A Meal With Meaning

Lamb is an ancient symbol of sacrifice, hope - and spring.

April 16, 2003|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

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."

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