So you want to roast a whole lamb?

Robert always wanted to roast a whole lamb. He has a memory of, as a little boy at the beach with his parents and sister, stumbling upon strangers roasting a whole lamb on a spit over an open fire, and of being handed a piece of meat off the lamb. In the memory, of course, the meat is delicious, and the experience grew to mythic proportions. Somehow, recently, Robert had been talking a lot about roasting a whole lamb. Apparently, he mentioned this at work, and later that day called me excitedly to tell me that “it was decided,” he said: “we” (this seemed to mean him and me and the entire office, as far as I could tell) were going to roast a whole lamb at his partner Matt’s house, since Matt lives out in the country (he’ll insist that Dover isn’t out in the country, but oh yes, it is) and has a backyard where it’s actually possible to roast whole lambs. “Sure,” I said. “Anytime.”

“Anytime” turned into Matt’s kids’ graduation party—his son Vassar had just graduated from college and his daughter Emily (who we’d known since she was a cutely reading little girl—really my favorite kind of child—at a company weekend away ten or twelve years ago) had just graduated from high school, and Matt was having a graduation party for both of them. Congratulations, guys! What better graduation gift than a whole roast lamb? So, with Robert’s dream-idea of a whole lamb, and Matt’s blessing on the idea of a lamb for the party, the tech guy at their office, Leith, stepped into the gap to try to bring these ideas to fruition. Luckily, Leith’s girlfriend Katie happened to have an uncle in Maine who ran a sheep farm as his hobby, so we had access to a fresh, reputable lamb. Leith’s research and planning picked up speed as the date for the party approached, and he indeed had everything well in hand. Earlier this week I was asked to take charge of the seasonings of the lamb (which worked out very well, since I secretly—or perhaps not so secretly—would have been extremely upset if I hadn’t been actively involved in this process), and Leith and I exchanged many emails on the subject of “Lamb.”

On Saturday, the day before the party, Leith and Katie drove up to Maine to pick up the lamb which Katie’s uncle had dropped off the day before at the butcher. Walking around, the lamb had weighed 65 pounds, but “fully dressed” (which ironically seems to mean more undressed—the lamb, minus its head and innards and wool) it weighed 45 pounds. This was still quite a good size for a lamb, and Leith and Katie transported it down by laying it, fully wrapped in plastic, in a partially inflated kiddy pool in the back of their Chevy Blazer; they then laid a bag of ice inside the body of the lamb and a few bags around it, and folded the pool over and duct-taped it shut. They handed over the lamb to Matt and his extra refrigerator Saturday night, and then called us to verify the 6 a.m. arrival time Sunday morning for the actual seasoning and cooking of the lamb.

In partial preparation for this event, and in addition to trolling the internet and the publications of the New England Barbecue Society, we interviewed everyone we knew who had even tangentially been involved in a similar project. My father has roasted a lamb on a spit, and he recalled his father choosing a tree branch for the spit, his mother making them wrap the branch in aluminum foil before inserting it into the lamb, and his then-young nephew John turning and turning the spit. We would be working, this time, with somewhat newer technology: Leith had arranged to rent a barbecue with electric motorized spit from the Arlington BBQ Barn. I made lots and lots of lists—see my total list of supplies below for reference—trying to think of everything we would need, so that we wouldn’t have to bother Karen (Matt’s Wellesley wife) all the time. Karen was extremely pro-lamb, but still, on the day of her kids’ graduation party, with that many guests around, I didn’t want to have to run in and ask for foil, paper towels, a cutting board, etc., over and over.

So, at 6:00 on Sunday morning, then, the day of the party, Leith and Katie and Robert and I converged on Matt’s silent house on a quiet, bird-chirping street in Dover. It had been raining nearly all week, but the sun was actually supposed to come out later that day. At 6:00, though, it was party cloudy and decidedly chilly. Matt appeared a few minutes after we got there, and we spent just over an hour getting the lamb out of the fridge, the grill and rotisserie out of the garage, and the lamb onto the spit. I rubbed the lamb all over, inside and out, with a dry rub mix of kosher salt, freshly ground peppercorns (pink, black, and green), and minced garlic. I then rubbed the lamb all over with a mop of lemon juice, minced garlic, minced rosemary, and minced chives. We also stuck four halved lemons inside the body cavity, before sewing it up to contain the lamb juices and foster more lemon flavor. At 7:20, finally, it was all done, and we got to sit back and relax, just basting occasionally with more of the lemon juice, garlic, and rosemary mixture, and adding more charcoal every half hour or so. That meant we had a few hours to sit back and lamb-gaze, guarding it from neighbors and dogs and children, all lured by the smoky, garlicky smell, and also plenty of time to cook and eat a campfire breakfast—coffee, orange juice, muffins, and breakfast sandwiches of grill-toasted bread, grilled maple-cured bacon, and omelets made in small cast-iron pans on the grill under the lamb.

