Yes, Virginia, goats DO eat gingerbread houses
The holidays are over, and Spring has officially come to the Bay Area. And it was you, the Craigslist community, that made this possible, and gave one man the gift of fulfilling his dream.
That dream being: to see an enormous herd of goats gobble up a gingerbread house.
It all started off so innocently, when, on Christmas Day, I wrote this letter to Craigslist:
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I desperately need your help to find a large herd of goats to eat a reasonably-sized gingerbread house. Preferably this would be in or around Berkeley.
I'm sure you're wondering: Why?
Well I'm Jewish, and as you can imagine, not really into the whole Christmas scene. By rights, neither should my girlfriend -- she's half Jewish, after all. But she really loves the holidays, and especially Christmas -- the tree, carols, everything. So this year, I have been dragged to parties, and we're eating fruitcake, and we're looking for ornaments, and since she has been making a gingerbread house every year since she was like 6 or something, we actually made a real life gingerbread house together -- something I have never done before in my life.
I must admit that, due to my influence, the house is pretty good. It's quite colorful, with an incredible variety of candy (thanks Costco!), and an extravagant tile roof made of Necco wafers. It even has some upturned candy canes along the gables in the style of a Thai temple. (I was searching for inspiration.) It truly is a work of art -- and an edible one, to boot. Sure, by the time we're done enjoying it, the frosting has hardened into concrete, and the gingerbread structural materials are also probably less than ideal. But it is truly a great merger of food and decoration.
So what will happen to this precious objet d'art? Normally, shortly after Christmas, it is unceremoniously tipped into a garbage can. That's it. The thing must contain 300,000 calories of candy and gingerbread, and it's just going to go to the dump, where it will be compacted in an anaerobic environment for thousands of years, until garbologists unearth it and say: Wow, that was a pretty good gingerbread house.
Well, I think that's just wrong. Admittedly, the house should not be kept -- it is symbolic of the now (thank god) nearly completed holidays and must be destroyed if Spring is to arrive. But I have also learned that it is a shame to waste food. And thus, my goal: to say farewell to the house in an orgy of consumption. Not by humans, but by goats.
Why goats? I have spent much time considering what animal would be best. Were we in the tropics (where I hail from), ants would do the trick, and indeed, it would be an ant orgy the likes of which you have never seen. But in the cold, sad, holiday-time Bay Area, accessible animals are few. Deer are skittish, and are unlikely to tolerate my watching them (Did I mention I have to be able to watch the destruction? Well, I do.) Finding raccoons or skunks is unlikely, and I doubt they would take to the demolition with the speed and ferocity of which I dream. The closest we have is livestock. And, once you go through the list -- cows, horses, sheep -- it is apparent that only goats have the avidity of will, strength of teeth, and solidity of stomach to properly destroy the gingerbread house.
So I'm looking for goats -- lots of them. I want them to be hungry, and in all sizes. My vision (eyes wet with fantasy) is that we have at least a dozen swarming on the house at one time, tearing off Necco wafers, sour tarts, gum balls, M 'n' Ms and yes, the now regionally-prohibited silver dragees with their outturned teeth and strange, prehensile lips. As they rip at the house walls and frosting-mortar, their elliptically-pupilled eyes will be crazed with delight, tasting a food as delectable in taste as it is aesthetically pleasing. As one sated goat falls away, another will replace it, until the house is nothing but red and green crumbs in the dust. And I will be looking on, watching the symbolic destruction of the holidays (and all that it implies -- the shopping frenzy, the incessant carols, the mock cheer, the creepy gift baskets) by my hornèd minions.
My problem: I don't know where any goats are! Please, please, help me find a herd of goats, ideally in or around the Berkeley area. Preferably, during the day they should be unattended by someone concerned about controlling their diet. The feeding will occur sometime after January 1 -- and yes, if they're your goats, you can watch them (and me an my girlfriend) to make sure nothing untoward happens. I am, of course, open to suggestions on other forms of livestock, but I think you can easily see why only goats will do.
Just write me at firstname.lastname@example.org . Yes, this is real! I mean it! Please help....
