Wednesday, February 10, 2010

February 10th

Lamb is a word near and dear to my heart. Not only do I love to eat lamb in any form, be it chops, burgers, meatballs, shank, leg of, curry, soup, stock, etc., on our drive into the city, I love watching the various bands of sheep frolic along the roadside with their shepards following closely behind. My childhood was speckled with woolly stuffed sheep, sheep figurines, sheep toys, and, actual sheep. Nothing beats wool to keep a cold winter at bay.

My love affair with lamb started in utero. Like his father, my great-great grandpa George Prior, my great-grandpa Archie Prior was a sheepherder on the Horse Heaven Hills, land that is now wine country, as was my dad. When I was born, with a slight green tint, the doctor asked my dad, "well, did you want a sheep herder or a camp cook?" I love the gender stereotyping, but it was 1975, in Eastern Washington. Starting when I was only a few months old, my family and I spent several days each summer in Klickitat Meadows, high country, as the sheep grazed and cavorted on the open green meadow before heading down for the long, cold winter.

A good part of my formative years were spent around the goings on of the sheep business on Taggares Farms in eastern Oregon, where my dad was the farm manager and continued the family sheep tradition. Anybody who knows anything about livestock knows that it can be a brutal, difficult trade. I remember watching the Basque men who worked for my dad castrate yearlings using the traditional Basque technique, a technique where they use their teeth. During lambing time, I learned that in order to match an orphaned lamb with a ewe that had lost a lamb during birth, all you had to do was place the fresh pelt of the dead lamb over the orphaned lamb, and the ewe would think it was her own. These orphaned lambs rode around on the "gut wagon" until they were placed with a ewe, and if not, they were sent to the shed where they were bottle fed until they could fend for themselves in the alfalfa fields. There were always about 15-20 of these tiny lambs, and I loved to go down to visit and feed them from the glass Pepsi bottles filled to the brim with lamb's formula, topped off with a big, black rubber nipple. My dad let me "have" two orphaned lambs, who I promptly named Snake and Black Widow. For some reason, I was never bothered by the fact that the sweet little lambs often became the tasty lamb chops that frequently adorned our dinner table.

Another thing I loved to do was watch the sheep shearers when they came every year. They would come to the ranch for a couple of days, set up their portable shearing trailer and get to work. Watching them shear thousands of sheep was a sight to behold. I loved it when they would let me jump into the suspended tube-shaped burlap bag to pack down the wool, making room for more. You haven't had fun until you have frolicked on a mountain of tightly packed wool bags.

My dad's house always had two or three sheep pelts, or sheep skins as we called them, adorning the floor. I always had one just next to my bed so the first thing my feet would touch in the morning was the soft, fleecy wool of the rug. We even have two here in our home in Turkey, though they have been put away until the snowy white coats are no longer in danger of being forever stained with cherry juice or chocolate.

Today my dad would have been 65. To commemorate the day, I roasted a leg of lamb, taking care that my portion was rare as I love it, and he loved it. I also attempted to make sheepherder's bread. I only wish I had remembered to ask him for his recipe.

With the arrival of this day, I remember back in November a conversation dad and I had about how old he was. He said "65."

I looked at him questioningly and said, "I thought you were 64?"

"Well, in February I will be 65."

With an unknown prognosis of 6-8 weeks to 6-9 months, we both remained quiet for a moment before I said, "right."

My love affair with lamb is strong and deep and it is through this sweet and succulent animal that I will be forever reminded of, and connected to, my dad.

(Thanks to Alexander the Best for scanning the pictures for me)


  1. Memorial, tribute, and autobiography wrapped up into one; nicely written.