Lamb dressed as mutton

Food - Bee Wilson wonders at the strange prejudices of the American constitution

They confiscate Oxo cubes in Florida; they disinfect the feet of arrivals in New York; they fine us $1,000 for accidentally carrying a beef sandwich on the plane over. The US reaction to foot-and-mouth in Europe has been a typical mixture of neurosis and aggression, like a Monroe Doctrine applied to food: a policy of total separation from our mad cows and infectious sheep. They pretend it's about the safety of the American consumer, but anyone can see, it's really about good honest profit.

One further transatlantic implication of the foot-and-mouth crisis is that the sight of all those burning pyres of British sheep will surely have worsened America's already unenthusiastic attitude to eating lamb.

There's a clever scene about America's distaste for lamb in Kurt Andersen's futuristic novel Turn of the Century. A marketing man called Zip has just been hired by the National Lamb Board of America to improve its image. The trouble is that, unlike beef or pork, lamb is the name of the animal as well as the meat. "It's just a nomenclature problem . . . They need a new name for lamb that isn't so beastly, that doesn't remind Americans they're eating a cute animal." Zip has been paid a hundred grand to come up with the answer. He toys with "agneau", but decides it is "too pseudo and Froggy". "Hammelfleisch" has "tested surprisingly well" as a name for "new smoked-lamb lunch meat", but Zip thinks it's a bit of a joke. "Mouton" is tempting, "but the [Lamb] Board thought the Rothschild wine people would sue". Finally, Zip comes up with his "classic" idea, as brilliant and timeless, he thinks, as "corn flakes", "Rice Krispies" or "Cheerios": "baby mutton". It's "totally new and just a little sexy". The strange thing is, you can actually imagine it working; but it would still take some selling to persuade the American public to love lamb.

At Epicurious.com, America's leading gourmet internet site, there are 1,890 recipes for chicken, 1,040 for pork and 755 for beef, but only 220 for lamb. Most of these are for Europeanised creations, such as "Moroccan lamb stew" or garlic-roasted leg of lamb with green olives and lemon. Lamb just doesn't seem to fit the mainstream of American meat cookery. You don't get lamb spare ribs; the meat doesn't taste right barbecued. And you can't fry it like chicken. It has no wings to serve with beer and you'd never put it in an all-American meatloaf. They'd probably throw you out of a Las Vegas steakhouse if you tried to order lamb chops.

The American disdain for lamb may have originated in geography, but has long since become emotional. Americans see pork and beef as somehow "clean", patriotic meats, apple pie for carnivores. Many of them look on lamb warily, much as many British people look on goat, as the kind of dubious foreign animal you would eat only if you were ill-washed and hard-pressed. At the height of the BSE crisis, a dear American friend of mine told me she always felt British meat wasn't quite to be trusted, compared to American beef, which she had always known was the safest meat in the world. I didn't like to mention cattle hormones.

In the past few weeks, though, some Americans have woken up to the dangers lurking in their beloved hamburgers, of which they eat, on average, three a week. Eric Schlosser's recently published Fast Food Nation (out next month through Allen Lane, The Penguin Press) has been a surprise bestseller. In it, the author details some of the more unsavoury side effects of US agribusiness, notably the huge abattoirs and meat factories, where up to 800,000lb of minced beef can be produced in a day. A single hamburger may contain meat from hundreds of different cattle, as well as traces of insects, metal shavings and "fecal material".

Every day in the US, 200,000 people get food poisoning. Isn't it time the Americans abandoned their good ol' beef patties and gave "baby mutton" a chance?

This article first appeared in How the rich rule politics again

2001-03-26