The Greek word petsa detonates in my mouth. It starts crisp but sizzles at the last syllable: pet-ssssa. This is exactly what happens when I eat it, too. While I gush over goat meat, I truly relish in the petsa, the crispy skin peeled straight from the roasted flesh. Well, at least I used to.
The moment I grew tall enough to reach the freezer door, I was met by the frozen carcass of either a goat or a lamb, head peeking from a trash bag, vitreous eyes peering down at my disgusted face. By age 9, during a pivotal trip back to the old country, my appetite had surpassed my youthful disdain. Special occasions and holidays inspired the hope of freshly peeled petsa. Easter guaranteed it.
The vivid imagery of those memories is epitomized by the rotating spit, with the rod plunged neatly into the goat's forehead and through its entire body. No longer glaring at me from a trash bag, the goat now showed creepy teeth beneath charred eyes. None of this ever bothered me. I know—and crave—the smell of lemon-soaked flesh burning on a rotisserie. I've seen the plump, pink skin develop into a golden brown. That's my cue to attack, peeling the petsa from the twisting carcass.
My tastes changed in 2010, when I volunteered for a stint on organic farms in Portugal. I herded goats, an activity for which my genetic disposition would presumably make me an expert. Alas, on the first day I set out with a walking stick, a sandwich, a jug of water and a hyperactive mutt for the longest six hours of my life.
The hips of one pregnant goat radiated outward like a rainbow, curving down to wobbly, tired pins for legs. She looked like she would explode. She probably will, explained the farmer. She'll stray if she needs to have her babies. Just let her be, he said.
I found an open field where the herd could roam without much trouble. I attempted my voice of authority over the clanking collars, but my brief dictatorship proved futile. The goats eventually snuck over to fruit trees that didn't belong to them. I seized order and led all of them back to the field—all but the bloated pregnant one.
She stopped under a draping mulberry tree and let out a strangely peaceful bellow. I walked closer, and there he emerged from his mama: my Punky. The goat kid dropped from his mother's body and quickly stood up with a wobble. He looked at me with a loud "baaa!" His eyes were alert. He was alive, healthy, new. I was the only animal watching. Be still my bleating heart.
A few hours later, I ran out to the tree with the farmer. He grabbed the second kid, and I grabbed Punky. I held him as he scrambled and bleated before resting with a sigh onto my chest. His brown and black-splotched fur was soft against my shoulder. I felt his heartbeat pulse against mine.
Greek Easter is this Sunday. I have eaten goat since that day, but not off the animal. I haven't seen the spit, either. Memories let me taste the petsa, and my barbaric side still craves it. But I can still hear, feel and breathe Punky.