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25 september 2015

Brian Yarvin's Lamb is notably stocked with excellent-looking recipes. I am unlikely to try any of them unless I substitute another meat (which somehow defeats the purpose). My partner won't eat lamb or veal – "baby animals" in general – and it's been years since I've had either.

Of course, many of the ethical problems associated with eating lamb or veal also apply to beef or pork or poultry. To keep meat cheap and delicious, we subject modern livestock to all kinds of oppressions, not to say tortures. To keep mutton delicious, pre-modern humans simply killed it young. Yarvin notes (21) archeological evidence that shows that ancient pastoralists in what is now Iran slaughtered sheep before they were a year old. That's still the FDA standard for lamb.

Yet there is still reluctance to eat baby creatures, and I share it despite slavering over the gorgeous stews and minced-lamb dishes in the back of Yarvin's book. Yarvin says little about factory-farm conditions. In fact he says little about the modern lamb industry at all, preferring to dwell on the historical circumstances that made sheep among the first domesticated livestock. Perhaps only dogs joined human communities earlier – and perhaps dogs, with their herding instincts, were a prerequisite for human domestication of sheep (16-17). Sheep will graze effectively in conditions too marginal to support cattle or pigs. Early on, the peoples of western Asia learned to use all aspects of the sheep, from milk and wool to skins and fat, in addition to lamb meat.

The adaptability of sheep to a vast range of climates and environments means that Lamb is more truly a global history than many of its companions in the Reaktion Edible series. Yarvin's coverage of lamb traditions is impressive. His earliest recipes are from Mesopotamia, and are almost 4,000 years old. Ancient Egyptian recipes survive. Lamb is well-established in Chinese cuisine, though it's not part of most outsiders' perception of Chinese food – as with so many Chinese foodways, lamb is a regional specialty in China with deep historical roots. Lamb is the meat of choice in central and western Asia and the Middle East, of great ritual significance in Jewish foodways, inseparable from Turkish and Greek cuisine, important in Italy and France, Scandinavia and the Low Countries, vital in Ireland, and of course very popular in Britain and thus throughout the English-speaking world, including the US, Australia, and New Zealand. England and Scotland are two of the few countries with a strong tradition of eating meat from older sheep: hogget or mutton.

Yarvin says that there are only a few places in the United States where you can eat mutton, including Keens Steakhouse in Manhattan (a chop there will set you back $51), Owensboro, Kentucky (where the favored preparation is barbecue), and the Navajo Nation (68-69). But foodies have long suspected that the border between mutton and lamb in this country is not perfectly policed. Much of the lamb we eat may be on the senior side, and one even reads that some of the specialty mutton may be surplus lamb.

One corner of the lamb-eating world that Yarvin does not address is Iceland. Iceland is not a large country, but it's one of those islands where there are more sheep than people, and its cuisine features many distinctive lamb recipes – so I hear, at any rate, and I'm going to get there as soon as I can to … well, probably not eat any of those dishes, now that I think of it.

Yarvin, Brian. Lamb: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2015.