Thursday, August 26, 2010

How You Cook A Rack Of Lamb: A Reverie and a Rant

This is how you cook a rack of lamb.
You park in the parking lot, descend the stairs from a level that's some color you've already forgotten, from the spot with some number you've already blanked, inhale the scent of fresh piss, experience annoyance with strangers brushing past you, feel the claustrophobia of concrete, the ugliness of overlarge structures, the swallowing anonymity.
Then you exit into the bright blare of the Santa Monica sun -- and already you are lost. Where is North? Where is West? Who are you? Reorient yourself. Seek signs announcing the Santa Monica Farmers Market.
Blot out any memory of the old man careening his killer car through the packed crowds that one fateful day, stop imagining the avid shoppers with their filled-to-bursting carts, their swinging bags, their eager foodie faces, the old man mowing these same people down, blood spattering the vegetable-strewn sidewalks, human bone cracking and the thud of flesh, the ebbing of life.
Do you dare enter the Farmers Market for the first time? Even though it is already 12:30pm and the market closes at 1? You walk, faster than your morbid mind can race, and you enter Xanadu.
Here are gleaming piles of Japanese tomatoes, there a cavalcade of avocados, yon a basketful of fuzzy peaches straining at their skins, promising you momentary gustatory oblivion. Everywhere riotous colors, scents, shapes.
A woman walks by dressed in a floppy-eared bunny suit. Maybe she works at a carrot stand. Maybe she is crazy. You enter the stream of people, dodge wire-wheeled baskets, the jutting elbows of single-minded shoppers, the ferocious foodies, unleashed, powering through their domain picking, tweaking, squeezing and weighing. It is mostly only the unserious ones, however, who drift by at this hour. The scavengers and the loafers. The bad planners, the unemployed and the lost. The amateurs.
Vestal Virgin in some apparent distress
Look, the vendors are already shuttering their stalls, packing away vegetables, wiping, sweeping. Caught up in the final throes of the market, you buy a sack of okra on impulse, and whammo, you are back in Sylacauga, Alabama, a confused fish-outta-water teen, eating a heat-wilted plate of fried okra, fried pork chop, fried green tomatoes in some Southern woman’s home, and knocking back tea so sweet it makes your teeth scream, while the older woman with Coke bottle glasses and Confederate lineage tells you why virginity is sacred. And you swallow that okra, don’t tell her about the scrawny truck driver you made out with last night on the red dirt road choked with kudzu because you couldn’t help yourself.
Back to the market. Study the piles of avocados. Pick them up. Squeeze. Look like you know what you're doing. (Are you supposed to squeeze avocados?) Ask the Avocado Man, what kind is this. How does it taste? Why do you live alone and what do you yearn for? Do you like selling avocados. What do you regret and is it too late? Buy two avocados and re-enter the market.
Turn a corner, where it is quieter, and smell before you see a stand that reeks of fresh blood, of butchery, of animals rendered into meat, chops, shoulders, loins, gizzard, tongue. Stand there, read about the Goat Special.
Photo by Shaun Higson
Remember the decapitated cow head squatting on a stump on the narrow streets of Palermo, in Sicily, where you traveled once upon a boat, with a man you thought would be your lover, but instead, he refused to touch you even when you lay in the same bed tucked with cool white sheets, the vendors shouting over bullhorns at the crack of dawn, and in the daytime you wandered the streets together, seeking doors on which he would paint ancient prophets for an art show to take place on a hillside back in Rome. This is when you, frustrated and sullen, passed by the head of a decapitated cow. A still-bleeding head, whose eyes followed you as you walked. You never did erase his gaze, the surprise of it and the fear. How the blood trickled, and lapped over the stump like red lace.
Wrench yourself back to the meat stand. Talk with the tattooed girl, her arms sleeved with Japanese tattoos, her belly bare, her hair bound back with a red kerchief. What’s your name? Michelle. Why do you work on a farm? What are you running from? Listen as she tells you and one other customer there are only two racks of lamb left, only two, would you like one? The woman next to you dressed in spandex workout clothes purchases one, and your adrenaline surges. Only one rack of lamb left, only one, would you like it? Our animals are grassfed, they roam free, they are happy. This lamb was only slaughtered this past Monday. What do you think? Do you have the balls to face a freshly slaughtered lamb? Could you do it justice? Do you dare? Funny, your name Resnick means butcher in Hebrew. How could you forget?
Yes. Give it to me. $23. Okay. And you take the rack of lamb, wrapped in choking white plastic, stuff it into your canvas tote bag and glide as if in a dream back to the parking structure, the whole time hyper-aware of this meat you hold, swaddled there in plastic. How could you refuse when Chef Maili taught you all how to cook rack of lamb? Never once do you allow the rhyme enter your head. You push it out of your mind the way the foodie shoppers pushed and elbowed you away from the last remaining peaches or the plump figs or the special on zucchini flowers so delicate their petals drooped if you stared too intently. Somehow you locate your battered red truck, return home with your bloody booty.
