Like most Americans, Marjorie Meeks-Bradley did not grow up eating lamb. Although her mother was an early proponent of the Slow Food movement and cooked from Alice Waters’ cookbooks, Meeks-Bradley, a northern California native, says that this mostly pasture-raised meat just wasn’t in the picture—or on the plate.
“It always seemed a little exotic,” says the 28-year-old Meeks-Bradley, a chef. But she has embraced it after working at Zaytinya, a restaurant in Washington, D.C., that serves Mediterranean small plates, many of which feature lamb. Now the executive chef at Ripple, also in D.C., she serves dishes from lamb ragù to lamb tartare—finely diced raw lamb that she seasons with juniper berries and mustard seed.
“I enjoy working with it,” she says. “I especially love the leg, which is what I use to make the tartare. We sell out of it every night.”
Maybe that’s because lamb is slowly coming into its own. Meeks-Bradley and other chefs in a handful of cities from D.C. to San Francisco are showcasing the meat on their menus and participating in “lamb crawls” and “lamb jams”—events sponsored by the American Lamb Board to highlight the meat’s virtues. Restaurants offer samples, chefs square off in friendly cooking competitions, and there are lamb butchery demonstrations.
But lamb has a tough road. Americans eat less than a pound of lamb per person per year, compared with 54 pounds of beef, says Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board. Forty percent have never even tried it.
This disconnect exists, Wortman says, despite the fact that many of us have roots in parts of the world in which lamb is a staple—Great Britain, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latin America, the Middle East and Spain, to name a few. The thought of Easter dinner without lamb is, for many, as inconceivable as Thanksgiving without turkey.
Even so, Wortman says, many consumers are put off by lamb’s price (it is generally more expensive than beef, pork or chicken) and are intimidated by the thought of cooking it. “They aren’t familiar with everyday, less-expensive cuts such as shank or sausages or shoulder chops. It’s just not on their radar.” The board also has started a “shepherd-to-chefs” campaign that connects local lamb producers with high-profile chefs in an effort to tap the growing appetite for local and sustainable food.
Craig Rogers, who owns Border Springs Farm in Patrick Springs, Va., is one of those shepherds. His 60-acre farm supplies grass-fed lamb to chefs like Meeks-Bradley, as well as celebrity chefs such as Bryan Voltaggio, a former “Top Chef” contestant, and Sean Brock of Charleston, S.C.’s acclaimed restaurant Husk. Every August for the past three years, Rogers has hosted Lambstock, a three-day, sometimes raucous gathering of chefs, musicians and farm-to-table aficionados. People pitch tents and pass the bourbon and the fire never goes out.
“This is all part of a larger movement in agriculture toward doing things better,” Rogers says.
The history of lamb in the U.S. dates back to the days of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom kept flocks of sheep. In the 19th century, immigrants from Greece, Spain and elsewhere brought their sheep farming traditions with them to the western U.S. and in some cases their descendants continue the tradition.
Both of Florence Cubiburu’s grandfathers were sheepherders who came to northern California from the Basque region of Spain. Her late husband, Jean Cubiburu, also a Basque immigrant, followed a similar path. In the 1970s, Cubiburu says, the family’s ranch consisted of “22,000 sheep, 1,000 cattle and three great kids.”
Today, the kids are grown, and the sheep operation is much smaller— just 3,500 head. The downsizing, Cubiburu says, is the result of a changing market, encroaching development and restrictions on commercial sheep grazing on public land.
“It’s just not feasible to run the sheep numbers that we used to run,” she says.
During the industry’s height in the 1940s and 50s, some 55 million sheep grazed on U.S. grasses. Most of them were raised not for their meat, but for their wool. As synthetic fabrics took over, those numbers dropped, until by 2012 only about 5.3 million sheep remained, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“We lost a lot of producers,” says Angelo Theos, a third-generation Colorado sheep rancher whose grandfather came from Greece. Add to that a perception of lamb as strong-flavored and gamy, which dates back to World War II, when soldiers were fed government-issued canned mutton (adult sheep). Competition from Australia and New Zealand, which account for 50 percent of lamb consumption in the U.S., has also taken its toll.
To survive, savvy shepherds like Theos and Cubiburu have tried to capitalize on America’s growing food consciousness. Both have begun selling directly to high-end retailers, chefs and consumers. Theos grazes his lambs on forage and sells all of them —about 2,400 a year—to Whole Foods Market. Cubiburu sells to both Whole Foods and Niman Ranch, a national distributor of high-quality meat.
