On Saturday, I went to an annual potluck, based around whole lamb, purchased from a friend’s small production farm. The party’s premise was having guests preselect various cuts of lamb and then bring that portion to the party.
This year, I spent most of the night cooking on the grill. For my part, I prepared two distinctly different cuts. First I grilled chops, marinated for an hour or so in heavily spiced jerk. After the chops, I had a less attractive cut to deal with, which began at the animal’s apex and ended just beneath its wooly little chin: the head.
Unattractive though they are, if you buy whole lamb—or any animal to be consumed for that matter—some undeniable facts make themselves obvious. Lambs have faces. They have eyeballs, and tongues with nubby skin. They have muscular jaws with meat that cooks like pot roast, and—though difficult to reach, deep in inside their boney heads—they have brains. The choice then is whether to cook these parts or toss them in the trash.
I poached the heads most of the morning, then cooled them and grilled them with more of the jerk sauce during the party. The cheeks fell off the bone like good barbeque. The tongues, though muscular and meaty, felt soft and reminded me of overcooked corned beef. The eyes tasted rich and fatty, with a disturbing little crunch at the end. The brains—my least favorite—tasted mild, like boiled white meat, but had textures like scrambled eggs or tofu, or maybe soft cheese. Chopped and mixed together, the meats from the head most resembled pulled pork and stood up well to a hefty spoonful of jerk sauce.
Gruesome though these poor creatures looked—with flesh peeling from their bones and eyeballs melting into their sockets—guests surprisingly devoured them. They crowded the grill in a bit of a surge, like rubber-neckers at a crash site. Some even reached and tried to pull bits off as the heads roasted.
Afterwards, some told me this was their favorite part of the meal. Not the chops, not the sausages or meatballs or smoked legs, not the lamb belly sliders. No, it was the brains and eyeballs, chopped, sauced, and served on toast with a bit of the cheek.
I am surprised but also reminded of a fact I seem to have to continually relearn: predicting what people enjoy eating is not as easy as it looks.