My father says he never thought of it as ritual, “just damn good eating.” Well, it has all the makings of a ritual: an organized sequence of events, regularly and invariably practiced, all leading to one of the most anticipated meals of the year. This dish, springing up just around Easter, celebrated the resurrection of our grill, symbolically breaking winter’s bond over our Washington, D.C., home.
When I recall my childhood, the first memories are always of dinner. Much of the time our family spent together was dedicated to food: shopping, prepping, eating, cleaning. The menu was always an amalgam of whatever was on sale, and we loathed when a single ingredient was discounted for any extended period. (Food is a blessing, but two cases of Lucky Charms quickly becomes penance). All variety in our daily menu was determined by Giant Food Stores’ grocery circular, but this one dish never changed. Lamb is the harbinger of spring and symbol of rebirth; everything about this meal elicited more than a sense of just season and tradition, for its rhythm was sacramental.
Starting the night before, my father, Leigh, expertly butchered a leg of lamb; he boned and butterflied it, trimmed its fat and silver skin, relieved it of its tendon, showered it with kosher salt, and then marinated it. He massaged garlic, lemon juice, mint, and olive oil into the meat and left it overnight in the fridge in the same plastic dish, likely as old as I am, still in use today. It’s a dish only to be used for this purpose, having become so laden with the gamey scent of fat, potent garlic, and vintage lemon.
Once cooked on a searing hot charcoal grill, the meat revealed a tasty tangle of muscles that made slicing a bit of a puzzle. My father, his faded train conductor-striped apron loosely hanging over his uncuffed church clothes, found the meandering grain deftly enough and cut rosy slices that he laid out on a platter and generously drizzled with olive oil before delivering to the Easter table.
As this rite of spring has become mine, I add a tin of anchovies to the marinade to further accentuate the lamb flavor. (Anchovies elevate other flavors, especially lamb, with their heavy umami boost, while their own fish flavor becomes indistinguishable.) Editing tradition? Yes. But what is a ritual if not ever-evolving? It celebrates the best of our heritage, and we enrich it with our own ingredients.