© 2013 C. Bertelsen. No copying of photographs without my permission.
© 2013 C. Bertelsen. No copying of photographs without my permission.
It seemed simple enough. A quick visit to a small sheep operation, twenty or so sheep on a spread of five muddy acres, owned by a retired agronomy professor, some fast snaps of the shutter and off I’d be.
But that’s not exactly how it happened.
When I first walked up to the owner, the sheep came running.
“They’re hungry,” he said. “I waited until you got here to feed them, otherwise all you’d get would be butts and backsides.” When the sheep sensed my presence, they did as all smart sheep do – they bunched together, an innate ploy to repel predators. And their llama bodyguard swung his furry brown head down low, checking me out, at eye level.
The owner opened the gate, and I walked through, sure I’d be butted and knocked flat. Stereotypes – we humans hold them about everything, don’t we?
Instead, we moved from one section of the efficiently organized farmstead to another, visiting first the quadruplets, watched over jealously by their mother, a comely ewe. The owner handed one of the tiny lambs to me, its wiry hair far coarser than I’d imagined. I hugged the tiny body to my chest, suddenly feeling maternal, remembering the birth of my son, and what pure joy I felt at holding that small helpless body close to mine.
The rest of the sheep hovered, all females, except for the one ram locked away in his own enclosure, bright eyes seeking connection. Baahing occasionally, but basically just waiting to see what this new human would do, the herd waited. With each click of the shutter, I could see their faces staring at mine.
Soon the braver of the bunch inched forward and sniffed at me, as high as their muzzles could reach.
And then we moved toward the feeding trough. Lumbering behind the owner, the famished sheep pushed and shoved each other, sneaking bites from the bales as he lugged the heavy bundles out of the barn.
As they dove into the hay, the sheep forgot all about me.
But I didn’t forget about them.
In the days that followed, I spent a lot of time thinking about how they acted, what their faces expressed, what they did. I never eat mutton or lamb, but I thought about that, too. About how people eat the flesh and drink the milk of these animals.
I can honestly say that I experienced something quite calming, Zen-like even, in the short period of time that I spent with those sheep on their home ground. As I wrote to the owner, “It seems that humans and animals must be together.”
Of course, I am not the only person to feel this way.
Roy Andries de Groot, one of the more well-known food writers of the 1960s to the early 1980s, once visited a sheep farm near Roquefort, France. After a long, leisurely tour, his hosts offered him a glass of fresh sheep milk, perfumed – he believed – with the aroma of the “wild sweet clover, the sage and thyme, the verbena” that the sheep munched on a high wind-swept plateau festooned with limestone rocks.
“At that moment,” he wrote, “I believe I knew why, all my life, I had so much loved the cheese of Roquefort.”
Unlike DeGroot, I really do not much like mutton, lamb, or sheep’s milk cheese. By the way, it has nothing to do with the fact that as a child I used to sing “Mary had a Little Lamb.” I regret this terribly, feeling that it reflects poorly on my palate and my claims to be a connoisseur of food. So, you might well ask, why do I persist on writing about a topic so “distasteful” to me?
My only defense is to say that one must not necessarily swim to write about swimming, although it helps to have some experience.
I believe that the foods we eat tie us to the past, but they can also separate us from that past.
Mutton is one such food. Although most early U.S. settlers came from England, where lamb and mutton held great sway at the dinner table (at least among certain classes), the meat did not remain a major food item as the years went by. The United States has basically been a cattle culture, for a number of reasons.
Thus I am able to name several breeds of cattle, but I cannot do the same when it comes to sheep breeds, of which there are many, many more than I ever dreamed of. It’s not surprising that I grew up ignorant of these animals, among the first to be domesticated and descended from Asiatic mouflons.
But I am getting ahead of myself here.
My family never ate mutton or lamb when I was a child. Never.
And my ignorance of mutton became painfully apparent one night in the communal cafeteria at the small college I attended as an undergraduate. I chose one of the three entrées available – big slabs of brown meat with an enticing-looking green sauce. Beef with some sort of parsley sauce, I figured. My disappointment began with the first bite of meat. I spit it out on the plate, while my friends stared at me, rightfully disgusted.
One murmured, “Don’t you like mutton with mint sauce?” In reply, I stuck my napkin in my mouth to wipe out the thick, gluey taste of the fat.
Unfortunately, the dining-hall rules stipulated that if you wanted more food or seconds, tough luck – you ate what the servers gave you the first time. No going back. So I managed to eat some potatoes and creamed corn and to drink some milk. Later that night I dug into my thin wallet and bought a candy bar and a Coke. And I spent the night in the equivalent state of going to bed without my supper. Shame on me.
