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23 january 2016

For a while, my partner used to goat-sit for a friend, even play amateur goat-farrier, and I'd sometimes go over and help her tend the flock. I liked the goats. They were fairly mellow. They'd run up to you and kind of butt at you, but not in deadly earnest. They seemed adaptable and (I guess literally) gregarious. Good backyard pets, if you live in Texas and your idea of "backyard" is a couple of acres.

A major theme in Joy Hinson's Goat is this adaptability of the domesticated goat to all kinds of living circumstances. They don't do well in factory-farm conditions (not that any animal really thrives there), but they can survive in most climates and they proverbially eat things that most other living creatures would shun. Goats have meant independence for smallholders since the dawn of agriculture.

Wild and feral goat populations mix fluidly with domestic herds. In some ways the domestication of goats is a bit like that of cats, in other ways like that of rabbits. All three animals take well to people and are useful, but there's always something of the wild about them too. Hinson notes that wild and feral goat populations abound in the mountains of contemporary Europe – a revelation to me, because I've spent some time in the Alps in recent years and never imagined there could be colonies of ibex in the rocks around me. But wild goats seek out places that humans won't.

Goats occupy a peculiar and ambiguous place in our symbolism. They stand for lechery and sin. Nobody wants to be the goat, still less the scapegoat, and far less the Judas goat. (Though the "Judas goat," the tracker that finds elusive herds, is a term of art in goat management, not just a metaphor.) And of course, the Dies Irae expresses the wish that God should

inter oves locum praesta
et ab haedis me sequestra
statuens in parte dextra

[make a place for me among the sheep,
and keep me apart from the goats,
standing on the right-hand side]
which manages to combine demonization of goats with demonization of left-handers. Though it was typologically disappointing, I was glad to learn from Hinson's book that some goat and sheep breeds are hard to tell apart. Another friend of ours kept a pet sheep that looked exactly like a goat to me, though laughably and obviously a sheep to anyone with ranching blood. Another lesson in the fractal scale of taxonomic distinctions.

Hinson finds that the positive associations of goats just about balance their negative associations. Goats are sometimes clever in animal fables, sometimes dullards; goats are sometimes hexes and sometimes healers. Hinson documents a surprising number of folk remedies drawn from all kinds of goat-associated products, including the mysterious bezoar stone, which is a real (if fairly gross) thing found in goat stomachs.

As a "remedy for pains in the neck" Pliny recommends goat urine … injected into the ears. (118)
I think I'll put up with the pains in the neck.

Goat farming, according to Hinson, hit lows in the 20th century when mass production of poultry, pork, and beef products dominated the marketplace. The tide has shifted, of course. Goat milk, which used to be a pretty exotic, indeed medicinal, substance, is now a standard supermarket item. Goat cheese is more than that – it's a culinary powerhouse, not exactly displacing cow's-milk cheese but currently commanding more and more space on grocery shelves. Chèvre has gone from chichi to staple in roughly a single generation.

Goat meat is a tougher sell, though not necessarily literally. I first ate goat in curries in New York's Indian restaurants, also about a generation ago. Slow-cooked, tender, heavily spiced, goat curry is a wonderful dish. You can buy goat meat at many a halal market, though as Hinson notes it's almost never seen in non-"ethnic" groceries in the US or northwestern Europe. Goat does constitute a food aversion for some, though. My best cooking pal describes both goat meat and goat cheese as "whangy" and won't touch them. I can't agree, but then I can't eat cole slaw either and she thinks I'm nuts for that.

Hinson, Joy. Goat. London: Reaktion, 2015.