Behold a sizzling rack of goat ribs. Lovingly marinated in olive oil and a mix of fresh herbs, licked by flames until the surface becomes that beautiful crusty brown that causes an instant salivation for those of us in the human omnivore sect. It does not, by any stretch, taste like chicken.
This is not about a recipe for goat ribs.
On a warm dry day on a mesa in Colorado, surrounded by scrub brush and mountain vistas, I was for the first time in my life brought directly into contact with knowing where my meat came from.
Before the ribs arrived on my grill, they were a part of a goat. That seems like a redundant piece of information. Of course ribs came from an animal. But this is the first time I met the animal. This was a goat owned by Ron and Pam Brown, a lovely rancher couple who were generous enough to let me watch the process and carefully explain everything they were doing. These folks raise almost all their own food, down to the meat. It is not some Luddite or hippie commune sort of thing. It is simply the way things used to be done and they still just do, except Pam wields a smartphone from the saddle of her horse.
Near the end of the process Ron cut the ribs off and generously gave them to us so we could try them. He said he did not like them as much as pig ribs, but we had to try goat, roasted low and slow. Pam took the rest of the edible parts of the goat, rubbed them with a savory bit of seasoning she calls “Pig Paste,” then slow roasted them until the meat just falls apart, then froze it in small packages for the future.
Before the goat was slow roasted into delicious oblivion, the goat hung suspended from a bar on a forklift so they could easily butcher the animal. A faint iron tang of blood hung about from the fresh slaughter, but no other scent (short of the wide open air and juniper lurking about.) Ron and Pam were quickly moving around the goat, cutting it up, removing the insides, with Ron explaining the best process for opening up the body cavity to remove the organs.
Some choice bits of liver and heart were set aside for the cats. Pam invited me to pick up and join in with one of the sharp knives. “Don’t be afraid, join on in!” I held tightly to my camera and just kept watching. Goats are pretty small anyway, and I am the definition of inexperience when it comes to butchering anything. Short of chopping up a chicken in the kitchen. I don’t think that counts.
My uncle Gene had come along for moral support (I am the city slicker of the family, no one was really sure how well I would deal with this, including me.) He helped to steady the bar the goat was hanging on so Ron could more easily work, and to remove the skin once it was loose enough to come off. Ron was showing me the best places to start cutting to remove it, and explained that it was best to do it as quickly as possible, since it was easier when it was fresh. This may sound strange, but when the skin is on, I kept seeing the animal. With the skin gone, I saw the food. Gene is a very experienced hunter (one of the reasons, along with my Grandma, that I grew up having venison, and also the reason I have had antelope meatloaf,) and he and Ron were discussing the dressing of game in the field. The way they were dressing this goat, was much cleaner than trying to field dress a deer out in the mud. They talked a little about slaughterhouses and those big commercial farms where cows are raised in pens. My uncle had told me about the unbelievable stench of CAFOs years ago, and in recent years I have driven by them a few times and experienced it for myself. It smells wrong. And then Ron said something that caught my attention.
“I worked in a commercial slaughterhouse for a year and a half, and there was a rendering plant out back. Every time I smell meat in the supermarket, it smells like that rendering plant.”
In a word… ew. Meat that doesn’t smell like meat, but the process of separating fat and occasionally blood, fur, and feathers from the rest. Some of this is for stuff like lard, but some of it is for… other things. I have read that some rendering plants have to be pretty remote because the stench is so bad. And that is what Ron smells when he smells supermarket meat. To be fair, I didn’t ask him to clarify the smell. It could have just been the scent of lard. But the way he said it, it did not sound pleasant. It is one of the many reasons they grow and raise almost all their own food. They really do know where it is coming from.