Testimony, yes, to the power of food habits and food aversions. I doubt that there are finicky eaters when death lurks outside the door, threatening starvation, but countless stories abound about how people refuse to eat unfamiliar food even during famine conditions.
My real introduction to mutton and lamb came when I spent two years in Morocco, where of course I could only buy pork in an unmarked shop not far from the main market, a house really, owned by a French woman. The sole way you’d know the shop even existed was if someone in the Embassy or ex-pat crowd showed you where to find the door, hidden as it was by a cascading wall of green tendrils of some sort of ivy.
At certain times of the year, the streets echoed with the voices of sheep, crying out as knives slit their throats, and butchers moved from house to house, slaying the animals in preparation for Aid-el-Kebir [see video linked below] and other feast days. Other times, I would follow herds of sheep down narrow sandy roads, the sheeps’ heavy tails swinging as they ambled along, caked with dirt and manure, plump with the unctuous fat so prized by Moroccans.
At Embassy dinner parties, I nibbled at mutton tagines and picked at broiled lamb chops served to me, but without relish, as much as I wanted to love it all. And yet I knew that I was depriving myself of something wonderful because of my prejudice against mutton.
So why did I, a descendant of the mutton-loving English settlers who carved out the first permanent English settlement in the New World at Jamestown, grow up without ever having even having tasted mutton? How did a perfectly good source of protein and meat become sidelined in American culinary culture?
The question is not unlike a Zen koan, a paradox to meditate upon.
At Jamestown, John Smith mentioned that cattle and sheep would not do well in the New World, at least not at first, because of the lack of pasturage. But cattle importation took place anyway, including in Williamsburg, Virginia, and we all know about the cowboys of the American West. That mutton formed a vital part of the English diet becomes apparent when skimming through early cookbooks.
As I read more about the place of sheep (lamb, mutton) in the history of American cuisine, I found that mutton shows up regularly in American cookbooks throughout the nineteenth century, beginning with the late eighteenth-century work of Amelia Simmons, American Cookery (1796). Later cookbooks like Fanny Farmer’s comprehensive tome carry far fewer recipes for mutton. And, then, lamb appears in twenty-three recipes in Gourmet’s cookbook published in 2004 and edited by Ruth Reichl.
In Martha Washington’s manuscript cookbook – one handed down by various female relatives and dating from the early seventeenth century – I read of an ancient recipe titled “To Roste a Shoulder of Mutton with Blood,” where the cook wraps the blood-soaked meat with a caul, a sort of meaty take on the original recipe for coq-au-vin. In the same book, I came across a recipe similar in many ways to Joseph Cooper’s 1654 recipe for boiling mutton, which is as follows:
How to Boyle a Joint of Lamb:
Boyle your Lamb in Water and Salt: For the Sauce, take some of the Broth which boyled it, and put it into a pipkin with Verjuice, Mace, three or foure Dates, and handful of Raisins … and sweet herbs, these being boyled together enough, beating up with Butter, a handful of scalded Gooseberries, and a little Sugar, if you finde it too sharp; dish the Lambe, and sippit it. (Note: Sippits were small pieces of toasted bread used as sops.)
It would take the Westward movement to partially revive the sheep culture of the early English settlers – many of whom came from sheep-raising clans on the northern border of England. But by then it was too late for the meat to become popular on a large scale. Wolves and Indians moved in on the sheep, which decimated the flocks, along with the lack of pasturage mentioned by John Smith. And the Sheep/Range Wars of the American West, heavy with issues surrounding fencing and grazing, also worked to discourage the continuation of the English sheep culinary tradition of the English colonists who settled the East Coast.
The Zen-like story of mutton – so ancient, and so tied up with Western spirituality, too – provides another example of how humans attempted to provide food for the lean days that always came. Many, many cuisines place this meat at the center of traditional dishes. Just consider India’s Mutton Rogan Josh or Morocco’s Kefta Mkaouara, the latter a gorgeous dish thick with lamb meatballs smothered in a lustrous and fragrant tomato sauce.
I must try again, for perhaps I will eventually become enlightened enough to love mutton. Or at least a lamb chop or two.
To be continued: Preserving Food Preserves Life: Some Insights into Preservation and Cooking Methods for Mutton and Lamb
References and Further Reading:
Note: A large number of people now write memoirs about farming, in much the same way that people wrote about cooking in restaurants or overseas in renovated farmhouses in Italy or France.
Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America, by Virginia DeJohn Anderson, (Oxford University Press, 2006)
The Art of Cookery Refin’d and Augmented, by Joseph Cooper (London, 1654 – was head cook to Charles I)
Origins of Agriculture in Western Central Asia: An Environmental Archaeological , Study, by David R. Harris (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010)
Sylvia’s Farm: The Journal of an Improbable Shepherd, by Sylvia Jorrin (2005)
A Description of the Feroe Islands, by G. Landt (1810)
The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd, by Mary Rose O’Reilly (2001)
Trafficking in Sheep: A Memoir, by Anne Barclay Priest (2006)
The Virginia House-wife, by Mary Randolph (1824) (edited by Karen Hess, 1991)
The Atlantic Islands, by K. Williamson (1948)
Video of Aid-el-Kebir (graphic)
‘Waste Not, Want Not’: Food Preservation from Early Times to the Present Day, edited by C. Anne Wilson (1991)
© 2013 C. Bertelsen
Meat eating presents modern society with a bit of a dilemma.
How to raise and slaughter large numbers of animals under humane conditions, while keeping the price down and within wallet reach of most consumers?
That’s the major issue, tinged with other, often moralistic, questions.
First, right up front, I am not a vegetarian, and never will be, despite having fumbled with the idea a few times.
My first experience with vegetarianism came about chiefly out of curiosity. The central dining hall (think cafeteria) at my small liberal arts college – inundated with requests for vegetarian offerings – came up with horrendous concoctions like canned pinto beans in tomato sauce. Never known for toothsome gourmet delights even when plopping traditional meat and potatoes on dinner trays, the management scrambled to find any palatable dishes without meat and failed miserably. Hard-cooked eggs and yogurt predominated.
I soon, and quite happily, reverted to the sin of being a carnivore.
Many years later, I experimented with vegetarianism again: I cooked and ate only a vegetarian/fish diet during Lent. By the end of six weeks, I lost five pounds without even trying, certainly a testimony to one of the positive benefits of such a diet. But, and there is always a but, since at least two sides surround every situation, don’t you know it: I walked around exhausted, too tired to participate easily in many of my normal activities.
Once I started eating meat again, my body perked up, or so it seemed. Since I took a vitamin supplement with iron at the time, I doubted that anemia caused my fatigue.
For this reason, and others too complicated and numerous to delve into here, I am a firm believer in the powerful importance of meat in human diets.
Meat has had such a bad reputation in the food world over the last decade. A stampede toward non-meat-based diets colors most food writing these days. Veganism might work for a lot of people, or even pescetarianism (where vegetarians eat fish as well as plant matter), though I cannot quite fathom the latter, oxymoronism at its best, especially when considering farmed fish.
Fortunately, the work of authors like Bruce Aidells and Michael Symons represents a welcome backlash against the prissy dismissal of a food that people in many parts of the world would dearly love to eat every day and not just at feasts or in small bits scattered throughout rice-based dishes or in sauces. I can’t forget that in much of Paraguay, Haiti, and parts Africa where I lived, I could not always buy meat. Meat was scarce in the the markets for a very simple reason: no one had animals available for slaughter. And when word went out that some meat appeared as if by a miracle in the village market, hanging from a hook in the open air with flies feasting on the choice parts, why, it was time to fly out the door and get down to the market as fast as possible.
Where no religious restrictions on meat-eating exist, most humans crave it. Feasts often center around the ritual slaughter of animals. Age-old dishes and customs attest to the human need and search for animal protein.
Note well that word: Ritual. And, yes, sacrifice.
It’s one thing to look an animal in the face and know that its future includes slaughter. It’s another thing to look at the rows of antiseptically wrapped and packaged meat in any grocery store and remember how life ended for those animals, often raised under harsh conditions.
Where’s the reverence there?
The reality of farming today, with large populations needing food, means industrialized agriculture is here to stay, no matter the number of small organic farming operations run by talented people. Their message reminds us of our fragile tie to the earth and the sacrifice of animal lives. Not that this means anthropomorphizing animals, but just recognizing their gift, their sacrifice.
So the next time you casually toss a package of chicken legs or a steak into your grocery cart, pause for a few moments. Think of what you’ve just done.
© 2012 C. Bertelsen
Oh!—fruit loved of boyhood!—the old days recalling,
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!**
Every October, a nearby farm family celebrates the harvest by opening up their land to the surrounding community. Hundreds of cars converge, parking in empty fields, and thousands of people traipse across pumpkin patches, testifying to the power that the earth still holds over us.
