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Why Is Lamb so Expensive and Elusive?


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#1 maggiethecat

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Posted 22 March 2008 - 07:46 PM

Lamb seems severely underrepresented and overpriced in any grocery meat case. I have a ham for Easter, but I'd have preferred lamb if there'd been a good leg or rack at a decent price at my local independent supermarket or carcineria. At the best of times, I can find, maybe, a couple of tiny lamb chops that might tide me over for an afternoon snack, priced at eight bucks. C'mon.

Oddly, at my parents' Loeb supermarket in the Glebe in Ottawa, there's always lots of lamb. It's expensive, but it's there. The customer base in that neighborhood skews WASP, but it's not as if White Anglo Saxon Protestants are the only folk who love lamb. French, Greeks, Italians, etc. My husband's Italian grandfather, AKA Nonno, bought a live lamb and nurtured it in the basement of 1208 W. Lexington until Easter Saturday, when it would go down to Taylor Street to be slaughtered and packed up at the Nea Agora butcher shop. My husband dimly remembers petting the lamb among the copper washtubs and clotheslines, and it was adorable, but even as a kiddie he knew that its number was almost up.

Enough of memoir. I'm wondering if lamb is harder to raise than, say, veal. More expensive to feed and process? Is lamb a forgotten meat on the average American table? What keeps the price so high and the supply so low at a chain supermarket meat case? My parents weren't rich when I was a little girl, but we'd have delectable lamb at least once a week, with Mummy's mint sauce. Why is lamb now a niche, expensive, God help me, "Foodie" meat?

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#2 Fat Guy

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Posted 22 March 2008 - 07:55 PM

My experience supports the suggestion that there are regional variations. For example, in the New York City area lamb is plentiful. The supermarket near my mother's house has really nice looking leg of lamb for $2.99 a pound this week. Meanwhile, when I go to supermarkets in Middle America, I sometimes don't see any lamb at all or there's just a token quantity of wilted lamb way down at the end of the meat case. Which is not to say that, even at my mother's supermarket, lamb comes anywhere close to commanding as much shelf space as beef, chicken or pork. No way.

Also, every Costco I've visited in North America -- and I've visited a lot of them -- has had lots of lamb, typically from Australia.

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#3 maggiethecat

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Posted 22 March 2008 - 08:11 PM

Well, I'm jealous of your Mom's 2.99 leggo lamb, even if my mother kinda sniffed at lamb from the Antipodes and looked for Canadian lamb. (New Zealand does good lamb.)But your Mom's supermercado has Australian lamb, I infer, not American. Whuffo?


I'm still puzzled. The Heartland is crammed with the descendants of lamb lovers. Sheep -are they harder to raise than, say, calves or ostriches? Why don't I see American lamb, except maybe at Whole Foods or on a restaurant menu, (which names the farm, the farmer and which microgreens the lamb ate.) You're right, Steven, where I live, lamb is crammed into a sorry little space in the meat counter between pig's feet and tripe.

Edited to add: Lamb is the only imported meat in my supermarket. I can get American pork, beef, veal, chicken, turkey, quail, emu, goat. Why not lamb?

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#4 LindsayAnn

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Posted 22 March 2008 - 08:39 PM

My parents are serving up lamb AND ham.....yummy. We always have lamb at Easter....ham too. Add on the creamed corn casserole, scalloped potatoes (cheese style - my fav!), salad, fruit salad, rolls, (and I am sure there will be more) and it's one divine meal. Not to mention the desserts (pie and lil' mini cakes/chocolates delight!).

YUM YUM YUM - Happy Easter everyone and happy, happy, happy eating!
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#5 bandregg

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Posted 22 March 2008 - 09:19 PM

I suspect the answer lies in Maggie's question about raising lamb; lamb graze. Maybe, unlike cattle, lamb aren't able to transition to a grain based diet and that would mean that they need space and lots of it. That makes it expensive. We just had a salesman come and give a talk at school (NECI) which outside of it's sales-like-sleaziness told me a lot about the American lamb community. It's small, it costs a lot, and it's targeted at a very premium market: restaurant and grocery. New Zealand has more lamb than people (watch the movie Black Sheep, it's a riot) and so their cost is low. We have more people than lamb.
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#6 jsmeeker

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Posted 22 March 2008 - 09:51 PM

My experience supports the suggestion that there are regional variations.

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I really think you are spot on. It's very regional.

Living in Texas (Dallas), beef seems to reign supreme. And it has to be BIG. (you know what they say about things in Texas). And cooked on a grill outside. Yeah, you can find lamb.. And some veal. But really, everyone is buying beef. Not that I don't like beef. I do. But I sometimes feel like the freak at the grocery store when I get some duck or veal from the meat counter. I just wish I could find cuts of lamb other than a leg or a rack. Something like a shoulder.

