I Fought the Goat and the Goat Won
Excerpt from The Nope Game and Other Stories by Javier Loustaunau
As all my fans should know, my biography came out last week, chronicling my early days as a line cook all the way up to owning a small chain of restaurants before the TV show and all the cookbooks. Still this book is incomplete without me leaking this unpublished chapter against the wishes of my editor and my publicist. They refused to let me put it in the book, as it would ‘harm my credibility’ and ‘ruin my image’ but I swear this story is true, it is the last thing I think about when going to bed and often the first thing that comes to mind when I sip my coffee in the morning.
It is the reason I became vegan, the reason I eventually opened a vegan restaurant, and the reason I am an ambassador for veganism as both as a lifestyle and as a political statement. This is a story about the last time I ate meat, and some of you will see it as a metaphor, a lark, a publicity stunt, or a strange flight of fancy. Some of you will think it is some punk rock burst of creativity, brought to you by the guy who created the ‘smoked vegan brisket’. On brand with my weird TV show and my weird sense of humor. “I wonder what he was on when he dreamed this up?”. However, you choose to view this, know that I believe it is the literal truth.For context, this takes place in the mid 90’s, when I was a fresh graduate from the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) and every day I was applying to and being rejected by some of the hottest or most prestigious restaurants in New York. Intellectually I was interested in French Cuisine, but my heart was not really into it, I honestly did not know what I wanted to do with my life beyond cooking. To make ends meet I took a job at a Mexican place, not a mom-and-pop burrito shop but an actual honest attempt at fine dining before anyone really knew what Mexican food was except for Rick Bayless and Diane Kennedy.
Shit, I had no idea what to expect. I only applied because I figured it would involve opening cans of beans and stirring big batches of chili con carne. I’m not embarrassed to say I did not take the cuisine seriously because back then nobody did. The place was actually very popular, and the Chef went on to have some success of his own. I will refer to him as El Patron for the remainder of this chapter. I know in a book full of name-dropping it is odd that I do not mention who he is; but he does not want to be associated with this story. It is the reason he fired me and has not spoken to me in years.
He did hire me for my first professional job though, to help out in his restaurant. After a month of washing dishes and performing menial tasks like carrying boxes and cleaning up, he said I was ready to do prep work. This involved showing up at the crack of dawn and breaking down and cleaning all our meats, peeling and chopping all our vegetables and getting several stations set up for the day. I had no idea how to make Mole or Pipian or any of the sauces that made this place popular, for now my job was just to slice and dice and clean.
One morning I nearly had a heart attack when I opened the walk-in freezer. Hanging from a chain in the middle of the tiny, refrigerated room there was a skinless goat, staring at me with two big round eyes. It was horrifying for some reason. I had gutted and cleaned endless fish, shucked oysters, broken down chickens and butchered sections of pigs but… God damn that goat game me a fright and it did not go away either. I looked away from it as I reached half my body into the freezer grabbing for a large crate of vegetables. I heard the chain creak softly and when I looked next to me the whole goat had rotated slightly, meeting my eyes with it’s own dead eyes again.
I shut the walk in and just felt sick and panicked. The adrenaline from being startled was not wearing off, it was instead intensifying, into a full-blown panic attack. My heart was racing, and I had to repeat to myself “it is just meat” in order to stop being paralyzed and start moving about the kitchen again. I had been successful in retrieving my first case of veggies so I started to prep them, trying not to cut my trembling hands in the process. Every few seconds I would get a flash of that goat’s skinless face in my head, with it’s deep dark eyes staring right at me. It had a ghastly smile, probably the result of being all muscle without lips or skin. The whole thing just haunted me.As I finished dicing up the last of the carrots, a certain dread overtook me… I realized I had to go back into that walk in. I laughed a little, it was silly how scared I was of the damn thing, and then I realized El Patron might be expecting me to break it down. I felt a sudden chill go through my body… there was no way I was butchering that thing. I reached into the walk in for another crate of veggies, barely seeing anything through my squinted eyes. My arm touched the cold flesh of the goat and I recoiled, then panicking I snatched the veggie crate and shut the door spilling several zucchinis and onions inside the walk in and on the floor of the kitchen.
As I sliced up onions, I felt my whole-body jerk in reaction to a loud thump in the walk in, surely a vegetable I had left behind rolling off the shelf and onto the floor. There were a few more loud thumps over the next minute, and then a loud CLANK of something hard hitting metal. CLANK! And I was startled again, almost cutting myself. It was unsettling, but I just really did not want to open the walk in unless I had to. A few more clanks interrupted my work, and I was finally ready to move onto cleaning chicken and trimming steak so I worked up the courage to open the walk in freezer again.
