Taste: Ingredients: Got Your Goat

Curried, jerked or roasted, healthy goat meat is suddenly on the table in small ethnic restaurants and fancy white-tablecloth ones

 In the culinary world, goats are known best for the complex cheeses produced from their milk, not for, say, something as delectable as a rosemary-scented roast leg of kid. That special treatment is saved for the more popular lamb. But goat meat consumption is on the rise. “I like the smaller animals. Just cook ’em over a fire. Simple, and very tasty, not tough at all,” Paul Leinhauser said as we walked out to the barn at New Holland Sales Stables, where hundreds of goats were waiting in wooden pens to be sold at auction. Leinhauser knows a good goat when he see one—he runs this goat auction in Lancaster County at which, every Monday, well over a thousand goats change hands. “It doesn’t bother you to eat them after you see them running around?” I asked. “No, that’s why they’re here on Earth,” he replied dryly.

The goat auction at New Holland (goats are just one part of a large operation—in adjacent buildings, all sorts of livestock are also sold) is one of the largest on the East Coast, and takes place in a room with wooden bleachers on three sides and a dirt pen in front through which the goats are paraded for a quick appraisal in what looks like a weird sort of beauty pageant. But don’t expect to find any of these animals at the local petting zoo. About 20 buyers, working mostly as agents for ethnic meat markets in New York City, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and other urban locations, line the benches. The pace is fast and efficient, but this is still a casual affair. Some buyers bring their children along. One boy who looked to be about 10 boasted with evident pride, “My daddy buys ’em, and I help skin ’em.”

One recent Monday, close to 1,500 goats were sold—goats that had been trucked up overnight from Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, even Nebraska—at prices ranging from $45 for a 25–pounder to $85 for a heavier 75–pounder. (Goats are sold at this auction by the head, not by weight, with the meat of the younger animals generally more prized.) Marvin F. Shurley, president of the American Meat Goat Association, says goat consumption in the U.S. is growing by about 10 percent a year. Why the rise? “A steady increase in Muslim immigrants, and a very strong market created by a quickly growing Mexican population,” says Shurley.

The auction is mildly perplexing. Why does one buyer bid for that scrawny, bony goat that could’ve benefited from an anorexic treatment program, ignoring a fine, hardy specimen that showed so well? Buyers make purchases based on the specifications set by their clients. Some want young goats, kids, with delicate, tender meat, while others want them older and fatter, with strong flavor.

It is this reputation for smelly meat that has limited goat’s mainstream appeal and partly explains the popularity of cooking methods that mask the flavor with strong spices, such as those in curried goat and Jamaican “jerked” goat, with a rub made from allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon and minced hot peppers, among other flavorings, that’s worked into the meat, which then rests overnight in a refrigerator before a slow roasting. But young kids, those weighing up to about 35 pounds, aren’t gamey at all, have a light-colored flesh, and are quite healthful. They’re very low in fat and high in protein—three ounces of goat contain less fat than the same amount of skinless chicken breast.

But the rising popularity of goat isn’t limited to ethnic markets and restaurants. Goat dishes are also appearing on top–tier tables. Chef Jean–Marie Lacroix occasionally has roast kid on the menu at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse. “We get the goats from area farms, little goats, kids, around 20, 25 pounds,” he says. “Most people aren’t used to it, even though the flavor is very nice. It’s a very mild flavor, so we boost it with a honey and seed-mustard coating. We roast the rack, just like you’d roast a rack of lamb, and sometimes we’ll serve it with a little bit of the leg. It’s very dry meat, so we start it off in a fast [hot] oven to crisp the outside and then lower the heat to keep it moist. It’s very, very lean, so you must be careful and not overcook it.” Then he chuckles, adding, “I suppose we should just tell them it’s lamb, then they’d eat more of it.” He’s kidding, of course. Scott Conant, a talented and well-regarded chef/owner at New York’s three-star L’Impero, serves roasted Vermont capretto (an Italian word referring to young goat, usually under four months of age) with artichokes, speck and potatoes. Peachtree & Ward, one of the area’s top caterers, has had modest success selling an hors d’oeuvre of jerked goat served atop a sweet potato pancake. Derek Denmead, Peachtree’s sales director, says, “I’m just seeing more and more proteins out there—oxtail, venison, boar, goat. But it’s still a hard sell, especially for an entrée choice. At a wedding, goat will only work as an hors d’oeuvre. You’d need a very unique person to do it as an entrée—you’d need a real foodie.”

After watching the goat auction and hearing a lot of talk portraying them as, shall I say, the black sheep of the meat family, I started to feel a little sorry for them. As I wandered around to the other auctions—lamb, cattle, pigs—they all seemed more glamorous. First–class citizens. Then I sat through an hour or so of the sheep auction, and as I was leaving, Kenny “Shoes” Evans, a buyer from New Jersey with nine years in the business, said to me, “Ain’t nothing stupider than a sheep except their owners,” and that put the whole process in perspective. I guess no animal has it too good when it’s treated like a piece of meat.

David Fields is currently developing a boutique wine retailer. E-mail: mail@phillymag.com.