Anyway, like LindsayAnn, mom and dad have some lamb for tomorrow dinner. (rack this time, instead of the more usual leg) and a ham (I really am not too fond of the Honey Baked ham). some sort of potato, some asparagus. fruit salad and a green salad. I am making eight individual creme brulees that I have to bring over. Along with the torch and the turbinado sugar. I think everyone will like it.. Plus, my niece will have fun helping me torch 'em all!

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#7 dockhl

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Posted 22 March 2008 - 10:16 PM

My WASP dad used to make lamb on the rotisserie when I was growing up in Pennsylvania (50's and 60's) . My parents were NOT cutting edge when it came to food, and I grew up in no-ethnic suburbia so.....wassup with that? We'd eat lamb in pita bread. Where the heck did he even GET pita bread and what prompted him to try it? I was out of the house for years before I had avocado or zucchini...........

Here in Central CA I find it the same as SoCal. Generic lamb. High priced. An afterthought. Where I live now is much more rural and farmy than San Diego, lots of 4F and kids showing their animals at the Fair in July........selling them off, and then Fluffy appears in the local Albertson's Market, identified as being from a local kid. :wacko: :huh: But only pork and beef; I've never seen lamb. (Maybe it is too late? When are lambs, uhh, harvested? Can you tell I am not entirely comfortable with this concept? :hmmm: )

#8 DerekW

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Posted 22 March 2008 - 10:43 PM

Isn't it a numbers game? I would not be telling you anything you did not already know if I were to mention that relative both to incomes and to other expenditures food is cheap in North America, and meat even more so. As to lamb, I think there are a few factors you touched on which contribute:

Sheep might well transition poorly to agri-business's model of how animals ought to be raised [in wire cages]. They graze rough, tough land fairly well, but that's not what Meat Inc. wants.
Sheep are smaller animals, and the per head processing cost is higher than kine, likewise the per pound cost.
Lamb, and it's grown up relative mutton*, actually tastes of something, and in the mass-market of North America it seems to me that can be an alien concept.
Our nearest speciality farm raises a herd of sheep. If I remember then I'll ask the farmer the next time I'm out there if the sheep are significantly harder to keep on their feet than the deer or boar.
*Lamb, at least as I knew it, means meat from an animal slaughtered around 6 months, mutton is from an animal a couple of years old or older. The term 'hogget' covers the ground somewhere in between, but I don't recall ever seeing it used in a butchers descriptions.

[sidebar]
When I still lived in Scotland and would go mountain biking in the wilderness I saw a coach wend its way across a single track road through the wilds before stopping to disgorge a load of Canadian tourists, so that they could take pictures of the sheep. For us locals the sheep were ubiquitous hill country background: for the tourists even then it seems the sheep were a rarity. It's not even as though it was lambing season!
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#9 Felice

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Posted 23 March 2008 - 03:31 AM

It must be a regional thing. I grew in Pennsylvania as well and we often had lamb. Leg of lamb and lamb chops mostly. However, my mother also only bought meat from a butcher, never the supermarket, and we were lucky to have Amish farmers markets near by, so I don't know how typical this was.
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#10 docsconz

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Posted 23 March 2008 - 04:44 AM

Lamb is plentiful where I live in upstate NY. I suspect one reason it is difficult to find in the Heartland is the primacy of beef there.

If one can't find lamb at the supermarket, the internet is the great equalizer. D'Artagnan has excellent lamb as does 3 Corner Field Farm, both of which are available online.
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#11 helenjp

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Posted 23 March 2008 - 05:02 AM

I have a feeling that seasonality may come into it too - the meat industry seems to think that nobody wants to eat anything but lamb, preferably spring lamb that is just a few months old.

The question is: are they correct? Is consumer pressure or marketer pressure the reason why I can't remember when I last saw something labeled as "hogget" (12-24 months) even in a New Zealand butchery/supermarket.

#12 hummingbirdkiss

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Posted 23 March 2008 - 05:25 AM

Lamb takes a spot in every meat case in all the major markets around my area ..not a huge spot but it is well represented ..and can be quite reasonable (Especially after Easter) here the big tick about lamb variety and prices are to visit a Halal butcher and ask for what you want ..or a local 4-H group ..you can usually get what you want ..just not always the day you want it .. sometimes the 4-H kids can hook you up with someone else that does not want an entire lamb and you can share

Eastern Washington grows some wonderful lamb to go with the very tasty merlots, Cabs, pinots, they also produce

locally raised cut and wrapped half a lamb or sheep meat ... including the neck and organs costs about $3/lb

I never see it here in the Mercados only goat ..I do see it in Indian, Middle Eastern, Asian Markets and of course Halal Markets.. lamb and goat have a nice spot in the meat cases

Edited by hummingbirdkiss, 23 March 2008 - 06:08 AM.


