Eating lamb on Easter is a tradition long upheld. But why? And what's with all the mint sauce?

“One of the neat things about looking into the history of food is that one thing often leads to another,” says Trina Clickner.

Clickner is a food historian, which has her answering all sorts of culinary queries — the question of mint sauce being a prevalent one this time of year.

Fortunately, Clickner learned a lot about food traditions (and finding her way around the kitchen) from her Greek mother. Clickner built her website, Food Historian, after her mom passed away, and has since filled it with her family's recipes and food ideas.

The website, like a good meal, is a way to hold relatives together, Clickner says.



Lamb chop

Sarah Catherine Golden


On Easter Sundays, Clickner's family would gather and eat a lamb leg roast. “It was always leg of lamb, never anything fancy like crown roast and so on,” she says. “It was always just a big thing in the oven with a lot of garlic pressed into it.”

The family always ate mint jelly with their roast, too. “One of the things I found out in some of my readings is that mint jelly is a British thing and that they may have used it to cover up some of the gamey taste of the mutton,” Clickner says.

If you're reading this from the United States, it's a good bet you've yet to try mutton.

According to the Oxford Companion to Food, the age at which a lamb ceases to be lamb and becomes a young sheep, technically yielding mutton, is not entirely clear. Biologically speaking, it's all about permanent teeth.

In culinary practice, it's all about when the meat starts to taste strongly of — well, sheep — which is generally at one year of age.

Clickner thinks one of the reasons lamb consumption in the U.S. is so low — less than one pound per person, compared to 57 pounds in New Zealand — has everything to do with mutton, and little to do with the young lamb you're most likely to find on the Easter table.

“The story is that, during (World War II), the soldiers were fed mutton, and it just brought back bad memories, so that was just something that didn't get eaten when they got home,” she says.

Still, the tradition of mint jelly persists, even if the vast majority of U.S. eaters eschew stronger-tasting mutton. (Tired of mint jelly? Try the recipe for Coca-Cola glaze below.)

According to Jason Burgos, assistant manager of the Charlotte Meat House in Charlotte, N.C., not many of his customers generally go for lamb, mint sauced or otherwise. They're more inclined to buy beef, but they've also been known to purchase more exotic fare like alligator, goat, ostrich — even kangaroo.

“We carry different types of meat to appeal to certain different types of clientele,” he says.

The butcher shop will likely sell at least 100-150 pounds of lamb this weekend, in the form of chops, racks and leg roasts, which are the most popular lamb cut this time of year. “We'll sell lots of lamb, ham and goose,” Burgos adds. “A lot of people do come out for lamb specifically for this holiday.”

The reason for so much lamb this season?

Another food historian, Lynne Olver, who created Food Timeline, offered answers culled from various dusty texts and another newer book, Nectar & Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food in World Mythology.

"The Christians adopted (lamb) as a symbol of Christ," she writes. "God sacrificed this 'lamb' for the lives of his followers — The life of a lamb for the life of a human being." 

“The Jewish celebration of Passover perhaps best illustrates a modern-day religious rite based on the symbolism of the sacrificial lamb,” she continues. “They incorporate a lamb bone or some kind of meat into their feast as a remembrance of the lamb their ancestors sacrificed before the exodus from Egypt.”

She had an answer regarding the secular consumption of lamb, too.

"In Europe, there's a general tradition, not confined to Christians, that Easter is the time to start eating the season's new lamb, which is just coming onto the market then.”

In search of lamb just "coming onto market"? Clickner has her own advice.

“The darker the meat, the older the beast,” she says. The spring lambs, which can be up to five months old, have paler, milder meat.

Just five months?

“I know, I know. But we should all be so lucky as to live out our destiny,” she says.

Coke-Glazed Lamb Rib Chops

Recipe for 5 rib chops. Adjust as necessary:

Glaze:

  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
  • 8 ounces Coca Cola
  • ¼ teaspoon each salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire
  • ½ teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped

Place all ingredients in heavy, small sauce pot and reduce at a low simmer until a ¼ of original volume.

For the chops:



Lamb chops being prepared

Sarah Catherine Golden


  1. Season chops with salt and pepper.
  2. Heat oven-safe skillet on high. Preheat oven broiler on high.
  3. Place chops in hot pan, fat side of rib down, and brown, letting some fat render out.
  4. Turn on one side and brown quickly on high heat, about one minute. Flip rib chops over to the other side, remove from heat, and brush exposed side with half of glaze.
  5. Place entire skillet under broiler. Broil chops until browned on one side, just about two minutes. Flip rib chops over once more and glaze all over with remaining sauce. Broil until browned, just another two minutes.
  6. Internal temperature should be 130-135 for medium rare.