It all started with a couple of beers and a heated discussion about humans forgetting where our food comes from. Two months later, I found myself emerging from the starlit darkness along a rocky driveway, into a clearing with a farmhouse bathed in warm light at the end. I found a grassy patch by the garage to park the rented SUV and hopped out, taking in a deep breath of sweet unpolluted air that smelled damp and fresh, seasoned with the unmistakeable aroma of grilled beef.
As I walked up the steps of the wraparound porch, I was greeted by a table full of food and smiling unfamiliar faces all looking up at me as though I were Moses about to part the Red Sea. What miracle were these friendly strangers expecting of me?
Rewind two months to that heated discussion I was telling you about. Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution had recently brought to light a classroom-full of kids who couldn’t identify a tomato, but knew exactly what ketchup was. I was taking a beer fueled stand that as omnivores who ate other living animals, we should should be comfortable with what we eat before it’s been skinned, deboned, and mixed with salt, fat and a cocktail of unpronounceable chemicals. It was my belligerent stance that if being faced with a whole animal was so repulsive, then we shouldn’t be eating meat at all.
Four pints of Belhaven Ale in, I’m not sure who made the proposal, but the idea was raised that we should slaughter and cook our own lamb at my friend Tom’s family farm in the Berkshires. As it turns out, for the lamb to be tender, it has to be slaughtered ahead of time, so Tom went up to Hidden Pasture Farm, in nearby Pownal Vermont two days before the roast, and bagged the carcass, blood, head, hooves, and all the organs. All the carnage laid neatly wrapped in plastic in a spare fridge, awaiting a miracle worker to turn them into a dinner for a group of diners who had probably never seen a whole lamb before.
To be perfectly honest, I’d never cooked anything larger than a leg of lamb before, but I couldn’t dash the hopes of these eager eaters, so I kept this minor detail to myself. We had a delicious meal on the veranda that night, surrounded by the sound of a nearby steam and a field full of lightning bugs flashing like an arena full of paparazzi.
After dinner, we headed up to the barn to check out the lamb. As I opened the fridge my eyes fell on a grisly site that looked like a crime scene. Each organ was neatly bagged, and the massive carcass laid cradled at the bottom of the refrigerator, topped with a bag of its own blood.
If the lamb were going to be properly seasoned, I knew it would at least a day to absorb the flavors, so I got to work making a rub out of garlic, olive oil, salt, brown sugar, celery seed and cumin. While everyone seemed a bit shy at first, it wasn’t long before we were all elbow-deep, rubbing down the 75 pound lamb with spices. Even the vegetarians in the group came down to watch.
Lamb seasoned, we grabbed a bottle of tequila and headed out to a muddy field were there was a pile of wood big enough to build a treehouse with. Soon we had a roaring bonfire, and as we all stared into the mesmerizing flames, I’m sure some of us were contemplating the weight of the task ahead.
The next morning, I awoke in the loft of a converted nineteenth century barn, with sunlight beaming through the windows, piercing my restful sleep. It was as though some higher power were shining a spotlight on me, trying to expose me as a lamb roasting fraud. Feeling slightly guilty, I headed out to the kitchen to cook everyone breakfast and found that the water tasted better, the eggs were brighter and the bacon tasted smokier here in the Berkshires. Everyone enjoyed their breakfast on a sunny deck overlooking the pristine valley where the farm was situated and all seemed right in the world.
After breakfast, Tom and crew headed down to the creek with an auger and chainsaw to build the spit. Meanwhile, I got started in the kitchen. The first task was to cover the marinating lamb with two pints of plain yogurt.
Next, I had to clean the hooves. They were still caked with mud and grass and had a fair amount of fur attached. After struggling a bit with the first hoof and working out a technique in the process, the other three “peeled” pretty easily. I was planning on making a stew with the head, hooves and offal, but I didn’t want it to stink of lamb, so I decided to pre-boil all the pieces to get as much blood out as I could. After the initial boil, I dumped out the murky brown water, scrubbed the pieces of lamb clean of any scum, and added them to a large stock pot with a half dozen onions and heads garlic that had been caramelized with bacon.
After filling the pot with water and tomatoes, and seasoning it with celery seed, cumin, cilantro roots, ancho chiles, and guajillo chilies, I covered it up for an all day simmer. By this time, the sun was high in the sky, and the kitchen was getting very hot. I headed out to see how the spit was coming, and found the guys shooting a rifle at soda cans from about 100 feet.
It had been about 20 years since I’d shot a gun, but it just seemed like the thing to do on a farm, so grabbed the rifle, cocked a shell into the chamber, took aim at the bright red Coke can in the middle, and squeezed the trigger. No sooner had the bullet left the barrel did I see the can go flying in a puff of dust. I was tempted to go for the two cans flanking the one I’d just hit, but I decided to run with my luck, and quit while I was ahead. Besides, there were still five dishes to make, and a lamb to roast.
To be continued…