Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Story for Spring

Tonight, for the potluck following my church’s Seder dinner, I’m cooking lamb. My church, an open and affirming UCC church here in Ottawa, has been having Seder dinners for quite a while. Until I attended one I was unfamiliar with the tradition of a Seder, believing it to be a Jewish tradition. And it is. It is a meal served to commemorate the beginning of Passover in the Jewish faith. So why is my protestant Christian church having a Seder meal? Because Jesus was a Jew, as were all the early Christians, and in that sense the Seder is part of our common faith. The meal, and the ritual within the meal, tells the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. But I’m not writing about the Seder. I’m writing about the lamb.

My daughter, a food scientist who continues to teach me new things about what I eat, sent me a link to an article about spring lamb that suggested we North Americans choose another meat for Easter as local spring lambs are just not big enough for slaughter and consumption during the spring holiday. It stated that if you purchase fresh spring lamb it will no doubt be a fully grown fall lamb from New Zealand or Australia shipped in for the American Easter lamb market. That made sense to me. We raised sheep on our dairy farm and those lambs born in the cold of January would just be getting to twenty pounds or so by March or April. We raised sheep, and shipped them to the sale barn for slaughter, but never ate a mouthful of their meat. I once asked my Dad why we didn’t eat the sheep like we did the cows and chickens.

“City people eat lamb and mutton,” he said. “We don’t.” And that was that.

I didn’t eat mutton, the meat of an adult sheep, or lamb till I traveled through North Africa where lamb and goat were the primary meat. I liked it then and have been eating it at every opportunity since. Having been recently educated by my daughter on the whole movement of farm to table going on in the hip restaurants she and my son take their Mom and Dad to, in order to both spend time with their parents and pick up the check, I was on the lookout for a local grass fed animal, and remembered some years back driving past a pasture on Route 80 somewhere between Princeton and Geneseo that had a hand painted sign on an old farm wagon that said “Easter Lamb” with a phone number. That’s all I started with. I began Googling lamb+(the names of towns along that stretch of Route 80). I got lucky with lamb+Sheffield. I was directed to Graze-n-Grow Farm, just East of Sheffield, where I met Jim and Ruth Draper.

Jim and Ruth have a lot going on at the Graze-n-Grow. Ruth has a full blown greenhouse business selling flowers and vegetables, and she also raises chickens along with some geese and ducks. Jim has been raising Katahdin sheep for the past twelve years or so, having gone from wool sheep to this breed of hair sheep bred for their meat. Katahdin sounds ancient and from the Middle East doesn’t it? It’s not. As Jim Draper tells it a guy from Maine set out in the late 1950’s to develop a breed of sheep that had great meat characteristics with no need to bother with the wool. The market price for wool has been in the toilet for years, ever since Australia dumped its wool reserve, some twenty years of stockpiled wool pelts, on the international market. It’s never recovered. Jim recalled paying more to shear his wool sheep than the wool was worth. He wasn’t even breaking even by raising sheep. He wanted to keep raising them, sheep had been raised on that farm for years, but needed to find a new market, a new product, a new plan. After much research he sold his wool sheep and switched entirely to the new Katahdin breed.

Their name? Taken from the highest peak in Maine. Completely made up. Katahdin sheep are a cross of an African “hair sheep” which sheds its long fine wooly hair each spring, and several chunky wool breeds. After years of cross breeding they created a new stock of sheep that maintained the “hair” and bulked up on the “meat.” Hence Katahdin sheep, made to be eaten not shorn. Their coats are so fine you don’t even need to cut off their tails like wool sheep. They do not need shearing. And they’re rugged. Jim, and most Katahdin breeders, feed them on nothing but hay in the winter and green pasture grass as long as it lasts. No grain needed. Also unnecessary are vaccines or hormones. Jim pays very few veterinarian bills. His Katahdin sheep are ruminants eating grass as their body was designed. Purely grass fed, like all lamb used to be. My daughter calls that moving forward by going back.

Jim and Ruth’s challenge was finding a market for their new sheep. They found it rather quickly among the Muslim population in the Quad Cities. Jim realizes three fourths of his revenue from lamb sales around one Muslim holiday, Eid El Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice at the end of the Hadj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. It’s an interesting observance, and one that revolves around families sacrificing an animal and distributing the meat. One third is to be eaten by the immediate family, another third given to extended family, acquaintances, and friends, and another third given to the poor. Millions of animals, goats and camels in addition to lambs and sheep, are sacrificed throughout the Muslim world on Eid El Adha. And Jim Draper and his Katahdin sheep found their way into it.

