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Monday, April 10, 2006

Adventures in authentic seasonal food

~Warning:  Occasionally I write posts that vegetarians - as well as people not fully committed to a carnivorous lifestyle - may find er, repulsive.  This is one of those posts.  Don't say you weren't warned.~

In the weeks leading up to Passover we begin seeing some of our favorite seasonal foods featured on the crisp, paper-lined shelves of our local supermarkets.  Of course Matzoh is the first thing that comes to mind when most of us think about Passover staples... but there are a whole range of seasonal cakes, candies and of course macaroons that only seem to make an appearance at this time of year.

However, the original, and most authentic food for this holiday was of course, the Passover offering; a lamb. 

We read every year about the Passover offering in almost every text related to the holiday, but I don't think we pay much attention to the extremely vivid and detailed descriptions of how it would be carefully selected, prepared and completely consumed by the Jewish pilgrims who would flood into Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, since the destruction of the Temple and the abolishing of the Temple service/sacrifices, we do not eat roasted meat of any kind at the Passover Seder.   This has always been frustrating for me because I've been captivated by the the description of many families banding together to bring an unblemished lamb to be sacrificed in the Temple and then sharing in what amounted to a big all-night Luau

Such mental images make even the most fantastic modern Passover food pale in comparison.

We are told that in Temple times that the reason many families would bring the sacrifice together was because of the requirement to consume the entire lamb at one sitting.  That's a lot of meat!  No leftovers were allowed from this feast, and anything not eaten had to be burned immediately. 

Even the plates on which the Passover lamb had been served had to be broken immediately after the meal!

Every year my carnivorous imagination runs wild picturing the hillsides of Jerusalem dotted with fires as clusters of happy celebrants enthusiastically consumed their freshly roasted lambs and loudly retold the story of the Exodus from Egypt to one another. 

With that image clearly in mind, you can imagine my excitement when I got an urgent phone call yesterday morning from a close friend. 

It seems that a long-time Arab friend of his had called him early in the morning to tell him that he wanted to make a gift of a lamb from his flock.  It was a hugely generous and completely unexpected gesture, and my friend was overwhelmed... not to mention at a loss for what to do.


The reason my friend started making phone calls was not simply to relate his good fortune... but also to ask his friends how the heck he was supposed to deal with such a gift!

In more rural/agrarian cultures, the offer of a prize lamb automatically sets into motion a flurry of well-coordinated activity designed to quickly reduce such a windfall to its most basic components. 

However, we suburban Jews don't exactly have a prepared check-list for how to deal with a sudden offer of a live barnyard animal.  As town-dwellers, we don't give much thought to what happens between the image of a fluffy lamb grazing happily on a grassy hillside... and the baby lamb chops that sit nestled under plastic in the glass butcher case. 

So, my friend started making phone calls... to Rabbis, friends, and anyone else who might be able to offer advice on how best to convert this gifted lamb into something that one might reasonably be expected to find in a Styrofoam tray under cellophane. 

Luckily the actual 'silencing of the lamb' had already been arranged as part of the gift and a well known kosher slaughterer was dispatched to the site to 'wack' several other lambs as well. 

Likewise, as part of the necessary kosher inspection/certification of the carcass, the grisly business of removing the skin and internal organs was already well underway by the time my friend arrived on the scene.

But even after this initial processing was completed there still remained something that looked remarkably like the little lamb it had once been... a reality that most meat-eaters never have to confront.

This is where the rest of the friends (including yours truly) were drafted into service. 

The carcass was quartered by a mutual friend of ours who is as strong as an ox... and the hind quarters were given to a skilled butcher with instructions that he would remove the necessary items to make it kosher* and to give the remaining meat to a needy family.

I was drafted to help with soaking, salting and rinsing the meat from the front quarters in order to make it permissible for kosher consumption.  This is a time-consuming process of first soaking the meat in cool water... then salting it with course salt to draw out any remaining blood... and then rinsing it repeatedly to remove any traces of salt. 

Only then were the various sections of the lamb ready to be carved into the recognizable cuts one would see in the butcher case.  The shoulder roasts and legs were cut up and placed in his freezer for safe-keeping, and the ribs were separated and placed in the refrigerator in anticipation of the evening's festivities.

