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.
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.
The growing market for goat meat has brought together contrasting cultures as city-dwelling immigrants venture into the countryside to buy the animals from farms or auctions.
At the Westminster, Md., Livestock Auction, a wooden gate clatters shut and hooves scrabble across sawdust as a shaggy black billy goat enters the auction ring. Wielding its slender horns like fists, the goat tries again and again to evade its human minders and leap a gate.
It is one of the largest community auctions in the state. Buyers come from all over, and they sell to slaughterhouses mostly in cities on the East Coast.
On an average night, about a dozen regular buyers compete for about 125 goats. In recent years, the competition has become keen.
"A goat that would have brought $20 five years ago is now going to bring $80 to $100," said James Horak, 61, the auction's gruff-talking owner.
Many think goat meat, with its low fat and cholesterol, is breaking out of the ethnic market and catching on with the general population.
Sparkie Miller, 47, of Mount Jackson, Va., has been in the livestock business for 30 years. He is a third-generation livestock man. He owns Sparkie Miller Livestock, and he said the biggest part of his business is sheep and goats. He likes the way the business has not been swallowed up by giant corporations.
"All other parts of the livestock business, such as beef and pork, big business has taken over," Miller said. "The lamb and the goat business, it is a big business, but it is a business that the small businessman can still participate in. It has gotten stronger and stronger every year. Everybody I know who has eaten goat meat has really liked it. . . . I have a lot of people tell me that it is very similar to venison. Very similar."
Leo Tammi, 57, moved to Mount Sidney, Va., in 1981 and began raising sheep. He also kept a goat or two on the farm for their milk, which he used for orphaned lambs. About 10 years ago, he started raising fainting goats for their meat. Fainting goats got their name because their muscles lock up when they are startled and that causes them to fall. "If you come up on them too quickly out in the pasture," he said of his herd of about 100 goats, "a half-dozen of them will just fall over."
Tammi considers himself a small producer, selling 25 to 50 goats a year. He said the goats are relatively easy to raise. The biggest challenge is keeping the fences in good shape because the goats will jump to forage for food. He said that at this time of year, when the demand is high, you can't bring too many goats to the weekly livestock auctions.
"In Virginia," he said, "we are selling more and more goats every year now. We're selling more kids than we are lambs. . . . With goats, you can turn your money around in less than a year."
He said other than fencing, the biggest problem is with predators. He has trained guard dogs to live with the sheep and goats in the pastures to keep the coyotes away.
Tammi said he eats goat meat and lamb but doesn't think either is too popular in the Shenandoah Valley, where his farm is. "This part of Virginia has historically been the largest sheep-producing area east of the Mississippi, but there is probably more groundhog eating here than there is sheep," he said.
Several times a year, particularly this time of year, he said, he will get people at his farm who just show up looking for goats. "Somehow or another, people find us, and usually they are Muslims looking for a goat for a wedding or for a celebration. They want to pick it out and, of course, we allow that."
When Rababeh, the Falls Church butcher, opened his shop, he had difficulty finding goat meat to sell. "I know a big livestock man," he said, "and he never used to deal with lamb and goat before 1991. I started to push him to work with the lamb and the goat starting in 1991, and now he is doing well. He is one of the largest distributors in the area."
Rababeh, 35, is a natural salesman who likes to give out recipe ideas with the meat he sells and trumpets the benefits of the lean meat that comes from his goats.
"In the United States, the most famous is the beef," he said. "Then people started getting into the lamb and now they are getting into the goat. They are moving out to the goat because it has less fat and less cholesterol. They follow the healthy lifestyle, and the goat is very less fat."
Michael Witmer, 42, of Mount Crawford, Va., said he first brought goats to his farm in 1995. He bought 12 does and a buck and now he has about 250. "Maybe it was because we were small back in the '90s, and we weren't selling a lot of goat," he said. "But now it seems as if the demand is always there. When you get to the winter months, some of the buyers say they are always looking for the next goat. It just seems like they can't keep up with the demand."