#13 sadie4232

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Posted 23 March 2008 - 06:00 AM

Maggie I feel your pain. Here in Western North Carolina, lamb is very hard to come by. Ham is the big seller this time of year.

I was only able to find two stores in my local area that carry lamb (and don't even get me started about the difficulty in locating veal!). In both stores, the lamb chops (with rib bone already cut off) run $14.99 a pound. Only one store sells racks, and they go for $19.99 a pound. At those prices, it makes it difficult to justify making a lamb dish on a regular basis...sigh.
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#14 Dave Hatfield

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Posted 23 March 2008 - 06:42 AM

I don't know why lamb in the mid-West is so difficult either, but it certainly seems to be an ongoing problem.
When we lived in Chicago we were finally forced into having a friend in Spokane have a lamb butchered for us, flash frozen and Fedex'ed to Chicago. Expensive, but not that much more per pound than we had to pay in Chicago. The quality was much better as well. A lot of what we could buy in Chicago was closer to mutton than lamb.
Next we lived in Rhode Island where lamb was not an issue. Plentiful, good quality & the prices weren't bad.
Here in France the quality is superb. We mostly buy half a lamb at a time from Bernard who raises them just up the hill from us. The price is around $7.00 per pound. In the butcher shops & supermarkets leg of lamb is about $9.00 per pound. Being great lamb eaters the French prize shoulder as much as leg so it costs the same.
Recently we've been able to get frozen New Zealand shoulders & legs for about $3.50 per pound. Its of excellent quality.

And, yes, we're having slow roasted de-boned leg with anchovies & rosemary for our Easter dinner. Can't wait!

#15 Chris Hennes

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Posted 23 March 2008 - 06:56 AM

Here in Central PA the local Wegmans always has a decent selection. The loins in particular are reasonably priced, but the chops aren't bad and racks are available, pre-Frenched, for a bit of a premium. Of course, I still order a lot of meat from online sources in the never-ending search for the perfect meat... tack on FedEx costs and that gets pricey for sure.

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#16 JAZ

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Posted 23 March 2008 - 08:43 AM

The butcher shop I used to buy from in San Francisco almost always had lamb shoulder and some kind of chops (they'd also order any other cuts, as they would with most any meat). I don't know about the chain supermarkets there because I so rarely bought meat at them.

Here in Atlanta, there seems to be a lot of lamb at my Publix -- certainly way more lamb than veal, although less than beef or pork. I tend to buy lamb through the CSA I use, so it's local. I don't know where the lamb in the supermarket comes from.

#17 Ted Fairhead

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Posted 23 March 2008 - 09:24 AM

Here in Eastern North Carolina we have the same situation as does western NC apparently. If, and that's a big IF, there is any lamb on display at Harris Teeters it is tucked away in a tiny corner of the meat case. Just the other day they had only two, count 'em, two packages of lamb shanks with two shanks per package at $15 each! On Romney Marsh where I lived for many years, lamb shanks used to be something the butcher would almost give away, and people would buy them for their dogs.
A week ago or so, to my surprise they had three or four packages of shoulder pieces. They called 'em "chops" but they were the strangest cuts of meat I have ever seen. About 3/4 inch thick with weird shaped bones running through them. I snapped up a couple and they do taste like lamb but I doubt that any real butcher worth the name would have presented them for sale.
Our other couple of markets, Food Lion and Super-Walmart, simply never have lamb.
Like you, Maggie, I am perplexed why this is so.
The other meat of which I am inordinately fond is duck but again, it is only sold at H-T's once or twice a year, and that is only whole frozen birds, never any duck breasts.
I am so tired of tasteless pork and expensive tasteless beef.

#18 David Ross

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Posted 23 March 2008 - 10:03 AM

I think it comes down to the simple facts of cost, demand and regional influences. It saddens me to hear everyone's reports about the lack of lamb throughout our country because it is such a delicious meat.

I live only 90 miles from one of the larger lamb processors in the West, yet I can rarely find their lamb products in my local supermarkets. The lamb that we do find in our supermarkets usually comes from a mega-producer and I don't know if it came off a ranch in Eastern Washington or a farm in Wisconsin. And the variety of what we see in our supermarkets consists of lamb shanks and tough shoulder chops with the occasional leg or loin chops thrown in around holiday periods.