And what joy to swirl around 360 degrees, surrounded by wide open fields, with acres of bright orange pumpkins glistening in the hot noon sun.
Tractors huff and puff by, breaking the peace of the moment, hauling people back and forth from the main road to the fields, churning up clouds of pale brown dust.
At the top of a slight rise, I look over a sprawling field dotted with even more orange orbs. Hazy blue mountains frame the sky. And then, my eye pulls away from the horizon. I notice something that doesn’t become apparent until the end of the growing season, at the harvest. Large green leaves – characteristic of most squash plants – usually hide the snaking vines connecting the pumpkins to their mother plant, like vast networks of umbilical cords.
But when the earth says, “Enough,” and the sun fades in the sky, plants wither and animals slow down, gathering strength for what could be starving times.
Yards and yards of pale green vines cover the ground, twisting through the pumpkins. I only need to lean down and pick up whatever pumpkin calls to me. How to choose among the hundreds of specimens lying expectantly in the dirt? The farmer had conveniently cut the pumpkins from the vines, stopping growth, making things manageable for the agritourists like me.
The large gaping maw of a rotting pumpkin stops me in my tracks. What a contrast between it and the others still brimming with life.
I bend down to better see the destruction, the putrefaction. The slimy, oozing kind. I long for a few paper towels. Then I could touch the center of this once majestic vegetable, now reduced to melting like the Wicked Witch of the West.
I choose none, dreading the walk back to the road bogged down by the weight of a pumpkin that would only do what nature intended, spoil unless eaten, wasting away.
When I return home, I ponder the significance of autumn for me, free of the frantic urge to preserve food against decay demonstrated by that pumpkin. And I sense once more the struggle of my ancestors as they coped with the cycles of life, illuminated both by light and darkness.
**John Greenleaf Whittier wrote “The Pumpkin” in 1850.
© 2012 C. Bertelsen
The Catholic Church influenced many things, even (especially?) agriculture, as this passage from History of the English Landed Interest: Its Customs, Laws, and Agriculture, by Russell Montague Garnier (1908) 2nd. ed, vol. 1, implies. The monastery libraries also held much treasure, opening up the monks to the wonders of old knowledge and enabling them to forgo reinventing the wheel, so to speak:
The agriculture of the neighbouring Church lands would be closely watched and imitated by the lay farmers. Advice would be solicited from and often proffered by the monastic husbandmen; and even a right to interfere could be claimed by those whose tithe charge gave them a stake in the layman’s industrial efficiency. But if further evidence of Church influence be needed, it is afforded by the general use of saints’ days to denote the dates of all agricultural operations. The year began on Lady Day; it was Hoketide when fallows should be broken up; Martinmas was the day for slaughtering the winter’s meat; from the feast of St. Luke to Holy Cross day were the inclusive dates for sheltering in stalls the most valuable livestock. The most important commercial transaction of the year, the fair, was fixed on the anniversary of the local saint’s day. Rogationtide (a custom originating in France during the fifth century) was the period of the “gauging” or beating the parish rounds, which impressed the public mind with the sacredness of proprietary rights, the principles of God’s fee,1 and the necessity for invoking God’s blessing on man’s labour; finally, harvest was considered incomplete without the solemn assembly round the village cross for purposes of prayer and praise. Even to this day there is an echo of these old and pious observances. Thus the chief rent days are more recognised as Lady-day and Michaelmas than the particular dates in March and September when-these events occur.
There is little doubt that almost every one of the thirteenth- century manuscripts, to which in an earlier part of this work we had occasion to refer, was the result of ecclesiastical pens, and the Latin law book Fleta, said to have been written by a judge imprisoned in the Fleet about 1290, contains so much valuable advice on the management of land, the cultivation of crops, the use of manures, and the sowing of seeds, that it is more natural to attribute it to a monkish source. Then, too, there is the translation of Palladius, an anonymous manuscript dating from early in the fifteenth century, and in all probability the product of some religious house in the neighbourhood of Colchester. Here is a treatise on agriculture so advanced in erudition and scholarship as to have been considered worthy by Milton to be ranked with those of Cato, Varro, and Columella. There is little doubt that the mediaeval monks had access to all these authors, as well as Pliny, Virgil, and others. They had but to refer to the pages of the first- named writer to learn the uses and cultivation of the cucumber, cabbage, lettuce, radish, parsnip, turnip, and other now well-known garden vegetables, to say nothing of the many orchard and field products mentioned therein.