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As a result of this Craigslist announcement, six people wrote me. Two of them were journalists: one from the Oakland Tribune, another from KNTV Channel 11's news department. The Oakland Tribune wanted photos, but I was still completely goatless: no dice. But television.... At first, the idea felt ridiculous -- clearly the result of a slow news day beyond all reason. But then I thought: if anyone can help me find large quantities of goats, it's the mass media. And Channel 11 was really desperate to speak to me. So I called them up, and eventually, they interviewed me -- they actually did it at a (another!) holiday party at the home of a friend. Yes, I had actually brought the gingerbread house from Berkeley to this dinner party in San Jose -- interrupting the hors d'oeuvres -- so that I could be in the spotlight glare of local news. How pathetic am I? But the fantasy drove me on.
Like a flu shot, gathering local TV news (or rather having it gathered from you) is short and painless while it happens. The problem is (to extend the metaphor) that you never know if it will give you a sore arm or some kind of mini-SARS. I wondered what would become of my quest. Would I be "local man has goat fantasy," or maybe "local man hates Christmas," or "local man is total nutbar?" But while it happened, it was fun. At 6:30 pm, a reporter and cameraman came (they call the last guy a "photographer" -- ooh), pointed a tripod-mounted camera and lights at me, and started me off with a softball: describe the features of the house. I did so, pointing cheesily to the Necco wafers roofing tile (yes, I am proud of it, thank you), the starlight mints, the log pile made of Tootsie Rolls. He then started on random questions. Why goats? Why not just let people eat it? How long did it take to make? And (most importantly) how could someone with an enormous quantity of goats contact me? It was all a beautiful blur -- I was high on my ego, my verbosity, and all the time I was imagining the herds, nay, swarms, nay, myriads of goats that my TV appearance would summon. I imagined a grey, braying cloud sweeping with nobbly legs over the soft green hills of the East Bay, all converging on my gingerbread house and utterly annihilating it. (Perhaps I was also influenced by a recent viewing of Return of the King.)
And then it was over: they packed up and fled off to some silly story like a power outage on one of the coldest nights of the year. Breathless waiting, waiting until 11:00 pm. And ten minutes into the show: there I am! Is my hair really receding like that? But wait, I'm a teaser -- my story is so compelling that can use me to get viewers to stay tuned. Commercials, and then more boring news -- Tito Jackson, Michael Jackson -- and then: I'm another teaser. Wow... I'm big. But no mention of the goats.... when will it happen?!?
And then, after a Kwanzaa story: "A local man has a dilemma." How mild a start! And there I am (I have it all on videotape), and there's my house, close up. According to them, the house is now nearly a foot tall! (I suppose at 8 inches it is closer to one foot than, say, zero feet, but by this standard I am nearly six feet tall -- an Amazon among Jews.) And there are the gumballs, and the rubber bunnies, which no, the goats would not get to eat. I emit a strangely literate sound bite, about how I want the house to be appreciated by animals that can take advantage of the calories that the house embodies, or some such nonsense. Did I really say that? While it's a personal triumph, though, I can't believe what I am hearing: that I want the house to be eaten by "A" goat. Not plural goats -- just a goat. ONE goat.
I ask you, where the hell is the drama in that? The ambition? What made this story so palpable is the you-are-there feeling of the greedy, bleating, rough-haired goats obliterating my gingerbread house, ripping it apart, reducing it to crumbs and powder. Not the image of a single, straggling petting-zoo refugee gnawing feebly at a Necco wafer. It was a unfathomable letdown, and then: they didn't mention my email address.
But I was philosophical about it. With this show now on tape, the goatherders, or goatmongers, or whatever they are, will know I'm serious. It's clear that I mean business, and serious publicity will attend the eventual (and now, hopefully inevitable) house consumption. So while some may argue that my fantasy had been betrayed, I believe that, in fact, it has been both vindicated and revitalized by the mass media. And, most importantly, it will happen. Oh yes. Oh yes.....
And what of the other four writers? Just kind, gentle folk like you dear readers, who pointed me, directly or indirectly, to the monopoly provider of goat-powered brush clearing services in the East Bay: Goats R Us. Yes, that's its real name. They indeed look like a winner, and with the incredible PR machine behind me, I hope to gain their approval for a full and open gingerbread-house gobbling -- no furtive drop-and-run here. This revolution will be televised! Or at least, photographed.
