Brad Kessler was living in a rent-controlled apartment in New York’s East Village, writing fiction and teaching creative writing at the New School, when he decided to say goodbye to all that and move to rural Vermont.
There he and his wife, the photographer Dona Ann McAdams, began to raise goats. What was initially a brood of four and a lighthearted hobby has since expanded to 17 animals and a licensed operation that sells goat cheese to a few of New York’s most cheese-famous restaurants. Kessler’s memoir “Goat Song” is the story of this transformation.
It would be facile to stumble into convenient, “country mouse/city mouse” clichés about the urbane urbanite who on a whim sheds his sportcoat, loafers and book parties for work boots, shit-shoveling and irony-free trucker hats. The truth is more complicated, and more interesting: Kessler and McAdams were never at home in Manhattan, and longed for the feeling of remove they’d once cultivated at a rented farmhouse in West Virginia that burned to the ground. They’d been looking for a place in Vermont for five years before they found what they wanted: 75 acres of mostly wooded valley with an 18th-century white farmhouse the realtor described as basically a tear-down. It was a full decade between moving there and beginning their foray into animal husbandry.
The rewards, however, have been all that one would expect. Kessler discovered a bounteous and ancient literary tradition associated with pastoralism, which is actually civilization’s oldest profession. And though he knows it “sounds flakey,” he says there’s a transcendent calm that comes from walking with goats, the animal that was first to be domesticated and is, most people are surprised to learn, as warm and social as a dog. “Goat Song” explores both of these themes and more as it describes the day-by-day rudiments of tending, milking and birthing goats, baling hay and making cheese. And it does so with the rich lyricism that emanated from Kessler’s novel, “Birds in Fall,” winner of the 2007 Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
Kessler spoke with Salon earlier this month from his home. He had just returned from Rome, where he’d been finishing up his fellowship with the American Academy there as winner of its 2008 literary prize.
What are you doing today?
I woke up at about 6 and milked the goats at about 7. We have 9 goats now, and 8 kids. I made a quick mozzarella first thing this morning — it only took about 45 minutes. Then I got to muck the barn out. I was basically all done by 10. Then a quick shower, and I started my day.
Ditching it all to move to the country and raise goats is probably the fantasy of about 95 percent of Salon readers. How were you able to make it work and overcome the seeming obstacles that life throws up in front of us?
We had a rent-controlled apartment in the East Village, but we were away from it whenever we could be. Both of us taught at universities part-time, so we had summers and long weekends at this cabin in West Virginia where we learned to grow our vegetables and generally live rurally. So moving to Vermont felt like moving to the suburbs compared to Appalachia; it’s only a four-hour drive from New York. The goats were the final imprimatur. They were also the excuse for never having to go back to New York again because we had to watch the animals. The truth is if we didn’t have other income from teaching and writing it’d be very hard to do this, certainly in the way we do it, which is seasonally and small-scale. It’s not a weekend thing. That said, there are people we know up here we were inspired by who have a day job and as many goats as we do and make cheese.
Why goats and not chickens, cows, horses or rabbits?
We had a neighbor who had two dairy goats, and [my wife] Dona came home once with the milk still warm in the bottle. I always experimented in the kitchen, so first I made a quesa blanca, which wasn’t great but it was OK — certainly it was the freshest cheese I’d ever had. Then I made a chevre and it was a revelation. I’d never tasted anything like it, because to eat a fresh raw milk chevre only hours old is illegal. One of our staples is a chalky log of goat cheese you buy in a store, and to realize we could actually make something so much better than that was astonishing. So the first thing was about the cheese.
But it’s also about the animals. When it comes to cheese, there’s goat people, there’s sheep people and there’s cow people. None of them see eye to eye, and all are biased. The stereotype is sheep people like landscape; they like to see the flock on the hillside, which looks pretty, but a sheep person doesn’t really like the animal itself. Goat people like the animal and make the cheese to support the animal. And cow people like heavy machinery.
I’d always liked goats. There’s a great quote in the 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica under the definition of goat: “The goat from all times has been considered everything associated with evil.” It’s been scapegoated, abused, misrepresented and considered devilish and impudent — and all those things appealed to me and were all sort of wrong. They have personality, unlike sheep. Sheep follow a strong leader. There’s no singular for sheep — you’re one or you’re many.
Many people would be surprised to learn goats are affectionate and attaching.
Having goats is like having a flock of dogs. They each have their individual personality. We walk our goats up in the woods just about every day and they follow, they come, they know their names when they want to. If they’re in a good mood or you’ve done something to ingratiate yourself with them they’ll lick you on the cheek. If they’re mad at you they’ll just ignore you. They’re very companionable. If you look at the history of goat-keeping, there’s all these photos of women in Europe along the roadside with a goat on a leash, then there are some rather lascivious sculptures from Pompeii of people having sex with a goat. So humans and goats have had this thing going on for a long time.
What was the best and worst part of the process, from building the fence to mating and birthing the goats, to milking and harvesting hay?
People ask is making cheese hard and the answer is no, but to get clean, fresh, raw milk — that’s the hard part. That takes months. Making cheese takes hours. The best thing is cracking open a tomme [a wheel of cheese]. We were away in Rome this whole winter and we ate a lot of cheese in Italy, but to come home and go down to the cellar and bring up a tomme and open it up and eat it is just an amazing thing. First of all, it tastes incredible — I’m completely biased but it tastes better than anything I had in Italy. We know what went into it — the animals who made the milk, the grass the animals ate, the process of making it, the microbes that went into it. So, having been displaced, there’s this wonderful sense of homecoming — not only coming back to this house in this valley, but then to have a piece of food, to ingest a piece of the landscape in a very physical, immediate and almost primal way.
