"I was really excited when I moved to Spokane and realized there were marmots here," says Kelly Lerner.
Spokane, Wash., is - and who knew? - the odd city where Marmota flaviventris thrives in the urban core. And Lerner, an architect big in straw-bale and green building circles, is the odd woman with a marmot recipe. So with the holidays in the offing, let's consider her story.
Picture this: A group of indigenous men and a curly-haired visitor from a faraway land (that would be Lerner) gather by a river meander in the Gobi Desert as a straw-walled school - one that will require a fraction of the coal normally used for heating during the long Mongolian winter - nears completion. Through the barter of precious gasoline, ingredients have been assembled for a fine celebratory meal. It's all here: vodka, mare's milk, cigarettes, rifles ... and fresh-killed rodents. Ah, marmots. Cute, furry, and au jus.
But really, who among your friends and family wouldn't get excited about celebrating gratitude with a genuine Mongolian barbecue? Way funner than the same old Butterball. So spice up your holidays with some authentic boodog, a Mongolian cooking style in which the body cavity of a headless small animal - preferably a marmot - is filled with superheated rocks and, if you think of it, some onions or garlic.
Lerner specifies that vodka is key to any Mongolian barbecue. It is consumed at every step so that by the time you get around to eating your marmot, the actual taste is not so much of an issue. And what does marmot taste like? One Web source says "beefy." "Like wild duck," insists another. Liars, we think. "It tastes like rodent," Lerner says.
So heat up some smooth round river rocks in your barbecue, and just follow these simple steps:
1) Go find some marmots. Each one will feed three to five people.
2) Behead the marmot.
3) You'll want vodka for this step. Reach your hand into the neck cavity and pull out the guts. Rub the inside with salt. Or what the hell ... paprika or cumin or curry or bay leaves, too.
4) When the rocks are glowing orange, drop them into your marmot, poking smaller rocks into the legs. Then seal up the neck.
5) Get a blowtorch, the kind you use to sweat pipes while soldering, and start burning the hair off your marmot. Yeah, you'll want vodka for this, too.
And there you have it! Marmots inflate as they cook - "It can get as big as a basketball with these four little legs sticking out," Lerner says, and might even explode right in your lap. Plus, the cooking time is a mystery. Considering the vodka Lerner consumed in the process, we won't ask her. The Web site e-Mongolia says 90 minutes, which seems long. So I guess you're on your own. You could poke your marmot "until the juices run clear," or get a meat thermometer if you're a pansy.
This is, after all, a meal of the Great Khan. Rrrrrr!
As soon as the marmot is done, whenever that is, open the neck and pour out the soup into cups. Ha, don't you wish now you had tossed in some onion and garlic and even carrots?
At your holiday table, dig out the hot, greasy rocks and pass them around first, Lerner says. Mongolians believe rubbing the hot grease on their hands and arms is good for the skin, and this step is a social emollient as well.
Cut up the marmot and pass it around.
"I got one of the little legs," Lerner remembers, miming the motion of nibbling on a tiny ear of corn.
There is just one hitch to this picture-perfect local food celebration, of course, and perhaps astute Westerners have already spied it: Marmots hibernate. Yeah, the critters have probably been snoring for a couple of months. But Madonna Luers with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in Spokane has the practical workaround. "Here's what you do," she says. "You shoot your marmots during the year, and stockpile them in your freezer. Look, people are going to be defrosting their Butterballs ... so you could be defrosting your marmots."
We'll drink to that!
Kevin Taylor writes from Spokane, Washington, where he suggests catch-and-release fishing for downtown marmots using Cheetos as bait.