This story is taken from the collection Americans do their Business Abroad, a generally hilarious bundle of essays of former Peace Corps volunteers recollecting the decidedly grimy aspects of their service. Not all of the essays hit the mark, but if you’re looking for more, the book is definitely worth the price of admission.
Jerry D. Loudenback writes of his time working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan, where he was tasked with leading a UN “food caravan” to help alleviate some of the hardships of a severe drought plaguing the country at the time.
Loudenback recounts stopping at the small village of Tal-i-mir-ghazi; after distributing the UN-supplied wheat, the village chieftain insisted that he stay for lunch as an honored guest. Following a speech by the chieftain, a servant places a vat in front of him:
And, then, with a flourish, the servants lifted the lid from the vat and revealed…a head. Goat’s head soup. A skull, in essence: skinned, muscle and cartilage, tendons, brains (I think) floating out of the neck cavity. And those cooked, dead goat eyes staring me down.
Simultaneously with this intimate eye contact, my Midwestern stomach began a frantic dialogue with my ‘well-you-wanted-an-adventure-now-didn’t-you?’ brain.
“I ain’t eatin’ this.”
“You’ve got to or you’ll insult the malek and his elders.”
“No way, I’m already starting with the dry heaves.”
“These are poor people, Jerence ol’ boy, and they slaughtered a goat in your honor.”
“Yeah, well, maybe so but — Good God, there’s something in the damn thing’s nose!”
A sudden silence interrupted the bickering. The malek had finished up his eulogy, and twenty pairs of eyes, with twenty proud smiles underneath, were eagerly waiting for something. From me. This being a diplomatic circle and all, I offered in appreciation all of the kind words I could find, but I was uneasy; very uneasy when the malek responded. I leaned over to Hasan for a translation, and he explained, “It is the custom in my country that the honored guest has the privilege of eating the eye.”
The rivalry between stomach and brain escalated into an ugly confrontation.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding.”
“Nope, this is serious diplomacy here, Jerence, cross-cultural adjustment, I think they call it.”
“Look, I shouldn’t have to do this, what with my dysentery and all.”
“Be Good for you — hell, it’ll probably kill off the amoebae.”
“But man, it smells bad, it looks bad, and you just know it’s gonna taste really, really bad!”
There wasn’t any choice really; it had to be done. Using my thumb and two fingers — all matters of cuisine are finger food in Afghanistan — I dug out an eye (it came out of the socket more easily than I had expected — the eye muscles were a little overcooked), shoveled it into my mouth, bit into it twice — once to kill it and again to make sure — and swallowed everything in one gulp of coagulated, jellied mucous.
I immediately began, very loudly and very quickly, to thank the malek, his elders, the village, the state of Badakshan, the proud country of Afghanistan, Allah and Mohammed, for this very great honor, of which my father back in the U.S. would be so proud, and that I would tell my sons and their sons, and they would tell their sons, about this great occasion and this hospitable village of Tal-i-mir-ghaz. The speech gave me time to lock down my throat, but the coagulated, jellied mucous was on the move, crawling, ever so slowly, down my esophagus. My stomach tried to make itself really, really small, as my intestines grumbled with anticipation.
But no one said a word. The silence again: the twenty pairs of eyes, the smiles, they were insatiable. Things were getting ominous. Hasan came to my rescue and explained the situation, ever so gently, with a shitty little smirk on his face. “In my country, it is unlucky to eat only one eye.”