How to Roast a Goat
Photography by Katherine Montgomery
Some people like cake on their birthday; I like to eat goat.
My birthday falls in August and for the past two summers I have hosted a goat roast on the 4-acre farm I co-manage in the Southern Rio Grande Valley of Albuquerque, New Mexico. More than an outdoor party, the process of slaughtering and then cooking a young goat in an underground fire pit has become a significant seasonal ritual.
I glanced at our half skinned animal, now almost fully transformed from living creature to edible product. No turning back now.
Beyond that, I’ve fallen in love with the taste of the meat, one of the world’s most distinct and evocative flavors. If you think that sounds crazy, you’re probably American. Though goat accounts for 70 percent of all red meat consumed worldwide — as cabrito, capretto, or ndafu — the United States is one of the last places where it is still considered exotic.
When I hosted my first roast I had a comrade-in arms: John Gould, a local farmer who has pastured goats in the South Valley for 40 years. John provided the kid for slaughter, and generously offered to assist me in the process. John has raised and slaughtered goats his entire life. Midway through processing our beast, I asked him about his favorite way to prepare goat. He paused. “I’ve never much liked the taste of it, to be honest.” This was concerning. If the farmer who provided the goat wasn’t sure about tucking into a plate of tacos cabrito, who would be? I glanced at our half skinned animal, now almost fully transformed from living creature to edible product. No turning back now.
Killing a goat and cooking it underground — in August, in the desert — is no small task.
First, you must dig a massive hole in parched soil. Then, line the hole with 200 pounds of old brick. The pit floor is then covered with a layer of lava rock. On the morning of the roast, you must wake at 3:30am to start a proper fire. Bring a sharp axe because you will be splitting wood to feed the flames for at least four hours.
Consider it this way: A goat, born in February, is raised and fattened through spring, then stuffed with apples from trees pruned in March, onions that were planted in April, herbs planted in May, before the meat is garnished with cucumbers pickled in June and summer-ripened tomatoes.
Meanwhile, you must clean, trim, stuff, rub, tie, wrap in parchment, wrap in foil, bind in baling wire, and finally, carefully, lower a goat into the extremely hot pit. Now, you must wait an entire day.
It is crucial to maintain faith that the goat is actually cooking down there and not simply sitting on the coals of a dying fire. You are, after all, responsible for feeding a crowd you invited. More importantly, you are responsible for doing right by that goat you chose to kill. “Thank You, Brother Goat,” we say before the cut. A blessing for the beast — and for ourselves.
In the creation myth of the Delaware Indians, the tribe lives under a lake until one of its hunters spies a deer through a hole in the water. He kills and consumes the deer, delighting in the sweetness and richness of the earthly meat. He then releases his tribe to populate the land. Thus, life is generated from death.
Of course, a birthday goat roast is not a ritualized creation myth. But it does enact a kind of midsummer pageant, honoring the preceding seasons, and the work dedicated to those months. Consider it this way: A goat, born in February, is raised and fattened through spring, then stuffed with apples from trees pruned in March, onions that were planted in April, herbs planted in May, before the meat is garnished with cucumbers pickled in June and summer-ripened tomatoes. This feast focuses our attention on a moment of bounty in the natural cycle of a year.
For me, the burdens of hosting a roast — the kill, the fire, the labor, the wait — are worth it for that first taste of rib meat. I can peel it off the pale bones effortlessly, using only my fingertips. The taste is mineral, like lamb, and fat-rich, like marbled beef. Yet it is also entirely unlike those meats. Goat is distinctly sweet. It is earthy, and not only because I have cooked it in hot earth. The flavor is earthy in the way that a mushroom or any other wild, pungent food that actually holds the taste of its soil.
Nestled on a warm corn tortilla with a drip of bitter red chile sauce and a spoonful of sour pickled onions, the entire package is supreme bliss. In one little taco, ancient Aztecan culinary wisdom merges with the crops and animals that we have grown and raised by hand, in our small, shared stretch of the Rio Grande Valley. I glimpse John carefully turning over the beast to pull a forkful of succulent, untouched meat that has been resting in its juices. “My fifth,” he says, smiling as he catches my eye.