Lamb of God

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The dates of Passover and Easter often coincide, causing the U.S. media to utter the messages of “new beginnings” and “spring-time” that are assigned to both holidays in a futile attempt to normalize the two religions. There are always several articles that come out around the weekend of Passover and Easter each year, preaching the commonalities between the two religions along with a mawkish tale of finding “common ground” amongst Seders and Easter dinners held in Jerusalem. This narrative is then used to bring attention to international and domestic issues of religious conflict, most recently in Indiana, with the new and controversial “religious freedom” law. Much could be said about the problematic or beneficial nature of essentializing the two holidays. However, I would like to focus on a topic that is central to both religions yet rarely mentioned—lamb.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service branch describes the typical consumer of lamb as “a relatively well-established ethnic individual”—whatever that may mean. Until going to college, I thought of lamb as commonplace meat, just as typical as pork or chicken. I was wrong. The savory, mouth-watering mammal was nowhere to be found on the menus of restaurants I frequented in L.A., and was not even common in gourmet grocery stores. When I walked into a Whole Foods in Boulder, Colorado, I was told that they “did not carry” lamb.

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The lamb is mentioned in the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an for sacrificial as well as culinary purposes. A lamb shank is placed on the Seder plate to symbolize the sacrifice of the lamb in the Temple in Jerusalem, which was later eaten as part of the meal for the Seder. Roasted lamb is traditionally served on Easter in both the Protestant and Eastern Christian traditions, due to the sacrificial nature of the lamb in the book of Genesis. Almost 2 million lambs are sacrificed at the end of the Hajj each year, in the Islamic tradition. So why has this holy animal been seized from our plates and local markets?

The market for lamb in the United States has decreased drastically since the 1960s. Per capita consumption of lamb has dropped 20 percent, and the sheep industry accounts for less than 1 percent of U.S. livestock operations. Globally, the U.S. ranks below most countries for sheep consumption, and one study even claims that half the country has never tried lamb. Logistically, the decrease in sheep production makes sense: sheep are notorious for wandering, and because modern farms are rarely fenced in it is more efficient to produce chicken or pork. But this does not explain the geographical polarization of lamb consumption to the Northeast.

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Platter with seasoned lamb meatballs. Cafe Rimon, Jerusalem.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture claims, “The Northeast, with its high concentrations of Middle Eastern, Caribbean, and African consumers, is a major market for lamb products.” Peter Orwick, executive director of the American Sheep Industry Association assigns lamb consumption to “ethnic”, non-Americans. “It’s ethnic communities. Every major metropolitan city in the U.S. has a large immigrant neighborhood…where are the people coming from? Where they prefer lamb. It’s their meat…”

This seems particularly bogus to me considering that immigration to the U.S. has increased exponentially as lamb production and consumption has decreased. Additionally, the USDA attributes “Middle Eastern, Caribbean, and African consumers” as primary lamb consumers while New Zealand, Iceland and Australia account for the most consumption of sheep products per capita.

Maybe we will never know why the Northeast consumes more lamb than the West or the South. There is certainly some ethnocentrism clouding the judgment of meat consumption “experts.” Regardless, I hope everyone—no matter their religious or dietary affiliation—enjoys some lamb this weekend. Says my taste buds, “It is truly the holiest meat.”

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