I rely on Costco to always have racks of Australian or New Zealand lamb available and it is usually in the $10-$12 dollar a pound price range. I find an 8-rib rack of lamb affordable and more than enough for two people. Costco also sells nice, thick-cut lamb loin chops and boneless leg of lamb.

I do feel a tinge of guilt buying foreign lamb at Costco because I live in farm and ranch country and one would think that local lamb is readily available. Sadly it is not easily found in the local markets. If we are lucky, sometimes a local farmer will sell lamb at one of our farmer's markets, but unfortunately due to our weather, (we had 7" of snow on Friday), the farmer's markets won't open until later in April. I can buy a whole lamb direct from a local farm, but even with my voracious appetite that's a lotta lamb for one guy.

Out West, we've seen the production of lamb and the consumer's taste for lamb decline for many years. The decline in supply has resulted in a rise in the cost of producing lamb. There is a difference in how sheep and cattle are fed and raised, but the higher cost of lamb seems to be more affected by supply and demand than the issue of how sheep are raised. As you all know, beef prices are rapidly rising. Beef tenderloin in the market here yesterday was $18.99 a pound.

My Great-Grandfather and Grandfather owned a business in Twin Falls, Idaho that sold wool pelts. Yes, the skin, the hide and the wool all in one. Southern Idaho was once the home to thousands of sheep ranches and lamb was a regular on the dinner table.

I remember one time that a family friend fed us a dinner of Mutton Stew. It was delicious. I know most of you are probably turning up your noses at the thought of eating meat from older sheep, but it is fragrant and delicious. You can rarely find mutton today.

#19 Dave Hatfield

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Posted 23 March 2008 - 12:47 PM

I remember one time that a family friend fed us a dinner of Mutton Stew.  It was delicious.  I know most of you are probably turning up your noses at the thought of eating meat from older sheep, but it is fragrant and delicious.  You can rarely find mutton today.

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Amen! Delicious ----If you can find it!

#20 docsconz

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Posted 23 March 2008 - 04:26 PM


I remember one time that a family friend fed us a dinner of Mutton Stew.  It was delicious.  I know most of you are probably turning up your noses at the thought of eating meat from older sheep, but it is fragrant and delicious.  You can rarely find mutton today.

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Amen! Delicious ----If you can find it!

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I recently returned from India, where "mutton" refers not to adult sheep, but to goat. It was delicious. Now goat is not easy to find outside of certain ethnic markets.
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#21 maggiethecat

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Posted 23 March 2008 - 04:55 PM

Huh.

I wasn't making it up. The Meat man, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall writes:

"Per capita lamb consumption in the US is so low (about one pound per person per year) that the domestic lamb and mutton industry is a small one: 7 or 8 million animals are farmed per year, down from a peak of 46 million in the mid 1940s."

And:

"Mutton is much more difficult to find than lamb. (Most US mutton is exported to Mexico.)"

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#22 Prawncrackers

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Posted 23 March 2008 - 05:40 PM

Why is lamb so elusive in the US, is it because you prize beef so highly above all other red meats?

Home grown lamb is readily available here in the UK and it seems that mutton is having a slight resurgence at the moment. I had a mutton revelation the other week, North Ronaldsay mutton is simply one of tastiest meats i've ever eaten. I don't think i could ever eat lamb again without thinking about the flavour of this exceptional meat. Unfortunately my butcher only has it available twice a year so whilst i wait till Sept for the next batch i will have to make do with other breeds of mutton! Lamb is tender and quicker to cook but bears no comparison flavour-wise to mutton.

Cheap frozen NZ lamb still packs out our supermarket freezers but again the flavour just doesn't do it for me.

#23 maggiethecat

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Posted 23 March 2008 - 05:50 PM

Why is lamb so elusive in the US, is it because you prize beef so highly above all other red meats?


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Maybe. I'm not sure. Is it (sorry!) a chicken and egg thing? Do we eat less lamb because it's hard to find, or do is it hard to find because we are a country of beef lovers, with easily available cheap chicken and pork?

I'd eat good lamb twice a week if I could. And I can't. Somehow, lamb seemed to have slipped off the menu in the average family dinner sometime in the late seventies?

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#24 Ted Fairhead

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Posted 23 March 2008 - 06:00 PM

I think it comes down to the simple facts of cost, demand and regional influences.  It saddens me to hear everyone's reports about the lack of lamb throughout our country because it is such a delicious meat.   

My Great-Grandfather and Grandfather owned a business in Twin Falls, Idaho that sold wool pelts.  Yes, the skin, the hide and the wool all in one. Southern Idaho was once the home to thousands of sheep ranches and lamb was a regular on the dinner table.

