HOLIDAY FOOD – The Sheep From The Goats

18 Feb 2003

On the last day of the pilgrimage to Mecca, Muslims from around the world join pilgrims in commemorating the sacrifice of Abraham. It is an ancient rite, an Islamic institution established by the Prophet himself back in year II of the Hegira, or 624 AD. It involves sacrificing a healthy animal and without any defects—it may be a sheep, cow, goat or even a camel—in remembrance of Abraham’s dream in which God ordered him to sacrifice his son (Ishmael son of Agar for Muslims, Isaac in the Christian tradition).

The custom of killing a ram is still widely observed in Tunisia, in spite of all the problems posed by the urban environment, where homes are unsuited to this type of activity. After the sacrifice there obviously follows a big gastronomic celebration, which extends for several days until the meat is completely finished. Part of the animal is also preserved – some being frozen and the rest dried—and kept for special occasions.

The moment the animal is sacrificed is certainly not pleasant, particularly for children who have got used to having it at home. When the sacrificial ram becomes part of the family like a household pet, children grow fond of it. Even if it is not something they have to do, it is they who are keen to have a ram at home for the occasion, and parents sometimes even get into debt to keep them happy. The children accompany the parents to the fair, usually held on the outskirts of town, and help to choose and buy the animal. They then help to feed it for the few days it still has to live, either in the garage, on a terrace or balcony. Children get used to the bleating and take daily walks with other children who gather outside the house after school to show each other their animals.

Tunisian children are well aware what fate awaits their ram, and also know what the big, freshly sharpened knives are for. Nonetheless, at the moment the sacrifice takes place some of them do have alarming reactions—fits of temper and crying—and they almost always refuse to eat its meat. But these reactions are only short-lived. The next day everything will be forgotten, otherwise Tunisia would be populated by vegetarians!

Zugdida: a rite of passage

It has always been the womenfolk who do the cooking and hence influence taste. During their lives, men will have usually encountered at least two types of cooking: their mother’s and their wife’s. The first real culinary experience of every Tunisian goes back to infancy and occurs at the time of the celebration of the Sacrifice.

On the first day, children observe the various operations from a certain distance, or at close quarters if they wish. The ram has its throat slit and is cut up. The head and shanks are roasted on a wood fire, and are then kept in a fridge for cooking a few days later. The offal is removed and thoroughly washed; liver, lungs, kidneys, spleen, testicles, heart, the fat of the tail, shoulders, legs, ribs and so on are separated, washed and placed in suitable containers ready to be transferred to a pan. The fleece is washed and impregnated with salt; it will then be stretched by nailing to a wooden board, and dried in the sun. A door lintel will be marked with a bloody handprint: blood from a sacrifice provides a blessing and protection from the evil eye.

It seems a gruesome procedure for a day of celebration, but it provides a good lesson in animal anatomy!

On the second day of the celebration of the Sacrifice, the roles are changed: children become the main actors and adults watch them. The little girls cook the meal, using small-sized equipment bought for the occasion: a couscous pot, pans and plates for tagine made of terracotta or tin-plate, charcoal barbecues. While the day before they were mourning the ram’s death and refusing to eat the kebabs, now all the children are happily cooking its meat. Zugdida is the name of the meal in miniature prepared by Tunisian children, who can decide how they want to cook it. Once a year they can make what they want: stew, tagine or more sophisticated dishes. Adults have to eat what is prepared. The child who was weeping bitter tears the day before is now thinking of nothing except the success of her meal. Maybe that’s how children get over the distress and the trauma of the sacrifice. .

Lilia Zaouali a lecturer in anthropology of the Islamic world at the University of Jussieu, Paris.

Translation by Ronnie Richards

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