A Glass of Wine and a Bit of Mutton*

Sheep 1
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

I believe that the foods we eat tie us to the past, but our foods 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.

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen
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 English 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 and other feast days. Other times, I would follow herds of sheep down narrow dirt roads, the sheeps’ heavy tails swinging as they ambled along, caked with dirt and manure, thick with the unctuous fat so prized by Moroccans.

I ate mutton and lamb, but without relish, as much as I wanted to like it all.

Lamb chops with sage
Lamb Loin Chops (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

And yet I knew that I was depriving myself of something wonderful because of my prejudice against mutton.

So why did a perfectly good source of protein and meat become sidelined in American culinary culture? That mutton formed a vital part of the English diet becomes apparent when skimming through early cookbooks.

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.

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 2004 cookbook edited by Ruth Reichl.

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

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, 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 rich 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: Some Insights into Preservation and Cooking Methods for Mutton and Lamb

*Quote from George Washington

For further reading:

Anderson, Virginia DeJohn. Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America  (Oxford University Press, 2006)

Cooper, Joseph. The Art of Cookery Refin’d and Augmented (London, 1654 – was head cook to Charles I)

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

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

© 2013 C. Bertelsen



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