OK, but what was the best part up to the point of tasting the cheese?
Being around the goats. It’s one of those things that, unless you experience it, it sounds very flakey but they’re incredible creatures to be around. Being around them just creates this sense of calm. Dona described it once as being like standing in the middle of a waterfall. They’re the oldest domesticated animal after the dog so there’s this very deep, almost evolutionary relationship that humans have with goats. They’re the first real domestic animal that produced food for us. Their milk is very close to human milk, as opposed to cow milk, which is not. The cry of a kid is like the cry of a baby. That it should develop that way, whether it was selected for that or whether it’s evolutionary to elicit our paternal instinct, I’m not sure. But it’s curious.
The worst part, I could say is mucking out the barn every day, but I actually kind of enjoy it. If you don’t like physical labor this is not for you. The worst is when there’s a sick animal and you don’t know what to do. Watching an animal you think is suffering is hard to do; in fact they might not be suffering, it might just be your anthropomorphizing. It’s hard to come up with a worst, though I don’t mean to sound so damn cheery about it. The bottom line is, they produce a lot of shit, and you have to deal with the shit.
Has raising goats and making cheese helped you with or otherwise affected your craft or your relationship to your writing?
I guess that is yet to be known. A “tomme” means, literally, in French, a “volume,” in this case a volume of milk made into curds. And of course it’s the same word as the English word “tome.” So there’s this conceit throughout the book that I’m making a book and a cheese at the same time. Making a text or a cheese, you’re taking raw materials out of the world and ruminating on them and making art of them. That’s one of the metaphors that runs throughout the book: Making an aged cheese that takes a long time to reach its perfection is somewhat like the process of writing a novel. You need raw material, you spend a lot of time with it, then you leave it and you go back to it. It has to age and refine itself. Not to stretch the metaphor to the breaking point; there’s a similarity to the crafts, but that only goes so far.
Give us the raw milk tutorial.
Milk has evolved to feed infants, whether they were human infants or goat kids or calves or baby mice or baby whales. And it was a perfect diet for the infant to thrive and survive. So raw milk has in it all this really good stuff. It helps the immune system, it has natural antibiotics, as well as things that scientists can’t figure out why they’re there but possibly they’re solely to feed the bacteria that lives inside of an infant. What also is in there are flavor compounds, the aromatic esters that give cheese its particular taste, it’s terroir. All this stuff nature provided with raw milk. What happens when you pasteurize, which is to hold it at 161 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds, is you destroy all the living organisms in the milk — all the things that are good for the infant, including enzymes and vitamins, that are also good for the cheese. But you don’t even destroy all the E. coli and salmonella. It can survive. It usually doesn’t, but it can.
The downside of raw milk is you have to know where your milk is coming from. It has to be fresh, and it has to be clean. But you can buy raw milk cheese all over Europe and it’s not like people are dropping dead from eating raw milk cheese — in fact, studies show people who drink raw milk are a lot healthier than people who don’t.
The book ends before the process you initiated of getting licensed to sell the cheese is completed. Did you, in the end? And how was that?
We got licensed last summer. In Vermont they have cheddar, and “foreign-type cheese.” So we got licensed to sell a foreign-type cheese. The process was kind of amazing. Vermont is really good to people who want to work on the land and sell things from it. They were very strict but very helpful — they weren’t out to bust us. Why they were so good to us is because we’re so small scale. Another state like California probably would not even license us.
We sold some cheese to [Manhattan restaurant] Artisanal, and then the cheese manager there left so we stopped selling there and instead traded with a local community-supported agriculture network for produce and plants. We also sold to a restaurant in New York called Les Enfants Terribles. We sold all our cheese last year, and this year we’re at about half production so most of it we’ll eat ourselves. But we will probably have some we’ll sell here and there, maybe trade locally. And we might showcase down in New York in a couple of places. We’re so small, and everything is done by hand, so it’s not gonna be widely available. And I think that’s why it tastes the way it does.
What people might regard as a simpler life of farming sounds really quite stressful, what with all you describe that could go wrong with growing hay for the animals to eat in winter, baling hay, sick goats and so forth. Is it in fact simple because it’s single-minded, with fewer distractions than urban professional life? Or is that a romantic myth?
If your livelihood depends on it, like it does for most farmers, then of course it’s stressful, but I think it’s all in the mind-set. Because they are around animals or plants most of the time, and their livelihood depends on cycle of seasons, farmers generally are not high-stress people. The ones I’ve met are pretty even-keeled and generally happy with what they’re doing, even though they work their asses off. There’s no one I’ve met who works as hard as a farmer and no one who gets less. It’s absolutely a shame and a disgrace how farmers are treated in this country. Everyone I know who’s farming here has a really hard time.
Do you miss city life — the book parties, the cocktail lounges, the ballet — or have you so overcome Weberian alienation from the modern world that you could no longer give a shit about any of it?
I don’t really miss city life at all. I wasn’t leaving anything behind I felt deeply attached to. In fact, I never succeeded there in terms of being happy or comfortable, or even doing the things one is supposed to do in the city. I’m never lonely here. I’m never longing for life.