When the world is in turmoil, it's easier to see differences rather than similarities among religions, cultures and races. Yet, certain beliefs and customs link Jews, Christians and Muslims in ways that are at once humble and significant.
In spring, the symbolic significance of lamb brings these faiths together, if not around the table, then through the Bible and their common origins in the Middle East.
Lamb, as an emblem of sacrifice, plays a role at Passover, Roman Easter and Orthodox Easter (celebrated a week later), as well as at the Muslim Festival of Sacrifice, which took place in February.
For Jews, it is a reminder of the sacrifice of the paschal lamb on the eve of Exodus, when its meat was roasted and hastily consumed and its blood was marked on door posts to deter the Angel of Death.
For Christians, lamb is a symbol of Christ.
For Muslims, the sacrifice of a lamb commemorates Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son; in the Islamic faith it was Ishmael.
For everyone who feels delight in spring and gratitude in Earth's annual rebirth, there is also a precedent set well before the advent of organized religion, when lambs were sacrificed to welcome the new growing season.
Thousands of years later, the connection remains. "There's something about lamb and spring," says Upperco cooking teacher Ilene Spector. A marinated roast of lamb was the centerpiece of a meal she and two other Baltimore cooks prepared at a recent spring holiday cooking class in her home.
Caterer Sandy Spanos, who helped perfect the cooking-class recipe, "couldn't stand lamb" until she ate it with her husband's Greek family in New England. The key to delicious lamb is "in the preparation; the fresh garlic and the oregano and the chopped onion," she says, describing marinade basics.
Lamb need not be roasted. A scan of cookbooks featuring world cuisine reveals tagines, cassoulets, croquettes, ragouts, patties, kebabs and countless other lamb recipes that elevate an otherwise mild meat to a staple, made piquant with herbs and olives, or sweetly tinged with dried fruit.
Faith, custom and culture may determine how lamb is prepared. In Exodus, the final meal of fleeing Hebrew slaves is made clear: "They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs." But variations in how that night is honored abound.
In recognition of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, Conservative and Orthodox Jews "will not eat roast lamb or any roasted meat at Passover because of the bitter memory that the Temple sacrifices are no longer possible," Joan Nathan writes in The Jewish Holiday Kitchen. "Middle Eastern Jews will eat lamb, but never roasted. For many Reform Jews, exactly the reverse is true; roasted lamb or other roasted food is served to commemorate the ancient sacrifices."
For some 3,000 years on the eve of Passover, the ancient Samaritan sect in Israel has slaughtered and roasted lambs on Mount Gerizim.
The wide variety of lamb recipes found in Jewish cookbooks and other sources reflects the variations of Jewish tradition across the Mediterranean. In Tunisia, for instance, lamb stew is a standard Passover dish. A tagine - a Moroccan stew of lamb or chicken simmered with vegetables, olives, preserved lemons, garlic and spices - conjures Passover in another North African country.
The dovetailing of such recipes with Muslim and Christian cuisine can also be attributed to the Mediterranean's arid climate, favorable to the raising of sheep.
Jews, Christians and Muslims have specific requirements for the size, sex, age, means of slaughter and cut of their lamb.
Celebrants of Roman Easter look for milk-fed lambs weighing 30 to 45 pounds, and those who observe Orthodox Easter seek slightly larger milk-fed lambs. In preparation for the Festival of Sacrifice, Muslims want older, male lambs.
A kosher cook must have a cut of lamb that comes from the foresaddle, which consists of the front of the lamb up to the 12th rib. In accordance with Muslim halal dietary laws, a lamb must be slaughtered facing Mecca as a blessing is recited. Only the animal's hindquarter is eaten.
Locally, slaughterhouses such as George G. Ruppersberger & Sons, a wholesale meatpacking company, can provide for kosher and halal methods of slaughter. Because of an exception that allows religious slaughter outside U.S. Department of Agriculture purview, other customers may go straight to the producers for their sheep.
Susan Schoenian, a sheep and goat specialist at the Western Maryland Research & Education Center, grew up on a sheep farm in Howard County, where her parents' Greek customers would arrive a week before Orthodox Easter to choose and slaughter a sheep on the premises.
It was a celebration, but a sacred one. "They would come dressed in a suit and many times have wine and they would be very good at processing," Schoenian says. "They would consume everything but the pelt. They weren't wasteful."
Ridgely Thompson of Thompson Sheep Farm in Westminster still has customers who slaughter lambs on his farm, including a husband and wife of Greek ancestry who want "a 30-pound lamb only. They've [come for] 30 years and she wants it [to fit] in the oven."
The practice is fading, though. "The Greeks have gotten Americanized," Thompson says.
Whole lambs turning on outdoor spits is a common sight in Greece at Easter. Here, that practice seems to be disappearing.
While Greek-Americans are drifting away from the annual ritual, Schoenian says that the ethnic market as a whole is becoming even more important to sheep farmers. "All immigrants that come to America now are all lamb and goat eaters, unless they're from Northern Europe," she says.
Schoenian refers to a recent report on the U.S. sheep industry that suggested a greater demand for lambs purchased directly from farmers that "meet religious demands and cultural tastes."
Schoenian is a participant in Cornell University's Northeast Sheep & Goat Marketing Program, supported by the USDA, to help farmers adapt to the needs of new ethnic markets.
That means understanding what customers consider the most important factors in choosing a lamb. "Many times we're stupid and we try to convince them that what we have is what they want because it's better," Schoenian says. But for Muslims, for example, high-quality meat is just one factor. "For the Festival of the Sacrifice, they want an unblemished lamb and they don't want a female because of the risk it could be pregnant."
