On Sunday, Andy was able to realize a goal of his for the last decade; roast a whole animal in a pit in the ground. Ever since I met him in college, he has wanted to do a pig in the ground, wrapped in leaves, Hawaiian style. However, the very act is incredibly intimidating. It's not like people do this every day and you can flip to page 53 in your Betty Crocker cookbook. Also daunting is if the process goes wrong in any number of ways, you've potentially ruined an entire animal, not just a single cut of meat.
Yet, after years of fawning over this ancient method of cooking, Andy was finally presented with an opportunity to stick a freshly butchered animal in an open grave.
The animal of the day? Oberhasli goat. Our friend Elizabeth, the woman I traveled with to the Mother Earth News Fair in PA, is a goatherd as well as a food rights lawyer. A fun friend to have, I'd say! As she works towards her own dream of opening a goat's milk cheese creamery, she is currently honing her farming skills with a small herd of Oberhasli goats.
The does are beautiful and brown, with tender faces and a gentle disposition. They also happen to be the goat of choice in the Swiss Alps, where the world's best traditional cheeses originate.
Elizabeth has done her homework. With any dairy, there comes a need to thin the herd, especially when males are born. In cow herds, these boys often become beef for the farmer or friends. Goats are a little harder to sell due to a stigma of bad encounters many Americans have had. With the help of one of her friends, Elizabeth has learned the art of small livestock butchery and none of those boys go to waste.
This weekend, she had two such goats, ready for a grand meal shared with her family and friends. It was a festive occasion, with the curiosity of a meal being unearthed as the focal point.
For Andy, the pleasure and consequently the pressure, was all his. After talking with some of his foodie friends who had tried this method of cooking (and failed!!), his confidence was shot. Apparently, cooking a meal in the ground is not plug and play and this endeavor would call upon all his prior experience with meat, heat transfer, the physics of water and temperature control. The night before, he took a crash course on YouTube, watching video after video of experts across the globe showing how one might roast an animal in the ground. The "training" helped him begin the day, but immediately there were obstacles to overcome.
Our Autumn, unlike the summer, has been very rainy and wet. When we arrived at Misty Moraine Creamery, Elizabeth's farm, we were already an hour behind schedule. Children. That about sums it up.
With guests arriving about 3pm and a meal to be served about 5pm, Andy knew he had only seven hours to get the pit up to temp and stable, roast the 12 pound goat and present it for the crowd. We got there just before 11am. Doh!
While I unloaded the kids and their days' worth of supplies, Andy went straight to the hole and cleaned it out. Next, Elizabeth showed him where the piles of wood were stacked and he went to work building the fire.
After about an hour, Andy was still trying to get the blaze to keep. I guess the wood stack was much more saturated than they had anticipated and he had to start completely over with fresh wood from a stash near the house. By the time the fire was stable and established, it was close to 12:30pm.
Andy took a wheel barrow over to the creamery build site and loaded up some wonderfully rounded field stone, each weighing between 5 – 10 lbs.
Two wheel barrows later, he arranged the stones around the blaze and allowed them to acclimate to the dry and hot temperature in the hole. Even with this adjustment period, there were at least three rocks that exploded in the earth, giving off a sudden thunder of noise before returning to normal. We kept our distance.
Our family took a short break and had a snack lunch with the kids before I put Liam down for his nap. When I emerged from the napping room, some of our guests had arrived. They were down by the pit, asking questions about Andy's progress thus far. Elizabeth had been preparing side dishes and getting her home ready for company during this time. But with familiar faces in the kitchen, she was able to keep sautéing and mixing dough and serving drinks.
At this time, Andy found a metal tray on which to set the goat in. Because there are no banana tree sized leaves in our area, a burlap bag soaked in water became the wrap for the small goat carcass. Unfortunately, the pan had a leak in one of its shallow sides and Andy made a patch for it out of tin foil. Losing water in the pit would potentially burn the goat.
Next, Andy tied the goat with string to keep it stable while it cooked and not-so-ceremoniously placed it into the burlap sack. Next came the tricky part; getting that pan onto the heated rocks and placing the water, goat and cover without burning either his hands or his shoes.
The hole is made for more than a 12 pound goat and is about three feet deep, three feet across and six feet long. It really did look like an open grave! Reaching down with the greatest of care, Andy placed the makeshift roasting pan onto the coals.
Looked pretty level. He then dumped a bucket of water into the pan.
Next came the burlapped goat. So far, so good!
But then I noticed the pan drip-drip-dripping water out of the suspect leaky corner. "No going back now; hopefully the soaked bag will be enough," Andy stated. He placed a metal covering loosely over the whole apparatus and proceeded to placed heated field stones over the covering.