Needless to say, I promise to keep you posted.
OK, that's what I wrote, thanking Craigslist for making my dreams come true. Yet I was still bereft of goats. And the press people were still after me, promising, begging, imploring. Fine: I call Goats R Us, and get voice mail. Their voice mail message sounds chipper, business-like, so... sane. Maybe they're Republicans. Maybe they'll see right through me. Maybe.... I don't know. I hang up, think, and call back. At the beep, I cross my fingers and leave my name and number, without telling them what it's for...who's going to believe me? They soon call back, but I'm in the shower, and they get my voice mail. I call back (voice mail again!), and leave another coy message. This time they're suspicious (and who wouldn't, if you’re a prominent goat supplier), and they ask the indiscrete question: Could you PLEASE tell us what you actually want?
So I call back (voice mail!) and leave them the message. I had rehearsed what I would say, but what came out was a tide of verbiage, alternately rational, apologetic, incredulous, perhaps psychotic: "The press wants me to yada yada gingerbread houses yada yada publicity for you yada yada yes it's all for real, really."
I hang up and wait. No response for a long time. I think: They think I'm insane. I think: Maybe they're right. I get an idea: I need leverage. The TV people got me into this, and I'm gonna make the TV people get me the goats, dammit. So I call the TV people. (In my mind, they're all blending together: a single, peppy, twenty-something lady producer. Please forgive me, all of you: the Daras, Joeys, and Sabrinas -- without your help, I wouldn't be here....)
I don’t know what they tell them, but BAM -- within minutes, Goats R Us is on the horn (ha), ready to deal. We figure out a time to meet, and they will even provide a selection of both friendly and non-friendly goats. (Huh? I don't know what this means, but I play it cool. Don't want to scare them off.) It will be an intimate affair: just me, my girlfriend, the goat people, a photographer from the Oakland Tribune, the NBC Channel 11 camera crew, and scores of ferociously hungry goats.
I wake up early on Saturday -- the chosen day. It's beautiful: clear, sunny, finally dry after seeming weeks of (sad, holiday, Bay Area) rain. On this day clearly designed for renewal, I can’t contain myself. I'm gonna be on TV! In the paper! With goats! TV was now old hat, but I was imagining my color picture on the front page of Section B of the Oakland Tribune: my eyes clenched shut as one goat devours my house, while another does that weird kissing thing they do to me. (If a goat gets near your face, it will kiss you, or at least lip you. Don't ask me why.) I could be like the Crocodile Hunter guy -- but with goats! "Crikey, that's a big 'un!"
Just before heading off to the secret goat detention camp, I called the press. They had told me don't call us, we'll call you if there's any problem. So I figure no problem, la dee dah, just want to "check in"... and then they answer. Big problem: everyone's sick, and no TV crew for you....
I felt bad, I admit. What about the goat people? This was for their benefit, right? For THEIR publicity ... They came out for the newspeople, not me, the crazy one... but, but, we still had the newspapers. And who cares about TV news anyway? A local news spot is evanescent: it comes, it goes, it disappears, and one news cycle later all you have is an old video tape that nobody wants to see. But newspaper? Get in a newspaper, and you will always be somewhere -- in cyberspace, on microfiche, in Lexis Nexis -- for eternity. That's forever. That's IMMORTALITY. And that was good enough for me (I hoped to myself, biting my lip).
We took a beautiful drive over the Berkeley hills to Camp Delta. And wow, there were a lot of goats around. We drive up and see a big herd in a huge, muddy field: maybe 150 mommies and babies, we learn, in all colors (black, brown, grey, white, angoras that literally looked like big mops). The mommies are chewing alfalfa tied onto a big fence; the babies just run around. Actually, they bounce, spontaneously, for no reason at all, just jumping up on their hind legs. Everybody's bleating -- goat voices sound eerily human. Of course, you can't help but bleat back at them. Maa-aaaa-aaaa!
We meet the Goats R Us people. It's a serious operation, with THOUSANDS of goats -- for security reasons I am keeping some precise operational details secret, but it is certainly the most humane livestock operation I have ever encountered. The goats live in big fields, are used only for brush clearing, and are never eaten. They get good medical care, and are when they're too old to travel, they are retired -- literally put out to pasture. The goats can travel for hundreds of miles -- they clean SFO, East Bay parks, UC Berkeley, everyplace.
