Photo by Rich Good. My buddy Rich, a very talented musician and a vegetarian, lives in Nevada City. This goat was called Madonna apparently. She and her friends came to thin some brush on his property.
I stopped eating meat during the summer between 7th and 8th grades. I was in London, on vacation with my family and my best friend's family. At the time, my friend was surly and rebellious, in full-blown adolescent tumult. He'd refused to eat at a Chinese restaurant, pushing his plate away and declaring himself, from that moment forward, a vegetarian. Scooping up from my bowl the last grains of rice glistening with the dregs of a fried pork something, I'd said I'd follow suit -- as soon as the vacation was over. In truth though, meat had been getting a little icky for me too. I'd sensed myself becoming aesthetically adverse to it. Meat was flesh -- cold, squishy, and heavy. I'd look at my arm and imagine it sawed off my body, stripped of skin, and laid out in a butcher's glass case. I'd been searching for a good excuse, and my friend had blazed the trail, however uncouthly.
In going vegetarian, I wasn't rebelling against family dinner convention. My parents were, at the time, non-meat-eaters, and I'd never eaten much myself. Yet, in claiming absolute vegetarianism, I was making a statement, one I knew some people in Louisville, Kentucky would not dig. The same friend and I made a very short anti-meat documentary our freshman year of high school, which pissed off about 95% of our communications class. They found our illicit shaky hand-held footage of mewling slaughterhouse pigs culturally unsavory. They scoffed at the Morrisey-esque captions that occasionally scrolled through the screen in Rocky Horror-red type. At the end of the screening, they booed us, which made us feel as if we'd done something right. Throughout high school, I worked weekends and nights at a popular local fish restaurant. The walk-in cooler was a good deterrent, a dull metal case for withered scrod fillets, freezer-burned chicken fingers, and boxes of lethargic half-dead lobsters, where my coworkers and I would hole up to smoke joints when the boss was out of town. I remained vigilant through the first half of college, though far from healthy, grubbing on grilled-cheese sandwiches, pasta, french fries, and ranch-drenched salad bar concoctions in the dining halls of my small, Midwestern liberal arts college.
Then, I started slipping.
The process was slow but steady and natural. Animal by animal, each meaty notch on my fork, the fresh flavors and the associated stories, people, and places, has marked my memory. I've returned again and again to this timeline of tines, to reflect upon my gradual path -- from devout vegetarian to comprehensive meat-eater.
It began in Greece my junior year of college. I went with a friend for a month of independent study, to write a travelogue. "You're just going to drink retsina and go to clubs," my advisor had sighed as I presented him with the form to sign. I did not go to clubs, but I did succumb, on an island, miraculously sun-drenched in the middle of January, to a crispy nest of fried smelts on a platter the size of a pizza pan rimmed with lemon wedges and hefty globs of skordalia. There, steeped in a Mythos haze, I was on auto-pilot, biting off the little fish heads briskly yet methodically, intensely focused, forming great piles of twisted mini-tails on the paper covering the table, in communion with a new-again taste I'd practically forgotten during my time of abstinence.
A year later, I ate half a turkey sandwich on the way to an intramural softball match. "Well, I do need protein for the big game," I'd said weakly as I placed my order at the deli counter. My teammates chortled at the rationalization, amused to witness my tentative, self-conscious transformation. Pork was a serious milestone. Pigs are intelligent, social creatures. They have familiar names, like Wilbur. They've skillfully represented Soviet leaders in famed allegorical novels. I started small, using minute quantities of cured preparations like pancetta and country ham to elevate greens and beans. I came to see the swine as a soulful animal. Its flesh could invest depth and rich mystery in whatever it graced, like a gospel choir brought in to lend authenticity and legitimacy to a lily-white rock band.
Beef was a huge leap, probably because I'd never really eaten it, even when I was little, before I became a vegetarian. I fed cows once from the back of a pick-up in the middle of a field on my dad's farm in Southern Kentucky, hurling cobs of corn into gaping bovine mouths as the shifting, lumbering beasts huddled around, crowding each other, constantly chewing. Their huge eyes bulged, sweet and expressive, and suddenly, the hamburger was repellant. I came around to beef in Kyoto only five months ago, at a high-end Korean barbecue restaurant. The slices were striated like sheets of white-and-pink kitchen counter granite. Seared on the table grill, rubbed with lemon, and topped with the faintest speck of salt, each bite moved me emotionally. Poundage-wise, I consumed less than a few White Caste sliders, but the meat was so delicious, so sumptuous and elemental that I was very quickly full.
