But the lamb roast was not a heavily themed and elaborately staged one-off. It was, as parties in our family went, a simple party, thrown every year, produced with just a fire and a sheet of plywood set over sawhorses for the carving of the lambs. We built a fire in our shallow pit, about eight feet long and six feet wide. It's possible that my dad dug it alone, but if there was an available sixteen-year-old around, like his son, my oldest brother Jeffrey, it's very likely that they dug it together. At each end of the pit they set up a short wall of cinder blocks with a heavy wooden plank on top, looking like the head and baseboards of a giant bed, where the long wooden poles onto which the baby lambs had been lashed would rest. The baby lambs, with their little crooked sets of teeth and milky eyes, were slaughtered and dressed up at Maresca's Butchers, then tied onto ten-foot poles made of ash because the branches of an ash tree grow so straight that you can skewer a baby lamb with them easily.
Jeffrey had a driver's license and a 1957 Chevy truck with a wooden bed and a big blue mushroom painted on its heavily Bondoed cab. It had big dangling side-view mirrors and torn upholstery over which we threw a mover's blanket, but it ran. So on this bluish early summer weekend, Jeffrey drove his new jalopy out the winding country roads, past Black's Christmas tree farm, and past the Larue bottle works. I rode in the bed of the truck, in a cotton dress and boy's shoes with no socks, hanging on as tight as I could to the railings and letting the wind blast my face so hard that I could barely keep my eyes open. Even with my eyes closed, I could tell by the wind and the little patches of bracing coolness and the sudden bright sunshine and the smell of manure when we were passing a hay field, a long thick stand of trees, a stretch of clover, or a horse farm. We passed brandnew deer emerging from the woods and standing in herds of forty in the wide open cornfields. Finally we got to Johnson's Apple Orchard where we picked up our wood for the fire.
The orchard and the Christmas tree farm are long gone, the butcher shop and the dairy farm are still, oddly, in business, hanging on like grave markers in a sunken and overgrown cemetery - historical "by-the-ways" for the tourists on their way to Bowman's Tower and Washington's Crossing. Where there were four separate places for four separate things, now everybody just goes to the Shopping Plaza to get all of them in one big harshly lit store - milk, apples, meat, even the Christmas tree - while the kids wait in the car and eat fries in the backseat.
At Johnson's orchard, in season, they sold yellow peaches and half a dozen kinds of apples in wooden bushel baskets. But at the time of the lamb roast it was still too early in the year to buy fruit. They had pruned all the trees back for the season, and we filled the truck with the trimmings, piling the apple-wood branches high above the truck bed, which we'd extended with two eight-foot sheets of plywood. This green wood would burn longer and hotter, hissing all night long as the sap dripped down into the flames. On the way back home, I sat up in the cab of the truck between my brother who was driving and my dad who had the window rolled all the way down and his elbow hanging out. He said, "That'll burn with the fragrance of its fruit, you see."
The paraphernalia of butchery may be repulsive to some. But to me, hacksaws, cleavers, and band saws all looked manageable and appealing. I loved going to Maresca's, the Italian butcher shop up the road on the Jersey side, and always asked to be taken along on errands if Maresca's was on the list. There was no "artisanal" at this point, no "organic" or "diver-picked" or " free-range" or "heirloom" anything. In 1976, there was no such thing, even, as 2 percent milk. We just had milk. And the Marescas were still just butchers, father and sons butchers - Salvatore, Joe, and Emil - working in a shop with sawdust on the floor. The father Salvatore and his son Joe looked exactly like butchers - with girth, flannel shirts under their long jackets and aprons, and greasy, beefy catcher's-mitt hands. Emil, on the other hand, looked like he could have been a chemist in a lab or a home ec teacher - in an apron, always, but with a V-neck sweater vest over his flannel shirt and a pair of nice brown corduroys. He wanted to be a baseball player, I had heard, but ended up in the family business. Emil spent most of his day in the old kitchen open and adjacent to the butcher shop, skewering and marinating cubed meats and making all the shop's sausages and cooking the daily lunch for the family.
Excerpted from Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton. Copyright © 2011 by Gabrielle Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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