Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Beyond Backyard Chickens

Santa left me a couple new books under the tree this Christmas. Though not about foraging, per se, these should interest anyone who's trying to take more charge of their place in the food chain.

We have a joke in Seattle about competitive neighbors trying to out-backyard chicken each other. It used to be a new car or elaborate lawn-care scheme was the path to keeping up with the Joneses. Now it's goats. Not too long ago a herd of the hungry beasts was let loose in a vacant lot overgrown with blackberries near my home. Each day, while driving to school, we monitored the flock's progress. In less than a week the quarter acre of unruly brambles was munched to the ground.

Goats have other uses, of course, from dairy to companionship. If you're ready to out-backyard chicken  the weird guy across the fence, Jennie P. Grant—deemed the "Godmother of Goat Lovers" by Time magazine—with her book City Goats is for you. Me, I just got a kick out of reading about this escalation in the locavore arms race. Grant, besides being the founder and president of the Goat Justice League, is a funny and informative guide to the intricacies of urban goat-keeping. For instance, if you're just looking for a lawnmower on four legs, think again. They will "eat your rosebushes clean" while nibbling the grass only here and there, "creating a look very similar to Rod Stewart's hairstyle."

Grant covers the basics of goat needs, from shelter to food to play. Yes, play. "Climbing is one way that goats have fun!" And whatever you do, don't build a climbing structure in the back yard that will allow your goat to jump into the competitive chicken farmer's yard next door. As for the dairy piece, there is an entire chapter on how to milk your goat (don't forget to shave around the udder), along with discussions of pasteurization, cheesemaking (with recipes for mozzarella and chèvre), and even camping with your goat.

One thing Grant doesn't touch on is goat meat. Urban carnivores less sentimental about their herd animals might turn to Leslie Miller's book, Uncle Dave's Cow, for their meat-eating needs. If you've ever gone in on a beef cow or a portion thereof, you know about this increasingly popular way to confront the realities of an omnivorous diet. It's been a few years since I've done so, mostly because the freezer is so full of foraged foods. The last time, we purchased a quarter organic cow from Skagit Valley Ranch, which translated into about 150 pounds of meat in a variety of different cuts and hamburger, all of it shrink-wrapped and frozen.

As Miller explains it with entertaining honesty, the impetus behind sharing in the proceeds of her uncle's cow was directly tied up in the complexities of modern life: "I'm busy, my husband's busy, and my children have more active social lives than we do, and dinner isn't so much something to be crafted as it is a daily time-suck." Say it, sister! "Throw in a liberal urban commitment to eating 'good' meat and food in general, if possible—organic, sustainable, locally produced, all the buzzwords—and we seemed like good candidates for buying into that cow."

In some cases, as famously explored by Michael Pollan, you can buy into that cow well in advance of the day of reckoning, watching it mature (if you want) prior to slaughter. Whether there is a demand yet to actually witness or participate in the killing and butchering of a cow, I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised if this option was available in some cases.  Miller doesn't go too far down this road because, let's face it, if you're reading the book then you're likely already aware of how distanced we've become from the food on our plates. "I love cooking and raising food," she writes, "but there are limits to what I can or am willing to do...I don't want to kill and skin my own animals on a regular basis, the former being a big downer and the latter requiring skills I don't possess."

A good alternative is buying into a whole animal that has been raised in a way that's compatible with your beliefs. Miller takes the reader by the hand for a friendly walk through the process, illuminating the lingo (grass-fed versus pastured, for instance), butchery, storage, and many other factors that make this a different path from simply driving down to Whole Foods to pick up an organic t-bone. One really helpful chapter focuses on the many cuts of meat that will be included in a standard order, some of them unusual to a first-timer, and how they might be used, plus recipes.

Oh, and for the urban goatherd (see above) who has grown weary of her tulip-devouring charges, there's also a chapter on goat cookery. ;-)

1 comment:

Dan "Dirty Hands" Jensen said...

Been Looking for a new Book for my Nightstand will check out the beef book.

We haven't got a chicken yet so i guess were behind you goat herders :)