Say the word "goat" and most Americans picture a horned cartoon with a taste for tin cans.
It started back in 1928, when a distasteful little goat ate Minnie Mouse's ukulele in Steamboat Willie, the first animated cartoon to guarantee the goat its place in cartoon infamy. In 1943, a swastika-wearing Nazi goat did battle with Daffy Duck. Goats ticked off Robert Crumb's Mr. Natural in the '60s, and to this day, goats peeve Homer Simpson and piss off the boys of South Park (where, in one memorable episode, a goat was mistaken for Stevie Nicks).
No wonder goats get a bad rap.
Even the goat's recent good press--its environmentally friendly knack for consuming acres of invasive weeds--is a mere variant on the goateed-devil-with-an-eating-disorder mythos that got the animal erroneously linked to tin cans and cartoons in the first place.
What we Americans don't get about goat--which the rest of the world does--is that goats are also delicious. At least that's what Twin Falls chef Lynn Sheehan says.
"I'm just turning over the goat loins here in the pan," Sheehan explained as she took tongs to a sizzling cut of meat in the kitchen of her recently relocated, soon-to-be-reopened downtown Twin Falls restaurant, Cucina Gemelli.
"Goat meat, for people who haven't had it before, is very lean, very healthful, very mild in flavor," she said.
Sheehan is not new to goat. She began serving barbecued goat to an enthusiastic clientele several years ago at Papa Hemi's Hideaway, her previous restaurant in Ketchum. In September, she prepared chevon--as goat connoisseurs like to call it--at an actual goat tasting held at a goat ranch in the Magic Valley. So when I asked about her interest in this poorly understood meat, she suggested proof in the form of dinner.
"We've got the spiced and roasted," Sheehan said as she pointed to the most unadorned of five goat dishes she had sizzling, bubbling and browning on her commercial range. "And then we have the barbecued, rubbed and smoked. We have the Afghani-style marinade goat over a local chickpea salad. We have a whole barbecued goat that's smoked, pulled with Caribbean spices and with jicama slaw--and finally, our ground goat meatballs in a spicy marinara."
A west Texas barbecue, Middle Eastern bazaar, Jamaican beach hut and Roman trattoria rose off that stove and filled her new kitchen, making Sheehan a fine example of the growing legion of American chefs who've embraced the varied virtues of goat meat.
Once limited to ethnic barrios and back yards, goat has been spotted on the menus of uptown restaurants from San Francisco to New York. In 2008, New York Magazine predicted "the lowly goat" was "poised for the Manhattan big time" and has since installed a Best Goat category in its yearly Best of New York issue.
The rest of the world would likely shrug at this development and simply say, "Duh, America." According to the Snake River Meat Goat Association--yep, there's a local goat-meat association--"approximately 65 percent of the red meat consumed globally is goat meat."
"The thing about goats that make them such a wonderful animal to raise for most cultures is they can subsist on what looks like completely inhospitable grazing land ... and so you find them throughout the Middle East and dry places with no water. It goes great in Idaho since we're in desert country," Sheehan said as she dipped a spoon into her Afghani yogurt.
Simon Boers Goat Ranch, outside Hagerman, is the ranch that hosted that September goat tasting. Although the sky was gunmetal gray and the air smelled of snow on the day I visited, the goats seemed perfectly content.
"I love how stout and strong they are," Evelyn Simon said as she and husband Joe Bennett swung open a gate and joined her herd of brown and white, floppy-eared goats.
"These are Boer goats from South Africa," she said as she gave the first kid that ran up to her a pat on its horned head. "And they're strictly for meat."
Bennett added that goats are particularly attractive to small farms and family operations.
"They're easier to handle than cattle," Joe Bennett said. "And right now, the profit margin is as good as cattle, so that's an advantage, too."
Despite the relatively high price goat meat commands, Simon told me demand is high.
In addition to the orders Simon and Bennett get from Lynn Sheehan at Cucina Gemelli, the couple have had requests from CK's in Hailey, Ketchum Grill in Ketchum, Brick 29 in Nampa and others. They also sell their chevon at local farmers markets, through Idaho's Bounty, an online local food distribution network, and at the ranch itself.
"If I was in Boise, I would hardly have any goats left. There's such a huge market there," said Simon as we wandered around the herd.
Boise's refugee community would provide a steady market for goat meat, but it's all Simon and Bennett can do to fill the Magic Valley demand.
"We had a Hollywood chef that was here, and he bought young goats to eat that day," said Simon. They've also had Italians, Chinese and Bhutanese visit to the ranch.
"[Americans] import a tremendous amount of goats from Australia because the States can't produce enough goat meat for consumers," Bennett added.
At the Capital City Public Market, Malheur River Meats owner Rob Stokes, who raises goats in Vale, Ore., said American soldiers coming back from duty in the Middle East had likely helped increase demand for goat.
"They're eating a lot of goat, and it's on the radar for a lot of those people," Stokes said while manning his market booth. "And they've had good experience with it and they're looking for it."
Michelle Stokes interjected, adding another reason for goat's increasing popularity.
"And also the health issues," Michelle said. "Goat is extremely healthy. It's very high in nutrients; it's extremely lean. I have quite a few clients than cannot eat beef and they really enjoy the goat."
Back at Cucina Gemelli, Sheehan carefully plated up and set out all five of the goat dishes she prepared, suggesting we start with the simplest first.
"Something with a pure flavor," she said, cutting some rosy, medium-rare slices of the roasted goat loin.
What Sheehan set in front of me was unadorned, apart from a sprinkle of salt, and I tried it not knowing what to expect. Thankfully, the flavor was rich without being the least bit goaty--a taste I clearly anticipated thanks to the rangy, cartoon goat that still haunts my head.
"Absolutely delicious," I said with a look of undisguised surprise. "It has a fine grained texture, but it's definitely not lamb. It has a more beefy flavor."
"That's exactly what I was thinking," Sheehan said after studying the taste of the slice she had just finished. "Round, rich as opposed to sort of sharper, sweeter. That's essentially the essence of roasted goat meat."
We slowly escalated to more complex preparations, the smoked loin and then the Afghan-inspired, yogurt-and-spice-marinated goat. Both dishes demonstrated how the goat's depth of flavor can accommodate other ingredients without turning the whole thing into a tangled, gustatory mess. In that regard, goat reminds me of pork more than beef, readily embracing an oaky smokiness or yogurt tang without a fight for dominance.
"It may be a function of the fact that goat meat is so much leaner," Sheehan suggested. "And since fat carries flavor, maybe the beef tastes more assertive because of the marbling."
Each new dish--the meatballs in tomato sauce and the hot, spicy and tropical jerk Jamaican goat--was delicious and different. The goat played both chameleon and main attraction in a well-mannered, not-even-slightly-cartoonish way.
"It's just nice to have more flavors in the world," Sheehan said. "I'm excited that goat's gaining popularity."
After another bite, she added, "I say, step out there and eat it; it's good."