For anyone who likes ethnic food and has a dedication to eating locally grown product, goat represents the perfect combination: if you look hard enough, you'll find it on the menus of Mexican, Caribbean, African and Middle Eastern restaurants (not to mention a barbecue joint or two), and there's a good likelihood that any goat you eat in this town came from a farm not too far away. That's because Tennessee is the second-largest producer of goats in the countryjust behind Texas, says Columbia farmer Steve Gillum, and it's catching up quickly.
Gillum's Circle G Farm is the site of a cultural collision that's been happening all over the area. He's an 11th-generation Maury County farmer whose ancestors settled here in the late 18th century, and he sells the bulk of his goats to Mexican immigrants who've only been here a few years, maybe even just months. He wasn't always a goat farmer, though. His parents had a dairy farm and raised beef as well, but when they passed away, the farm was split up between their children. Working with only a fraction of the land he'd grown up on, Gillum figured out that goats were the way to go: he could raise larger numbers on smaller acreage, and they didn't require the same elaborate (and expensive) setup that comes with raising beef. "The average female goat weighs 100 to 150 pounds," he explains, "and the average cow weighs 800 to 1,200 pounds."
It also helped that there were people out there wanting what he had to sell. Thanks to the diverse population of immigrants flooding into the area, Middle Tennessee is home to all kinds of people who consider goat a staple of their diet. That includes not just Latinos, who constitute roughly 90 percent of Gillum's businessand want their meat "dripping-blood fresh," he saysbut Somalis, Kurds and Pakistanis as well.
Americans, well, not so much. Gillum says he has yet to sell to a single person who actually grew up in the area. It's a result, he says, of people having fond memories of goats as petsalong with the more traumatic memory of seeing the poor creature being slaughtered for the dinner table. On top of that, goat fixed the wrong way can be mighty unappealing, rendering the meat's sometimes strong flavor and texture a little too strong, if not downright inedible. "My wife will not cook it and eat it," Gillum says, "so when I want to eat goat, I have to eat it at my friend's house."
In Nashville, we have our share of places that serve goat, one of the longest-running being Pop's Pit Bar-Be-Q, which serves an excellent pulled goat sandwich. Still, it's true that Americans tend to be a little goat-shy. Recently, I went out to pick up some goat from a Somali restaurant, and when I offered to get some for my co-workers, responses ranged from polite rejection to cautious curiosity to puzzlement over whether I'd somehow meant to say "goat cheese" and just failed to complete my sentence.
Based on my admittedly limited experience, Somali-style is maybe my favorite way to eat goat: stewed in onion, garlic and spices, until the meat is tender and chewy, with a piquant, salty kick. It's typically served over a bed of cardamom-spiced rice or with spaghetti, the latter option deriving from Italy's former colonial presence in East Africa. Best of all (in my book, anyway), Somalis customarily eat with their hands, yielding the uniquely gratifying experience of picking up a fistful of rice or noodles.
Mahad Barkadle, owner of Maringo Restaurant on Murfreesboro Road, says that Somalis traditionally raised goats and camels on their land; when a brutal civil war erupted in their homeland in the early to mid-1990s, many fled the country, some ending up in Middle Tennessee as refugees. The result was a suddenly expanding community of goat consumers. Ali Shahosseini, owner of International Food Mart on Thompson Lane, says that 10 years ago his meat business was driven by sales of beef, chicken and lamb, but then it started to expand into goat. "We can't keep up with the demand," he says. "The population of goat buyers [in Nashville] is 10,000, when it used to be 2,000."
Gillum has felt the pressures of trying to meet that demand: "The goat market was already here, so the producers came second," he explains, and that meant a lot of trial and error in learning how to raise them. "Everybody's mistake was trying to treat a goat like a cow, but the closest animal you can compare a goat to is a deer. You're not putting a goat through the same process as a cow." One common mistake was trying to give the animals feed; they'll eat it, but really don't thrive on it. The same goes for the hormones that commercial farmers give to their cattle. Instead, goats do much better just eating grass and invasive bushes and vines like honeysuckle. "All that stuff that everyone spends a ton every year to get rid ofthat's a goat's diet." Which of course is one of the reasons people kept goats in the first place.
There's an unintended benefit from all this. When you're eating goat, it's a lot more likely to be raised according to organic principles: on a patch of grass where it can roam and get the diet it would in nature. "We raise goats as close to the natural way as you're going to get," Gillum says. "The only supplement we give them is corn in the winter, and I buy that straight from a farmer down the road."
Tina Hoffman, whose Spring Hills Farm in Glasgow, Ky., raises pasture-fed beef and goats ("as God originally intended them to live"), confirms that commercial goat farmers aren't likely to raise their animals too much differently from organic farmers, though there is one factor likely to compromise this. "Sheep and goats are very susceptible to worms," she points out, noting that herbal worming medications tend to be impractical because they require constant dosing. However, she adds that the best chemical wormers are fast-acting and don't absorb much into the bloodstream. Gillum says that constant monitoring of worm levels and proactive pasture rotation can keep the need to use wormers to a minimum in the first place.
Organically raised or not, the fact remains that when you eat goat, there's a decent chance it was at least humanely raised. The way Gillum puts it, "Goats have a personality all their own. It's sort of like a drug: after you get to messing and working with them a while, they kind of get under your skin. If they didn't, I'd have quit [this] a long time ago."
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