Incidentally, for the thousands of goats, there are only 6 to 8 "intact" males. Whoo-hoo for them.
The fielded mommies and babies are shy -- they're not used to humans, and sidle away from us when we tromp into the muddy field. But then the Friendly Goats arrive -- in a Hyundai filled, clown-car style, with four white dogs and four white goats, all of more or less equal size. The Friendly Goats are the goat people's pets -- they're all bottle-fed (and thus completely blasé about humans) and they hang out full-time with the dogs, so they seem to have caught a canine hyperactivity. Yet they retain their goaty appetites, so in addition to running around, they attempt to eat all vegetable matter in sight. So basically the Friendly Goats are fearless, four-legged mulchers -- perhaps the worst of all worlds, but the most fun too.
You could even pick up the (whoa, they're rather well-fed) Friendly Goats. The only problem is that if you pick them up legs down, like cats, they crane their heads back with gentle curiosity, and thus gore you in the face with their little horns. (I received some blunt trauma to my lower lip.) Alternately, you can pick them up and hold them upside down, legs up in the air. This is even worse, because it puts them in prime kissing position, and their lips go exploring your face. Lifting goats is like invading Middle Eastern countries -- whether they stab you or kiss you, there's no winning.
But would goats actually eat a gingerbread house? We needed to test it. We showed a bulky, hungry-looking Friendly Goat a little, test gingerbread house that we had made -- just to see if it might like the taste. At first, the goat did nothing, so we waved the house a bit to activate the powerful gingerbread pheromones. The goat slowly craned its neck. It sniffed. And then the neck stretched -- out, out, growing inconceivably long. Its lips began to quiver. The teeth began opening, closing, gnashing! Soon we all struggled to hold back this goat. It was on, activated, locked and loaded -- it wanted gingerbread with extreme prejudice.
Oh yes. OH YES. My confidence was not misplaced. The goats will jump on this house like Godzilla jumped on Tokyo. We withdrew the house, putting in back in the open car trunk, expecting that the goat would forget our cruel tease once the house was out of sight. But seconds later, the goat approached the car and jumped up, nearly bellyflopping into the car trunk. We all leapt to restrain it, barely able to prevent the goat (now skidding desperately on the chrome bumper) from falling headlong into the car.
All was according to plan. We had avid goats -- hundreds of them. But... where was the press? We waited an hour, talked about the goats, their eating habits, their personalities... and every few minutes a car or SUV drove by, slowed down.... (could it be them?) .... and drove away again.
An hour after the appointed time, no photographer had showed up.
We felt dumb. The press promised us. And we wanted them -- needed them. Sure, we took some digital photos. But, we wanted to be immortalized. In print! On TV! Somewhere! But...nothing. "Do you want to try again later?" the goat lady asked.
I felt, yes, yes! The goat people had spent all this time with us, brought out the Friendly Goats, and of course they need the publicity, right? And.... and ... and.... then I looked around. The sky was bright, but seemed light grey, and inside my eyes, all was white. I stopped and realized, wasn't I missing something? Feeding my gingerbread house to goats was not for the media, or for really, for anybody else -- it was a personal event, MY event, and one with an intensely private (perhaps even sacred) meaning. And yet I had let the press take my own ritual -- a ritual that was helping me cope with my conflicted feelings about the holidays, and indeed, my own complex identity issues (yes, yes, I admit it, I'm half-Jewish myself, at least genetically...) and turn this event into just another publicity stunt, a ludicrous entertainment, an object of absurdity -- a fleeting moment of "oddly-enough" news to feed the infotainment hunger of the TV-tariat.
I felt torn up. I realized I was no better than the holiday people that I had criticized. I had turned a meaningful event into a meaningless entertainment. Where there was once a birth, or a miracle, there were now trees and inedible chocolate coins. Where there once were goats, purely eating gingerbread houses, there was now me, vainly to jump into camera range any way I could, like a dumbass teen mugging behind a TV correspondent's shoot. I had forgotten myself, sold out. I had become a media whore.