If you are Christian or Jewish you know the scripture on which this holiday is based. Jim and Ruth Draper knew it too. As we talked to them at their kitchen table I couldn’t help but notice a well worn Christian Bible next to the salt and pepper shakers. Eid El Adha is based on the Genesis story of Abraham, the humble servant of a God who tested his faith by commanding him to kill then burn his son Isaac on a pyre of sticks on a mountain. I’m quite sure our English language Bibles have lost much in the translation. If that were happening today the exchange between Abraham and God would go something like this, beginning with Abe hearing God’s command.

“You want me, an old man of 99, to kill my son Isaac, born to my wife Sarah miraculously at age 90, our only son whom we love.” His other child, Isaac’s older half brother, was born to Abe and Sarah’s Egyptian household servant Hagar. It was Sarah, then unable to bear children, who came up with the idea to create an heir to Abraham by having her husband Abe sleep with the servant. That child was named Ishmael. But back to God, Abraham, and Isaac.

“That’s right Abraham. I want you to sacrifice Isaac.”

“You have got to be kidding.”

“I‘m not.”

Abraham, as we learn, is a faithful God fearing guy. And so he takes Isaac up the mountain. Isaac is confused. He asks his Dad, “We have fire, and wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”
“God will provide it,” his Dad answers.

When they came to the sacrificial site they built an altar with the wood, but then, presto change, Abe ties Isaac up and lays him on the pile of wood. He raises his knife to kill him as God commanded. The Bible version I’m reading doesn’t note Isaac’s words or reaction to his Dad getting ready to kill him but surely he would have said something and if he did it would have no doubt recorded this:

“Jesus Christ, Dad. What is wrong with you?” No, wait. He wouldn’t have said Jesus Christ. Jesus doesn’t show up for another thousand years. But he might have said.

“Good God, have you gone crazy?”

Now that’s a valid question. Luckily, before Abe’s arm, attached to the hand that holds the knife that is about to kill his son, descends downward in a fatal blow God speaks to Abe. Imagine a big voice booming down from the sky. God wouldn’t have a small voice would he?

“Don’t lay a hand on the lad. For now I know you fear me, because you didn’t withhold your son from me.”

Abe stops, the knife in mid air. Just then he looks up and sees a ram whose horns are caught in a bush. He unties Isaac and they sacrifice the ram, much to Isaac’s relief I’m sure. I’m not ambitious enough to read on and find out what happened to Isaac, but it is hard for me to believe he ever felt the same about God, or his Dad, after that experience. But you know the Bible, anything can happen.

And so that story, told orally for years before it was written down, became part of the Jewish Torah, the Christian Old testament, and also the Koran, sacred scripture of the Islamic world. I learned that basic fact from traveling in North Africa in the seventies. All three faiths share the Old testament as scripture. As my Moroccan friend Najib once explained over tea in a busy Rabat street café, the stories that make up each religion’s earliest writings are not that different.

“We got Moise, you call him Moses. We got Noah and Ibrahim, you call him Abraham. We even have Jonah, the man who lived inside the big fish.”

Can’t you almost see those ancient people, somewhere in the desert in a tent, sitting around a fire listening to an old man tell the story of a faithful man about to sacrifice his son? It’s a compelling story, a good one with all the elements; suspense, violence, and in the end redemption. Like all good stories you don’t want them to go to waste. Everybody apparently used that story and wrote it down when writing became common. The Muslims though put a twist on their version of the story.

In the Koran it’s not Isaac being sacrificed but Ishmael. Ishmael is an important figure in Islam. He is regarded as a prophet and an ancestor to Muhammad. Ishmael is credited with later designing and the Kabba in Mecca, Islam’s most holy site. I didn’t learn this from researching the Koran. Jim Draper told me. He has learned it from his customers seeking sacrificial lambs.

“Yep, their story is just about the same as ours, excepting for the change in characters there, from Isaac to Ishmael. They put their important person in their story. We got our version and they got theirs. And must be that their book, the Koran, talks in more detail about the ram, because they come here in the fall wanting a ram without blemish. And they like them with horns. I can charge more if they have horns. Except if a horn is broken, or the animal is scarred in some way, they don’t want them. And they don’t want them castrated. I used to castrate the bucks, because they gain weight better, but they want them intact. So I don’t do anything to those lambs at all. And I’m telling you, with that holiday being in the fall, and the lambs just coming off summer pasture, that’s the perfect time to harvest my lambs. They’re heavy, their meat is still tender, and they are as natural as natural can be.”

