When I was a child, we ate lamb on Easter Sunday. My grandfather would marinate a leg overnight in red wine vinegar, then roast it in garlic and onions. This was never my favorite of his dishes. To my child's palate, the meat was too pungent and loamy. Even then, I loved gyros, though few know just how much lamb is contained in those vaguely unsettling skewers of meat sweating on spits in Greek take-out joints.
Gyros aside, I was too young to enjoy my family's lamb heyday. My father still talks about his uncle's Easter ritual of roasting the whole lamb and saving the head for himself. Dad got to eat the eyes a couple times. He claims they were delicious.
My more limited experience with lamb isn't uncommon. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average American eats less than a pound of lamb a year — a tiny fraction of the more than 50 pounds of pork she eats annually.
But lamb's relative obscurity and the American Lamb Board's efforts to change that gave me access to lamb served in a coffee cup. The blue-haired Jason Santos, Hell's Kitchen contender and Gargoyles on the Square proprietor, concocted a garlicky poached lamb loin and covered it with cauliflower espuma, bee pollen, and shaved black truffle. "It's a lamb latte," quipped one of the judges. We voted it Best in Show.
And it was to die for. As an Italian-American, I'm contractually obligated to like fried garlic — in fact, I can pop it like candy — but something about the way it played off the creamy foam made it even better than usual. Oh, that foam. Who knew the prosaic cauliflower could be rendered so ethereal? Santos performed nothing less than cruciferous transubstantiation. Only the buttery, weighty stew could keep that espuma — or whoever consumed it — from floating straight into God's arms.
When the judging was over, I staggered from the table into a ballroom filled with hundreds of people eating lamb standing up, elbow to elbow. The 17 chefs prepared their 17 dishes at stations set up along the room's periphery. Breweries poured drinks in the center. The ballroom resembled the trading floor of a commodities exchange, but people waved forks instead of ticker tape. Resting against the recessed doorway of the now-empty conference room, a dozen lamb-bound revelers sat on the floor, looking dazed.
In another room, a crowd had assembled to watch chefs Chris Douglas and Nuno Alves butcher a whole lamb. Mere feet away from a helpless, shorn carcass, I blanched and ran away, returning only to watch them saw through the middle of its ribcage. A tow-headed little boy in a baseball cap stood next to a mound of butchered meat, holding an iPad with a slideshow of sheep at play.
His name was Nathan, and his family owns River Valley Farm in Lexington. I asked Nathan if he had seen Sweetgrass, the sheep documentary. "We love that movie," his mother, Lisa Dachinger, piped in. According to Nathan, the impression the documentary gave me — of sheep as incredibly cute, if stupid, animals — is accurate. "They're flock-minded," his mother generously corrected.
The family's favorite film is The Wooly Boys, a decade-old sheep comedy with Peter Fonda and Kris Kristofferson. I promised them I'd watch it.
Eugenia Williamson can be reached at email@example.com.