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Long an Ethnic Delicacy, Goat Goes Mainstream

Low-Fat Diets Push Popularity Beyond Ramadan

By Fredrick Kunkle and Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 13, 2004; Page B01

Kheder Rababeh grabbed the black handle of his butcher's knife and began turning a breast of lamb into French chops. In his hand, the knife is like a musical instrument. He slices the meat away from the bone with a tender motion and than taps the blade on the cutting board, once, twice, three times, before making another slice.

Slice, tap, tap. Slice, tap, tap, tap. There is rhythm and precision in his every movement.

Sridhar Madireddy, right, a frequent customer at the Lebanese Butcher in Falls Church, talks with Mohamed Elhawary, behind the counter. (Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

Rababeh is a third-generation butcher. He learned at the elbow of his father and grandfather, starting when he was a boy of 9 in his native Lebanon. He came to the United States in 1984, and, in 1988, he and his older brother opened Lebanese Butcher in Falls Church.

The biggest change in his business over the years has been the demand for goat meat. "Oh, yes," he said, his voice still carrying the accent of his native land, "it is double what it was before."

He owns a slaughterhouse in Warrenton and estimates that he sells 100 goats a week. All his meat is halal, which means it was slaughtered according to Muslim law. He said that as the demand for goat meat has increased, he has noticed that the customers looking for goat steaks and chops are not just those who have brought their tastes with them from abroad.

This is the busiest time of year for Rababeh and other butchers who sell goat and lamb. From November to March, he said, the demand is the greatest because of religious holidays such as the holy month of Ramadan, a Muslim observance marked by daytime fasting. The holiday concludes tomorrow with a feast. Goat and lamb meat often are at the center of the celebration.

As the demand for goat meat has increased in the last dozen years, so too has the number of goat farmers in the region, particularly in areas where dairy farms are disappearing and housing developments are taking their place.

"They're probably the fastest-growing thing in agriculture right now," said Susan Schoenian, a sheep and goat specialist with the University of Maryland's cooperative extension in Frederick County.

Since the 1980s, the number of goats slaughtered for their meat -- called chevon -- has quintupled, according to Keithly Jones, an analyst with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And that is just the federally inspected market. No one knows how many goats are slaughtered privately on family farms in halal rituals. But farmers say the practice is increasingly common as Muslims, West Africans and Latinos have moved into the region.

"A big part of the goat market is on-farm slaughter," Schoenian said.

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