May 17, 2012
The goat herd: A story of chevre, Shavuot and backyard goats [RECIPE]
The most common question people ask when they visit our home is: “Why the goats?”
We live in the city. A few houses west of us, four lanes of Lincoln Boulevard traffic roar past day and night. Planes from cursed Santa Monica Airport buzz overhead. And on any given night, sometime between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m., an LAPD helicopter will make sure to flood our bedroom with its searchlight. It’s Venice, man.
Two years ago, into this urban landscape, I brought our first goat.
Yes, I said goat. Yes, I said first.
My daughter and I were at John’s Feed, buying chickens. John’s, I assume, is a holdover from the days when Huntington Park was surrounded by farmland; there is no other reason for a ramshackle feed store in the midst of a treeless landscape of warehouses and strip malls.
John’s Feed stockpiles the chickens that end up next door at a live butcher shop called La Princesa. I usually buy chickens there for egg-laying. They are already full-grown, and I get the added pleasure of taking a creature off death row. On this day, when my daughter and I showed up, we noticed that, in the same crowded, feces-filled pen with the chickens, stood one miserable goat.
She was standing on her hind legs, straining to look out the window to the street.
We took her.
But why have goats? I often wonder if it’s in my blood. Eskimos have 30 words for snow. Jews have more than a dozen words for goat. You and I are generations removed from our agrarian ancestors, but their relationship with the world’s first domesticated animal lives on in our language. Azmaveth and tsaphir are he-goats. Gaddiel, a holy goat. Gedi, a young goat. Jaala and seirah are young she-goats. Ez, a she goat. Tayish, a butting he goat. Uzzah, a strong goat. Zibiah and aqqo, zemer, dishon and yael — mountain and desert goats. Ancient Jews depended on goat meat and milk for food; they slept in goat-hair tents. Their closeness created empathy: Jews were revolted by the thought of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, and so, today, we can’t eat cheeseburgers. There is a Hebrew word for hell, familiar to us from Yom Kippur: azazel. It translates literally as “lost goat.” Hell, for Hebrew, was when you lost your goat.
The Christians saw goats as the devil. They were repelled by the very qualities in goats that seem most, well, Jewish.
Sheep huddle together and look to the shepherd for direction. Goats are stubborn and willful. The word capricious, meaning picky and discerning, comes from the Latin capro, for goat. Goats break fences and, thus, rules. Sheep are grazers, content to munch the grass at their feet. Goats are browsers — they refuse the grass and strive to eat the trees and bushes just beyond their reach.
Goats are deeply communal, bonded to one another. Sheep run, goats stand their ground. (Thoroughbred trainers used to calm their skittish horses by placing a fearless goat in their stall. To throw a race, you would sneak into the stall at night and get someone’s goat. A cliché was born.)
So, the apostles saw themselves as obedient sheep, Jesus as their shepherd and the Jews as unruly goats. In Matthew 25:33, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Jesus tells how he will judge nations when he returns: “And [Jesus] will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on his left.” Sheep go to heaven, goats to hell. The horns Christians imagined on Jewish heads did not make them look like the devil: They made them look like goats.
Is it any wonder that goat beside the butcher shop called out to me? It’s not just that I couldn’t see her ending up as birria — Mexican goat stew — or chavito — split, grilled goat. It’s that we shared cultural DNA.
I had driven my wife’s Prius to John’s Feed Store that day. The goat, a black-and-white Nigerian pygmy about the size of a small spaniel, went into a cardboard box and into the trunk. Somewhere on the 110 Freeway North, I heard a crash. Her two devilish horns had busted the packing tape, and I drove home with a goat in the rear view mirror.
We named her Goldie Horn. When my wife arrived home from a work trip, she found her car had been completely waxed outside and detailed inside. She said I was the nicest husband in the world.
Then she saw the goat.
We moved Goldie into a spacious side yard. But goats, every goat book informed me, care about two things: food and companionship. See, I explained to my wife, they are Jewish. Soon my daughter and I visited a goat rescue, and returned with a dun-colored mutt goat we named Ollie.
But why goats, people still ask.
To which I often answer: Why not? Nobody walks into your house and asks, “Why dogs?” even if your pet is not fit to protect, or hunt, or even play. No one asks, “Why fish?” though you can’t eat them, or, “Why canaries?” though they don’t lay eggs. And no one asks, “Why cats?”— except me.