The goats were here. The houses were here. It had all come together -- more together than I could ever have anticipated. It was so simple to make it all happen. And be done.
And I so said: "Yeah, let's do it later. I'll call the Trib. We gotta have the newspaper."
So: Try #2.
It wasn't so easy to get the fickle press excited again. I felt like Mark Hamill (Star Wars' Luke Skywalker, folks) -- I had done one good thing in my youth, but now nobody would write, or call. No newspaper photographer, I learned, was even dispatched on G-Day -- just because some people were murdered in Oakland! If it bleeds, it leads, but what if it bleats? Or maybe I had lost my chance? No, no, I said to myself, I still have the magic. The goats have it, the gingerbread houses have it -- it's more than just a holiday fad, it's something special, I told myself.
But I was also seeing something new: the trees. Every sad, bare Christmas tree on the curb, toppled and deflated, was a reproach to my media covetousness -- the living (or really, dying) indication that people had already moved on from the holidays. And I, the person who most wanted to annihiliate the holidays in a fit of caprine digestion, was now scrambling to resurrect their red-and-green memory for just a bit of press coverage. The irony was too sad. Obviously, I was desperate to bury this story before it started to smell any worse.
But then, I had hope of resurrection. While telling my story to some friends, I learned that they had MORE gingerbread houses. Before Christmas, my friends had participated in an organized gingerbread house raising party, resulting in 13 of them, including a gingerbread "crack house." (Black licorice was used to simulate bars on the windows.) As many five of the party-sourced houses were still intact... and I immediately thought:
>>> BOX OFFICE GOLD! <<<
How could the fourth estate possibly resist six gingerbread houses -- a whole gingerbread subdivision, if you will -- eaten by goats? It would be a publicity coup of major proportions. After hunting down the houses, I warned my press contacts, and left a voice mail for the goat people. And then I waited -- no word from the goat people. A day passed: I called the cell phone. Then another day: I paged them.... I'm so screwed, I thought. But I also thought it served me right. I had become a media whore, and this publicity purgatory was just what I deserved for not following my bliss, for not fulfilling my destiny on that perfect, sunny, muddy day, for not letting that goat into the car trunk to meet (or eat) his destiny....
But then they called back on Friday. I quickly called everybody and arranged everything for Saturday. (I'm an unemployed software marketer, so I have time to do this.) Got TV on board -- but could only leave a message for the newspapers. Whatever -- flakes. (Note to Oakland Trib staff: just kidding, ha ha...)
And then, Saturday: G-Day II. It wasn't as sunny as the original G-Day, but much warmer than last time. I screwed up my courage and called the TV station. They confirmed my worst fear: I was cancelled, no TV crew for you. I agonized -- to tell the goat people or not? Maybe they'll hate me.... I decided not to share the news. What if they cancelled it? What if they didn't bring the Friendly Goats? This was MY day, dammit, and press or not, it was time to make it happen. The goats will eat today!
We drove across the hills to the goat staging area. There were even more goats now ... at least 200 of them. They were quieter (no dogs to provoke them) and smellier (warmer day, remember? In fact, from this point on you should just imagine the blanketing, pungent aroma of concentrated goat, because no other smell could compete.) We brought out all the houses, and there were seven! Three of them (made by my people) were large, and made from store-bought Costco kits. They were proud, colorful structures, clearly the monarchs of gingerbread architecture, with strong lines and high candy diversity. The other four were smaller, lumpier, diverse in look but not so much in candy selection. While they were of course in all respects inferior to my own, the gingerbread walls of these houses was all homemade -- a crucial difference, as we were to learn later. And yes, among them was the gingerbread crack house! It was better than I expected: purple gummi Life Savers simulated a stack of abandoned tires on the lawn, and a marshmallow snowman was armed with a licorice shotgun.
We took pictures (now on the web) and removed non-edible parts, as well as bubblegum and tootsie rolls -- both potential choking hazards. (My tootsie roll log pile!) And each person (there were seven of us, including the goat lady, who had graciously come out again, despite the lack of press) carried a house into the field. Sadly, though, since there was no press, the Friendly Goats did not appear in the Goat Car. While the field goats weren't Unfriendly (Shy is more like it), I worried that they wouldn't achieve the swarming effect that I so craved.
