The Kids Are Alright
by Katherine Perry
Caprine meat is delicious, a global staple, easy to raise, cheap to buy and unfussy to prepare. But here in the U.S., it’s largely absent from mainstream dinner tables. It takes a bit of work to track down, especially on the Vineyard, and can be on the pricier side. Moreover, many people, if they get far enough to end up with a goat on their hands, have no idea what to do with it. Then there is the stark truth: people think goat is weird. Marketers have tried to skirt around that perception by rebranding goat meat as “chevon,” which is supposedly some sort of hybrid of the French “chevre” and the English “mutton.” A term which I, nor anyone I spoke with, had never heard before researching goat. So, is there any real reason to bother? I think the answer is an emphatic yes. The goat supply is simply waiting for the demand to realize what people have been missing. Because there is one very easy part of cooking goat: convincing people that it is good. That, I learned, only takes a couple of bites.
Getting cozy with your goat
If you are approaching goat for the first time, as I once was, then allow me to comfort you. Goat is not weird, and goat is not difficult. While it might sound exotic, its taste is not at all foreign. It could be described as similar to lamb in flavor and texture, though it is generally milder and leaner. While it is much leaner than most red meat, and it is possible to overcook it into an unchewable mass, one could say the same of nearly any meat. Learning to prepare it correctly does not take a great deal of advanced culinary knowledge, though in my case I was lucky to have a throng of knowledgeable and captive diners around me.
I work in a professional kitchen, where one of my duties is to cook the staff meal. This is a source of equal parts stifiling anxiety and great pleasure for me. Likely that is the case for the staff as well. If I am perfecting my carrot souflé, they are consuming soggy carrot sponge disasters. If there is a sudden glut of bacon and Cheddar in-house, then there are cheerful, if puffy, faces all around. If I feel fearful for my beloved co-workers’ health, then it is weeks of quinoa and nut roast as fibrous penance. If I am working on a story about goat, they shall come to know goat as I come to know goat. Thankfully my co-workers are well-educated cooks and adventurous eaters. When I approached my chef with a proposal to feed the staff a string of goat, work-shopped on his time, his response was to recite a history of meat goats in North America.
Word spread around the kitchen, and soon I had a whole team helping me work through rolling and stuffing goat loin and belly, braising and stewing goat chunks, marinating and roasting whole legs in hay, and turning the leftovers into goat mole. We dined on crispy and fl avorful goat fat, juicy slices, and pulled, gelatinous chunks. By the end (spoiler alert!) a goat dish was being finalized for the spring menu.
Of course my co-workers aren’t necessarily the average diners. They barely batted an eye when I plattered a goat for their dinner, but would it be tolerated at, say, a traditional holiday family dinner? At home I presented goat leg in the classic seven hour preparation for Easter, where the diners ranged from indiscriminate consumers of everything to my more-squeamish-than-a-toddler husband. The reactions were overwhelmingly pro-goat. All enjoyed it. One lamb lover declared it better than lamb. Only my husband found he could not get past his emotional resistance to an unfamiliar meat. My suggestion for cooks dealing with those types of eaters: make it familiar.
When you research goat you’ll often find the claim that it is the most popular and widely consumed meat in the world. This is a muddy and rather misleading assertion. Upon further research, you find that this does not mean that the rest of the world is overrun with goat McNuggets and unlimited salad, breadstick, and goat bowls. In fact, the most widely consumed meat, by weight, in the world is pork, followed by chicken, beef, and way toward the bottom, goat. The distinction is that goat is the preferred or most accessible meat of more people than any other. For religious and cultural reasons, it’s favored in Muslim and Caribbean communities. Much goat meat is consumed in developing countries, where the animals are raised by individuals, so while they may eat mainly goat meat, they aren’t eating a great deal of it. Here in the U.S., consumption of goat isn’t even tracked, but studies say the production is well behind the demand, especially as immigrant populations swell.
Meat producers are increasingly seeing the potential in goat. Goats are efficient to raise, requiring little in the way of care or maintenance. For shelter, a small shack will do. For protection and to keep them from hopping away, some good fencing. Their energy needs are relatively low, and they are great at landscape management. They are browsers, not grazers like cows. That means they eat a little bit of everything, and never eat all of anything, keeping weeds in check while leaving feed for other animals. Goat is also, among meats, extraordinarily healthy. It is a very lean red meat, lower in fat than skinless chicken, but higher in protein than beef. And it’s also going to waste; producers of goat milk and cheese often kill young males and simply dispose of them.