Goats don’t bark or scratch. In our urban ecosystem, their odorless pellets work like plant steroids, replacing the need to buy fertilizer. They come when I call them, will stand on two legs for treats and enjoy a good scratch. As I write this, Goldie is rubbing her head against the card table I’ve set up in my backyard. In a moment, I’ll let her butt the palm of my hand. It’s a game we play.
It is weird, I know, but it really isn’t.
On Sunday mornings, I use a broom and dustbin to scoop up the layer of goat pellets, crushed dry hay and soil that carpets the animal pen. The dust plumes up and coats my face and fills my nostrils. It’s a fantastic smell — exactly like a fine unlit cigar passed under your nose. Next time someone is reaching for words to describe their $200 Cohiba, just say, “Hay, dust and goat s—-.”
I don’t even mind when I forget to feed them first thing in the morning. I have to go out after I’ve showered and dressed in my suit, carrying a slice of timothy hay, their pebbly poops squishing under my black polished shoes. I can see my wife, Naomi, at the window, watching — just like she did at the window of the Mendocino B&B one morning of our honeymoon when she saw me down by the shore tasting the seaweed. It’s a look that says, “Who, exactly, did I marry?”
I don’t tell her that when they break out of their pen and tiptoe into my study, Goldie always tries to nip a page from the same book — one of Naomi’s ancient Hebrew treatises on Jewish mysticism.
These goats, I swear to her, have made me a better Jew. Abraham, Itzhak, Yaakov, Moses and David were not scholars or preachers. They were the original men who stare at goats. Not surprisingly, the cycles of our holidays play out according to the cycles of these animals. That’s especially true now, during the holiday of Shavuot.
Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It’s traditional to eat dairy foods like cheesecake and blintzes during the festival. The rabbis will tell you that’s because Torah is like mother’s milk to us. But my goats teach me something different.
Goldie and Ollie have been fixed. But when spring arrives, Ollie still yearns after Goldie, and a long-dead urge reawakens, and he tries. If they weren’t city goats, rescued from other people’s appetites, Goldie would be kidding now, her milk flowing. There would be more than we could drink, and we would be making cheese, and out of the cheese, blintzes.
The first milk the Hebrews drank, the first simple cheese they made, came from goats.
“Why goats?” people ask, and then they answer their own question with another: “Do you milk them?”
No, but a few months ago, my goats inspired me to take a cheese-making class from Steve Rudicel, owner of Mariposa Creamery in Altadena, the only goat dairy in Los Angeles. Rudicel, a young, sturdy farmer type, started the class with a brief explanation.
“Milk needs to be small,” he said. “Milk needs to be local. Seek out quality dairy ingredients. It makes a big difference in the lives of the animals. The hardest-working part of the dairy farm is the animals. We’ve lost respect for the animals.”
“Goats are some of the sweetest creatures I’ve ever met,” he went on. “I’m often moved by the milk we make.”
In front of about 75 people, Rudicel had to stop to compose himself.
“Why goats?” That’s the answer. These animals start out in your blood, but they quickly make their way to your heart.
STEVE RUDICEL’S CHEVRE CHEESE
Fresh goat cheese is one of the easiest foods you can make. It takes five minutes of active cooking time, over two days. And its taste is far superior to the standard logs of chevre cheese product available in gourmet stores.
All specialty items are available by mail-order at dairyconnection.com.
Heat milk gently to 74 degrees F.
Add a scant 1/8 teaspoon starter culture and stir for two minutes.
Dissolve rennet in spring water. Add to milk and stir for 2 minutes.
Drape a towel over pot and leave at room temperature for 12 to 20 hours. The curds are ready when they appear solidified and liquid whey floats on top.
Ladle curds into cheese maker’s muslin, tie around a wooden spoon or dowel and suspend over a pot. Allow to drip at room temperature overnight. Or, you can ladle into cheese molds and allow to drain overnight.
Unwrap cheese, sprinkle with sea salt, drizzle with great olive oil, and it’s ready to eat. You can also stir in seasonings (salt, chives, etc.), then cover and refrigerate.
Makes slightly more than 1 pound of cheese, enough to fill about 6 chevre molds.