Around 10:30 last night a bunch of us (including some of my friend's neighbors) took a break from our passover cleaning and converged on his back yard where an intoxicating aroma was being produced by the lamb ribs roasting noisily on the BBQ.

As we stood around in the dark with faces and hands smeared with grease, I couldn't help thinking that this was probably very similar to how things looked in ancient times when the passover offering was passed from hand to hand and shared in big communal feasts under the stars. 

OK, so they didn't have gas grills... but for me, eating this incredible gift into the wee hours of the morning helped move the whole concept of this authentic seasonal food from purely theoretical... into the realm of delicious reality.

Sadly, we don't yet merit to eat the Passover sacrifice in the appointed time and place... but I could really get used to this pre-passover reminder of what it must have been like. 

* A nice collection of information about how kosher meat is processed and prepared (including the special care needed for the hind-quarters) can be found here.


Posted by David Bogner on April 10, 2006 | Permalink


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Good practice run - maybe next year it'll be for real.

Who got the sheepskin?

Posted by: Ben-David | Apr 10, 2006 1:15:13 PM

I hope next year it will be for real, but if not . . . I think you may have started a new custom! Awesome! Can you invite me next time?

Posted by: Sarah | Apr 10, 2006 1:24:54 PM

Knowing that you always remember the most traditional condiments...Was there mint jelly too?

Posted by: shmiel | Apr 10, 2006 2:36:07 PM

Of course the actual paschal lamb would've been roasted whole, and then carved up (I can't WAIT to see the "just for Passover" grills that Weber comes up with beyimei hamoshiach), but still pretty cool.

Also, how come nobody remembers that the Passover offering could also be a goat? Don't get me wrong; I love me some lamb chops, but I'm really curious to find out how goat tastes. Besides, The Lovely Wife(tm) grew up with Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop, and would find this post absolutely devastating... :)

Posted by: efrex | Apr 10, 2006 2:46:59 PM

Wow - I could almost taste that from your post. Yum!

I understand that in other denominations roasted meat or lamb is ok in order to commemorate the sacrificial times, as opposed to not being permitted until the Temple is rebuilt. Facinating differences amoungst Jews at this time ofyear. Kitniyot, no kitniyot, gebrochts, no gebrochts.

What a gift your friend got - how neat!

Zissen Pesach to the whole Bogner family!

Posted by: Ezer Knegdo | Apr 10, 2006 3:00:24 PM

Mr B that sounds delectable. can i come next year? i cant kill it, but one of my madrichim can. im just sticking to birds at this point, maybe later in life ill learn animals.

Posted by: Tonny | Apr 10, 2006 3:09:48 PM



My online time will be very scarce the next two days so let me wish you and yours a very happy Pesach.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Apr 10, 2006 4:19:50 PM

OK, I'm curious. What did your friend do to deserve this gift? (Any pretty daughters of marriagable age around? ;)

Posted by: westbankmama | Apr 10, 2006 4:30:45 PM

It's when you write posts like this one that I seriously wonder how we were ever raised in the same household! jeesh... my fault - i ignored the warning and continued to read (kind of like not wanting to see the details of the accident, but not able to avert the eyes!).. NOT the way to start the day off.

Only in Iceland have I eaten lamb (as that IS the meat of choice up there!) and that was just once. Not crazy about eating Mary's little lamb.

Have a sweet Pesach.

Posted by: val | Apr 10, 2006 4:36:26 PM

That sounded deliscious!

Posted by: seawitch | Apr 10, 2006 4:45:20 PM

I stumbled on the Samaritans website last year- they have a photo gallery of the group slaughter and roasting of the passover lambs (Passover 2004,2005, on the right side of the page).

I dunno, I think there's a lot to be said for the plastic-wrapped styrofoam trays! It looks to be an awful messy way of starting a party.

That being said, I had a fabulous butterflied leg of lamb from the supermarket last night, marinated in olive oil, soya sauce, garlic, lemon and rosemary. Yum!

Posted by: Talmida | Apr 10, 2006 4:54:48 PM

Now, that's a nice story - I prefer the gift and friendship part most, and then the BBQ....but I wouldn't have minded actually seeing the rest as well.

