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The speaking of the lambs

July 30, 2011

I like lamb. It is sweeter than beef, has a softer texture and more delicate bite. Little lamb chops—individual or roasted as a rack—cooked medium rare are tender and juicy. A real treat, if you like that sort of thing.

Lamb costs more than other meats, so it’s not a frequent visitor to the table. Scarcity adds to its appeal. It’s a special occasion meal. Specialness gives it a reputation for requiring extra effort or being somehow difficult to cook. It’s not. But you can’t help but feel extra special if someone invites you over and serves you lamb.

I like to cook lamb for dinner parties. Spencer always says, “not everyone likes lamb.” I’ve only met one carnivore who didn’t. She used to, but her taste for it changed during her second pregnancy (that son is 20 now, so she might be back on the lamb wagon).

Nothing says 'I love you,' like rack of lamb.

I like grilled, butterfly leg of lamb seared crisp and roasted juicy after marinating in wine and herbs and garlic. Or roasted whole in the oven under a protective crust of mustard and crumbs and garlic. Of course it must be pink. I can cite two literary instances of Americans being appalled by sheep flesh not cooked hard and gray: Jaws by Eric Benchley and Willa Cather’s Death Comes for The Archbishop.

     “Cook a roast in an hour!” cried the old woman. “Mother of God, Padre, the blood will not be dried in it!”

     “Not if I can help it!” said Father Joseph fiercely. “Now hurry with the fire, my good woman.”

     When the Padre carved his roast at the supper table, the serving-girls stood behind his chair and looked with horror at the delicate stream of pink juice that followed the knife. Manuel Lujon took a slice for politeness, but he did not eat it. Father Vaillant had his gigot to himself.

Lamb shanks slowly braised to cashmeric  suppleness in some savory sauce will make you forget the most disillusioning day.

Garlic and rosemary are the proper companions of lamb. Mint jelly is like a stripper at a bachelor party: a traditional accessory but no one really wants her there and the only guy who does is the one no one respects anyway.

The appeal of most things we love has more to do with associations that the thing itself. For lamb that’s family dinners, special nights dining out, and this story.

When Cousin Melinda became dean of students at SUNY Buffalo Law School, there was a catered affair. “Would you like an hors d’oeuvre?” said a waitress to Spencer’s mother. “What do you have?” Ceil asked back. “We have baby lamb chops and crab cakes,” said the server of her tray of choice loin still on the bone and delicate pinky-orange puffs. Says Ceil, “Which are the lamb chops?”

BTW—Ceil never ate red meat. But she couldn’t say no to lamb.

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