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Feature Fri Aug 27 2010

Lamb, Croatian Style

This article was submitted by freelance writer Carrie Miller.

Croatia Fest 142.jpgThe Velika Gospa is to the 100,000-plus Chicagoans of Croatian descent what St. Patrick's Day is to the Irish. It celebrates an unlikely 1715 victory over an impending horde of Turks who were threatening the town of Sinj, with thankful credit given to the Virgin Mary for a violent sickness that felled and thus repelled the invaders. Synonymous with tremendous victory against superior force, it seems fitting that the men of St. Jerome's Croatian Catholic Church in Bridgeport undertake the monumental task each August 15 of charcoal-barbecuing of some 80 lambs and pigs. Perhaps even more amazing is that customers begin lining up at 7am to buy it by the pound, and, by 10am there's nothing left but sawdust, lamb fat and ashes.

P1280594.JPGBrothers Zivko and Marko Knezovic do the simple seasoning for the lambs. Coarse kosher salt is liberally thrown inside the cavity and all over the exterior of the lambs, which are bought from several South Side purveyors. The salt both flavors and acts as a preservative for the meat at it waits its turn on the rotisserie. Approximately 20 men worked nearly six hours, attaching lambs and pigs to bars and getting the charcoal fires started. Another half dozen pulled an all-nighter roasting them crisp-skinned on the outside and to juicy perfection inside. (Photo credit Ivan Mlinarich.)

P1280564.JPGAfter salting, the next step is to fasten the lambs as securely as possible to the squared-off metal rotisserie bars. Two men on the left attempt to find a boneless pathway to insert a sharp U-shaped bracket around the bar and through the midsection of the lamb where, on the right, Dusko Kraljevic reinforces the bracket and power-fastens it down with wingnuts. This is a relatively new (and welcome) development in the history of the barbecue, coming about the mid-1980s. Before that the lambs were simply tied to the bars, which is still the method for the neck and legs, as Pavao Hrkac, center, demonstrates. In the pre-hardware days, they often had to be retied repeatedly as the meat heated and the fat melted. (Photo credit Ivan Mlinarich.)

P1280586.JPGThe last step before putting the lambs on the spit is to close the cavities up to help maintain an even temperature. This is done by creating a kind of bone button from the shin bone of the animal, which is sawed off early in the process. Behind, one of three meat saws waits to break down the bounty, with a plush carpet of sawdust to catch the drippings. (Photo credit Ivan Mlinarich.)

Croatia Fest 063.jpgHow do you roast 80 lambs in less than 24 hours? A 32-rack capacity rotisserie in the church courtyard shed helps a lot. Built up over the 104-year history of the St. Jerome's festival, four sets of racks each hold four lambs above four lambs nearest the charcoal fires set and tended on the concrete floors. Halfway through at 1am, more than 100 pounds of charcoal had been used, as hundreds more wait at the back of the shed. John Kosic, left and Filip Filipovic were part of the six-man overnight crew.

Croatia Fest 044.jpg
Filip Filipovic and John Kosic bring a fresh lamb to replace a finished one, as Nediljko "Neno" Babic explains the process of testing for doneness. He pieces the meat in the thickest part and presses the knife to his forearm. When he says "Ouch," the lamb is done. As a young boy of 7 in Croatia, Neno said he was in charge of hand-turning 15 lambs for his sister's wedding, which was in the winter-time. He laughed at the memory of sittings alone in a shed closed up from the wintry air, turning lambs for more than a day, as his mother brought him food and his father brought him booze.

Mike Marusic and his 17-year-old nephew, Tommy Mulc move a crisp-roasted lamb from the rotisserie to a holding section of the shed. It was the third lamb roast for Tommy, who was born and raised in the St. Jerome parish. Mulc, who identifies as American, said it's one of the few times he's asked to do "something Croatian," and he doesn't mind it.

Croatia Fest 120.jpg
The cooked lambs are laid across two sawhorses with a butcher-paper blanket above and a charcoal fire lit beneath to keep them warm overnight.