Most of our supplies in the back of the Zipcar Robert raking a layer of sand on the bottom of the grill Unpacking supplies and setting up Matt and Leith carrying the wrapped lamb out of the fridge


Cutting open the plastic wrap Getting ready: lamb Cutting out the liver and kidneys (they looked good, but we decided to roast the lamb without them in, and perhaps cook them separately or give Matt's dogs tasty treats) Getting ready: grill (two piles of charcoal at opposite ends, so fire is coolest in the middle)


Shoving in the supporting bolts, which then screw into the spit Using a hammer to tap the bolts in place Deciding that going around the backbone, rather than trying to go through it, is the best plan here Leith getting up to his elbows in the lamb


Robert and Katie tending the fire, using Matt's bellows Tying together the back legs with wire, in order to raise them and keep them from the direct heat Katie tending the fire, adding some wood and raking the coals Rubbing salt, pepper, and garlic into the belly


Seasoning the lamb and tying the legs, while the air is getting smokier Pulling the legs as close as possible Getting ready to sew up the lamb--all those lopsided Girl Scout stuffed animals finally pay off! Sewing up the belly (first pass only--we pulled it much closer later) around the lemons


Robert hooking up the rotisserie Moving the lamb to the rotisserie Mounting the lamb--firmly skewered on the spit--onto the motor Adjusting the motor--we didn't want any lamb accidents


Matt tightening the bolt on the motor Patting on salt and pepper and garlic Seasoning the lamb while Leith, Katie, and Matt look on Trying to center the lamb over the coals


Starting breakfast, the lamb ready and with legs wrapped in foil Robert grilling bacon Omelets sizzling softly and breakfast waiting Relaxing, around 8:00 in the morning, with the lamb on and breakfast done: Leith, Robert, and Katie


More lamb-gazing in the sun, with Katie warming herself near the fire (it was cool to pleasant outside, but never too hot unless you were right over the fire) Rotating perfectly Adding more coals to the fire, while making some coffee Close-up view of the lamb--the stitching held for a remarkably long time, and when at last the lamb cooked and contracted and the stitches released, the lemons tumbled out, and the lamb itself was nearly cooked


Robert using the laser temperature gun to check the temperature of the coals Adding more coals to the fire Dumping over the very last of the mop (apparently with my eyes closed) Posing with the lovely lamb

At 11:30, the temperature inside the lamb having risen faster than we expected, we started carving the lamb. By 1:30, all of the lamb had been carved, and most of it had been eaten. Robert put the ribs back on the grill to cook again and crisp themselves, and we set aside a few of the bones for Matt’s dogs, but nearly every scrap of meat and juicy skin (okay, fat) was gone—snapped up by eager, hungry guests almost before it left the cutting board and hit the platter. The lamb was truly delicious—moist, delicate, meaty, and filled with lemon and garlic flavor throughout. We almost had to fight the people gathered around the grill for lamb for ourselves and for the platter to pass inside to the “real” party. At one point, Katie, bringing a platter of meat inside to the buffet, was accosted by a guest who thanked her perfunctorily and then said, “Oh, by the way, we need more ice.” “Um, I don’t work here,” was Katie’s priceless response. “I just came with the lamb.” She might as well have said that she came with the Lamb Man, which was what Leith, when introduced to other guests, would simply tell people to call him, and which seemed like a fitting nickname for him, given both the enormous amount of work he put into the lamb and the enormous amount of lamb that he put into his stomach.

Adjusting position on the spit Rotating partial carcass--Leith and I with a glove and a knife and a pair of tongs and a platter took off each of the back legs, and then started cutting some side meat and the tenderloin, before moving onto the shoulders Platter of lamb, all gone Getting ready to carve the second or so platter of lamb (shoulders here)


Cutting off the ribs, which Robert then grilled separately to crisp them up Finding the last little bits of meat--some on the neck, some in between the bones Posing with the carcass Posing with grilling implements and what's left of the lamb


Leith attacking the carcass; he claims that Matt's dogs disappeared because he scared them off from the lamb Posing, before washing lamb off of our hands (but oh, my hands still smell so good!) Relaxing at the end of the day, with Abigail joining us Robert eating one last lamb rib

When we sat down at 2:30, we realized how exhausted we were, but it had all been tremendously fun. Just as Robert was thinking of grilling another rib, or picking at another bone, fate dropped more good food in front of us: a fisherman friend of Matt’s, who he hadn’t talked to in over a year, dropped by with some freshly caught striped bass filets. Robert immediately fired up the grill and threw on the fish, and after graduation cake and brownies, we ate tasty grilled fish fillets.

