Cooking a Goat

“What are we going to feed everyone?”

The question hung in the air for several days at the home of my dear friends, Pete and Cristin, as we collectively considered the logistics of feeding twenty-odd people who would be arriving to assist in their community building project. Together we brainstormed for something that wouldn’t require much last minute attention in the kitchen or acquiring new equipment not currently in our possession (i.e. giant paella pan, a large outdoor grill, rotisserie, etc). After discussing and discarding multiple options, Pete made a suggestion.

“I could get a goat from Miguel.”

In Hawaii, this conversation would probably have involved a local pig; here in Carmel Valley on the central coast of California, we were discussing goats. Whatever, wherever, may all be fed.

Undoubtedly there would be a vegetarian or two in the group, but as we rattled off an array of substantial side dishes we could serve, roasting a goat seemed like a worthy (albeit slightly unusual) plan. Local. Seasonal. Organic and free range. Sustainable. All good.

“We’re so glad we have you here to help us cook it!” my friends exclaimed.

Despite some extensive cooking experience for groups, I confessed that I have never cooked an entire animal of this size—and I’ve certainly never prepared goat. In an unexpected way, I found myself curiously excited by the prospect, all my rustic ‘back to the land’ and carnivorous ‘nose to tail’ impulses surging forward in full force. Talk about connection with your food and eating from the source—a young local goat seemed like a brilliant idea.

Friends and relatives would be gathering to assist in the building of a Native American inspired, ceremonial ‘sweat lodge’ at the bottom of Pete and Cristin’s garden. The structure would be built with long, serpentine sandbags stacked on top of each other in a domelike fashion, eventually plastered over to make an adobe-like shelter. The project would entail a full day (possibly more) of hard work to mix the sand, fill the bags, and stack them to build the circular, ten-foot diameter lodge. As an enticement, thank you, and celebration, Cristin and Pete wanted to offer a lovely feast to their hardworking friends. Ever the willing cook, I was only too happy to help.

Bring on the goat.

Thursday evening, Pete arrived home with a very large cooler in the back of his work truck, and together he and I carried it to the side of the house. Opening the lid, we were confronted with a skinned and cleaned young cabrito (little goat), roughly eight months old, neck and head still intact. No sterile, antiseptic, cling film-wrapped piece of meat on a styrofoam tray here, thank you. I put my nose down to the meaty, red foreleg and took a deep whiff but the scent was minimal.

Faced with the muscular carnality of a recently killed animal destined to be our supper, a creature that only the day before had been frolicking around a local field of green spring grass, I felt myself moved, appreciative and grateful—keenly connected to the circle of life. As a bodyworker, I also found myself intrigued by the ligaments and muscles, glistening silverskin, and intricate web of fascia that composed the body. A true miracle of design and nature’s intelligence.

Running my hands over the lean muscles and hollowed out belly, I sang our little goat a brief song of gratitude, and then proceeded to massage the flesh liberally with loads of coarse salt as a dry brine. Heavily salted, the meat would rest the night on ice in the cooler, slowly drawing in enough of the salt to deeply flavor it through, until we washed and carved it the next day.

After a morning of errands in Monterey, gathering the rest of our supplies and ingredients for the feast, we returned to Pete and Cristin’s house in upper Carmel Valley and faced the task of preparing our goat and its sauce. Along with el cabrito, Pete had brought home Miguel’s mother’s recipe for adobo—a spicy marinade of chiles, spices and vinegar—in which we would marinate and then cook the goat. Cabrito en adobo de la abuela, I named our project (“grandmother’s goat in adobo”). Abuela’s spindly, handwritten recipe was written in Spanish, complete with several cryptic words that I could neither decipher nor entirely guess the meaning of. Fortunately, I am familiar enough with a basic adobo that I was not at a total loss, and I went to work tossing a small mountain of chiles, herbs and spices into a large pot.

