Cubans who emigrated to Miami during Fidel Castro’s early reign used to tell a joke about his speeches, which often lasted for hours. The punch line hinges on Castro’s hatred of everything that has to do with the capitalistic United States, including the country’s cattle. “We will create a better cow than the American cow,” he would thunder on his pulpit. “A cow that takes up less space, that gives more milk, that eats nothing but air. We will make a revolutionary cow!”
In the bit, one comrade would nudge another. “Mira,” he’d say. “El Patrón wants to invent the goat.”
What makes this funny, of course, is that there’s more than one kernel of truth in it. Although figures vary by breed, an average, full-grown goat weighs about one-tenth of the average cow. When compared to cows, goats cost less to purchase and take up only a modicum of space in both pastures and barns. Goats also have a well-earned reputation for munching on whatever they can reach, and are less picky and expensive to feed than cattle, all while dependably giving easily digestible, nutritious milk.
And goat tastes pretty good, too, especially in chilindrón de chivo, a vibrant stew that is frequently cooked in Cuban homes and cafeterias around the city.
Of course, Cubans aren’t the only ones who appreciate the goat’s versatility and reliability. Consumed by more than 60 percent of the world’s population annually, according to the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the goat is especially valuable for anyone who lives where space is limited and the economy or government can be erratic. Jamaicans, Haitians, Dominicans, West Indians – throughout history, islanders, especially in the Caribbean, have all depended on this animal to supply both milk and meat. As the observant diner will note simply by leafing through cookbooks or visiting authentic restaurants, goat meat informs many of these cultures’ dishes.
In fact, it’s cherished, as Malachi Smith, a Jamaican poet and writer who grew up on the island and now lives in Miami, notes. Curry goat, a dish he says was introduced to the native palate by the Indian community, is a particular favorite, and a necessity for celebrations and family get-togethers. He adds that goat head soup, which is also called “mannish water” and is said to have aphrodisiacal qualities (some recipes call for feet, testicles and intestines to be added, and the head must come from a ram), is another valued culinary commodity.
In Miami, a communal meeting ground for many former residents of Central and South America as well as the Caribbean, curry goat, whether it’s Jamaican or West Indian in style, is just one dish that’s easily sourced. Goat stews or braises that rely on a range of similar ingredients – oregano, bay leaf, cumin, cilantro, sour orange and/or lime juice, wine or beer (or the fermented corn beverage chicha), tomatoes and bell or chili peppers – are served all over the county: Peruvian cabrito a lo Norteño; Dominican chivo guisado; Ecuadorian seco de chiva; Haitian kabrit non sos. Tassot de kabrit, cubes of meat that are marinated in sour orange and key lime juices, then fried until crunchy, is available in the small cafes and take-out restaurants that dominate North Miami and the region that’s nicknamed Little Haiti.
Recently, though, goat has also been bridging from these international spots, where it’s expertly handled by home-style cooks using recipes passed down for generations, to broader commercial venues. The meat’s increasing visibility is due to chefs who not only understand its cultural and regional significance but who also appreciate the challenge of working with the lean flesh, which requires significant know-how and salesmanship in whiter America.
For instance, Timon Balloo, executive chef of the James Beard-nominated restaurant SUGARCANE raw bar grill, notes that goat was often consumed in his home, given his multi-ethnic upbringing. “I think you’re seeing more [fine-dining] chefs use goat as we get inspired by different cultures and flavors,” he says. Personally, he appreciates “utilize[ing] my Asian background in dishes such as Kung Pao Goat or Philippine-Style Goat Adobo.”
Cuban-American chef and Miami resident Douglas Rodriguez, who is renowned for his work with Nuevo Latino fare both in the Magic City and elsewhere, has had good results with putting goat braised in red wine on the menu at his Philadelphia mainstay, Alma de Cuba. “It’s funny, though. When we run it as a verbal special, it sells a lot more. Diners are less susceptible to order it when it’s written on the menu,” he says. “It needs to be explained.”
Rodriguez, a proponent of the meat via background and experience, acknowledges that it can be even more of a task to peddle goat as an upscale protein to those who come from a culture familiar with it. In Miami, at his first enterprise YUCA, he would encounter patrons of his own nationality resistant to ordering fare that they believed they could get in Little Havana or Hialeah for one-third of the price. His servers would have to point out the skill and quality of ingredients with which the fare was prepared and the surroundings that elevated the dining experience to another level.