We set the houses down, giving each its little own place in the field. One of the braver goats sauntered out to examine one of the little houses. It was the moment of truth: she poked at it, sniffed, and you could feel the lips start to quiver. This is where the herd-like behavior of goats became valuable: once food appears, the One Goat-Mind realizes that something is up, and drives all goats in the vicinity toward the food. Soon after the first goat, another goat came, then another -- and soon a stampede of goats, shaped like a boats prow, was aiming at and ultimately engulfing the houses. The all-seeing, Sauron-like Goat-Mind soon located all of the houses -- and we truly had swarms. As many as 15 goats would work on a house at once, sometimes making it impossible to observe their progress, obscured by all the goat butts. The destruction was impressive, and for some houses, nearly total within a sort period of time.
Except for one house -- mine. My gingerbread house was Fort Knox. Sure, the goats gleefully ate the pretzel fence, and bit off the candy canes, and chewed the sweettarts off the roof. But the structure itself was untouched. The Necco wafers which tiled the roof, now soaked in goat drool, had apparently defeated them, although it is also tempting to assert that they were also actively repelled by this Jurassic, rock-hard, cement-dry candy. For a time, my house was even completely abandoned in the middle of the field, turned over its side. This was not due to the goats' satiety: goats with candy-related red, blue, and green marks on their faces ran hither and yon, greedily sampling various houses; houses were reduced to red and white crumbs; spontaneous butting fights broke out over the choicer houses.
What we learned is that the fresher, moister, homemade gingerbread houses were both more tender and more delicious than any of my beautiful painted ladies. I tried another tack, moving my house to another part of the field (at this point, I discovered its base was pasted with a strange green goat goo omnipresent in the field), which helped, but all the goats could do was gnaw the projections. After some experimentation, I decided the way to go was to knock a hole in the structure, thus giving the dainty goat mouths something to hang on to. So I punched the roof with my fist, resulting in massive knuckle pain, and absolutely no visible impact on the house. I shook out my hand and angrily kicked my house, knocking most of the roof off -- an unanticipatedly extreme result. The goats soon reacted, and quickly went to work on my house, plunging their heads into the house cavity, ripping apart walls, tearing up the roof....
But compared the other houses, my house's demolition was less than impressive. The crackhouse, in fact, was razed to its foundations, leaving barely more than a rectangle of white frosting on a piece of cardboard. Goats occasionally moseyed over and sadly licked the crack house's foundation. Clearly, Costco gingerbread is not all that it can be, and the goats prove it.
Today, when I write this, it's Sunday, the day after. In the back of my car is a box full of half-masticated gingerbread houses. (After all, it wouldn't be good for the goats to abandon the houses in the field unmonitored.) My house took perhaps 45% damage, a respectable, Baghdad-like amount; but the others looked like Dresden after WWII. But I had to move beyond the somewhat disappointing partial destruction of my house, and think about the big picture. Looking back, did I achieve my desire? Did my hornèd minions destroy the holidays?
The reality was: No. The holidays extinguish themselves. Arduous reminders are everywhere: the dishes to wash, the unwanted presents to return. Your religion doesn't matter: where Christians have ornaments to repack and trees to dispose of, we Jews have to scrape the candle wax off our tables and try to get rid of that lingering fried latke smell. And then New Year's, the worst, most arbitrary holiday of them all, comes and goes like a vaccine fever, burning away the last shreds of holiday spirit and goodwill toward men.
But the goats did bring back Spring. The goat fields, and the soft hills around, were green and pleasant. Mommie goats ate fresh grass; snub-nosed, tiny-mouthed baby goats poked at their mothers' udders. The sun was out; the days feel longer. The press frenzy distracted me, but survival was the real goal, and the mission was accomplished. And by my estimate, I only have fifty more holiday seasons to go....
Which of course, means next year there will be a Second Annual Goats-Eat-House Spectacular -- this time I'll schedule it well in advance -- fix a date and tell the press -- get a camera crew -- maybe send out press releases -- for maximum impact, I think the day after Christmas is best, don't you? -- or maybe I'll film it in advance -- and we'll need more goats, more houses! -- I can see it now -- ah, perhaps commercialism is the only way to survive the holidays....