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Meat-eater or vegetarian? Learning to look dinner in the eye

A-photo-of-Colleen-NewquistFor some time now, I’ve been saying that if I’m going to eat meat, I ought to be able to look an animal in the eye and be OK with its death for my dinner, or I should become a vegetarian.

I hadn’t had the opportunity to test this premise, though, until my friend Karen, owner of Three Fates Farm, called to say she was sending some of her lambs to slaughter and asked if we wanted one. I jumped at the opportunity.

I didn’t meet the exact lamb I’d be eating, but I had visited all the lambs when they were just days and weeks old, adorably following their mothers around the pasture, and I felt that the criteria of looking my dinner in the eye was satisfied.


The lamb would be ready in a week or so, available at a local slaughterhouse, where it would all be neatly packaged and labeled and ready for our pickup. We bought a small freezer in anticipation of our homegrown meat. Finally one Saturday it was ready.

I was ushered around the counter of the shop, which was doing a brisk business with a mostly Mexican clientele. I wondered why I hadn’t been here before and vowed to come back and explore. I followed a butcher to a back room, where I made small talk with the owner, a smiling gray-haired man with a Greek accent, while the butcher searched for my box of lamb.

“I’ve seen better lamb than yours,” the owner said. What makes it better? I asked. “The feed,” he replied. I explained that the lamb I was buying was raised for its wool, not its meat, but given its rare breed standing, certain criteria concerning their markings and fleece quality have to be met. For various reasons some don’t make the cut, and those are the lambs that get butchered.

But I know the grass they’ve grazed on, been in the barn where they feed, sleep, and were born. I know they were well-cared for and healthy, and that is enough for me. But not, apparently, for the slaughterhouse owner. He motioned me to follow him into a room-size cooler.

“Now this is good lamb,” he said, heartily patting one of the numerous carcasses hanging in rows. The room was full of slaughtered pigs and lambs. My first thought? Those are some nice-looking pigs.

I have no idea why I thought that. I don’t know a good pig from a bad pig, but something about the way them was appealing. My next thought was maybe I could be a farmer after all. I was intrigued by the experience, not freaked out by the amount of animal flesh surrounding me. I was fascinated by it all and asked the owner questions about his livelihood and operations. Next, I thought, I really should witness a slaughter, to make sure I really am OK with this death-for-life business.

I don’t expect to like it; I would hope on some level it would be disturbing. But I want to be OK with it, or not eat meat.

When my box of lamb was finally located (“It was under a bunch of goats heads,” the butcher said), I drove home and unpacked it, transferring the wrapped parcels to the new freezer.

Karen had warned me that though she didn’t ask for it, the head was included. Indeed, there was a package with “Lamb HEAD” written in black Sharpie on butcher paper. Well, now’s my chance to truly look my dinner in the eye, I thought. So I did. 

Unwrapping the skinned head, it took me a moment to get oriented. Ah yes, there’s the mouth, the tongue slightly protruding and some teeth visible. I studied it for awhile, took a photo, wrapped it back up and took it to the garbage can in the garage, where it would stay frozen until pickup day.

It felt wasteful, but I didn’t know what else to do with it, except perhaps throw it out in the woods the coyotes, but given the cats and dogs that live with us and our neighbors, it didn’t seem wise to lure hungry coyotes closer to our homes.

Last week I defrosted two shoulders and made a delicious lamb dish seasoned with cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, and cumin and served with perfumed rice—sautéed onions, raisins, and dates layered with lentils and basmati rice and seasoned with the same spices (sans the cumin).

The slaughterhouse owner may have seen better lamb, but this was as tender and delicious as any I’ve ever had, made all the sweeter by knowing that its brief life was a good and humane one, provided by caring, animal-loving friends, on a farm just 10 miles from my home.

I had looked my dinner in the eye—sort of—and I was OK with it. More than OK with it. I didn't exactly feel good about it, but I didn't feel bad about it either. I felt grateful, gratified, humbled, and, at that moment, rather full.


The Recipes 


Two lamb shoulders, meat cut off bones and into 1-inch pieces (I had 3 lbs of lamb after trimming)
3 cups sliced onions
2-3 tbs olive oil
3 tsp cinnamon
1 ½ tsp cardamom
¾ tsp turmeric
¾ tsp cumin
2 tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Sauté onions in olive oil over medium-high heat until soft and golden, about 10 minutes. Add the lamb; season with salt, pepper, and spices and sauté for another 5 minutes. Add enough water to barely cover the meat—I used 4 cups. Cover and simmer for 2 ½ to 3 hours, until meat is very tender. I removed the lid after one hour to reduce the liquid to a thickened sauce. Serve with perfumed rice recipe.

Perfumed Rice

3 cups white basmati rice
1 ½ cups lentils
1 cup sliced onion
1 cup raisins
1 cup pitted and chopped dates
1 stick butter
2 tbs yogurt
2 tbs olive oil
Spices (mixed together): ½ tsp cinnamon, ½ tsp cardamom, ¼ tsp turmeric

Wash rice vigorously in several changes of water and soak for 2 hours in 8 cups of water with 2 tbs salt.

In a saucepan, mix the lentils with 3 cups of water and ½ tsp salt. Bring to a boil, simmer for 10 minutes, and drain.

In a frying pan, sauté onions in 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat until soft and golden. Stir in the raisins and dates, cook for 2 more minutes, and set aside.

Parboil the rice by bringing 2 quarts of water and 2 tablespoons of salt to a boil in a 4-quart pot (nonstick is recommended), adding the presoaked rice and boiling for 3-5 minutes, stirring every so often, until the grains lose their brittle core but are still quite firm. Drain the rice and rinse it in several cups of warm water.

In the same pot, melt the stick of butter. Pour half into a small bowl and set aside. Take 2 cups of the cooked rice, mix it in a bowl with the yogurt, and spread it on the bottom of the pot over the butter. Sprinkle a layer of the lentils on the rice, then a layer of raisins, dates, and onions, then another layer of rice. Sprinkle spice mixture in between layers.

Continue until all ingredients are used up, reducing the diameter of each layer so that the ingredients taper to a pyramid in the pot.

Cover and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes to form a crust on the bottom of the rice.

Uncover, pour reserved melted butter over the rice, put a dishtowel over the pot, cover it again, and cook over low heat for 50 minutes. (To prevent the dishtowel from catching fire, I gathered the ends and used a clothespin to secure them to the lid handle.)

Remove from heat and leave covered; place on cold wet dishtowel (to help loosen crust) for 5 minutes.

Uncover and transfer the contents to a serving platter or large bowl, mounding the rice and lentils in the center and spooning the lamb around it.

Remove the rice crust with a spatula and serve on a separate plate. (Mine pretty much crumbled, so I just added it to the rest of the rice.)



This recipe is from The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten, with some slight modifications (I tripled the amount of lamb, for example.) His purpose with this recipe was to cook a delicious meal for not a lot of money, which is why he put the emphasis on the rice and lentils, with the lamb as more of an accent (he uses just 1 lb of lamb shoulder). I wanted more lamb and, really, could do with less rice and lentils.

If I were to make this again—and the flavors are so yummy, I’m sure I will—I would perhaps eliminate the lentils altogether (the two together are very filling) and I would double the amount of onions, raisins, and dates, because they are so very delicious. I’m also not sure of the purpose of the rice soaking and repeated rinsing; I might eliminate all of that and see what happens.