Sheep farmers in the marketing program are also learning that "most cultures that eat lamb and goat like to bargain. Some producers are comfortable with that; some aren't," Schoenian says. "You have to recognize the differences in people, and one of the biggest challenges is to try to get folks to work together."
"Spring lamb," which comes from an animal younger than 1 year old, is highly desirable this time of year. "We have a greater demand for all the ethnic holidays and a greater demand for lamb at Easter time and Orthodox Easter," says David Greene, who owns a sheep farm with his wife, Nancy, in White Hall. "We try to gear up production toward that demand."
While the country's highest consumption of lamb on the East Coast occurs between Boston and Washington, D.C., most lamb produced in the United States comes from Western states, Greene says.
Lamb prices tend to rise this time of year. "It's a difficult time for us," says Bill Ruppersberger, who runs the family meatpacking company. "The lamb supply is very tight this time of year." In general, baby lambs born in the new year "are not ready for market" until after Easter, Ruppersberger says, making "prices extremely high."
The high cost helps to explain why lamb isn't a popular option at large Passover seders. "It's a luxury item," says Chaim Abrams, manager of the meat department at the Seven Mile Market in Pikesville.
Look for occasional sales, Spector and Greene say.
For those who can afford it, spring lamb, whether or not it's called for on the holiday table, is a reminder that so many of us, no matter what our differences, are grounded in the same concept of sacrifice and its continuing significance in a difficult time.
Greek Roast of Lamb With Potatoes
6 to 8 servings
approximately 5-pound boneless leg of lamb (see note)
2 large fresh cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced or slivered
2 tablespoons melted butter combined with the juice from 1 large fresh lemon
salt and pepper to taste
approximately 2 tablespoons dried oregano, plus more for potatoes
1 medium onion, finely chopped (or use frozen chopped onions, defrosted)
paprika to taste
8 to 10 medium baking potatoes, peeled or unpeeled and quartered
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Rinse meat well, pat dry and place in a large roasting pan. Cut incisions in the meat with a sharp pointed knife all over and fill each slit with a garlic slice.
Rub the lamb with the lemon juice/butter mixture. Sprinkle the meat with salt, pepper and oregano. Cover top with the chopped onions and paprika. Add 1 cup of water to the pan. Bake in the 450-degree oven, uncovered, until browned, about 20 to 30 minutes.
Lower heat to 350 degrees, cover and bake until done. This will take approximately 2-plus hours (depending on size of meat), but it is best to use a meat thermometer. The thermometer will read approximately 160 degrees for medium lamb, 170 degrees for well-done lamb.
The last hour, add the quartered potatoes. Sprinkle the potatoes generously with additional salt and pepper, oregano and paprika. Carefully add 2 additional cups of water to the pan. (Pour carefully into the corner of the pan.) Cover and continue roasting for another 30 minutes. Uncover for the remaining 30 minutes to brown the potatoes.
Note: You can use a leg of lamb with the bone in, but the roasting time will differ. You can ask your butcher or use the meat thermometer. A traditional Greek lamb roast is served well-done, but you can, of course, serve it medium, if desired. It is important to purchase the best piece of lamb possible, preferably a prime cut. -- From Sandy Spanos and Ilene Spector
Lamb Shanks in Lemon Sauce
4 lamb shanks (about 3 pounds)
1 large onion, chopped fine
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/4 cups water (divided use)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon potato starch
Brown the lamb in a heavy casserole. Push to one side of the casserole. Add onion and garlic, and saute until soft. Stir in 1 cup water, lemon juice, salt and bay leaf. Cover.
Simmer 3 hours, or until very tender. Remove meat and keep hot.
Blend potato starch with the remaining 1/4 cup water. Stir into the liquid in the pan. Cook, stirring constantly, until the gravy thickens, and boils for 1 minute. Remove bay leaf.
- From Joan Nathan, "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen" (Schocken Books, 1998)
Moroccan Lamb Stew
Makes 4 to 6 servings
3 pounds lamb shoulder on the bone, trimmed of excess fat
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 large onions (about 2 pounds), grated or finely chopped
3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (divided use)
1/2 cup sugar (divided use)
2 pinches of saffron threads, lightly toasted and finely crumbled or powdered in a mortar with a little salt
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup water
1 cup golden raisins
Place the lamb in an enameled cast-iron casserole, Dutch oven or earthenware casserole with a cover along with the olive oil, onions, garlic, ginger, 1/4 teaspoon of the cinnamon, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, the saffron, salt, pepper and water.
Toss so all the pieces of meat are coated, then bring to a boil on a burner over medium-high heat, using a heat diffuser if using an earthenware casserole or tagine. Reduce the heat to low, partially cover and simmer until the meat is tender, about 2 hours. Remove the meat from the sauce and set aside.
Increase the heat to medium-low, add the raisins to the casserole and continue cooking until the sauce is thick, about 45 minutes. Tilt the casserole and spoon out fat. Remove the sauce from the casserole to a measuring cup or small bowl.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Return the meat to the casserole and arrange on the bottom. Cover with the sauce and sprinkle with the remaining 6 tablespoons sugar and 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon. Place in the oven until the lamb is falling off the bone and very tender, about 1 hour. Serve hot.
-- From Clifford A. Wright, "A Mediterranean Feast: Story of the Birth of the Celebrated Cuisines of the Mediterranean, From the Merchants of Venice to the Barbary Corsairs, With More Than 500 Recipes" (William Morrow & Co., 1999)