It took a couple of tries to actually move my arm, to actually turn that handle and get it open… and when I did there where vegetables strewn about the floor and a couple of sauce containers were on their side and leaking… but the goat was completely gone. Only the chain was left behind, swinging gently, reminding me that I really had seen what I had seen earlier. I just crumpled, sitting on the floor dumbstruck, staring into that walk in unable to do anything. A million explanations raced through my mind: it is a prank, I have lost my mind, my drink last night was spiked, somebody moved it while my back was turned, I am not alone here…
CLAK CLACK CLACK CLACK. I heard hooves on tile, somewhere near the restrooms or the front of the restaurant. I hid behind my prep station, with a knife in each hand. In my head, I was mocking myself for being so afraid of something so implausible, so surreal. The clickety clack would come and go, appearing and disappearing in different parts of the restaurant, but never in the kitchen. I steeled myself, and slowly peered from the side of my station.
My gaze was met by two deep black eyes, staring back at me from a skinless face. Its tongue hung limply from one side of its mouth, and it was perfectly able to stand on its four skinless legs. I freaked the fuck out; my knives went flying and by the time I heard them clang onto the ground I was already taking shelter inside the cramped walk-in freezer. This situation was not much better though, it was pungent with leaking chili sauce and cold and cramped and dark and I knew I could not last long in here. The smell made my eyes well up with tears and those tears felt cold, like they could turn to little icicles. When I heard the beast slowly clickety clack away into the seating area and I sighed relief.
I left the walk in slowly, surveying my messy surroundings but I saw no sign of the goat. Once again, I retrieved my knives and prepared myself to escape out of the back of the restaurant. My feet would slip and slide as I left footprints of chili sauce like dark drying blood. I was moving as slowly as I could, all the while clutching my knives and listening for any movement. I made it past the sinks and was almost out the back door, but I looked, and the goat was in the corner across from me. I screamed “What the fuck are you?!” at it. It made a grunt that turned into a sort of loud screech and it came at me, full force.
I held my blades before me, eyes closed, trying to swing at the beast. It must have leapt because I felt a strong punch right in the gut, and it sent me backwards falling and knocking over a trash can. It’s face was inches from my face, and I distinctly heard it say in a low growling voice “Yo soy el Nagual” before everything faded to black.
I would awaken at the hospital that evening, panicking until a couple of nurses held me down and one came running with a syringe. “No, stop, I’m OK now, I’m OK” I yelled and they backed off, giving me some space to breathe. Fragments of what happened that morning came rushing back to me, at least what I could remember, whatever I was able to jot down later would eventually turn into what you are reading now. At that moment, I was just experiencing an intense euphoria, of knowing I was safe. As you might imagine they said I had experienced some sort of psychological event, likely a nervous breakdown from stress and lack of sleep. I had been partying a lot, and I had been broke, but honestly stress never really factored in, at that age I felt invincible.Then El Patron came in and stared at me in silence for a minute as he composed something in his head. Finally, he said: “I’m glad you are OK, I really was worried. I also hope you understand that you can’t come back to my restaurant, I could forgive you but the doñas who actually make the sauces and tortillas would never feel safe again with some crazy person or drug addict around. I just pay the bills, the doñas really run things and they are scared of you. But I did bring you something, because hospital food sucks. It is birria.”
He poured some warm broth and meat out of an insulated container into one of the bowls we use at the restaurant and from a second container he added some diced onions, oregano and a couple of lime wedges. When chefs are concerned but do not know what to say, they communicate with food. I am the same way, even now. I slurped some broth and it was amazing, I instantly realized I had not eaten since the previous day. I devoured the food almost crying in gratitude and relief and sopped up the remaining chili tinted red grease with a tortilla.
“This is possibly the best thing I’ve eaten, what is it?” I asked. “Birria is goat stew, with chilies and clove” he replied. Just like that, I felt it coming back up, and for a second time that day I humiliated myself before el Patron by making a mess. That really was the last time we ever spoke to each other, even though we would often get booked by the same shows filming back to back episodes. I developed a revulsion and full on phobia to meat, and that fear and disgust fueled my desire to innovate in the space of vegan cuisine. It is why you have never seen me as a judge on shows; I tell them I have too many food allergies to be a judge. It is why I was able to ignore the bad reviews and bad press while I built up my career, those things never scared me. Bankruptcy never scared me. Scandal never scared me. The only thing that ever scares me anymore are the memories of having to take animals apart, and thinking of El Nagual.
Javier Loustaunau was born in Los Mochis, Sinaloa where he lived until his 21st birthday. Shortly after 9/11 he decided to move to the US to work for a while, taking a break in his studies as a biochemical engineer. Instead he worked his way up from restaurants to banking, from banking to operations and is now a data analyst in the HRIS and Insurance field. He is a published author of poetry and prose, specializing in short scary fiction. You can find his work on the NoSleep podcast and in the anthology Monsters We Forgot. Purchase The Nope Game and Other Stories.