Tommy the Turk’s Tartare

by Ari LeVaux

Thomas Goltz, known to his friends as Tommy the Turk, has worked as a war correspondent and authored numerous books on war-torn Central Asian and trans-Caucasian countries. He also teaches these subjects at Montana State University. He was in Turkey recently, planting fruit trees, when war broke out in Georgia, where he is now.

In Goltz’s line of work, it helps to know how to hitch rides from militiamen, or how to board an Mi-8 helicopter swarming with desperate refugees. And he has subtler skills, like conversing with spies, earning the trust of corrupt politicians, dealing with survivor’s guilt when friends die, and leaving a few drops of vodka in the bottom of the bottle to prove you believe in next time.

On my birthday this year, which also happens to be Azerbaijan Independence Day, Tommy the Turk taught me to make his special tartare. In addition to being delicious, Goltz’s tartare is a microcosm of the current situation in Central Asia: a mash-up of minced meat with an improbably tangled history and far-reaching consequences. Tommy the Turk’s Tartare is served uncooked, raw as a flesh wound.

Conquest and conflict aren’t new to the Georgians, nor were they new in the 13th century when the Mongols rode their ponies into town. The invaders were famous for riding for days at a time, which can take a toll on the rear. For extra padding, they took to placing meat under their saddles, which also tenderized the meat while bathing it in pooled horse sweat. Yum! This Mongol-style meat, through the workings of the proto-global economy, gave rise to modern tartare. But first, a little historical context.

Goltz has been sending home e-mails of his adventures and observations, and they present a detailed and nuanced picture of events, decorated by off-the-cuff color commentary and grounded in his encyclopedic knowledge of Central Asian history.

He calls Georgia an “ancient nation of poets and artists,” and says the Russian military is digging in, “…flaunting its success, quite content with allowing a damaged Georgia to come to understand the enormity of the disaster which had just washed over it, and tacitly encourage a spirit of revolt to fester against the government of the young, brash President Mikheil Saakashvili, whom many have incorrectly blamed for igniting the conflict in the first place.”

Goltz says the Russians began planning to invade as soon as Georgia was denied fast-track status into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) last April. These preparations included issuing Russian passports to most residents of South Ossetia. Since the invasion, France has led an international response that’s been weaker than what Saakashvili was hoping for. Russia honors the French-brokered ceasefire at its convenience, and it looks like rather than getting international support, Saakashvili is getting hung out to dry.

And why is Russia so concerned with the fates of these breakaway provinces? In a word: oil. Georgia has been called the “cork in the bottle” of Caspian Basin petroleum, and according to Goltz, Russia isn’t cool with the fact that the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan are creating pipelines and rail links for transporting Caspian oil and gas to Western markets with no Russian oversight. A regime change in Georgia resulting in a pro-Moscow government would increase Russia’s influence on the world energy markets. And now Russia has a foothold from which to destabilize Saakashvili’s government.

Like the mixed-up and bloody situation in the region from which it sprang, tartare, that bloody mix of improbable ingredients, has far-reaching tendrils of influence. The possibility of a renewed Cold War between the U.S., which backs Georgia, and Russia suggests the specter of global conflict with weapons capable of pulverizing the world into ground beef. Tartare, meanwhile, that pulverized pile of chopped red meat, gave rise to the original hamburger. In doing so, tartare became a poster child for the movement of information and ideas around the world, testament to the interconnectedness of it all.

When the Mongols took Moscow, they brought their culinary habits with them, including that sub-saddle meat-tenderizing technique. This was later refined in high-end kitchens, minus the horse sweat and plus a few extra ingredients, and christened “tartare,” after the Tatar people from the region north of present-day Georgia, whose blood by this time had mingled with that of the attacking Mongols.

From Moscow, tartare found its way to the German port of Hamburg, whence it jumped the pond to America, where it became hamburger. Meanwhile, someone had the brilliant idea of mixing mayonnaise, instead of pulverized meat, with the ingredients that flavor tartare, and this creation became tartare sauce.

Tartare is traditionally made from beef, but wild game works as well. Whichever meat is used, it should be frozen first to kill parasites. And it should be good, clean, healthy meat, ideally local.

Goltz says to mince or grate a partially thawed tender cut of meat. For every half pound, mix in a teaspoon of minced capers, a tablespoon of horseradish or mustard, a tablespoon of smoked Hungarian paprika, a shot of brandy, salt, pepper and 1 egg white (most tartare recipes use the yolk) from a local egg. Mix, taste and adjust the seasonings.

Place the tartare on a bed of ultra-thinly sliced onions, with a garnish of parsley perhaps, and serve with crackers or toast.

Leftovers should be cooked immediately, hamburger-style. It’s worth pointing out that to eat one such leftover patty with a dollop of mayonnaise would constitute nothing less than a reunion, all in the same mouthful, of the tartar, the sauce, and burger – three siblings separated at birth by the geopolitical winds of change. •



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