Before Pam pulled in with the forklift to hoist the goat so it could be cleanly dressed, it was time to kill the goat. It seems harsh to keep saying “kill,” but if you eat meat, then yes. There is killing involved. That is what it is. When it came time for Ron to kill the goat, his jovial self become stoic. This is what they do to eat. He clearly took no joy from it. After it was done, he talked to me about the method he used, how it was different on bigger animals, and how he tries to make it as swift as possible. Practically, it is simply because stress releases adrenaline, and adrenaline makes meat taste bad. Emotionally, most of it is because he has had some go wrong, and eyes briefly welling, he pressed his hand to his chest and said those times when it goes wrong hurt him so badly. He respects them, and wants it to be quick. In later discussions, he and Pam both were talking about how they try to give them a good life. I know there are those who would argue that you are still killing them, but that is not really the point. They eat meat. They clearly appreciate the animal. They do not name or befriend the goats that will become meat. Of course, the two cows were named. Pot Roast and Porterhouse. Notably not Bessie.
Before I watched Ron kill the goat, Ron asked if I would like to take a picture of the goat before. I did. Of course being a sucker for animals, I talked to it and made cutesy sounds. It’s a goat. It’s cute. Ron immediately warned me to not become attached. It was not a harsh warning, merely a practical one. The goat came up, looked curiously at me with those strange horizontal pupils they have. Then I backed out of the pen. Ron walked in, and with a swift and decisive gesture, grabbed the goat by the back legs, got him on the ground, one shot in the top of the head (softest part of the skull), then a quick slice across the neck with a sharp knife. It was so fast I barely had time to jump. And I watched the goat die. In my head I kept saying “you eat meat, you want to know where it comes from, this is the process.” But seeing it for the first time… I did briefly want to cry. I did not. I had no emotional attachment to this animal, short of an appreciation for its meat. Not for its smell. Billy goats reek.
But here he is. The ribs that would later sizzle away on the grill were part of this goat. And yes, I ate them.
Like many an urban person, I will spout profusely about knowing where my food comes from, being not that far off from the eerily dead on and hilarious Portlandia sketch where they ask about the name of their chicken and its existence. Except naming the chicken, as I now really understand, is a bad idea.
This is not about the morality of eating animals or not. I understand the arguments put forth by vegetarians and vegans just as well as I understand the arguments put forth by hunters and ranchers. People eat animals. They do. I do. And I believe it is important to understand their treatment, where they come from, and how they are killed and processed. I am reminded of this every time I drive through Nebraska by a compacted field of fenced in mud that reeks of sewage, packed to the gills with cows who are undoubtedly fiercely envious of the vast open field dotted with a few cows contentedly grazing a few miles over. What this really did was throw into relief how much I should really be aware of where my meat comes from. This seems particularly timely in this era of “pink slime” and chicken being shipped in from unknown conditions in China. Clearly I am not about to raise a cow on my 3’ square back deck. The realities of modern life, particularly in major urban areas, are that we do not raise our own food in the way we used to. But in not raising our own food, we have turned into a population of the blissfully ignorant, not knowing what strange and sometimes nefarious things are being done to food before we get to it. This applies just as much to the much lauded “artisan” or “organic” label (semantics, people, it’s semantics that people pay money for) as it does to that pile of ground chuck sitting wrapped in plastic on the grocery store shelf.
I am not saying “down with giant commercial farms!” or anything like that. As my cousin has pointed out, we need all types of farms. However, the blissful ignorance needs to stop. I’m not saying everyone go befriend a rancher and watch a goat get slaughtered. But before you go cruising through the drive-thru of a fast food restaurant, or even sit down at a nice restaurant, stop. Do some research. Find out where your meat is coming from. We all find so many arguments of why it is easier to just not really think about it, and it really is, but my own arguments have been steadily losing volume over the years as I consider the larger implications of my food choices, and consider how I can use my own voice and wallet to raise awareness and change policy.
So go find a nice rack of ribs from a farmer who hasn’t shoved their animals full of antibiotics or weird growth drugs. Cook them yourself. And give a little thanks to the animal that they came from.