Chef: Get your goat

Salad with goat meat served at a dinner during “Goat-ober” at Hominy Grill in Charleston.

After dinner, Robert Stehling beamed, the kind of smile that comes from a chef when he delivers something wickedly delicious.

Who knew goat’s neck soup could be that tasty?

Stehling “gets” goat, and he wanted the houseful of guests at Hominy Grill to share in his appreciation.

At any rate, they were a willing crowd to start with, since they paid $85 for a seat at the table for Stehling’s five-course “Goat-ober” dinner on a recent Sunday night.

As eating adventures go, Stehling’s menu did not disappoint. The hearty soup was thick with Sea Island pea Hoppin’ John. It was followed by a beautifully composed Seared Goat Loin and Kale Salad, punctuated with goat cheese, spiced pumpkin seeds, fried shallots and a sherry vinaigrette. The slices of meat were pleasingly tender and mild.

By this time, reactions indicated that most guests were on board with the goat, but Stehling hammered home the point with a sterling main course: chunks of barbecued goat shoulder with a blackstrap molasses sauce, served with a crunchy apple and savoy cabbage slaw and baked grits.

Even Stehling said they were some of the best dishes his kitchen has ever put out.

Nevertheless, at least a few of the guests had their reservations. Becky Lyon and her husband, Rich, were among them. The Mount Pleasant couple were given free tickets to the dinner, and don’t think of themselves as “foodies.”

Becky Lyon said she liked the meat “all right” and her husband liked it a little more. “I was thinking about it too much,” she said. “I like my meat well done and covered with sauce.”

Overall, she described the taste as “meaty,” with a flavor between pork and beef.

She loved the soup, but said she wouldn’t have known if the meat was goat, turkey or chicken. She also liked the salad, being a huge fan of goat cheese.

“That’s why we need to eat the meat, so we can have more goat cheese,” she joked. Lyon said she would eat goat again but didn’t know if she would choose it on a menu.

The evening’s theme was exhorted on the last line of the menu: “Eat more goat!”

Here, here. But that’s much easier said than done. While much of the world eats goat, it’s way down the list of red meats consumed in the United States. Not even on the list, really.

Perhaps you tried some curried goat on that Jamaican vacation and promptly forgot about it back home. There are almost no reminders that goat meat even exists, since it’s not available in mainstream grocery stores. Goat is the provenance of specialty shops, mail order, or maybe an old-fashioned country meat market.

Stehling thinks Americans are missing out. He got interested in goat about three years ago when talking to Latinos who worked for Hominy. They lamented the lack of local sources.

Stehling did find one, Marvin’s Meats in southern Charleston County. But it was imported, and sold only in frozen, pre-cut pieces.

Stehling then turned to New York-based Heritage Foods USA. He was a customer of its meat products, and thought Heritage could make the connections, since it already works with 75 family farms that raise and process pastured, antibiotic-free animals.

Thus began the “No Goat Left Behind” project and the first celebration of “Goat-ober” last year.

Patrick Martins, who helped found Slow Food USA and now runs Heritage Foods, explained the project during the Hominy dinner.

The seed was planted at the same time the “cheese revolution” started in the 1970s, Martins said. Retailers such as Dean & DeLuca in New York City set up prominent cheese counters and Americans discovered the availability of, and a taste for, cheeses here and abroad like never before.

Consumption grew; goat cheese was one category that saw a huge increase. This presented a dilemma, Martins said.

“To make cheese, you have to make babies. You cannot milk a male. What to do with these males? It’s a huge issue for a dairy.”

Compounding the problem, goats have a lot of babies, often twins or triplets.

Heritage’s website sheds further light: “In a weird way these babies are a (byproduct) of a farm that is looking to produce milk. The labor and feeding costs of caring for these babies is significant. Since the farm needs the mother’s milk to produce cheese, the babies are fed on expensive milk replacer, a goat version of baby formula. Without a dependable end market for these animals, farmers simply cannot take on the financial burden and must face hard choices like selling the animals into the commodity market at a few days old or even killing them at birth.”

The way the “goat project” works, said its director Erin Fairbanks, who also came to Hominy’s “Goat-ober” celebration, is that the goats mate in the fall and give birth in the spring. Then, the male kids feed on summer pastures and are ready for harvest the following fall.

“Our goal is to create a sustainable end market” that also educates consumers and supports cheesemakers, she said. Heritage is working with 14 farms so far, all in the Northeast, and is selling goat to about 70 restaurants, mostly in New York City.

But now that Stehling has a reliable source of goat, how does he get diners to try it? People’s experiences with goat may have been tainted by having goat that was much older and stronger tasting.

“Most diners’ reaction is a slight wince” when Hominy has had goat on its menu, Stehling said. “The occasional better-traveled customer will jump on it when they have a chance. Then there is the normal regular costumer that has learned to trust us and if we are cooking it, it would be good and gave it a try.”

Most of those first-timers are surprised by the mildness, he said.

Goat has so much in common with lamb, Fairbanks said. “It’s a light, lovely, grassy, clean flavor. ... It’s nothing to be afraid of. People are really ready for something new.”

Besides its flavor, Stehling said the best attribute of goat is its sustainability, while predicting “the U.S. isn’t going to go goaty anytime soon.”

The beef industry holds too much sway in this country, he said, but alternatives should be considered for good reasons.

“Goats are more efficient at turning feed into food, they take up less space and are more disease-resistant. It takes less acreage to raise goats and they are able to consume a wider variety of feeds.”

Goat is popular all over the world, he said, and “a sure thing if I can get folks to order it.”

Locally raised goat is not out of the question, Stehling said, but there are hurdles.

Since the owner of Marvin’s Meats retired last fall, GrowFood Carolina has come forward and said it could procure goats for Hominy from a couple of Lowcountry farms, Stehling said.

The catch is, there is nobody who can legally transport it from the meat processor to the restaurant. The farmer takes it to the processor, then the end user needs to pick it up from the processor.

“GrowFood cannot legally bring it to me like it was a bag of peanuts,” Stehling said.

Kipp Valentine, who runs Burden Creek Dairy on Johns Island, knows well the conundrum of excess male goats. He will sell his for $20 to $30 piece when they’re as young as three days.

Valentine sees three groups of people who buy his goats: “People who don’t know any better, as pets — most of them I get back; people who buy them to breed; and people who take them behind the woodshed and turn them into soup.”

Most of the latter group are people of foreign heritage, he said.

Valentine and his family are not goat meat, aka “chevon,” eaters themselves. Because dairy goats are handled every day, they are more like pets, he said. “It would be like eating Fido.”