SULLIVAN STREET LAMB: A Guest Post by Catherine Piccoli
This week food writer Catherine Piccoli takes over my blog with a tale about her family, Greenwich Village, and a live lamb. –Sherrie
With NYU just nearby, Greenwich Village looks like any other urban university setting at ground level. Bars, hipsters, trendy cafes, and bicycles are the norm now, but the apartment building where my Grandma grew up and where my Dad was born still stands there, above the hip din – all seven floors of tan brick and black-painted fire escape at 142 Sullivan Street.
Each time I crane my neck upwards to see the stone lion embellishments above the window casements, I can feel my family’s history. This is where I come from. The stories my grandmother has taken to telling me lately (of all the boys that wanted to marry her; of something involving a bank robbery, mistaken identities, and a gun thrown into a sewer; of being serenaded by young Frank Sinatra at a Hoboken club after her brother’s wedding; of herbs sun-drying in the apartment window) root me in that heritage more than the scent of espresso rushing out of the tiny coffee shop now nestled on the building’s first floor.
Her latest tale was no different, told to me on a chilly Sunday in June in her mustard yellow kitchen in suburban Ohio, just about as far from the Village as one can get. The sun streaked in hazily through the windows as Grandma proclaimed that when she was a girl her father would bring home a live lamb on the subway for Easter dinner. I coaxed her on.
It was the 1930s. My Great-grandfather worked on the New Jersey coal docks, next to a railroad yard where food was delivered and bought by wholesalers and retailers to feed the big city to the north. Every year before Easter, when the lambs came in, Grandma’s father would buy one from the railroad yard after work, put it in a cloth coal sack and carry it home to Sullivan Street on the subway. During the day, he tied the lamb to one leg of the four-legged stove and set out food and a dish of water for it. At night, it was left outside, tied to a steam pipe and apparently, miraculously never stolen.
Just before Easter, Grandma’s father would slaughter, clean, and dress the lamb himself, between two chairs in the apartment’s courtyard. All the cuts were cooked in the third-floor apartment for the big crowd, including Grandma and her four brothers, that ascended each Easter Sunday to eat and talk and celebrate.
Grandma’s story, so matter of fact and told with a laugh, fascinated me. A little lamb riding the subway in a coal sack and standing in the midst of a bustling Italian neighborhood in one of the biggest cities in the world sounds more like a children’s book (save the gruesome ending) than something that really happened. But happen it did, and it was so normal to her that Grandma doesn’t really understand why I keep bothering her with incessant phone calls weeks later to try and tease out more details. “Yes, it happened every year…No, I don’t know what he fed it…No, I wasn’t embarrassed, it was just something we did…That’s the way years ago they used to do things.”
On my last New York trip, I snooped about 142 Sullivan more than usual, carefully snapping photos with my digital camera. The shaggy haired barista/owner of the coffee shop couldn’t let me into the apartment’s courtyard to take a picture of the place where all those lambs used to live. It no longer exists. He said the old timers of the area tell him that you used to be able to escape from your parents or even the cops through the open courtyard. But sometime in the 70s, buildings expanded and the yard was lost. All that’s out there now is the back of the building behind.
But there are still some courtyards between the streets that I might be able to get access to. He suggested I walk around to the MacDougal side of the street to see.
There does seem to be at least one courtyard there, the back patio of a restaurant all set for dinner service. I peered through the front door and decided not to go in. I rationalized it away at the time but now I wish I had asked to walk back and see for myself. I wouldn’t even need a photo. Just being there and knowing what it used to be like for my family would have been enough.
Catherine Piccoli lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she studies and writes about food. When not cooking, eating, or obsessing over graduate school, Catherine can be found playing clarinet in a local community band. Follow her at: gigaEATS.