I remember one time that a family friend fed us a dinner of Mutton Stew.  It was delicious.  I know most of you are probably turning up your noses at the thought of eating meat from older sheep, but it is fragrant and delicious.  You can rarely find mutton today.

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Ahh! (Heavy sighs) What I would give for a luverly mutton stew....The wool pelts reminded me that on Romney Marsh there was hardly a single cottage that didn't have a whole sheepskin lying in front of the fireplace or by the side of the bed.

In the spring there were a lot of "sock" lambs being raised by children. Sock lambs were either orphans or one of twins that the ewe would not accept. Farmers would "loan" them to kids who would raise them through their weaning and then return them when they were able to graze on their own.
Oh! Happy days

#25 David Ross

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Posted 23 March 2008 - 06:22 PM

Why is lamb so elusive in the US, is it because you prize beef so highly above all other red meats?


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Maybe. I'm not sure. Is it (sorry!) a chicken and egg thing? Do we eat less lamb because it's hard to find, or do is it hard to find because we are a country of beef lovers, with easily available cheap chicken and pork?

I'd eat good lamb twice a week if I could. And I can't. Somehow, lamb seemed to have slipped off the menu in the average family dinner sometime in the late seventies?

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I sure wish I knew why the American taste for lamb has dropped so drastically. Today when I ask people about eating lamb they turn their noses up. They think it tastes "gamy" and has too much fat. I then counter with questioning whether they've ever eaten lamb and most say no. How sad that someone would discredit a lovely food they have never tasted.

It is sort of like asking people this time of year if they have ever eaten rabbit. "You mean bunny rabbit?" "I'd never eat that cute little bunny."

As members of eGullet, we certainly know that Mr. Cottontail is a cute animal that tastes delicious, just like your little lamb Mary-cute and delicious all at the same time.

My Grandfather knew some of the old Basque sheperds who cared for the flocks of sheep that roamed over Southern Idaho. The sheperds were known for their Basque lamb dishes--recipes that most surely were brought to America from the old country. That's a story going back a century or more and those days and those lamb recipes are for the most part a forgetten chapter of our history in the Northwest.

#26 StanSherman

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Posted 23 March 2008 - 08:59 PM

Most small scale farmers don't have access to USDA licensed slaughter facilities. They can use state licensed lockers who can process the whole animal for sale as either whole or half. Basically you are buying a live animal and having it processed. This meat can't be legally be sold in stores. A whole lamb is not much more than the chops, legs and rack so you may as well get it all.

#27 SuzySushi

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Posted 23 March 2008 - 09:18 PM

Chiming in from Hawaii, lamb is absent from most supermarket meat cases (there aren't really old-fashioned butcher shops here) except at Easter, when it's usually imported from Australia or New Zealand. I can find it at Costco or Sam's Club most of the year, also imported, but only as legs/boneless legs or occasionally $$$ racks.

It's certainly declined in popularity from when I was a child in the 1950s and we ate lamb chops at least once every two weeks. They were fattier and gamier then, too.

Save eGullet and a few friends, most people I speak to, both in real life and online, about lamb turn their noses up, either because they think it's too gamy, or because they picture cute fluffy baby sheep. They're generally the same people who freak out at the thought of eating rabbit.
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#28 maggiethecat

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Posted 23 March 2008 - 09:44 PM

Yeah, I hear the "gamy" thing too, which I don't understand. Perhaps some of the Med garlic and rosemary cooked on a spit dishes make them think "gamy" but it isn't. At all. It's mild and meaty and piquant and precious.

In fact, way back, the most romantic dinner a lover ever cooked me was two perfectly pink chops, with asparagus and handmade hollandaise whipped up in a love nest with a mini fridge, a stove and cockroaches belly up in the rental wineglasses. There was no touch of game, just the rosy crusty bliss of two beautifully cooked lamb chops. Tender tasty pretty meat.

My English grandmother told me that the tallow in mutton could be overpowering, but the sweet young stuff I occasionally buy as lamb is not dressed with thick yellow tallow. (Not that that's a bad thing!)

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#29 jsmeeker

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Posted 24 March 2008 - 02:44 PM

the rack of lamb we had for Easter dinner went over well. Even my niece and nephew liked it. So, it's not all bad out there. :)

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#30 Daniel Rogov

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Posted 26 March 2008 - 04:15 AM

I notice that nearly all of the posts on this thread come from people residing in North America. One hates to rub salt into open wounds but the easy availability of lamb may be one of the most valid reasons to move to Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine or Israel. Not only lamb readily available but also mutton and kid.