IN THE DESERT
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said: “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”
–Stephen Crane, p. 1895
My younger brother is a hunter, and when he takes a deer from the mountains in autumn I request that he bring me the creature’s heart.
This year he hunted a boar instead of a deer. I would have been curious to have the pig’s heart (Lord knows the chops, bacon, and belly we’ve eaten from this animal have been excellent and far superior to any pork found in the grocery store), but I was working out of town during the hunting trip and forgot to ask. Too bad. He could have brought it in the cooler, like the huntsman delivered a boar’s heart in a box in place of Snow White’s.
I had to improvise, as I did in the years when I lived far away: I went to the butcher and purchased the heart of a lamb. It cost $1.99. I know heart is considered to be offal, but it still struck me as strange that an organ of such talismanic properties could be bought for so little.
I took it home and thawed it in a bowl of cold water. Then I carefully removed the slippery, thin outer membrane cut away the pieces of fat. The bare heart was dense and slippery, approximately the size of a tennis ball. I took my sharpest knife and sliced it down the middle, butterflying it, and then put it in a metal bowl of icy saltwater for two hours in order to leech as much of the remaining blood out of it as possible.
I put it back on the wooden cutting board and cleaned the inside of blood clots and the rubbery tubes that connected to the arteries. It takes a long time to clean and prepare a heart. In my experience, only sweetbreads are as labor-intensive.
I seasoned it with coarse salt and black pepper, rubbed it with olive oil, and wrapped it in a pocket of tinfoil with a few cloves of garlic. Then I left it in the oven on low heat for two and a half hours while I made a stew, goulash-style, with carrots and onion and a few chunks of high-starch potato to thicken the broth. The tomato paste and paprika turned the liquid red.
When I took the heart out of the oven and unwrapped it, it no longer resembled a heart to me. I had transformed it. When I cubed it, the flesh did not resist the knife.
I put it into the stew and let it simmer. By the time it was ready to eat, it was dark outside. I had spent many hours with that heart.
I sat at my kitchen table and slowly, deliberately ate the life of the lamb. Now it is a part of me.