel good moments of losing your breath laughing, sitting together with family and concocting weird family traditions, stories worth reliving to children.
“How? with what?” I questioned further.
“Empty jam jars” she continued without a single stutter
“After we washed off the mud, we left the mushrooms to dry on the clothes line” she momentarily directed her gaze at the steaming pot “we left them hanging there for the worms to fall out.”
I howled with laughter.
“No, no I believe you.”
“We would prick a needle and thread through them to hang and after they were ready we would cook all of them up on our little gas stove. The fumes would linger for DAYS after.” my mother was enjoying retelling this story, her sharp cheekbones coiled into a smile.
“I can imagine how delicious they would be” I added grinning to myself. I felt grateful, grateful that I could enjoy mushrooms without waiting for rain clouds.
“Go, set the table.”
I picked five forks. My mother, father, two troublemaking younger brothers and me. I continued smiling to myself.
How comforting to think that even after the boredom, confinements and fear of rain, one could look forward to the buttery taste of mushrooms after.
The Mongolian countryside is made up of the never ending stretches of dirt road and the gentle rises of the all encompassing mountains.
Then, the houses; they look like drawings by a child come to life. There is no symmetry, planning, pattern .They all just co exist in reckless harmony. Some bundle together to create a hamlet of sorts, in these communities children of all ages and appearances would come together to entertain one another, they didn’t have playgrounds, just each other. When the hot sun was finally set, parents started preparing dinner and a navy blue inked the sky these children would one by one like mushrooms pop out of their front doors, some joined at the hands by siblings. They shared scary stories, braided their hair, played house and family and poked at the burrows of groundhogs. Then when navy blue turned black, their parents would stick their heads out windows and front doors shouting that dinner was ready, and like being plucked away the children dispersed one by one, back to their summerhouses.