The only real casualties of the day—other than Lammy, as we thought of him, who was frolicking around (although Katie doesn’t like to recall this) as of Friday morning—were very minor: a small puncture on Leith’s finger when he stabbed himself with the carving fork; some very low-grade burns (mostly just reddened, tender skin) on our forearms, from perpetually reaching over the fire to baste or adjust or carve the lamb; and some large swollen mosquito bites on me, most obviously on my forehead (Karen thought some of the kids got me with a ball from the softball game, but no, I just always get bitten when I venture out of the city).

Would we do it all again? Absolutely! How about next Sunday?


Total list of supplies we used:

• 1.5 liter well-sealed plastic container (preferably taller than wide, so as to accommodate a basting brush) filled with lemon juice mixed with 2 full heads of garlic, minced; 2 bunches of rosemary, minced; 1 bunch chives, minced. The mop should be quite thick with all the garlic and herbs.

• 1 cup of kosher salt mixed in a plastic container or Ziploc bag with lots of freshly ground pepper (I used pink, green, and black, mixed) and 1 head of garlic, minced

• long-handled silicone-bristled basting brush

• paper towels

• aluminum foil, to cover the legs and neck of the lamb during the first stages of cooking so they don’t cook too quickly and get overdone

• tissues (there are lots of runny noses and watering eyes from the smoke)

• anti-bacterial hand gel (this is slightly less necessary if you have an easily accessible outdoor sink, but it’s still difficult to run over to the sink every time you get raw lamb on your hands)

• very sturdy, barbecue-grade long-handled tongs

• fireproof gloves (make sure these are very clean—at at least one point we needed to grab the hot lamb to stabilize it when carving it off the spit)

• a bucket of sand for putting a one-inch layer on the bottom of the grill

• 4 bags real charcoal

• shovel, rake, and small trowel for playing with the coals

• fire starters, newspaper, bellows, and a few sticks of hardwood for getting the fire going

• sturdy disposable plastic plates for using as spoon rests or for catching pieces of lamb or skin when carving

• large wood carving board with handles and deep juice wells

• sharp, high-quality carving knife and carving fork

• sharp, sturdy food-safe scissors or kitchen shears

• plastic sheeting or drop cloth for lining table when putting lamb on spit

• Ziploc bags and plastic grocery bags, plus a sturdy paper shopping bag for containing all dirty utensils (I just carried them all home with me, neatly contained in the shopping bag, so I didn’t have to barge into the kitchen and wash them all)

• 4 halved lemons to toss into the belly cavity

• needle and thick cotton thread for sewing up the belly of the lamb (I suggest colored thread, rather than white, so that you can see the stitches easily when carving in order to cut around them), plus a few 4-inch metal skewers (like for trussing a turkey) in case the stomach opens

• a long extension cord for running the spit

• a work table (at least card-table-sized, though larger is better) for maneuvering lamb, holding mops, carving the lamb, etc.

• a hose, to hose down buckets of coals and the grill at the end of the day

• an inflatable kiddy pool, five bags of ice, plastic sheeting, and duct tape for containing the lamb on the drive home

• a big enough refrigerator to hold the lamb overnight

• garden chairs (and, Leith would add, many beers) for lamb chefs to relax with

• a hammer, socket wrench set, screwdriver, and pliers for assembling the spit

• wire to tie up the lamb legs, and wire cutters

• digital meat thermometer for checking internal temperature and, optionally, a laser thermometer gun for checking the temperature of the lamb skin (essentially the cooking temperature) and the temperature of the coals (to get rid of any cold or hot spots)

• a camera (I don’t know who would do this without a camera, but do keep track of grease and smoke and flying ash around the lens)

• a shallow raised grill pit with spit and rotisserie

• and, rather obviously, a lamb: 45 pounds before it went on the spit was a very good size for the grill

• finally, a Zipcar—all of our crazy, fun, outside-of-the-city adventures are made possible in part by Zipcar!

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Created: 06/11/06. Last Modified: 06/11/06.