Outside on the deck, as Pete and I held up the goat by its horns for a photo by Cristin, I had a curious flashback of my time living in Spain, a picture snapped of me in a mountain R_cabravalley among a herd of goats. One day, setting out from the whitewashed farmhouse where we resided amid the endless olive groves of Andalucía, my partner and I had hiked up to the rugged ravine a few kilometers away. There, cradled between the hands of jagged granite peaks, lay a peaceful valley in which the ruins of an old cortijo (farmhouse) stood alongside a year round stream, walls crumbling slowly, an old man of stones quietly sharing stories with earth and sky. It was a tranquil, magical place I often hiked to on my own for inspiration and deep communion with nature.

On the day my partner accompanied me, while seated in the shade of some oak trees on the warm, spring afternoon, we found ourselves surrounded by a large flock of goats moving through the valley. Like the local sheep of the region, each wore a stained leather collar with a brass bell around its neck, and they were accompanied at a distance by their solitary steward—a lean, handsome man in well-worn clothes, his Spanish features chiseled by years of sun and weather, walking with a slight limp. He nodded to us and we exchanged a polite greeting. Both my partner and I were mesmerized by him, not only his rugged comeliness but his appearance as a visage of an older world and vanishing age, a man who knows intimately the secret stories of the land and seasons, following his flock through a timeless landscape.

Watching him walk off into the distance on his solitary journey, I thought, I should have been a shepherd. Or goat herder. Probably much more satisfying than life as a writer (and the cheese would be excellent). Perhaps one day I will write a story about him.

The tan and black goats clambered over rocks and trees all around us, bleating loudly with brass bells ringing, udders distended and swaying, while my partner snapped a couple photos of me wearing my favorite hat and watching las cabras (hanging onto my sombrero after one of those bold nannies tried to steal it from my head as she trotted by).

Holding up the skinned goat by its horns with Pete, the memory came rushing back to me, along with a visceral connection to the earth and a sense of place, just as I had on that day amongst the bleating, roaming goats of Andalucía.

There is something profoundly raw (no pun intended) about carving up an animal, in the act of severing limbs, feet, neck and head. The muscular effort of working blades through ligaments and bones, the crunch and popping of cartilaginous joints, is altogether on a different level than, say, filleting a fish. Or even cutting up a chicken. It isn’t gruesome, really, but it is certainly, well, primal. Paleolithic, even.

Glasses raised, we clinked a toast to el cabrito and the circle of life, thanking him for giving his life to feed us, and then with the skinned carcass on a very large piece of cardboard spread upon the deck, we set to work. We had no real plan or road map to guide us, but both my friends have experience with carving wild animals, and we began cutting the goat into sections. Collectively working with sharp boning knives and a rounded blade Alaskan ulu (Cristin lived years ago in the Alaskan wilderness), stopping occasionally to savor a sip of wine or snap pictures with our smartphones, the goat was effectively divided up into limbs and pieces that filled two large roasting tins (the sort that many people use to roast their Thanksgiving turkey in).

“I want the skull for outside the sweat lodge,” Cristin declared, pushing sandy blonde curly locks back from her face, the semicircular ulu held in her hand like some fierce and beautiful huntress.

Having severed it from the neck, Pete cut the little choice bits of meat from the skull, including the tongue. (The tender cheeks I cooked that night in some of the spicy adobo as a preview of the coming feast.) The few odd bits of inedible scraps from the skull we placed on a rock on the border of their property, an offering to crows and whatever wild ones might find it appealing, while the horned skull was set inside a metal trap to dry out over the months ahead and to keep coyotes from dragging it away.

With the spicy, dark red adobo cooked and blended to a thick, fragrant purée heady with notes of clove, I crouched on the tile kitchen floor with the pot of sauce and slathered all the pieces of goat in the two pans to marinate overnight in the fridge. The meat would go into the oven early the next morning for long, slow cooking. Given the goat’s near absence of fat, I decided we would cook it briefly at a high temperature, then for several hours at a lower heat, covered tightly. Hopefully we would end up with tasty, tender meat ready to be pulled from the bones.

