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a market for mutton “would change everything”

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by Sophie Mendelson

My grandfather likes to tell a story about a family gathering during my early childhood. It’s somebody’s birthday, and my extended family is gathered around a long table in the dim mid-afternoon light of a Baltimore tavern. The waitress comes to the table to take our orders. The adults ask for straightforward fare: hamburgers, club sandwiches, caesar salads. Then the waitress turns to four-year-old me and asks what I’d like. “And you, in your piping voice, say: the rack of lamb, please!” He chortles. “That waitress could hardly believe her ears!”

Growing up, I thought people ate beef because they couldn’t find any lamb. Why else, I figured, would someone choose a boring steak over the heat-crisped exterior, rosy interior—tender and juicy and with a flavor actually particular—of a lamb chop?

My parents weren’t from Greece or Lebanon or anywhere else known for its affinity for sheep meat, but somehow they had discovered lamb, and so we ate lamb. We ordered it at restaurants. We served it to guests. It wasn’t a mundane meal for us, still a treat, but not an unusual one.

As it turns out, this is not the typical American relationship with lamb. According to the USDA, the typical American eats only about 0.7 pounds of lamb a year. But this average is somewhat misleading, making it seem like every American nibbles three hamburgers-worth of lamb annually. In reality, some Americans eat a lot more than 0.7 pounds of lamb in a year, and some eat a lot less. Make that a lot less: a 2015 report on lamb consumption from Mintel found that more than half of Americans older than eighteen don’t eat lamb at all.

But what makes us even weirder to the global eye than our incomprehensible lamb aversion is the fact that we don’t eat mutton.

This makes us—Americans—pretty weird in the eyes of the rest of the world. If you Google “lamb, America,” five of the first seven hits are articles with titles on the variation of, “Why don’t Americans like lamb?” But what makes us even weirder to the global eye than our incomprehensible lamb aversion is the fact that we don’t eat mutton.

Lamb is to mutton as veal is to beef. The former refers to meat from an animal less than a year old, and the latter to meat from yearlings and older. While we’ve decided it’s a terrible thing to eat a baby cow, with sheep we turn our noses up at the mature animal. When looking at meat that’s raised humanely and allowed to move about freely throughout its life, this value judgment based on animal age doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Cristina Garcia, chef at the Farm School’s Program for Visiting Schools, points out that age of slaughter varies hugely across the range of animals that we raise for food: “Typically pigs are sent to slaughter at around 5-6 months, meat goats at 3-5 months, lambs at 6-8… our veal (kept with their mothers) at 3-6 months. Beef cattle are usually over a year… most chickens are processed after less than 2 months.”

Garcia thinks that people want lamb because they associate youth with tenderness—one of the most coveted characteristics for meat in the United States over the past few decades.  Pair that association with federal-level policies that favored beef (“It’s what’s for dinner!”) and pork (“The other white meat”) over mutton (which, in its canned state, formed a despised component of WWII soldiers’ rations), and you get a consumer base wary of sheep meat.

America’s conditioned distaste for mutton has a big impact on small-scale sheep farmers, particularly those committed to raising entirely grass-fed animals. Here’s why:

In New England, where I’m located, the grazing season is relatively short, lasting only May through October. “It is difficult to raise a lamb up large enough to make money in the time that we have,” says Josh Pincus, livestock manager at the Farm School. This is because small animals are less efficient when you compare cost of production to yield, and also because there are fewer buyers for small animals: Garcia says a chef at the Cambridge restaurant Oleana told her she won’t buy New England lamb because it isn’t large enough.

Farmers seeking to maximize lamb growth under such limiting conditions must choose between bad options: winter lambing, which extends the growth period but exposes vulnerable lambs to severe cold, or grain feeding, which fattens lambs quickly but is expensive and introduces a whole suite of health concerns for animals evolved to eat grass.

A market for mutton, though, “would change everything in sheep production,” Pincus says. “I believe that size of the animal is the only limiting factor, and that in all other regards, sheep can be and should be a very profitable enterprise.”

If farmers could raise yearling sheep up to full size, as they do with beef, then they would be able to produce significantly more meat per animal (and per slaughter fee) while maintaining a grass-fed diet. “I would imagine raising lambs up until the fall after their first birthday, so about 18 months,” Pincus says. Even accounting for the extra hay needed to carry yearlings through a winter, he predicts this practice would boost the profit margin for New England sheep.

But would people want to eat yearling sheep? Garcia thinks that the negative perception of mutton is already changing. “Chefs are introducing it onto menus and from there home cooks will follow.” Eating across the animal age spectrum, Garcia points out, “is just a different form of nose to tail,” and it’s something that consumers truly interested in sustainability should be excited to see on the menu—and ultimately, in their shopping baskets.

Cooking delicious mutton is not difficult. There are just two key steps: a long, slow braise, and skimming off the fat that renders in the process. “So much of the gamy flavor [of mutton] lives in the fat, so knowing that helps a lot,” Garcia explains. “I recommend braising and then chilling overnight so the fat solidifies on the top and is easily removed.” For the braise, Eliza Thomson, another chef at the Program for Visiting Schools, likes to let the meat sit overnight in a dry rub of herbs and spices and then cook it in the oven at a low temperature in an acid-forward liquid for about eight hours. The result is a mellow-flavored, meltingly tender cut, perfect for topping polenta or creamy grits.

“Mutton is awesome,” Thomson says. She speaks from experience: because the Farm School can’t sell it’s cull ewes as lamb, most of that meat goes to the Program for Visiting Schools, where it’s served to a rotating cast of school children from throughout New England. And the reaction from these kids, supposedly the pickiest eaters around? “They love it.”

Sophie Mendelson is a student at the Learn to Farm Program at the Farm School  which offers a year-long, work-based, experiential immersion in the practical skills of diversified, sustainable farming. You can follow her, and her fellow student farmers, throughout their year learning to farm on their blog, Field Notes from Maggie’s Farm. Read more of Sophie’s writing on the Greenhorns BlogHuffington Post and in Modern Farmer.  

Now in its 28th year, the Farm School in Athol, MA provides comprehensive educational programming in agriculture for youth, visiting schools, and adults. (Read more on their programming here!) Watch for more original posts on this blog from Sophie Mendelson, a student in their Learn to Farm Program, talented writer, and past and future farmer.

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