The process is “pretty labor-intensive,” says Cubiburu, who has to weigh each lamb and ensure it meets leanness criteria. “My father and grandfather would never have thought of doing it this way, but it works for us.” For her trouble, she gets 30 to 40 cents more per pound than she did when she sold her lambs to a meat processor.
In spite of the challenges, many ranchers and farmers remain optimistic. The number of small producers is actually on the rise, with many now keeping “farm flocks” of a few dozen to a few hundred sheep. In eastern states such as Tennessee, some farmers have replaced tobacco with sheep. And demand from chefs and new immigrants from lamb-centric cultures is changing the face of the business.
“We’re definitely seeing a growing interest and a growing demand for grass-fed lamb,” says Reyes Moss, a sixth-generation Tennessee farmer who keeps a flock of about 200 ewes. “The local food movement is more in vogue than it ever has been, and I believe that is going to increase consumption.”
It’s certainly what turned Craig Rogers from a semi-retired hobbyist into a shepherd. The 53-year-old former university dean initially planned to use his sheep to train border collies for competition. Somehow, he says, “six sheep turned into 600.” In the 10 years since he started Border Springs Farm, the flock has grown to 2,200.
In November, Rogers opened what he believes is the country’s first all-lamb butcher shop, in Washington, D.C.’s Union Market, a collection of high-end food retailers. A second shop is scheduled to open this week at Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. His goal: to make lamb less-intimidating.
“We sell link sausages and lamb hot dogs,” Rogers says. “We tell customers that the only thing they need to cook lamb is olive oil, salt and pepper. Cook it to 135 degrees and it will always be perfect.”
For Tennessee farmer Moss, the moment of truth came when he started serving lamb to his father, who well remembered the government’s canned mutton drive. Says Moss: “He pushed back from the table and said, ‘That’s better than beef, isn’t it?’”
- American Lamb Board
- American Sheep Industry Association
- Mountain States Lamb Cooperative
- Lamb and sheep fact sheet
Butterflied leg of lamb means a fast-cooking piece of meat that is well seasoned in all the nooks and crannies. Olives and mint in the orzo give this recipe, adapted from the American Lamb Board, a Mediterranean flair.
- For the lamb:
- 1 boneless leg of lamb, butterflied
- 8 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 2 teaspoons pepper
- For the orzo:
- 16 ounces (2 cups) orzo pasta, cooked according to package instructions
- 2/3 cup crumbled feta cheese
- 2/3 cup pitted Kalamata olives, halved lengthwise
- 1/2 cup chopped roasted red pepper
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
In a bowl, combine the garlic, rosemary, oregano, oil, lemon juice, lemon zest, salt and pepper. Rub generously over the lamb leg. Place the lamb in a glass dish and cover, or seal in a zip-lock bag. Marinate in the refrigerator 4 to 24 hours.
Remove lamb from the marinade, scraping off excess solids. Run several skewers through the meat to make it easy to handle. Heat the grill to medium-high and cook lamb until medium-rare, about 8 to 9 minutes per side. Remove lamb from heat. Let rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
In a bowl, toss the orzo with feta, olives, red pepper, oil, mint, pepper and salt. Slice meat thinly against the grain; serve with orzo.
This recipe requires 4 to 24 hours of marinating.
The coolness of mint makes a perfect complement to the rich flavor of lamb. Pairing it with dried fruit in the quinoa adds a touch of sweetness. This recipe is adapted from the American Lamb Board.
- For the kebabs:
- 2 pounds ground lamb
- 1/2 cup finely minced onion
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- 3 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 12 skewers (metal or wooden soaked in water)
- For the quinoa:
- 2 cups quinoa
- 1/3 cup chopped dried apricots (about 6 apricots)
- 1/3 cup chopped medjool dates (about 3 large dates, pits removed)
- 4 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
- 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- 2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
- 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the kebabs:
In a large bowl, combine the lamb, onion, garlic, cilantro, parsley, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Mix until well incorporated. Form into 24 oblong patties, about 2 inches long. Thread 2 patties onto each skewer.
For the quinoa:
In a 4-quart saucepan, add quinoa and rinse with cold water 3 times, changing water each time.
After the third rinsing, add 3 cups of water to the quinoa. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, and let cook, about 12 minutes or until all water is absorbed. Remove from the heat and let stand.
Heat a grill or grill pan over medium-high heat. Grill skewers until just cooked through, 2 minutes per side (meat will be pink on the inside). (Skewers can also be cooked under the broiler for 3 to 4 minutes until medium-rare.) Remove from heat; rest for 3 minutes.
Fluff the quinoa with a fork. Toss with apricots, dates, mint, cilantro, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Serve with skewers.