A couple of Easters ago, I prepared the main course, which was ham and a leg of lamb. A retired couple had an unexpected reaction when the lamb came out of the oven.
“This lamb does not event stink,’’ said one of them.
It was the most modest of praise and did not motivate either of the guests to try the lamb.
“We don’t eat mutton.’’
He explained that his grandmother had often prepared it and the smell filled the house with unpleasant aroma that carried around the block. The ham, which was not carved from a boar, passed their smell and taste test.
Mutton earned a bad reputation among troops in World War II when the U.S. government managed the meat supply as best it could. The effort included posters that showed a smiling soldier receiving a big slab of meat on a tin plate with “After the fighters you come first. Share the meat.’’
The poster also included the government’s definition of what it considered a fair share for civilians. Anyone older than 12 could eat 2.5 pounds of meat per week; children aged six to 12, 1.5 pounds; and those younger than six, three-quarters of a pound.
The government estimated that soldiers on the march consumed 4,200 calories a day, so it was critical to keep them well fed.
Although soldiers were able to forage for fresh meat in Europe when conditions allowed, they depended on canned meat shipped from the states. Mutton canned safely and was readily available, but suppliers were not concerned about its quality. Some of the product had been canned years before and contained poor-quality cuts, and troops who ate it several times a week were beyond sick of it.
Many, on their return home, told their families to never, ever serve them mutton. The sheep industry suffered from the backlash along with the decline in wool demand as synthetic products claimed market share.
Sheep and wool production have been on the decline since the 1970s, with most production coming from the Western states. Imports from Australia and New Zealand also have harmed the industry. However, demand for lambs is expected to soar in coming decades as Hispanic and Asian consumers gain increased population and prosperity.
The number of sheep and lambs raised in the United States stood at 5.2 million head in 2020, which is down from 7 million head in 2001 and is only 10% of the number raised during World War II.
One of the first things I did after purchasing our 15.5-acre farm outside of West Concord was to obtain a single lamb, which would in the fall provide meat, along with 100 chickens. Our young daughters found a playmate in the lamb, which made it virtually impossible to take it to the butcher.
The memory of the girls crying and watching from the window while the lamb was loaded is seared in my memory. The pain felt at the lamb’s loss has ebbed and given way to family fables.
A regret that remains is the unmet goal to build a flock on the farm. Sheep — for those who do not want to invest heavily in buildings and equipment — are ideal for small farms. The same can be said for the burgeoning goat sector.
The nearby Zumbrota livestock market sells lots of goats, particularly to the ethnic communities in the Twin Cities. Goat milk, soap and candles have found a niche. I have eaten goat, which to my taste has a stronger flavor than lamb. Kathy and the grown children refuse to try it, which is their right.
It will never be part of the Easter menu. I doubt that the World War II soldiers who yearned for something other than mutton in their rations ever ate goat in their rations.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.