Culinary rule No. 1: Never name any animal you’re planning to eat.
That mistake happened one Christmas Eve on my family’s Acadia Parish farm when a sheep gave birth to twins and we youngsters affectionately named the lambs Merry and Chris. (Lamb is a term for young sheep, generally less than a year old. Mutton refers to older sheep.)
Fast-forward to springtime (aka slaughter time), and, well, you can guess the holy agony we put my father through as we begged for leniency, staunchly refusing to eat what had become our favorite pets.
Daddy might have won us over had he told us that children in other parts of the world enjoy lamb as much as we enjoy hamburgers. And he would have been impressed himself to know that the ancients considered lamb the “most useful [animal] to man as food,” and that sheep production is man’s oldest organized industry.
Depending on who you believe, sheep were domesticated in Iraq or Iran some 13,000 years ago, or in Turkey or Central Asia 10,000 years ago, the same time the word “lamb” sprang from the word “lambiz” in the German language. Man didn’t learn how to spin wool until 3,500 B.C., but he certainly had been eating sheep a long time before.
The Romans introduced sheep to Great Britain 2,000 years ago, and over the centuries, sheep became one of the most important food sources for Europe, Australia, Asia and, especially, the Middle East, by providing meat and milk for butter and cheese.
Wool was also used for clothing, and untanned skins were dried to make parchment for writing.
Sheep entrails were not only eaten, but were often used to foresee the future. Throughout history, lamb has played a large role in organized religion. The Egyptian god Khnum, for example, had the head of a ram, a male sheep.
In the age of human sacrifice, Greeks and Romans often thought sheep sprinkled with human blood made dandy substitutes for a live person, and they killed sheep for appeasing, thanking, and asking favors from gods.
And remember the 1963 fantasy movie “Jason and the Argonauts”? It was based on a legend dating from 800 B.C., about the hero Jason and his followers who searched for the Golden Fleece of a winged ram said to be the offspring of the god Poseidon.
Lamb has also always been important to Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions. During Passover, Jews eat the shank bone, or z’roa, to commemorate the Paschal sacrifice the Israelites offered on the eve of their exodus from Egypt. Christians call Jesus the “Lamb of God,” meaning that He is the perfect sacrifice for sin.
And some Muslims still kill lamb during the observance of Eid-ul-Adha as a symbol of remembering the sacrifice the prophet Abraham made to God as a sign of submission.
As with most Old World foods, sheep found their way to America with the explorers.
Queen Isabella of Spain used money derived from the wool industry to finance the voyages of Columbus, who in 1493 brought a breed of sheep known as churras to Cuba and Santo Domingo.
Good old Chris left his “walking food supply” on the islands, and when Cortez went into Mexico in 1519, he brought along offspring of Columbus’s sheep.
Raised primarily by Navajos and now known as “Navajo-churros,” this bloodline from Columbus’s original sheep is the oldest breed in the U.S.
Lamb has never been as popular in the U.S. as in other parts of the world, and one reason may be because of what was known as the Sheep and Cattle Wars, or the American range wars. Between 1870 and 1920, Western cattlemen battled against sheepherders, who they claimed were destroying public grazing lands. In the end, close to 100,000 sheep were slaughtered. And some food historians believe that a public relations campaign the cattlemen waged to smear the palatability of sheep still lingers.
According to the USDA, in 2012 there were 5.34 million head of sheep and lamb in the U.S. I doubt that any of that number is descended from Merry and Chris.
Although the two didn’t end up on my family’s table, they mysteriously disappeared one day and chances are they made some other diners happy. And your family will be all smiles too when you serve them a well-prepared lamb feast. Only one word of advice — beforehand, don’t get too chummy with the little critters.
Sources: http://www.foodreference.com; Fortin, Francois, Visual Food (1996); http://www.sheep101.com; http://www.foodhistory.pbworks.com; http://www.think-differently-about-sheep.com; http://www.usda01.library.cornell.edu
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’s title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.