The lamb had been tethered in our yard for days in advance of Candice’s visit, peacefully keeping our grass down. A southerly breeze carried the fragrance of lanolin across the yard that drove my brother’s dog mad. Candice was a new friend about to graduate from college in Brooklyn, and the lamb would play an important role in her graduate thesis. There are no written recipes for how to take another animal’s life in the process of bringing food to our plate. The experience is personal, the details are always different, whether hunting alone in the woods or raising a pig or sheep in the backyard or a muddy sty. Two important things to keep in mind: no animal wants to die, so be ready for a struggle, and respect the sacrifice that has been made for your meal. If you are mindful of both these things, you will eat a meaningful meal or series of meals made from an animal you had a chance to know, even if only for that brief period of time when a life is taken away. This was the basis of a final thesis project I took part in three years ago with Candice as she was about to graduate from art school. Her goal was to honor the life of the lamb that was brought from Chilmark in the back of my white Dodge Dakota to be cooked for her classmates, family and friends in a large space now used for art in a run-down section of Brooklyn known as Bushwick. The gentle process of slitting the lamb’s throat was carried out with a sharp knife by her confident hands while I assisted in keeping the animal calm and contained. Two weeks later, my truck was packed with firewood, a spit, one lamb and an extra tank of gas to supplement our supply in case my calculations were off in trying to compensate for my broken gas gauge. The truth of the matter is that the truck, which I bought for $500 months earlier and came with no seats in the cab, should not have been taken off Island to mainland roads or highways. But I was younger and foolish (compared to myself now, older and still foolish), and we headed south on Interstate 95, stopping for gas what felt like a dozen times along the way to Bushwick packed and ready for a lamb roast.
The concept of having a personal relationship with our meat is not new, but our society has made it into a novelty and an understandably infrequent act due to the logistics of modern life, the availability of cheap animal protein in most any supermarket and the difficult and complicated act of processing a live animal to make it fit for consumption. With chickens there is the painstaking task of plucking. Pigs need scrubbing and hair removal, plus they are pound for pound as strong as any animal. And sheep, deer or goats need to be skinned and ideally hung. No matter the circumstance, it adds up to a long checklist of supplies, steps and manpower, not to mention time, leaving the average consumer happy to sort through cellophane packages at the market, saving time and often money.
The most common question I get when roasting an animal whole is how long it will take. I always respond that the animal will be done when it is time to eat. There is no exact formula for cooking over an open fire; a cold northern wind can change everything, as can a blue sky or unseasoned wood. Experience is the only common denominator. And on this occasion all normalcy was thrown out the window when we were asked to leave the alleyway where we had decided to cook an hour and a half before the meal was to be served. Permission had not been granted to have a fire on the property, an oversight by Candice in her planning. After extinguishing the small fire we had just lit and wasting precious time, we marched the already-skewered lamb two blocks down the road to a space where we could cook the animal in a building where it seemed anything was allowed. The building looked like an airplane hangar with enormous garage doors. The inside was cavernous and filled with building materials, old cars, musical instruments and various people lounging on sofas, their faces illuminated only by laptop computers. In the lot behind this giant workspace was a gravel area with trailer home after trailer home pushed impossibly close together. Extension cords were stretched everywhere to provide power to the lucky few in the hierarchy of what I learned was a squatters’ wonderland. I set up in a corner spot in the gravel area next to a pressure-treated deck; the only thing needed to prep the spot for cooking was to clear the debris and garbage from the area. The place smelled like old beer and I was lucky not to burn it down with my fire.
Somehow it worked. The squatters pitched in and brought me cheap beer, and someone showed up with doughnuts from a dumpster. It was the most unlikely place to produce a succulent spring lamb in a mere hour and a half, which was then paraded back to the feast in the back of the truck, carried on its giant skewer all the way to a carving table fashioned from old pallets and plywood. But somehow it fit into the drama of the evening and in my mind served as a symbol of how we eat today. The meat was cooked quickly, with a desirable char on the outside, while the loin was tender and moist. Every bit of the animal was consumed, but most of the guests only saw the finished product.
Garlic and Rosemary Marinade for Lamb
Garlic, fresh and peeled
Rosemary, preferably fresh and plucked from stem
Anchovy filets, packed in oil or salt with spines removed if needed
A pinch of chili flakes
Quantities vary depending on amount of lamb being served. Preferably in a mortar and pestle and working in batches, but more efficiently in a food processor, combine the garlic, rosemary, anchovy and chili flakes to form a rough paste. Taste for saltiness (anchovies vary in salt content depending on their source and preserving technique) and season if more salt is needed. Give your lamb a light coating of olive oil and then rub marinade all over with your hands, massaging it into the meat. Allow to sit for at least 12 hours. Marinade is perfect for grilled or roasted lamb.
Spicy Yogurt and Cilantro Marinade
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 bunch cilantro, washed with stems left on
2 or 3 jalapeno peppers, depending on your tolerance for heat
1 cup plain yogurt
Juice from half a lemon
Recipe makes enough for about one normal sized leg of lamb. In a food processor or blender, combine all ingredients so you have a nice green sauce. Do not blend for too long as the cilantro will oxidize and turn brown and bitter.
Rub marinade all over lamb, you can also reserve some for a sauce when serving, and leave in fridge for at least 12 hours. Again, this is perfect for grilled or roasted meats.