Saturday morning arrived wearing a radiant sun dress, unusually warm and ideal for being outdoors. The crowd gathered for the work of mixing, filling, and stacking bags of sand, but as the appointed cook I continued my tasks in the kitchen, making a darkly spicy salsa negra and a vibrant, herb-filled salsa verde to serve alongside Pete’s beans, the cilantro-lime rice, and our other various offerings for the feast. Checking the enticingly fragrant goat from time to time, rotating the heavy tins in the oven, as lunchtime drew near I pulled the meat out from the cooker. Summoning the help of Cristin and a friend (a good spirited vegetarian willing to help shred goat), we cut and pulled the deeply aromatic, flavorful (if still a bit tough) meat from the bones and piled it high onto an attractive Tuscan platter.

The feast was a worthy one, I’d say, with an abundance of tasty, lovingly prepared food. Cristin had spent the morning preparing the wide deck as a gracious feasting area, draping the large table with bright yellow, Italian-esque linen under a red canvas parasol, and placing family heirloom serving dishes at the ready to hold heaps of enticing sauces, side dishes, and desserts. Gathering everyone before the meal, Pete told the assembled collective a bit about the free-range little goat from Miguel’s farm, drawing a connection to local and sustainable relationship with the food we eat. “This is about as local as it gets,” he said.

Not so very long ago, everyone lived and ate this way—intimately connected to the animals and landscape where they dwelt. Nowadays, it’s an anomaly (though as the idea of ‘localvore’ catches on, we see signs of an important and timely shift underway). Repeatedly in the two-day procedure of dry brining, butchering, marinating and cooking el cabrito, I found myself reflecting on the intimacy of the upcoming meal, of being so closely connected to its process and its source, only one step removed from the goat’s life and butchering. While it certainly wasn’t the best meal I’ve ever cooked, it was probably the most compellingly primal—far more so than the fish, pheasant, duck, dove, and various things in my youth that I killed, cleaned, prepared and ate alongside my grandfather, a keen hunter.

Poet, essayist, novelist, ecologist and small-scale farming advocate, Wendell Berry, has stated that part of the true pleasure of food is knowing its source—how it was raised, where it was produced, etc. Indeed, what we eat matters. Significantly. Not only to our own health, well being, and sense of soul, but also in our relationship as a species to this planet of which we are an integral (and hugely influential) part. In our rapidly homogenizing, disconnected world, food can be one of the key elements that restores a sense of place and belonging. It opens our senses and heart, escorting us back to the moment in gratitude. It offers us pause to reflect, to savor and celebrate.

As I have written many times, everything is relationship. It is a philosophy woven throughout my upcoming book, and it’s a key understanding and guiding principle in my life. One needn’t be a Soul Artist to appreciate the gift of life offered to us by this little goat, but savoring such a meal (any meal, really) with senses open wide and heart steeped in gratitude guides us into the realm of conscious beings. Our life comes from the death of others, be those animal or vegetable (and sometimes more extreme examples of sacrifice). Much is given to us every day yet few of us offer anything in return, not even our awareness or thanks. Sometimes it may only be gratitude that we can give as our part of the exchange, but Soul Artists make ‘sacred reciprocity’ a conscious practice.

Gentle reader, I’ve rattled on a bit too long this week but here’s hoping that whatever you are feasting upon, do let it be a kind of feast—prepared with a spirit of celebration, whether in times of abundance or scarcity. May you find something grown or raised close to home and honor the sacrifice of it, whether spring lamb, heirloom carrot, or wild miner’s lettuce foraged from a hillside. Ideally you can share that bounty with others, delighting in the grace of the table while offering an act of quiet generosity and nourishment. And gratitude. Always gratitude.

Gracias a la vida, little goat.

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