1950s Archive

Lamb of the Spring

Originally Published April 1951

He who has been raised in a rural hamlet, who has picked his way over rutted roads gradually softening under springtime's suns, who has watched for nature's reawakening in field and wood lot, knows what I mean when I speak of spring's gifts having a soft and gentle sweetness. Hawthorne, violet, all the woodland flowers, are small and sweet, the budding leaves softly green. Rain and winds become more gentle, too, and the sun sheds a soothing warmth as different from summer's scorching rays as a goose-down pillow from a Chinese headiest.

But anyone raised in a food-loving country like France becomes aware at a very tender age that, entrancing as are the sights and scents of spring, there arc more tangible delights coming daily out of the springtime kitchen. He knows that only in spring are the dandelions and salad green so tiny, tender, and sweet, that no other asparagus has so distinctive a savor as the first spears that push their way through the spring soil. The gourmet knows that only in spring can he have les oeufs de vanneau cueillis dans les marécages; les fraises des bois, la petite reine des desserts; et, naturellement, l' agneau de Pâques—plover eggs gathered in waterside marches; wild strawberries known as the little queen of desserts; and, of course, Easter lamb.

Some call it l' agneau de Pâques, others, l' agneau pascal. Both mean Easter lamb, which, in turn, refers to something very special in eating: the tiny animal not old enough to graze or, at least, not allowed to, but nourished on milk. Lamb in this very young slate is available only for a short period, but it is sought after by everyone in France and is the pièce de résistance of all the hotels and restaurants, appearing on the more elaborate menus as baron de Pauil-lac à la grecque Mireille or in other delectable guises.

France is not alone in using lamb as a spring food symbolic of Easter. Most European countries use lamb in some of their traditional observances with religious significance. In Biblical history, it was the blood of a fresh-killed lamb, “without blemish, a male of the first year,” which was used to mark the doorposts of houses which the Lord would “pass over” when he smote down the first-born of Egypt. This was the last scourge visited upon Pharaoh for restraining the Israelites from starting their tiek into the Promised Land. The lamb itself was roasted and eaten according to a ritual that directed: “Eat not of it raw, nor sodden at all with water, but roast with fire.” Unleavened bread was also part of this ritual, which caused the Passover Feast to be known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

And because this all happened in the spring, it has been a springtime observance of the Jewish people ever since. It was the Passover which the Savior came to Jerusalem to celebrate when he gathered his disciples together for the Last Supper. The church consequently made that anniversary the most important fast day in the Christian year, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday became the feast day, a day when lamb is as essential to most Europeans as pancaes on Shrove Tuesday.

In Russia, Holy Saturday was the clay on which the devout served the roast lamb, although not until after the midnight mass, in the days of the czars. This special supper, as described to me by Mr. Pivert, a well-known chef in St. Petersburg, was very much like the French Christmas Eve, or réveillon, a kind of prelude to the feast day which follows. The lamb for this repast also had to be blessed by the archbishop or another high dignitary of the Orthodox Church. And it had to be seasoned with “purified” salt, the significance of which I have never learned, but it was important enough for every restaurant and hotel as well as every private home where the supper was served to go to considerable trouble to prepare. Purified salt was made by pounding together egg whites and salt to make a thick paste. wrapping this in cheesecloth, and heating it over a fire until the cheesecloth had entirely disappeared. A rocklike substance remained which was pounded until it would go through a fine sieve. Either a small lamb was roasted whole, or else the baron, which is that cut comprising the choice parts—the back, saddle, and two legs—all in one piece, was used. There were other delicacies served, usually cold roast capon and ham, colored and decorated eggs, a special Russian cheesecake, and a cake called kulitch (see GOURMET, March, 1951), which is similar to the French baba.

With so much of the tradition of lamb in my background, I was naturally surprised when I came to this country to find that ham was more the custom in early spring. I concluded that probably the climate had Something to do with it and that in Colonial times not many lambs actually saw the light of day before Easter because spring was late and cold in so many sections. And that eating them was too great an extravagance when the wool from the grown sheep was needed for winter clothing. It is probable. too. that the hams so carefully and thriftily cured in the autumn were at their best. In any case, tradition was built up around the serving of ham rather than lamb in the spring.

Today, there is statistical evidence that for every hundred pounds of pork products that come to market, only about four and one-half pounds of lamb arrive. And I understand, too, that 75 to 80 per cent of all the lamb produced is eaten in the metropolitan New York area. If this is true, then the rest of the country doesn't eat as much as one pound per person per year, hardly enough for one annual dinner of roast lamb. Why is such a delectable meat not in greater demand ?

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