Lambstock Leaves Me Weak
Aug 14 2013
Lambstock is a large, semilegendary, lamb-centric event held annually somewhere in Virginia. I say "somewhere" because, even after attending last weekend, I’m still not sure where it is, exactly. It’s held at Craig Rogers’ Border Springs Farm, which is near the North Carolina border, and near the Virginia border, and near the Blue Ridge Mountains, and that’s about as specific as I can get. Even Rogers himself seems to be unsure; his directions to the place are deliberately vague, and Google Earth shows only a featureless expanse where it is supposed to be. It looks something like the Tibetan Plateau, which, incidentally, would be an ideal place to hold Lambstock. I’ve heard the event called the Burning Man of lamb cookery, and I think that’s about right.
There is not much to do at Lambstock besides eat lamb, and drink, and talk, and eat more lamb. Nearly everyone there is either a chef or a chef's girlfriend, so I guess that creates another option—boning in small tents set up in the middle of a sheep meadow. I didn't have a girlfriend with me in mine, or even a temp, so I spent as little time as possible in there. (A good thing, too—I woke up the morning of the second day covered with spiders, immense Lovecraftian monsters of the sort usually seen only by schizophrenics.)
I won't get into Lambstock’s Official Beverage, except to say that it came in jars. There was also a lot of bourbon. I believe that I drank no less than seven brands over the course of 48 hours, descending in prestige over the timeline: We started with Elmer T. Lee and ended with Old Grand-Dad. The reason for being there, though, was the presence of multiple lamb carcasses, both whole and in parts, which were cooked by an ad hoc collective of Lardcore chefs. Tony Acinapura of Brasserie Beck in Washington made lamb gyros with mouthsome, crusty meatballs, each the size of a lady's fist, laid onto hot grilled pitas, lathered with fresh tzatziki, marinated feta, and a mushroom caponata of no small power, festooned with big rough leaves of the fresh mint that grows underfoot at the farm. Chef David Guas of Bayou Bakery in Washington made a fearsome pot of lamb sausage gravy, big enough to feed a battalion. Dallas McGarity of Marketplace in Louisville made lamb scrapple, which appeared at breakfast alongside the even more delicious piquant plump lamb sausages, which Rogers sells at his retail stores in Philadelphia and Washington. There was pulled mutton and posole and lamb jerky and lamb pastrami and fried lamb testicles (dba “rocky mountain oysters”), the last of which were served at 2 AM to an appreciative public.
In fact, there were so many great lamb dishes making random cameos that even I didn't eat them all. You put 20 or 30 drunk chefs together, set out smokers and grills and fire pits, and give them all the lamb of whatever cut they want—what do you think is going to happen? At one point after eating my lamb gyro, I looked down at the cutting board and found little twined cylinders that resembled small round hams. They were warm to the touch, unaccompanied by parent or guardian, and soon revealed themselves to be “lambchettas”: diabolically clever constructions of lamb loin wrapped with crusty, soft, salty lamb belly. I was flabbergasted, and not just because I was drunk. These were two different pieces, both of which present nearly insoluble problems to even professionals: the belly is tough and greasy, and the loin perilously easy to overcook (it dries up if you look at it wrong). Some anonymous genius, who turned out to be a young cook and Zach Galifinakis lookalike named Frank Paris, had cooked it and left it there for anyone passing by to find and eat. That someone was me; and I still find myself thinking about it.
The climax of Lambstock is the appearance, on Sunday night, of a whole roasted lamb, borne ceremonially to the main pavilion, and introduced by Rogers. This was hardly the first time anybody saw the thing. The animal had been roasting only a few feet away, impaled on a cruel spike, cooking slowly and juicily over a bed of hot coals, for the previous ten hours. Still, it came at a riotous point in the evening. Lambstock has a stage for live music, and the tender alt-folk sound of the Breedlings had given way to a raucous cover band that, if memory serves, had just finished an earth-shaking version of Pink Floyd's “Time” when the dead guest of honor appeared. There was applause and yelling, and the raising of splooshing mason jars high in the air. (The lambs that weren’t on spits were penned up on a distant hill, where they couldn’t see the delicious end their brother had met.) The roast lamb—or mutton, technically, since it was a year old and the size of Emmanuel Lewis—was the best I have ever had. Brian Littell, a rangy man in a tie-dye Lambstock shirt, cut thin slices from the leg, and each trapezoidal cut from this toughest and leanest of lamb parts was as supple and soft as coppa.
Rogers is philosophical about the event he has created. “I will never go public,” he says. “I am determined to lose money every year.” Lambstock is something of a giveback to his chefs, who buy what is certainly the best lamb in the US even though it is expensive, and not as readily available as Colorado lamb, which is almost as good and a lot easier to get. It seems to have no public relations value, since I was, as far as I can tell, the only writer present, and was sworn to secrecy on 17 different subjects.
Another thing I like a lot about Lambstock is that many of the people there have nothing to do with food, and I learned things I wouldn’t have at a typical “foodie” event. A forceful man told me about the breeding of unregistered working border collies, some of whom have a baleful stare, which he called “a wolf eye,” that can discomfit sheep at 300 yards, and which require breeding with “a soft-eye bitch.” I learned about Tennessee Walking Horses and their singularly easy, syncopated gait, and that the pork farmer Adam Music, who looks like a country music star, actually is a country music star—or at least was on his way to being one before taking over his family's hog farm. I found out that a lot of young chefs from the southland are seriously into DOOM. There were other things I learned, too, but I forgot them, lost as I was in a haze of liquor, lamb fat, and Klonopin, along with whatever neurotoxins the insects that crawled over me as I slept injected.
I came on Saturday afternoon, and by Monday morning was a spent force. There is only so much lamb a person can eat, I reasoned, and freon, noblest of the noble gases, beckoned me. Still, I wondered what I was missing out on. My liver was still working, after all, and there were half a dozen species of parasites still not living in my underwear. But no, I had to leave. Lambstock lasted one more night, and I’m told the closing dinner consisted of a dozen whole lamb heads. They were spooning up eyeballs, apparently. I feel bad at having missed it, but there will be another Lambstock next year, and I will come ready.
Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Award-winning food writer. Check back tomorrow for a new episode of Munchies all about Josh.
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