If you are of Hellenic descent right about now, you are probably decompressing from overstuffing yourself with too much lamb. The frenzy of getting all the details for the Pascha feast is over but the after-effects remain. The centerpiece of the Paschal feast is the souvla, the traditional spit. The center of that and the focal point of the entire holiday is the lamb or goat. The “arne” is a symbol both of life and death, of joy and sacrifice.
Symbols aside, there is really no room for veganism at Orthodox Easter. Pascha is about the blood and guts reality of killing a young animal so that the meat starved hordes can indulge in the juicy flesh and smack lips on its crispy skin, dig into its silky fat. So for this year, following in my husband’s Palestinian tradition, we went the live lamb route. We skipped the lines of frenzied shoppers waving their little red tickets smushing themselves into a bad mood at the counter of the local butcher shop. Instead we visited the live “vivero” or Astoria Live Chicken and Meat Market on 20th Avenue next to the Con Edison plant. It is listed as a meat wholesaler.
Orthodox Christians in the Middle East, as well as many Greeks from the traditional villages slaughter their goats and lambs fresh for the feast. As Americans we have become progressively sheltered from the bloody realities of the slaughtrrhouse. But the tradition of slaughteribg a live sheep or goat on the day of Pascha remains strong for Orthodox Christians in the Middle East as it does for many Greeks from the traditional villages. We might find it cruel or inhumane but this is the reality, kiries kai kiroi.
The Astoria Live Chicken and Meat Market is kept surprisingly clean and odor free, considering the hundreds of red and white chickens, guinea fowl, and ducks that meet you in stacked steel cages upon walking in. On the morning I visited, a Dominican delivery man was busy throwing chickens one by one or two by two from the portable cages from his truck into the 10 foot high cages of the vivero. Besides clucking up a storm and shedding feathers here and there, they were quite cooperative, sitting stable where they landed, more like milk bottles than animate birds. Who could imagine that just beyond a corridor in the back with the turn of a knob of a steel door opens into a scene out of Animal Farm, the novel? A fenced in pen corrals young bulls, tens of jumpy goats and sheep scrambling along troughs and bumping into each other.
Jimmy, the manager for 16 years, a middle-aged mild-mannered man from Lebanon says he sells on average 500 live lambs just to Greek customers for the holiday. “Fresh meat is better than what you buy in the supermarket,” he claims, “because it is fresh. It is 100% grass fed and organic. The meat in the supermarket is frozen and can be there for up to six months without you knowing it.”
“Don’t worry,” he assures me, “you will like fresh meat better. You will know it in the taste.”
For the last two years the live market is under Greek ownership, as if the big Greek flag flapping in the middle of the facade did not let you know already. Kosta, a veteran butcher from Iperos, laconic in his answers and demeanor answers, “Eine to kalutero,” “It’s the best,” to the question why should customers buy live meat over the supermarket packaged variety.
“How do you get over your feelings for killing the animals? Doesn’t it break your heart?” I ask Ahmad, a young Egyptian, “You get used to it,” he confesses with a wide smile. “It’s a part of life.”
Ernesto, another worker only in the US for a year, says this was his job in his native village in Mexico. It makes the transition to a new country more comforting. In fact, slaughtering live meat is the normal tradition for most of the workers and the customers in the vivero.
“We get people from Latin America, Muslims from the Middle East all kinds of customers. It is the Americans that find it unusual,” Jimmy, the manager, explains.
The goat we chose was a rambunctious kid of black and white patches, weighing in to the eye at 60 pounds. It was nibbling on the fringes of my leather pouch when Kosta whipped it up from its two legs, dragged it to the back room threw it on the box scale to get its weight and from there disappeared into an antechamber equipped with a hose, knives and cleavers of assorted shapes and sizes hung from nails across a white wall. From the time we selected the animal to the time it was slaughtered, drained, skinned, cleaned and delivered in a black Hefty garbage bag took 20 minutes, less time than it would take for my red ticket to come up at the regular greek butchers. In a separate white plastic bag we were given the innards–liver, heart, kidneys, etc.
The animals for the Astoria Live Chicken and Meat Market are shipped in from an organic farm in Pennsylvania. They pass through inspection as livestock at the farm before coming to the live market. The market undergoes a rigorous health inspection process and is visited frequently by the NYC Department of Health, meeting the R4 and R14 standards.
Another surprise was the price; the meat averaged $5 per pound before slaughter. The average price for a pound of lamb at the regular butchers was double that. Not bad for organic, grass fed lamb, that was hours fresh. ( The black garbage bag was warm to the touch even after an hour in the fridge. )
Did it survive the taste test? Not one guest complained. “The lamb is delicious,” “a hit,” “ti oreo,” went the compliments. We have started on a new tradition.
Did I feel sorry for the poor thing? Of course I did. At first, I thought I was going to hold out, be the idealist. It isnt fair to eat something I can’t kill. But after wafting too close to the smoky scent oozing with luscious fat I couldn’t resist. The taste of meat went too deep into my DNA. There is a cellular ancient longing in my very bones for fresh lamb meat. We are Greeks after all.
“What do you mean you don’t eat meat?” asks Aunt Voula in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. “That’s OK I make lamb.”
There is something about the lamb on the spit at Pascha that screams of Holy Ressurection. Isn’t that what the meaning of Pascha is after all? Celebrating life in spite of death? Coming to face death in all its gory terror but eating it anyway? Not eating the Lamb would be a negation of life and living. A hiding of the eyes to the fullness of life and its compliment death.
But there it is, kiries kai kiroi, the succulent face of death revolving over and over on a low fire, delicious dripping with fat driving you mad with longing to rip into its flesh and eat and eat and eat.
WARNING: NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART. GRAPHIC IMAGES THAT MIGHT BE OFFENSIVE TO SOME VIEWERS. WATCH AT YOUR OWN RISK.