Is Goat the New Cow? Why American Foodies and Environmentalists Are Reviving the Old-World Staple
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
It's a Thursday evening and I am just leaving my little farmers' market, which occupies a dog-leg corner of a typical Southern California strip mall. It is bounded by a wide boulevard filled with thousands of commuters whose red brake lights and white headlights transform the street into a candy-cane ribbon inching along at rush hour toward the nearby freeway. A man selling gourmet cheese from the side of his refrigerated truck has plenty of goat cheese, some herbed and others plain. All look freshly made and delicious. I'm preparing a meal for Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. The meal will follow Jewish dietary guidelines, known as kashrut.
The foundation of Jewish dietary laws is written in the Torah. It starts with goats, as it is written that one should not boil a baby goat (a kid) in its mother's milk. From this statement, a complex and extensive food system evolved that prescribes how observant Jews eat. Although I continue to follow these dietary laws, I didn't think about goats much until recently. A couple of thousand years after my ancestors initiated a goat-inspired religious food diet, I have joined with millions of other people worldwide, to prepare a meal with a goat product.
Goat dishes didn't go out of style among a few billion people currently inhabiting or with roots in Africa, the Middle East and South America. Goats were the first animals raised for food that were domesticated by humans 9,000 years ago. Currently, two-thirds of all red meat eaten worldwide is goat meat.
But I am different. I'm a white, middle-class Angeleno and for me, the idea of eating anything goat is generally a recent phenomenon of the past decade. The first time I took an interest in goats, I was sitting in a courtyard at a small guesthouse in Ethiopia. A young man from the kitchen grabbed a black, white and brown streaked goat and slit its throat right in front of me. A restaurant customer had ordered fresh goat.
The American culinary landscape includes traditional goat dishes such as stews found at ethnic restaurants but is common on the menu at high-end restaurants. The meal might start with goat meat, goat milk, goat cheese, goat yogurt and finish with goat ice cream or goat caramels, and you might find goat milk soap in the restroom. San Francisco restaurateur Yaron Milgrom, who left a PhD program in Jewish mysticism to open Local Mission Eatery, spoke with me about the philosophy behind his menu. It includes a goat meat sandwich and goat butter on the side. He believes the menu will attract Latino customers familiar with goat and diners unfamiliar but interested in exploring the culinary landscape, claiming that "goat is poised to be the next pork because it is delicious." And, it's not just restaurants offering goat but major supermarkets, boutique food shops and farmers' markets.
The variety of goat products now available is overwhelming but is united by the common theme that goat products have leaped forward a few thousand years. The sustainable food movement in the U.S. has been pioneered by people like chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse and author and activist Michael Pollan, who have encouraged people to explore culinary options and to be more discerning about their relationship with food.
Goat, actually, is a great way for people to eat locally grown and made, humanely raised, healthy, tasty foods. Jennifer Bice of Redwood Hill Farm and Creamery, which has been churning out goat dairy products since 1968, attributes the increasing popularity of goat products to the advent of California cuisine that has helped to fuel the interest and growth in artisanal foods. Top chefs have propelled these culinary choices into the mainstream. The fact that people like the taste of all things goat has been the most significant factor for the growth of this industry.