Pass the Mint Jelly All Year

When I was growing up I spent as much time as I could visiting my maternal grandparents in Nashville. While I really loved my grandmother, I also loved the consistently excellent meals that her cook Ernestine put on the table, which at least twice a week included lamb—a marvelously crusty leg or tender chops. To this day I cannot take a bite of the stuff without imagining myself in that formal dining room waiting for the mint jelly to come round the table.

This was in the '60s and '70s, and I did not realize then that we were in a distinct minority. In those days, lamb consumption in this country averaged about three pounds per person. By the late 1990s (at which point, it should be noted, my grandparents and Ernestine were dead), the number had declined to less than a pound—compared with 66 pounds of beef and 51 pounds of pork.

Everybody eats more lamb than we do. In Australia, New Zealand and Kuwait, the per capita consumption is 40 pounds. In Greece, it's 30, and in England, Ireland and Spain, it's about 14. They all know what we're missing: lamb is as high in protein, iron and B vitamins as beef, but lower in fat.

More important, lamb is delicious, a fact that Americans are reminded of almost exclusively at this time of year, when it makes an appearance on holiday feasting tables. Even though improved farming practices have long made lamb available year-round, consumers persist in identifying it with spring.

Among the folks trying to change that are restaurant chefs and a burgeoning number of lamb producers. Chef Daniel Boulud says he thinks Americans don't eat lamb because the premium cuts are so expensive—per pound, a rack of lamb costs more than a standing rib roast of beef—and people don't know how to cook the lesser cuts, which are actually more flavorful. At Bar Boulud, he offers a spicy lamb terrine and a rosemary-scented stew made from the shoulder and the neck.

One of the Boulud's sources is Pennsylvania's Jamison Farm (, where John and Sukey Jamison raise and sell about 5,000 exclusively grass-fed animals a year, along with such homemade offerings as lamb pie. More than 25 percent of sales are directly to consumers online or by phone. When I talked to Sukey the week before Easter, they'd sold so many legs she'd lost count, but the rest of the year is not nearly so busy. "It's crazy that it's such a seasonal, minimal market," she says. "A lot of people didn't grow up eating lamb. We've been trying to educate them."

I have, too. Recently I bought three racks—one from Jamison, one from Niman Ranch (niman and one from my local Whole Foods—and took them over to a friend who has never been a fan. Ordinarily, I marinate them in olive oil, lemon, fresh herbs and maybe a little garlic, but I didn't even put salt and pepper on these. I wanted to detect their differences, and to see if even a nonaficionado could happily tuck into unadulterated meat.

It was a huge success. The Whole Foods sample, which was flown in fresh from New Zealand, was the youngest and had the strongest lamb flavor, but we all agreed the American samples were superior in terms of overall flavor and texture. Even my friend's teenage daughter was won over by them. With the tasting done, we sat down to dinner with the rest of the carved racks, a spinach gratin and slow-roasted tomatoes with garlic and thyme. In honor of the occasion, we had a 1989 Haut-Brion (Bordeaux is the classic choice with lamb), and toasted to two more converts made.