Food & Drink : Kidding around

Confessions of a young goat keeper

Petunia was the mother’s name, and the first three kids were Patience, Penelope, and Prudence. Don’t blame me — my sister named them, and I have no idea where the “P” thing came from. Anyhow, Petunia, small and white with black and brown markings, had been given to my sister as a pet when she entered the first grade. I was then a budding fifth-grade sophisticate none too eager to deal with either my sister or her annoying goat. It was not the kind of thing you could take to school for show-and-tell. (The goat, not the sister.)

Fashionable pets: A young Ron Bechtol in a rough-hewn vest, made from a nanny goat’s pelt ... perhaps his family’s pet goat’s pelt.

Funny thing, though: Petunia became kind of a full-family pet. She was actually fun and smart, and nowhere as needy as a dog. In fact, Petunia and the family cat developed their own game to while away the time while we were in school. The cat would ride around on the goat’s back, causing perfect strangers to screech to a halt alongside the pasture adjacent to our house and sit in their cars, pointing and gesturing with “would-ya-believe-that!” wonder.

I think it was my mother who decided that if we were going to have a goat, we might as well have good-for-you goat’s milk — hence the arrival of the three Ps. (This was also a kind of introduction to the birds and the bees. However, we never actually kept a billy goat — the does were taken “for a ride” — so the act itself wasn’t part of the lesson.)

Forgive me PETA, for I have sinned, but as kids we would take the other kids into the house and chase them around the kitchen to watch them skid and slide on the linoleum floor. They really didn’t seem to mind, and actually became housebroken in time — simply by virtue of being chased out the door when they made a mistake. No kidding. But that’s not the cute part. Getting the milk meant milking, and my father wasn’t about to do that all by himself, especially later on when there were four Ps to contend with. So, guess who? This was also not something I tended to share with school chums; drinking goat’s milk was weird enough, but doing the actual milking ... squeeze, pull, repeat, squeeze, pull, repeat ... well, that was totally over the top. Truth told, though, I really didn’t mind.

In addition to goat’s milk, my mother also made a kind of cottage cheese from the whole milk, and occasionally we would all have a literal turn at making goat’s butter in a large glass churn fitted with hand-cranked wooden paddles. We never ate kid — that was just too close to home. But, my mother reminds me, phase two of life-in-the-barn learning was the sale of the yearly kid goats. I seem to have blocked it out, but I’m told Greek sailors passing through our Northwest Washington port often purchased them. What I do remember is snapshots of us kids, my brother, my sister and me, attired in little goatskin jackets. So that’s where they came from! Beware of Greeks buying goats is all I can say in retrospect.

The goat-keeping phase ended about the time I started high school — a good thing, since I would have been mortified explaining to the boys that I had to get home to milk Prudence. But it’s an experience I never forgot. Recently, I even prevailed upon friends at Rebecca Creek Farm, where goats and water buffalo are kept for the purpose of milk and cheese, to let me try my hand at milking again. Milking is like riding a bicycle: You never lose the knack — though, fortunately for my ego, this goat, unlike one of our own that once refused to be milked by my mother as a substitute for my father (the goat simply laid down and refused to cooperate until my mother put on one of his jackets as a scent decoy), she was totally indifferent to my fumbling. So there, now I’ve confessed. Feels good to have gotten goats off my chest after all these years.

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