Where’s the goat?
Considering that goat is pretty easy to cook and very delicious, why is it so elusive? I hunted through the supermarkets and butchers over most of the Island and was unable to find a single raw chunk. This seems particularly strange since the Island is home to sizable Caribbean and Brazilian communities, who use goat regularly, and considering that the Island appears to host quite a few goats. Goats are used or “goatscaping,” harnessing their natural love of eating annoying weeds for land management; their milk is used to make soap, and if you have even a small family farm, it likely boasts a couple of goats. “I think there would be a market for it,” says Jefferson Munroe of the Good Farm in Vineyard Haven, who raises chickens and pigs for meat. “People ask for whole goats, especially the Jamaican community.” However, Jefferson says that outside Caribbean communities there is some resistance to seeing goats as food. “Goats are so cute and personable, so friendly,” he says. “Most people who have them can’t imagine eating them.”
Even the moderate demand on the Island is hard to meet. There is no commercial production of goat on Martha’s Vineyard, and Jefferson says that small farms that have goats to spare would find it cost-prohibitive to sell their meat. With no abattoir on the Island, one would have to pay to have the animals transported and slaughtered off-Island. And with a medium goat weighing only 30 to 40 pounds, you’d have to have quite a few goats to make it worth your transportation costs.
So, Jefferson says, you either have to raise and slaughter your own, or know someone willing to sell you a cast-off goat. He recently bought three kids from Rebecca Brown, who uses goats as part of her landscaping company. She says she hopes within a few years to be marketing the meat herself.
That would be good news for chefs like Deon Thomas. Deon is a native of Jamaica, where goat is a traditional part of cuisine, especially as a festival or wedding dish. After several fine-dining ventures Deon started a nearly one-man home-cooking spot in the banquet hall of the Vineyard Haven VFW. His specialty is curried goat, and as fast as he can make it, it is eaten. He might get in a large, whole goat on Friday, 40 to 50 pounds, and by Monday it’s gone. “I’d prefer local, but the cost is huge,” says Deon, who orders his goat from an off-Island meat supplier and usually ends up with New Zealand or Australian goat. Which, if you don’t have a friend with an extra goat on hand, may also be where yours will hail from.
Off-Island, Caribbean or Halal markets are a good bet to get goat meat, but on-Island you’ll have to ask your butcher to order it. Edgartown Meat and Fish Market will order cuts of goat, and if you’re feeling more adventurous, Vineyard Cash & Carry can get a whole goat for you to butcher yourself. Once that goat is in your kitchen, that’s when the real fun begins.
The meat of the matter
The way goat meat is used changes as the animal ages. The older the goat, the more pungent the meat. Jefferson had a friend who, after cooking and consuming an older buck, found himself so smelly that he wanted to burn his clothes. A goat older than nine months may start to get a bit gamey. The safest bet, and my suggestion for a beginner, is to cook it low and slow, as a braise, stew, or long roast—unless you are working with the tiny, elusive tenderloin, or can get your hands on some rib or loin chops. As far as braises go, you have quite a few cuts to choose from—the fatty (as much as goats can be fatty) breasts, the shoulders, the legs, and the shanks. The USDA recommends cooking ground goat to 165 degrees and other cuts to 145, though goat experts say that by 137 anything that might be lurking in that goat meat is probably dead. The fat will melt at 140, but dry up by 150 degrees. Depending on the cut, you’ll want to either toe that 10-degree line (think chops, tenderloin), or, more likely, you’ll want to push it further to 160 degrees and upwards, when the collagen of the low-and-slow cuts will start to melt.
If you want to learn more about all things goat, try the extremely comprehensive Storey’s Guide to Raising Meat Goats, 2nd Edition: Managing, Breeding, Marketing by Maggie Sayer. For a very entertaining and comprehensive guide to cooking with goat and goat products I can highly recommend Goat: Meat, Milk, Cheese by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough, who can take you far past curries and roasts and into the world of chops, loins and everywhere in between.