Immigrants' backyard butchery of goats riles neighbors

Slaughtering of animals for BBQ has led cities to ban a culinary tradition.

As the suburbanites of Sanford, N.C. have heard with their own ears, goats definitely do not go quietly into that good night.

The throngs of Mexicans who recently moved to the town have taken barbecue to another level: some Mexicans like to start a fiesta by slaughtering a goat to be roasted. In a tradition they believe brings good luck, they nail the head up in a tree for all to see.

That may play in Palomas. But, apparently, not in Sanford. After hearing complaints about the screams of the slaughter, the "backyard butchers" of Sanford are having to stay their knives – or face a $50 fine.

The culinary queasiness among Anglo locals here in Sanford are part and parcel of a growing trend in places where diversity is de rigueur: The outright ban of subsistence slaughter – at least within city limits.

"It's one of the worst things in the world, to hear goats being slaughtered," says R.V. Hight, the Sanford Herald's city hall reporter.

The decision to outlaw mankind's most ancient rite is causing a dinner-table discussion not only over how Americans are allowed to get their food, but also how far a municipality should go to curb ethnic rituals that scoff at the sensibilities of suburbanites.

"In the tremendous influx of people from other parts of the country, you have some bringing their own culture, and some who are completely urban," says John Joye, a police attorney in Charlotte. "And some folks find it surprising that their neighbor might have a few chickens in the backyard – and that they aren't there for show."

Sanford is not the first town to pass such an ordinance. Last year, Monroe, N.C., decreed a similar moratorium after a complaint about a Mexican killing an animal for dinner.

"This is not being driven by locals, but by immigrants coming into our community. What they don't realize is that backyard butchering is not going to be acceptable in many areas of the US," says Douglas Spell, the city manager of Monroe.

The irony of the ban, critics say, is that Monroe's biggest industry is a Tyson chicken "processing plant."

"To hide the fact that your food comes from live animals is basically sticking your head in the sand," says Tony Kleese, director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association in Pittsboro, N.C.

Of course, people have often questioned the food habits of other cultures.

In Louisiana in the 1950s, Ron Wimberley's dad complained about a nearby French family roasting goats. "I can remember my dad and granddad and uncles butchering hogs," says Mr. Wimberley, a sociologist at North Carolina. State University in Raleigh. "They were not astounded at the butchering of a goat, they just thought it strange that people were eating goats."

Thanks to the cable TV's Food network and the growth of ethnic restaurants, such culinary caveats have become more infrequent. Now, it's backyard slaughtering that has become socially unacceptable to some.

"This shows just how quickly rural norms have faded into urban norms," says Wimberley.

Like nearby Siler City, Sanford is now a favorite haunt for new immigrants, mostly from Mexico, but also from Honduras and Puerto Rico. Over lunch, you might well spot whole pig carcasses being hauled into a number of butcher shops geared towards the Hispanic community. "It's a fact: We like fresh meat," says Jose Luiz, who runs a local grocery and butcher shop.

But for those who prefer TV dinners to roast goat, the idea of a slaughter can really be gross. Locals in Sanford say the "goat ordinance" reflects concerns about inhumane slaughter.

"The animals tended to make so much noise that hair would stand up on the back of your neck," says Warren Brown, buying 20 pounds of ribeye at a local butcher shop. "A man should be able to take his own meat, but at least he can keep it out of sight and knock the thing over the head first."

But some cities have tried to protect different culinary traditions, despite local tensions. Recently in Charlotte, a Mexican family had a middle-class neighborhood in an uproar over their weekly chicken killings – much of which happened in plain sight. But they had a permit, and officials found no cause to revoke it.

Charlotte is revising its slaughter ordinance this summer, but only to say that it has to be done out of sight of public areas. The city stopped short of a ban in response to the cultural needs of the city's immigrant Hmong population.

Immigrants say that not only does home-slaughtered meat taste better, but it's a way to afford living large even in poverty. Some cultures even claim health benefits to super-fresh meat. "For a woman who's having a baby, in the first 30 days she needs to eat fresh meat," says Txong Pao Lee, the executive director of the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul, Minn.

But in Sanford, immigrants may have to resign themselves to adopting the maxim: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

Backyard butchering "is just not appropriate for an urban area," says Susan Patterson, the city's attorney. "Especially when you consider that, for some of your city inhabitants, the closest they've ever been to a farm is to pick strawberries during season."

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