Is Goat the New Cow? Why American Foodies and Environmentalists Are Reviving the Old-World Staple


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.

There are over 200 types of goats. Though they are nimble climbers who are able to reach hillsides and extreme landscapes that other animals can't, they tread fairly lightly on the land. Their culinary preferences include includes munching on brush and different plants from their grazing counterparts like cows and sheep. This helps to balance out a mixed-animal grazing area. Since they're water-phobic, they avoid streams and other water areas that are sensitive to trampling.

Unlike the dairy cow or beef industries, there aren't any massive, industrialized goat farms. Jim Pacheco was a third-generation dairy cow farmer who switched to dairy goats a dozen years ago after he was unable to compete with industrial cow dairies. Goats raised on small farms like Pacheco's aren't treated with hormones or overloaded with pharmaceuticals and enjoy grazing on pasture. They produce less manure and therefore less methane, a greenhouse gas, than cows. As a result, the lives of goats are much more idyllic than other livestock. I'm not sure if it's genetics or a result of being raised under favorable conditions, but several people have mentioned that goats are smarter than cows. It's exceptional when a food product's package is actually accurate: if you see a picture of a happy goat on a family farm, it's probably true.

Goats are such efficient grazers that some companies now offer low-impact, goat-powered grazing to trim lawns and brush, especially in fire-prone areas. Charlotte Lewis, with her son, owns Living Systems Land Management, a grazing company in the Bay Area. The company is more than just about bringing the animals in to trim the grass and reduce the potential for fires. She explains they are "trying to educate people about the interconnection of holistic land management. The people, economy, animals and land connect with each other." Advocates like Lewis are helping people establish a deeper connection with their local ecology and to recognize that animals are more adept than technology at bringing our environment back into balance.

The positive impacts of goats extend well beyond being ecological lawn mowers. Their land usage enables humans to have a greater connection with the food they're consuming and to have comfort in the environmental sustainability of it.

Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms, is raising goats, along with her husband Bill Niman. While already operating an environmentally sensitive ranch without dependence on fossil fuels, chemicals or pesticides, she and her husband understood the benefit of diversifying the animals on their ranch. As Hahn Niman says, "The best farming mimics nature."

In an attempt to achieve this, they've introduced goats to their farm. However, just raising the goats isn't enough. They have to sell them too. They introduce goat meat to friends and potential customers. Most people who previously consumed goat meat had eaten meat from older goats that had been chopped into a stew; it wasn't a good epicurean introduction. Hahn Niman's meat is from young animals with a "very sweet, mild and non-greasy flavor" to which people are responding well, she says.

Most new goat consumers are still exploring. As a vegetarian, I cannot speak to the qualities of goat meat but I do know that the goat cheese I've had is delicate and light but simultaneously luscious and intense in flavor. Those in the goat dairy sector speak of their product highly in comparison to cow dairy. According to Super Goat, founded by a few women in the dairy goat industry, including Bice of Redwood Hill Farm, Mary Keehn of Cypress Grove Chevre and Laura Howard of Laloo's Goat Milk Ice Cream, goat's milk has more calcium and vitamin B6 and vitamin A than cow's milk. It's also lower in calories and more digestible for those who usually have trouble with cow dairy products. The higher fat content is an asset to cheese makers and confectioners.

Bice has been in the goat dairy business since her parents purchased Redwood Hill Farm over 40 years ago. Located in Sonoma County, just north of San Francisco and a hub of the artisanal and sustainable food movement, Bice has helped to grow the goat dairy industry with award-winning cheeses that have a strong fan base among consumers and are now found nationwide at major markets like Whole Foods. She also mentored her neighbors, Jim Pacheco and his wife Donna, after they shifted from cow to goat dairy. Their now-famous Achadinha handmade goat cheese won best in show at the American Cheese Society in 2002.

Given the success of people like Bice, Keehn and Howard in shipping their artisanal goat products to chain stores across the country, is the U.S. goat industry poised to become like the cow, chicken and pig industries? Those animals have suffered the consequences of industrialization, including the use of hormones and other pharmaceuticals, inhumane conditions, and extreme environmental degradation from run-off and waste. Bice and Hahn Niman argue that the goat sector does not have the economic incentives or infrastructure yet to drive it to change in such a dramatic way. Bice noted that to set up a large-scale industrial goat farm would be extremely expensive and difficult to finance. She received her first bank loan after 26 years. The industry lacks the subsidies and price supports that the major agricultural sectors receive from the federal government. Unless the federal government intervenes, says Bice, "goat dairying will remain a family farm enterprise and goat dairy products an alternative in the U.S."

Says Hahn Niman, "Pfizer hasn't put billions into developing goat vaccines. Unfortunately some vaccines might be beneficial for goats but on the plus side, it hasn't gotten as messed up as the dairy and beef industry." There aren't enough goats in the entire country right now to meet the demands that would be required of a vast industry like the other livestock sectors. And, says rancher Hahn Niman, the land is a major economic factor because the animals are grazers. While there is "the possibility of goat feedlots...the economics aren't there. Goats work because they can be in poor-soiled areas where cattle can't be raised."

The challenge to farmers like Hahn Niman and Bice is to keep up the demand. As more chefs incorporate luscious goat dairy on their menu and others add goat meats to dishes and sandwiches, demand for these products will increase. While some might be wondering what the fuss is all about, this is not the latest nouveau cuisine: goat is here to stay. And I'm eating my way back to my roots.

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