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It was like barging into a party where everyone else knows each other, and you weren't invited. As I walked in, 40,000 pairs of eyes turned in my direction, and I could almost hear the scornful comments. "Nice sweater," they were saying. "For a poly-synthetic." But whenever I tried to come close, they backed off.
Then again, whaddaya expect from a bunch of sheep?
And these guys had a right to feel skittish, because they were the proverbial lambs to the slaughter, tens of thousands of woolly bodies stretching as far as the eye could see on this bright fall day. That's because Rule Feed Lot, 982 County Road 21 in Brighton, specializes in fattening these babies up and then shipping them out, right off to the slaughterhouse and from there to the packing plant.
October has been designated Colorado Lamb Month by the same sort of people who bring us such important celebrations as National Pickle Week and International Lentil Month. But to folks in the sheep industry, it's a big deal: Colorado's lamb producers are getting nervous that they won't be able to raise lambs in this state much longer. "I know everyone likes to say that their business isn't profitable and that they need more subsidies and things like that," says Lori Hawthorne, who runs the 160-acre feedlot with her brothers Spencerand Robert Rule and their father, Larry Rule. "But the fact is, you look at any restaurant menu in the area, and chances are they're boasting about their New Zealand lamb chops or their Australian shank. Now, why would they be getting those from so far away, when they could be buying it right here, in their own state, from people who don't use hormones and feed with corn? Price, bottom line."
Trade agreements, type of feed, regulations and the weather all have a say in how much the meat will cost, and this year Colorado's weather was a major factor. "The animals are coming down from the mountains a little lighter this year because of the drought," says Hawthorne. "There was no pasture to speak of, and so they'll spend a little more time here than usual getting fattened up." Then it's off to Rule's own slaughterhouse in Iowa. (October is the ideal month to showcase Colorado lamb, because right after this the animals are butchered.) "We used to have the slaughterhouse in Colorado, but the intensive regulations in this state made it less cost-effective," she adds. "But all of these lambs were born here, and have been raised in the Colorado mountains off Colorado grasses, and then they are fed on Colorado corn."
Like most of the state's nine other feedlots, Rule, in operation since 1963, believes that corn feeding produces the tastiest lamb. But first, the feedlot has to get the animals to ingest it: Lambs raised along the Western Slope have never seen a feeding trough. "That's the toughest part for them when they get here," Hawthorne says. "They've been raised on mama's milk and grazing grasses, and so the idea of water and feed takes a little getting used to. But once they catch on, they bulk up quick."
Getting Americans to catch on to the great taste of lamb has been more of a challenge. "Decades ago, the only lamb people were familiar with was mutton, which has a very different flavor and texture from younger lamb," Hawthorne says. "And the cooking methods weren't always the best for making the meat tender. Nowadays, most meat is from lambs that are no more than a year old." For the record, the official terms for lamb are: Genuine lamb, referring to lambs no more than twelve months old; yearling lamb, for one- to two-year-olds; and mutton, for lambs older than two years.
A decade ago, Colorado was one of the biggest producers of lamb, along with Texas, Wyoming, California and South Dakota. Back then, the largest consumers of lamb were New York, California, Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Today Colorado is still one of the biggest producers, and it's also moved up in consumption, passing Illinois, Massachusetts and New Jersey. Part of the increased consumption can surely be credited to local restaurants that feature lamb on their menus and the creative ways they present it. Hawthorne has three favorite eateries for lamb: Bandera, 184 Steele Street; Legacy Grill, 10801 Legacy Ridge Parkway in Westminster; and Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House,8100 East Orchard Road, Greenwood Village -- "They don't do it all the time, but when they do, it's awesome," she says.
Although I haven't tried the lamb at Legacy or Bandera, I agree that Del Frisco's is wonderful. And as I looked back over a year or so of meals in the Denver area, I realized a surprisingly large number of restaurants are serving lamb, which proves the producers' contention that its popularity is growing. Some of my favorite preparations involve ethnic touches. You can go Indian with the delectable lamb korma at Star of India (3102 South Parker Road in Aurora), or Middle Eastern with the generously portioned lamb shank at Phoenicia Grill (727 Colorado Boulevard), which comes awash in a sweet-tart, allspice-scented orange sauce, or the shank at Damascus (2276 South Colorado Boulevard). Move along the Mediterranean with the incredible lamb sandwich at Pete's Central 1 Restaurant (300 South Pearl Street): meat sliced from a whole roasted leg that's imbued with Greek herbs and stuffed into a meaty roll, an amazing deal with fries for $4.95. Or sample sheep in a variety of ways at the all-Med-all-the-time Ilios (1201 Broadway), including succulent tapas-style, spicy barbecued lamb ribs, lamb kabobs and fennel-kissed, lemon-tart grilled rack.
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