“The other thing I do is let them practice their customs. Your really good Muslims, the devout ones, they are dead set on killing their own lamb themselves according to Halal. That’s like Kosher to the Jewish people. See when you sell a live animal to someone, they’re free to do with it what they want, and some people just load the live lamb up in their car or van or whatever and take it home to slaughter. But there’s been problems with that. Americans in cities don’t go much for families bleeding out a lamb and butchering it on the driveway or even the back yard for that matter. So I let them butcher here if they want. That’s important to them. They appreciate me for letting them carry out their religious traditions.”

“So where this, uh, killing done?”

“I let them use the back of the barn there. I got to say, it’s a very humane way to kill a sheep. In the small processing plants around here they just shoot them you know, a .22 to the head. In the larger plants they use an electric bolt, knocks them out, and then they hang them up and bleed them. But this Halal butchering, they call it zabihah, is slick. They pray before each animal is killed, making sure to use their God's name, Allah, during the slaughter. They use a very sharp knife, slitting the throat with a long cut that opens all the arteries, so the sheep bleeds out quick. The animal can’t be unconscious, but they make sure the lamb is quiet. They bleed so fast that they simply fade out from blood loss peaceful like. After they make the cut they hang them and let them bleed out completely. They don’t save the blood for nothing. And they make sure a religious person does the slaughter. Usually the husband does it, but some of them are queasy about it and let their wives. But I have to say it’s done tastefully. I kind of like the way they pray and give thanks. We do that when we eat, they do it long before they even cook as well.”

My son Dean was interested in Jim’s story. He has traveled to Morocco also and remembers the sheep and goat heads hanging in the souks or markets, used mainly for soup. He was both surprised and pleased to find a Midwestern farmer was so knowledgeable of another culture.

“I bet you never knew anyone that was Muslim growing up here,” Dean said.

“Heck no,” Jim said. “I’ve lived here all my life. We got Lutherans and Methodists, Catholics and Baptists, some other groups. But Muslims? Wasn’t till I started selling these meat sheep I ever met one.”

“So how you getting along with your Muslim customers?” Dean asked.

“You know, they’re like everyone else. Some of them are nice as can be, and some are hard to deal with. I used to have problems with them wanting to barter. Must be a custom in their countries. I have a set price and don’t like to dicker. Most of my advertising now is word of mouth between families and friends, and they like the taste of my lambs. They’re pretty much selling themselves. I got lots of repeat customers and for the most part they don’t argue about the cost anymore.”

“I like the Moroccans best. They’re more the working class regular people. There’s this Indian guy, maybe Pakistani, he’s got more money than most I think. He’s into the medical field somehow. Now he’s dang hard to deal with. But you know, they’re good people. They’re trying to keep up their traditions and do right like they were taught. I respect that.”

“You should go to Morocco,” my son said. “You’d love it.”

“That’s what they tell me. They offer to put me and Ruth up with their relatives over there. But Ruth and I, we’re pretty busy here. The sheep need looking after. It’s pretty much full time and year round.”

I liked Jim a lot. Not only because he wore Dickie’s bib overalls with patches on the knees but also because he was the kind of farmer I grew up with; smart, inquisitive, always trying to make his farm better, looking for new ways to make a honest living. If we can repurpose the small farms around here to filling a need or desire for good food raised in a sustainable way I’m all for it.
Jim asked Dean and I about our experiences travelling. We must have talked for an hour. He gave us a tour of Ruth’s well ordered greenhouses. She was meticulously taking tiny sprouts from the smallest of trays and pushing them into bigger flats where they could grown to be plants ready for sale. Their big day is Mother’s day. Though it was a cold and windy morning, with snow on the ground, it was hot inside the plastic hoop house. Grass fed lambs and plants grown from seed. There’s something nice about that combination.

As we went to our car Jim asked us to let him know how the people at my church liked his lamb. I promised to tell him. There are lots worse things you can do on a Tuesday morning than pay a visit to a local farm. It’s good to know there are people in the world changing themselves and their surroundings for the better and learning to accept people different than them.

So whatever your traditions, whatever stories you’ve been told to believe as if they were true, enjoy this Easter weekend. There’s something about it that makes the world new.

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