Home, where you place the rack of lamb in its white plastic bag into a drawer in the the refrigerator and ignore it. Try. Yet you know you know the lamb was running around, happy, grassfed, only this past Monday and today is Wednesday, then Thursday, then Friday.
On Friday you run into someone who says, you have to decide. If you don't cook the lamb tomorrow, you've got to freeze it. And somehow, the thought of freezing this lamb, so recently stripped of its curly white fleece, its pumping blood, stripped to its fleshly glory, isn't right. You must cook the lamb. You must eat it. You must honor it. So you decide, tomorrow. Saturday. That is the day.
Saturday you will somehow make a rack of lamb, even though you have never brought a piece of meat into the house that you can remember, except for an occasional In 'n' Out burger -- but never a raw piece of meat, smelling of drained blood and fat and flesh and butchery, of slaughter.
At night, your mind crowds, unbidden, with images of sunlit grassy farms, animals romping, the sun shining off their coats, their warm animal hair, the sun crowning them as they frolic. The rhyme repeats like ticker tape. Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb…Stevie Ray Vaughan's Mary Had A Little Lamb
Saturday comes. You remove the lamb from its white plastic bag, set the vacuum packed rack on a meat cutting board. Study it. Even behind the plastic wrap, it seems to pulse with freshness. Juices. Nothing like other cuts of meat you've seen in grocery stores.
Meat you would sneak peeks at, glancing then turning away, remembering a former student who used to manufacture meat diapers, whose technology is the same as Depends, only in this case the material soaks up blood.
Camille Claudel, sculpting
After many minutes, you cut away the plastic and there it is -- the shining lamb. The rack. Thick with fine fat, no bones visible. You think of Rodin. You think of Camille Claudel. This is your stone. You must cut it away and reveal the perfection that is this animal. Honor it. But how?
So you set up your laptop, search frantically for videos demonstrating how to trim and French cut a rack of lamb. You watch, you watch again. How to French a Rack of Lamb This chef doesn't seen the least bit concerned. Why was it you didn't want to become a surgeon? Now you remember. Yet you unsheath your knife, and you cut.
"Beheading of St. John" Caravaggio
As you cut, holding the meat tenderly, feeling its fat and flesh, the underneath of ribs, you hear again the mournful sound of a shofar, and you tug at your father’s coat there on the crowded streets of New York. You sit again with your mother in the pews of an ancient church in Italy with stained glass windows, wanting her to hold your hand, draw you close, but she is transfixed by a Caravaggio gleaming from the candlelit shadow. Now you can summon the rhyme, having dropped red blood on the yellow oven mitt, having felt the lamb’s ribs separate in your worshipful fingers, under your blade, at your touch, so gentle...if this isn't revery, if that's not God...
And you carve slowly, carefully, for what seems like hours, until – though not scraped perfectly clean, there it is, a rack of lamb.
Somehow it feels the lamb’s life was a happy one, the death not unmerciful. Maybe you are tripping. But joy emanates from the flesh and the rack released, gleaming there on the counter. Forget any fancy crust. Let this meat be. Simple olive oil, salt and pepper. A quick searing on the stovetop, then rest it gently on foil on a broiler pan in the oven, with your new meat thermometer which you can't figure out how to use, never mind. You are in tune now, you and the lamb.
"Saturn Devouring His Son" Goya
The sacrificial lamb. Forever youthful. You remember when you thought of writing a book about your father, the cover was a painting by Goya of Saturn eating his son. Because sometimes parents live in the Biblical, a time when children were the enemy and must be sacrificed. You know this is the fierce land your father lives in, yet in this sacrifice, something's gained, not lost. The smoke winding upward from the lamb, the unexpected perfection of the meat, the simple beauty of the chops. Your friend who dines with you calls them lamb lollipops and sucks in ecstasy, the meat tearing like butter from the bone, that look on her face of sublime satisfaction, is momentary and memorable both, and you give thanks, silently, the taste of the lamb pungent on your tongue and in you, and you move into a state of savory grace.
Now you wonder where the child is who swam with scallops in Buzzards Bay, marveling at their blue eyes that winked all along the crinkled folds of their shell, how they seemed to moved through the silent water by breathing. The lobsters lurking on barnacled rocks you refused to eat, the bluefish you caught, then gave away or threw back in. Some tribes say if you eat the brain of your enemy you will gain their intelligence and their spirit. You sit there with your belly full, your heart radiant with flavor. What is it you’re still wanting.
From Scroll of the Hungry Ghosts, Hungry Ghosts devouring corpses in graveyard
 All of you with your impossible appetites. I’m talking to you.


  1. What a breathtaking, powerful post. Thank you for the beauty. xo

  2. So that's how you cook a rack of lamb. You're a brave, brave soul. I've never tried. Awesome posts. Digging this blog!

    I've been experiencing a cooking block after a 1 1/2 yr self-imposed "refuse to cook" thing; now that I want to cook again, it seems I've lost the focus. I think it would help if I stopped looking in the fridge every late afternoon thinking, hmm, what can I burn tonight? (:

  3. Lovely, haunting and meditative...the lollipops were divine, in more ways than one. Well done.