Steering in Kyoto, March 2009
For a while, cow seemed like the summit of my climb to compassionate carnivorism, but now I've seen there is more to come, meats major and minor to respectfully sample. Outside of merguez sausages, I've never fully warmed to lamb. Goat, however, the sheep's close cousin, has always piqued my curiosity. It's edgy, wild and wooly, sort of dirty-seeming, but in an appealing way. Goat, one of the world's oldest domesticated species, enjoys a prominent place in the cuisines of Central and South America, Southern Italy, Greece, and the Caribbean, but until pretty recently, upper-middle-class white Americans didn't eat it.
Now, it might as well be the new pig. Yet, if the pig provokes passion in its aficionados, the goat tickles funny bones. Last August, New York Magazine dubbed goat a "trendlet":
"Think of it as the great high-low, ethnic-assimilated divide: There are restaurants that serve goat, and restaurants that serve goat cheese, and never the twain shall meet. Until now."
A really funny April 1 New York Times article entitled "How I Learned to Love Goat" chronicled goat's uphill hike to foodie fancy. Author Henry Alford broke it down:
"Novelty and great flavor aren't the only draws here -- the meat is lower in fat than chicken but higher in protein than beef. There's even an adorable neologism ('chevon') for those who want their meat to sound like a miniature Chevrolet or a member of a 1960's girl group. I'd partaken of the bearded ruminant before, most memorably in a Jamaican curry in Brooklyn. I'd liked the flavor of the meat, equidistant as it was from lamb and beef. But when my teeth wrangled a particularly tough piece of meat that was shield-shaped and curved and slightly rubbery, I had the distinct impression that I had bitten into the cup of a tiny bra. Indeed, goats have long held a lowly reputation. Scavengers, they are falsely accused of eating tin cans. Their unappetizing visage is simultaneously dopey and satanic, like a Disney character with a terrible secret. Their chin hair is sometimes prodigious enough to carpet Montana. Chaucer said they 'stinken'."
The same article mentioned that Bill Niman, the legendary beef and pork rancher, returned from an early retirement to raise kid in Bolinas. A year ago, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the trend on this coast, describing how local goat meat from animals raised by Niman and other similarly righteous purveyors was getting plenty of attention from chefs at top-notch Bay Area restaurants like Oliveto, Kokkari, and Eccolo.
I knew demand for goat was probably rising when, back in January, I saw it on a wedding buffet table. I wanted to cook it myself, to get to know it better, to more fully appraise its character and commit the experience to memory. I bought a few scrawny shoulders at Queen of Sheba, an amazing halal market at the edge of the Tenderloin. My basic plan was to marinate the suckers for a day or two and cook them for a long time in a low oven. I consulted Bi Rite butcher Morgan Maki. He affirmed my approach, suggesting curing with salt, pepper, white wine, olive oil, a little garlic, and warm spices such as nutmeg, coriander, and cumin. Sometimes, he likes to slice a couple of onions and chop thyme to make a fragrant bed for the shoulder to sit on as it cooks. I'm not in the business of recipe-crafting (besides, Bay Area Bites has already gotten "goaty" in that respect) so I'll only traffic in generalities here. I cooked the goat, more or less as Maki had advised, shredded it, and served it, heavily peppered, as a stuffing for crunchy baked mini pita husks sauced with a mint, avocado, lime, and chile puree -- one of many sandwich variations served at a small cocktail-and-snacks affair my lady and I threw over the weekend.
The goat, gotten
In the pan
The goat was very good, faintly funky, but not wickedly gamey, a fine addition to my growing catalogue of carnivorous experience. I'll eat it again, but I'm in no hurry. I don't eat that much meat, but I like to write about it. It's compelling; it has a special character informed by the brains and hearts that once animated it. Everything we eat used to be alive but a steak or a slab of goat is a lot closer to home than an onion. Meat can make you uncomfortable, especially when you're not entirely over whatever vague aversion sparked 7 years of vegetarianism. I still look at meat and see a little bit of myself in the lifeless shape glaring up from the cutting board. The difference is, now, I'm comfortable being less than comfortable. When I'm inclined, I eat it, and probably enjoy it more than I would if I took it -- the animal, its life, its violent death, and the queasy feeling it used to give me -- for granted.
"They're beautiful, aren't they," Galia Ali, Queen of Sheba's owner, had cooed as she emerged from the back of her store with a gnarled red limb held aloft in each hand. It was a statement, not a question. "Yes," I'd said, smiling. "I suppose they are."