New Orleans native Kris Wessel, a respected chef who has operated several well-liked properties in Miami for the past 25 years, has also encountered inconsistencies in hawking it, especially at one of his former enterprises Red Light. There, he occasionally featured Sapodilla-Braised Goat, a recipe he particularly likes. Still, it was risky for him to put goat on the menu, he notes, simply because the meat is so perishable, and he was never sure if his customers, who came from all ethnic paths, would order it or the Creole fare that originally made his name and sometimes overshadowed everything else.
Rodriguez also mentions that goat is tricky to tame to a plate: “You can’t buy chops and loins and serve a primal cut. You have to buy the whole animal and braise it.” At most, he says, you can get it cut up in quarters, or do it yourself. But he admires the animal especially for its succulence, which comes out when treated appropriately. “It’s lean, but rich, almost tacky, with collagen,” he says.
Like Rodriquez, Wessel secures the entire animal to make a goat dish. But he also admires the meat so much that the Beard-nominated chef, who has roots that go back to what he calls “Florida cracker,” is willing to put in the work. In fact, he recently butchered and cooked 100 pounds of it for a Star Chefs gala. “I think goat really hits on the cultural level with almost all of the island nations and even some South American [countries],” he says. “Since I see the region as all of those cultures plus us ‘crackers,’ it needs to be in the mix if you’re cooking ‘local’ in South Florida.” He’ll be featuring curry goat and guava on the menu at his upcoming “tropical barbecue” concept in Little Haiti, called Wessel’s BBQ, but “only grass fed and organic, when available, because it’s such a difficult meat to get,” he says.
Chef Cindy Hutson, who owns Ortanique in Coral Gables and the newly debuted Zest in downtown Miami as well as restaurants in the Caribbean, actually encountered the opposite problem when she first started serving goat. Back in the States, after sampling and cooking it in Jamaica, the only meat she could find from her purveyors had already been butchered into chunks for stewing. It was badly done at that. “[It was] full of slivers of bones,” she says.” I curried it and served it with steamed white rice and callaloo. My customers agreed it was delicious but it was a hard sell when I had to caution them about the bones that could cut the roof of your mouth.”
Eventually, Hutson bought a whole goat at her Ortanique Restaurant, located on Cayman Island, and roasted it for the Cayman Cookout food festival in a caja china the way she would a pig. “My chef Mike Fischetti and I brined it in root beer and other herbs and spices, then pulled the meat from the carcass. We made a stock out of the bones much like a demi-glace, using root beer and Amarena cherries. It produced such a rich, delicious sauce. We then made a foam by boiling boniato, a white Caribbean sweet potato] and added vanilla bean and bourbon [that] we topped the goat with. Curiosity made it a temptation for people to order. It now sells out any time it goes on my menu, and people ask when I am doing it again.”
Clearly, sourcing a whole animal is not going to be the answer for every curious chef who has tired of snout-to-tail swine, is sick of beef and lamb and is looking for the next, best protein, which these like-minded chefs believe could be goat. Wessel, who forages and promotes local ingredients perhaps more than any other chef in the region, has done extensive research on how to procure the animal more consistently. “In the Orlando and Ocala areas, there are a few companies and farms that are raising them, but the processing is tough to do it down here unless you have a band saw and can cut a whole one right in your own kitchen,” he says. “The small farmers love to ship whole and not deal with the whole processing part past skinning and gutting. The key, of course, will be to get more [local] farmers to raise goat.”
A few small farmers in the Homestead and Redland farming region do currently raise Nubians and Boers, but most are homesteaders only interested in the milk and its byproducts. Several in South Florida also breed them for pets and sales to others, and some private citizens, such as Raymond Ceballos, who relocated from Camagüey in 1978, keep goats to butcher for their own use both for sentimental reasons (he owned some in Cuba) and because they can’t get fresh meat any other way.
Until the market supports it with quantity, though, it’s likely that goat meat will remain straddling Caribbean and Hispanic mom-and-pop restaurants and a select handful of venues where the chefs have been led by heritage and training to experiment with whole animals. And those of us who adore dining on dishes comprising “revolutionary cow” don’t mind hugging this semi-hidden secret to ourselves for a while longer.