A number of years ago I received a request from a woman that I did not know, who had gotten my name somehow, from somebody and that’s about all I could figure. The time of year was winter, December to be precise, and the request was for a whole young lamb. Now I am no lamb farmer, but it did occur to me that the probability of finding a young lamb in December was fairly low and I informed the mystery woman that I did not think I was going to succeed on this quest. That was not a satisfactory reply, so I was “encouraged” to widen my search and through some work connections, I found an older Greek gentleman that happened to have about twenty three-month old lambs available. I told him I needed one, he said great, come out to the farm on the following Friday and you will be all set. Problem solved, sort of. The farm was in Elberton, Georgia about 30 something miles east of Athens, almost to South Carolina, it was a couple of days before New Year’s Eve and my wife and I had a closing on a refinance that same afternoon. What could possibly go wrong?
I set out bright and early that Friday morning with an address, plenty of time calculated for any unforeseen traffic or navigational snafus and I found the address and driveway on the first try, without any U-turns, which for me was a small miracle. The house was not visible from the road and I made my way up the driveway over a small ridge then up another hill at which point I could see the house, along with just about every farm animal imaginable. I pulled up to the house, got out of my car, shooed the turkeys, geese, ducks and guinea hens away, walked up and knocked on the door but there was no response. I knocked on the door again, this time with feeling. There was still no answer, so I stood optimistically imagining that he must be out in a field somewhere, surely to return soon. I noticed the clock ticking and my time margin is getting slimmer, and I started to get a little nervous. But then I thought to myself, wow ding-dong, why not just call him, so I pull out my phone, dial the number and of course, no signal. Back to square one. I drove down the driveway, double checked the address and yes it was correct, went back up the hill whereupon I began to honk my horn, still no response. I waited a bit then honked again and finally I see a door slowly open and out comes the farmer with a “I just woke up gait”. As he ambles ever so slowly up to me he says, “are you that chef from Atlanta that works for Panos?” To which I replied in the affirmative, reminding him that I was here for the lamb.
He looks up at and asks (imagine a heavy Greek accent), “isa today ah Friday?” I was not feeling very confident at this point, but I told him that it was indeed Friday and reiterated the part about the lamb. “Oh, yeah, I’ve got your lamb, follow me”, he says as he walks across the yard to what seemed like some kind of shed (that I noticed was without any visible power lines), swings the little gate open and we enter a stall, with about 15 to 20 bleating, breathing, gamboling and frolicking, living freaking lambs. He casually asks, “which one you like?” and I answered, “I want the one that you said you were going to sell me without a beating heart”. With a snort mixed with a giggle he said that he lost track of the days and forgot about it but not to worry, this wouldn’t take long. He picks one out, grabs it by one of its rear legs to steer him out of the stall and immediately the young fella responds with a swift kick to the crotch region, to which the farmer answers, “G….mit lamb, don’ta kicka me in tha….s”. By this time, all of my margin was shot, I was stressed because I could not call my wife to warn her about the delay that I was facing since I was going to have to help the farmer dispatch the lamb, but I was getting a rather sick feeling knowing that the only way I was getting back to Atlanta was to slaughter a lamb with an old Greek guy. Zippadee doodah….
I have butchered all sorts of animals in my career, lamb, rabbits, pigs, ducks, pheasants, cows, chickens, goats, and on and on, but I have never hunted, never lived on a farm nor been present or participated in the killing of an animal. I understand the role it plays in our history and in our present, I just could never bring myself to kill an animal and suddenly, in half a surreal New York minute, I was being thrust right into that very act. So with my heart in my throat, I followed the farmer out of the stall with the very docile and cooperative lamb (the two had imperceptibly patched things up I guess) being led to the spot of its imminent demise. To the best of my description, I saw something that looked like a door frame with no door or surrounding walls; I imagined it as the portal the lamb’s soul was about to pass through on its way to eternity as my mind was trying settle the incongruity of the situation.
My discomfort level rising with every step, we arrive at the “portal” and the farmer lays the lamb down, sounds trite, I know, but it is exactly what happened. The farmer tells me to grab the poor beast’s back legs, he then points and says to hand the knife “over there”. All I can find is something that looks like a discarded boning knife that had been residing at the portal since somewhere in the 70’s, which did nothing to allay in the least my full-blown freak out level. As I am holding on to the “sacrifice” in one hand I pass the knife to him and he says, “okay, hold on, this will only take about thirty seconds”. In full expectation of the most horrifying thirty seconds of my life, the farmer makes a swift, precise and seemingly harmless move, the lamb barely flinched and remained still and quiet- shortly thereafter he drew his last breath. I then recognized that there was a lot more to our Greek farmer than met my eyes. Once it was over I also realized how much I needed to be there- what I anticipated to be horrifying turned into being an illuminating and peaceful moment at the hands of a simple man who understands and respects the dignity of the animals he raises and how those same animals respected him, notwithstanding the quick kick to the crotch and a knife to the throat.
I did need to be there; I witnessed and assisted in the slaughter of an animal at the hands of a skilled and experienced farmer, but the lamb did not experience pain or anxiety, it just knew it was his time. The universe was paying attention, I made the closing with my wife, a little late, but it all worked out, and I was able to witness something that not everyone can or would want to see, but it certainly was an incredible lesson after so many years of butchering and cooking. I owed it to that lamb to be there; it gave it’s life to celebrate a wedding and in return the family honored the lamb’s life with reverence and respect-they reported back that its was the best lamb they had ever eaten.