The Zen of Sheep: More than Just a Photo Shoot

Sheep ear with tag ColorEfex version
Sheep eyes (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

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?

High contrast Ram 4
The watchful ram (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

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.

High structure Trough 7
To the trough! (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Soon the braver of the bunch inched forward and sniffed at me, as high as their muzzles could reach.

At the trough (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)
At the trough (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

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.

High contrast Quad single
One of the quadruplets (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

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.

Sheep 1 BW
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

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.

Sheep face 2
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

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.

Lamb chops with sage BW
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

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.

Lamb chops with sage 2 BW

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)

“A Visit to Roquefort.” In Search of the Perfect Meal, by Roy Andries de Groot, p. 83 (1986)

Origins of Agriculture in Western Central Asia: An Environmental Archaeological , Studyby David R. Harris (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010)

Martha Washington’ s Booke of Cookery, edited by Karen Hess (Columbia University Press, 1995)

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



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