An idea he gained from his YouTube watching, Andy used a post hole digger to grab the stones from above and place them onto the sheet metal.
The final step was to place a large sheet metal cover over the entire hole and fill in with sand. There is a pond not 50 yards away that unexpectedly drained and so sand was readily available. Once the pit was covered satisfactorily, Andy came into the house for a well deserved beer and some socializing.
As the goat did it's thing and cooked (hopefully!), we enjoyed some time with Elizabeth's friends. Some were area farmers whom Andy and I had a relationship with already and others were new faces. As the sun began to wane and dusk settled comfortably in, everyone filled up on Elizabeth's curried side dishes and Naan bread. She had her homemade Feta cheese, olives and crackers. There was salsa, an Indian soup and fruit to be shared. By the time darkness had securely enclosed the farm, we realized that the 5pm mealtime had come and gone and while we were certainly full, there was yet no goat at the table.
It was time for Andy's reckoning. The poor guy was so nervous. This was not the first time Elizabeth had tried to roast a goat in the ground. The other time was not very successful and they had to finish the animal on the grill. Four hours into the roasting, we felt it was now or never. Either that goat was tender and done, or the poor pink thing would have to be quick-grilled for the waiting guests. Andy got the grill ready.
With a torch and some flashlights, half the party carefully picked their way down the hill from the house to the roasting hole. A couple teenage boys from the group helped Andy remove the sand covering and lift the large hole cover. It was very hot to the touch which was a great sign!
Next, he removed the field stones one by one with the post hole digger and we saw smoke rising from the small pan in the middle of the hole. Great sign number two! By the guidance of Elly's flashlight and another guest's smartphone flashlight, Andy carefully reached in, straddled the pit just over the rocks and flipped off the top sheet metal covering. There was the burlap sack, not scorched at all. Great sign number three!
Andy grabbed the steaming hot bag and yelped. Then, like a banshee in a grave yard, he ran with the goat bag, shrieking all the way back to the house. "HOT!!!!!"
The rest of us followed as best we could back up the hill and came to the kitchen to find the burlapped goat resting on the counter.
Hastily, Elizabeth moved it to the stove so as not to ruin the countertops and everyone gathered round to see the great reveal. Elizabeth's son Jake is in his final semester with a culinary program and he was given the honor of carving the goat. Andy grabbed the top of the bag and gave it a quick shake.
Here was the moment. After holding onto a dream, a goal, for over a decade and then seeing it realized...on top of the added stress of performing for someone else's dinner party and using someone else's animal...not to mention the story of failure after failure amongst the people in our sphere of influence...here is was. The moment of truth. Andy fully believed that goat would tumble out as pink as it was before it entered the sack.
With a rather solid thud, the animal came to rest on the serving platter before us.
It was so fully cooked and tender, the legs would have fallen off if not for the strings holding it together!
SUCCESS!!!! AHHHHHH!!! What a glorious moment! It not only fully cooked, but we calculated later that it could have come off the rocks a full hour earlier than expected. What an amazing blessing this was! The crowd of about ten clapped enthusiastically and decided unanimously that the wait had surely been worth it.
With a wide grin, Andy sipped his wine and watched Jake cut through the strings and begin carving the meat for the guests. Together, they separated bones from flesh and the rest of us returned to the dinner table, licking our lips in anticipation.
I grabbed Liam and Elly found a seat. When the goat was served, haloed by the very potatoes it had been cooked with, the group just dug right in with their fingertips. What a savory and fulfilling meal this small goat had made! Elly exclaimed, "Daddy, I love goat! This is so good!" Liam helped himself to piece after piece until even the other adults took note of how much he was consuming.
"This is why we call him Baby Fatz, " Andy explained. "He's skinny as his momma, but eats like a racehorse!" Living up to his name, Liam thoroughly enjoyed the goat meat, until by the end he just rested his small body against my torso and sighed.
I think his father was sighing too, but for very different reasons. The sort of culinary confidence an endeavor like this can make or break is enormous. Now Andy feels ready to take on the Big One. It's still his dream to roast a whole hog in a pit and with the training this small goat and Elizabeth gave him, he's ten times more confident that it will come out amazing.
As guests filtered out for the night, we helped Elizabeth with some minor cleaning, but she quickly shooed us out, stating that we had a long enough drive and tired kids. Hugs and thank you's and good byes behind us, we started on the hour long journey home. Before we hit Oshkosh, all passengers had passed out from the exertion of the day into a satisfied, deep sleep. What a wonderful day it had been!