I wonder how many families still prepare lamb for dinner. We did not have it often, although my dad had kept a flock of sheep (about 150) on our ranch. When I was little, he decided to give the cattle to his daughters and the sheep to me and my brother, Jarvis. We assumed the chore of having to shear all of them and to take the lambs to market. I never thought who might be buying them.
The spring “tagging” of the sheep was a challenge. Rounding them up was difficult—seems our fences lacked much in preventative escapes routes for the smarter sheep—if there is such a thing. Most often, they stood stubbornly and defiantly refused to be driven through a wide opened gate. But it is true—if one leads, the rest follow.
Finally, corralled onto a pickup, we hauled the lambs to auction. I always felt badly for the baaing ewes left behind seeing their lambs being driven off to market, but their anguish was soon forgotten as we broke into smiles upon receiving a check from the auction.
The annual chore of shearing was not so much fun either. Seems my brother always had to spend the day in his office, and I was designated to stay with the shearers, tie the fleeces, stuff them into 200-pound sacks and sew them shut. At the end of the day, I was thoroughly coated with lanolin. I wouldn’t require Vitalis for a year. At the end of the day, the shearing was done, my brother smilingly returned, and we loaded the sacks onto the truck and delivered them to Farmers’ Grain. There, we were docked for the thousands of grass burs in the fleeces, of course, but agreed on a price and collected our money.
We split the profits 50-50. It never occurred to me to ask for a bit more for having been with the shearers all day. As for all those lambs we had taken to market, we never wondered why we never had one slaughtered just for us. My mom likely purchased her lamb chops at our local Red and White. But, then again, I guess not having a freezer might have had something to do with that.
I suppose my dad knew what he was doing when he put cattle, sheep, and goats all on one farm. Annual markets varied. Some years cattle did better—other years, wool and mohair did better. The last 20 years has seen a shift from a mohair and wool-driven sheep and goat markets to a larger mix between meat-type and fiber breeds. Our local second vice president of the Texas Sheep and Goat Raisers Association, Rodney Kott, would be able to explain his diversified ranch raising of fine-wool sheep and Angora goats. Nevertheless, the ethnic market has recently been the driving force behind the sheep industry in Texas today. For me, it has been a long time since I had to deal with sheep. I cannot remember when we sold the last of our flock, but I haven’t missed those days yet. Dining on lamb and mutton, however, is an entirely different matter.
Lamb refers to the meat of sheep in its first year. If older than 12 months is called Mutton. Believe it or not, it depends on when the lamb grows its first set of permanent teeth! In some countries, suckling lambs are preferred. These are lambs that have only been feed their mother’s milk. This was formerly popular in England, but the flesh, besides being very pale and tender, lacks flavor. Even a younger mutton, properly called a ‘hogg’ or ‘hoggett’, supposedly lacks a good flavor until quite a bit older. This raises the question as to why lamb or young mutton is preferred at all.
Lamb is a fatty meat, and most cuisines recognize the need for acid ingredient or sauce to ‘cut’ this. It appears red because it has a high myoglobin content, an iron-rich protein found in its muscles. It is generally rich in protein, vitamins, and essential minerals. Lamb is more popular than mutton because it is more tender and has a milder flavor. Yet, studies have shown that the texture of lamb deteriorates with age. As a result, some farmers sell their lambs as young as one-month-old. As a sheep ages, mutton meat becomes very fatty and imparts a stronger flavor, is tougher and chewier. It also contains a much higher omega-3 content if pasture-raised rather than gain-fed. Its higher content of L-Carnosine might mean it helps to protect against cardiovascular disease. In other words, eating lamb is an excellent choice.
Perhaps word of that hasn’t reached all Americans because only 24% were reported eating lamb before Covid-19 struck. Immediately, producers saw a 50% decline in sales of lamb overnight. Then six months into the pandemic all meat sales sky-rocketed. Racks of lamb climbed to around $13.00 per pound. The 2021 wholesale price for boxed lamb loins has risen about 33% higher than the 2015-2019 average. This is all good news for sheep herders.
But lamb has been saddled with a bad rap since World War II. Returning veterans wanted nothing to do with it after years of being fed canned mutton while fighting ‘over there’. It will be interesting to learn if Covid will permanently change American eating habits. Historically, lamb has been a hard sell in the United States and whether the recent epidemic causes Americans to eat more than its historic 1 ½ pounds of lamb per person each year remains to be seen. The recent turnabout was led by adventurous millennial eaters and home chefs willing to spend more time cooking. Lamb is now mentioned most often by young adults. Also, an increase in first-generation Americans from the Middle East and Southern Europe where lamb is closer to being a staple than any other meat may have been a factor in the increase of consumption. Ethnic markets now provide larger amounts of lamb for them. This is all good news for Texas lamb producers, but as restaurants begin to reopen there will be a lot of uncertainty. Meanwhile, for a kinder and gentler introduction into the wonderful world of lamb you might wish to purchase natural ground lamb at our local grocery. Be aware that unlike beef or pork, lamb is more tender and can tend to char and burn quickly. Cook it over a lower heat either on the stovetop or grill in this recipe.
1 pound grass-fed Lamb, separated into 4 patties
1 tsp salt
1 ½ tsp ground pepper
4 burger buns
1 red onion, sliced
4 slices pepper jack cheese
1 can (8 ounces) sliced pineapple, drained
2 Roma tomatoes, sliced
½ cup Fisher & Wieser Charred Pineapple Bourbon Sauce
Divide the ground lamb into 4 patties.
Sprinkle both sides of the patties with the salt & pepper.
Heat your grill over medium-high heat for 12-14 minutes.
When hot, grease the grates with neutral oil (Avocado/Vegetable/Canola).
Brush melted butter onto buns.
Toast the buns for 30 seconds face-down until they are golden brown. Set aside. *
Add pineapple slices to grill and grill for 30 seconds per side (for extra flavor, brush the pineapples with Charred Bourbon Sauce). Pre-cut canned or freshly cut pineapples work perfectly fine. Slice them up ½ inch thick and grill for 30 seconds per side over medium heat on your grill. If baking them, place them in an oven at 425 degrees F for 10 minutes per side.
Add the patties to the grill and cook on each side for 2 to 4 minutes.
Brush patties with Charred Pineapple Bourbon Sauce.
Add the cheese slices to the tops of the burgers.
When the cheese is melted, remove from grill, and allow the patties to rest for 5 minutes.
Assemble the burgers: bun, lettuce, patty, tomatoes, onions, pineapples, bun.
Serve with fries, grilled fruit, or potato chips!
*If using a stovetop, heat medium pan over medium heat. Add patties to pan. Cook 6-7 minutes per side for medium.
By Mark Wieser