Posted by: Account Deleted | Apr 10, 2006 4:57:01 PM

In honor of the lamb I present you with this little ditty that I learned at the tender age of 13.

"Mary had a little sheep,
With the sheep she used to sleep,

The sheep turned out to be a ram,

Mary had a little lamb."

Now pass the mint jelly. :)

Posted by: Jack | Apr 10, 2006 6:22:08 PM

What an awesome gift! And your description... I can almost taste it myself! : P

Have you ever witness the actual slaughtering?

Posted by: Irina | Apr 10, 2006 8:41:51 PM

this entry reminds me of a patient of my husband's who left 2 pheasants (dead) at the surgery whilst he was out, working in hospital. She thought of course that the birds which were shot on her estate would delight him. Not knowing that in order for him to consume food - the food has to be killed by a shochet etc. He sent her a nice thank you letter, but left me to find a way to get rid of the birds. I offered them to a non Jewish colleauge of his - who was thrilled. Weeks later same colleague reported to me that 'once I plucked the birds, it was easy sailing, all I did is cover the bird with butter and roast it...

chag sameach!

p.s. just wondered where the 'zissen Pessach' blessing is from - here in England they wish one another 'a kosheren Paisach' I prefare your version.

Posted by: savta yaffa | Apr 10, 2006 10:29:54 PM

I reckon the Arab guy's the real hero of this story...

Posted by: David (UK) | Apr 10, 2006 10:36:06 PM

another version
'mary had a little lamb,
her doctor was surprised
but when old mcdonald had a farm he couldn't believe his eyes'
is the lamb donor a piano teacher :)
chag kasher vsameach

Posted by: jlmkobi | Apr 10, 2006 10:52:26 PM

jlmkobi - oy oy oy

Posted by: Old Mother Goose | Apr 10, 2006 11:31:20 PM

I'm salivating. Here is a story you would appreciate - when I was a toddler, my dad used to take me and my siblings and identify the animals not by there sounds, but by what cuts of meat you could get from them. Thankfully, my father's chinuch paid off and my husband is proud of his wife who will happily consume a rare steak at any opportunity. My dream is to one day have a barbeque like the one you described above...Chag Sameach!

Posted by: aliza | Apr 10, 2006 11:54:48 PM

Whole roast lamb....mmmmmmh. My father grew up eating at Alustiza's in Stockton CA. The Basque way of slowly roasting a whole lamb over a slow fire. Instructions are here


Not sure how many a whole lamb would feed, probably depends on the dressed weight of the lamb.

Posted by: liz | Apr 11, 2006 4:21:01 AM

As informative as this post was, it only reminded me why I don't eat lamb. I'm too much of a wuss.

I even think our Passover shank bone is just the leg of an abnormally large chicken. Sad, I know.


Posted by: Kate | Apr 12, 2006 6:48:22 PM

Thanks for this post, and thanks to all the commenters. I learned something.

...and became very hungry. :)

Posted by: Stephen | Apr 13, 2006 5:32:12 PM

We'll be in Baka next year--close enough to come over and help you consume a whole lamb should you want to invite your fans to join you....and I'll bring the coffee! Muled in from Italy if necessary!

Posted by: aliyah06 | Apr 16, 2006 8:49:56 AM

It's not quite a Pesach offering. First off, reviewing the mishna, you don't kasher and treiber the meat. It's skinned, the kidney fat and feet are removed as a gift to the Kohen, and it is roasted whole over the fire, on a pomegranate spit from the mouth to the butthole. It's doused with some kind of oil, either trumah (for kohanim) or maaser sheni (for the rest of us). and roasted whole. Not as just ribs. With the hindquarters intact. I don't remember seder Kodshim all that well - is this normal for korbanot, to not need treibering (nikkur)? It certainly wouldn't require kashering, as cooking over an open flame doesn't require kashering.

Posted by: thanbo | Apr 17, 2006 1:08:29 AM

we did the same thing in yeshiva, bought a lamb and had it shechted as part of our shechita class then had it for dinner. you can skip the soaking and slating if u bbq it all right away. it's much much less work!

Posted by: Ed | Apr 21, 2006 9:52:05 AM

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