Croatia Fest 013.jpg
When the long, hot, sweaty day is done for most of the men, they make a meal of the first two lambs off the spit and wash it down with expertly made homemade Croatian wine and a cooler full of ice cold Heinekens. Then thoughts turn the old country and the singing begins, with the eldest singing loudest and one of the younger men broadcasting wireless accompaniment from his laptop speakers courtesy of YouTube. (Left to Right: Zivko Knezovic, Marko Knezovic, Ivo Kosir, Ivan Jureta, Stanko "Cana" Sego.)

Croatia Fest 086.jpg
The hardest work, Neno said, comes for the overnight crew of a half-dozen men, who fight exhaustion to keep the coals burning hot and even and keep moving the finished lambs to the warmer and the new lambs to the rotisserie. He worked from 3:30 in the afternoon to when the last lamb was sold, catching a two-hour cat nap in his car.

Croatia Fest 131.jpgIn the morning, as the parishioners look on hungrily, the lambs and pigs are removed from their spits in the reverse process of the afternoon before. Here John Kosic, one of the overnight crew, unscrews the first piglet from the rotisserie bar, dropping the hardware into the bucket at his feet.

Pastor Joe Grbes greets the early flock of lamb-seekers, who begin to roam the church courtyard even before the 7:30am mass begins. Cheryl Bozich was second in line to buy 12 pounds of lamb and three pounds of pig for her own boat party during Sunday's Chicago Air and Water Show - and for Croatian neighbors in two nearby slips. "The key is to get out here before mass lets out," said Bozich, who said she has been coming to the festival "all my life." Father Joe, who has been at St. Jerome's since 1996 and became pastor in 2001, said proceeds from the Croatian Festival make up 20 percent of the church budget.

The "no sales before 7:30 mass ends" rule was relaxed this year, which kept the after-service lines shorter than in previous years. Parishioners in their Sunday finest mingled in three lines amidst the perfume of lamb smoke in the church courtyard. The far left line was reserved for people who ordered a full or half-lamb ahead of time. More than 20 lambs were sold in advance.

The meat cost $10 per pound and came with sliced bakery white bread and a healthy batch of trimmed spring onions. Asked what the traditional accompaniment to the lamb is, Neno Babic grabbed an onion and took a big bite of it. "That's it," he said. "This is what we eat it with. Everything else is a luxury."

John Zivalich proudly displays his 20-pound lamb haul, which he bought to ship (overnight on dry ice) to his brother Mark in Hawaii. "There is no cost when it comes to him and his lamb," he said. John also bought himself six pounds "for personal use," but figured that another couple pounds of Mark's might migrate over during the packing process. "I'll probably end up with eight," he said with a smirk.

Croatia Fest 183.jpgI found myself making little moany sounds every time I put a piece of this lamb in my mouth, which was often. I bought five pounds of it and used it the following ways:

  1. Immediately made myself this lovely lambwich with a perfect field-grown summer tomato, spring onions and a thin layer of mayo.
  2. Later that night, sliced it off the bone and served it atop pillowy homemade gnocchi with a gravy of thickened stock made from the bones.
  3. Heated up some chops and served it to deserving boyfriend with baked potatoes and salad.
  4. Repeated #1.

Advice: Never pass up the chance to get your hands on Croatian spit-roasted lamb.


This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

Mike Marusic / August 27, 2010 1:02 PM

What a great article and great time with Carrie covering the story!

Sandi Loncar / August 27, 2010 4:19 PM

What a great article - a rare look into the Croatian culture Thanks

George Glass / August 29, 2010 10:21 AM

Interesting article. I will be the first in line next year. This article made me hungry!

Uncle Joe Rogul / August 29, 2010 10:27 PM

Why did we have to wait
so long for such a great
story and pictures,
where have we all been?

Renee Pea / August 30, 2010 2:34 PM

Very interesting article and a rare insight into how much work and dedication goes into preparation of such great events

John Kralji / August 31, 2010 2:31 PM

Excellent article but one correction. Velika Gospa is a Catholic Church holiday - the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is a major public holiday in Croatia (and presumably in other majority Catholic countries) and it is celebrated a Marian shrines throughout the country, not just at Sinj. The holiday is thus not directly connected with the 1715 Battle of Sinj. Sinj, however, has developed its own special traditions apart from the strictly religious aspect of the holiday which celebrate the victory in that battle (the Sinjska alka - in which a horesman seeks to pierce a concentric circle (the alka) with his lance).

eliz / September 2, 2010 4:58 PM

yeah!!!!!

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