I love lamb. There I go, I’ve said and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Unlike 40 percent of my fellow American countrymen who have never even tasted lamb, I grew up with it thanks to a strong Balkan tradition in the family. We didn’t celebrate with ham, it was lamb.
While I doubt if my father could remember a single report card I ever brought home, up until the day he died at 90 he could recall a leg of lamb I brought home from a supermarket 30-years earlier. “Gosh, Vel, I’m hungry just thinking about it,” he’d say year after year. No other lamb ever tasted as good to him as that one. (In hindsight, maybe because it was the only one he didn’t pay for).
Some years back when I was teaching in Mongolia for a week, I snuck into the building’s canteen to see what we’d be eating for lunch. On a counter in the freezing cold kitchen was a freshly slaughtered sheep. Each day the carcass would get a bit smaller; each day we had a new sheep dish. Despite it being at least a yearling or older, I was in lamb heaven.
In our small Greek mountain village of Vorio, come at Easter and even a complete stranger will have his full of lamb; barbecued over a special-purpose grill found at any Greek store, or peppered in garlic cloves, sprinkled with freshly picked wild oregano, wrapped in grape vine leaves, and roasted slowly in an outdoor oven, surrounded by potato chunks that cook in the fat.
While in Saudi Arabia I wasn’t too enamored with the politics, they do a great lamb as does Turkey and Israel. Mexico, Brazil, Italy, France, the UK – Shepard’s Pie – and even China, especially in Uyghur encampments, does amazing lamb. I haven’t been yet to Australia or New Zealand, but I can only imagine what they can do with a bag of charcoal and a chunk of lamb.
And then we come to the United States.
If US lamb consumption was a betting table in Las Vegas, it’d be where the suckers play. Sometimes I’m afraid that the odds are so high against the US public learning to love lamb, that American lamb farmers and producers might be better off selling the farm and buying lottery tickets. At least then they’d have a chance to make money.
American Lamb has a ‘Lamb Locater’ on its website where you enter your zip code and it will display nearby shops that sell US lamb. How confident are they that you’ll be able to find US lamb? The distance button starts at 10 miles and quickly goes up to 500 miles – that’s not a lot of confidence you’ll find it down at the local.
What I can’t understand about this is US lamb is some of the best – there should be lines formed outside shops by consumers demanding it. While recently in California a friend of mine, Bob Goldberg, invited me over for dinner in Oakland. He had these huge lamb chops, fried them on all sides in olive oil with a bit of garlic, salt, pepper, and we were set. Bob’s a big believer in trying to support local farmers and he goes out of his way to buy US lamb. While he doesn’t have to do 500-mile jaunts, it takes a bit of planning.
So what can US lamb do? Two things which are easy-peasy. The first is to give up on everyone over 35. If they haven’t eaten lamb by then, they never will. No, US lamb needs to concentrate on those 25 to 30. For this age group, forget any cut over $15, crowns or racks of lamb, and anything that requires paper frills or mint jelly. Push ground lamb –nothing is easier or better than a lamb burger – and cubed lamb meat. On these packs, stick a big coupon for Indian sauces. In the UK lamb went from something people ate at Gran’s house on Sunday afternoon, to fast and easy spicy Indian meals. It will be the same in the States – make lamb hip.
The second is, the ‘story’ needs to get out better. Foodies make a bit fuss over grass-fed beef; what have lambs been eating for the last 10,000 years? Pinecones? Food strategist Mike Lee told New Zealand lamb farmers they were sitting on a gold mine – they just need to start extracting it by getting the grass-fed story out there. The same goes for US lamb. Quit moaning, build your story, and start extracting gold.