Cooking a whole lamb isn't the sort of thing you just decide to do one morning. This is something that takes a good deal of planning and preparation. First of all, you are going to need a lamb. In most places, you'll need to call ahead and place an order. Talk with a local meat market about this. If you have the luxury try and find a butcher who specializes in Greek or Middle Eastern meats. He'll know what he's doing and will probably be able to give you some good suggestions. Plan on about 4 to 5 pounds for each guest. Once the lamb is cooked and carved you have just about enough meat for everyone.
Once you have secured your lamb source you will need to figure out how you are going to cook your lamb. Odds are it won't fit in your oven, or on your grill for that matter. There are two basic and traditional methods for roasting a lamb. One is on a spit over an open fire and the other is in a pit, much like old style barbecue or a luau. Either way, you need an area about five feet wide and three to four feet across. You'll also need a lot of wood or charcoal.
Spit Cooking: The traditional Middle Eastern method for roasting a lamb on a spit requires an enclosure about two feet high. This should be a U-shaped structure made from bricks, blocks or an earthen mound. This will protect the fire from the wind and help focus the heat. In front of this structure, you'll need supports for your spit. In this method, the lamb in skewered onto a 6-foot stick (imagine the trunk of a Christmas tree). The lamb is then turned over the fire which is behind the spit, not under it. You want to have something to catch the drippings because they are wonderful and you don't want a grease fire under your lamb.
Nowadays you can buy a large electric powered, gas or charcoal fired rotisserie unit that takes a lot of the work out of the process. If you think you'll get your monies worth out of a $500 cooker then by all means, buy one. Like I said, your typical gas or charcoal grill just isn't large enough to handle something this big. You can use a large barrel grill for this operation, provided that you have a rotisserie unit that can handle the weight. If you really have a large party to feed, then you might end up with a lamb that weighs 90-pound fully dressed.
Pit Cooking: The pit method requires a hole in the ground that is 4 feet by 4 feet and 3 feet deep. Line the bottom with rocks or bricks and build a fire in the pit the night before you have your feast. Let the fire burn down for about 3 hours then rake the coals to one side. Lay down wet burlap bags, then the lamb, then more wet burlap bags. Shovel the coals around the covered lamb and bury in the dirt from the hole you dug. Go to bed and by the next afternoon, your lamb will be ready.
Seasoning Lamb: Once you have your cooking method determined and your lamb on hand you can season it. A good lamb doesn't need too much, but flavors like lemon, fresh mint, basil, olive oil, and oregano go well with lamb. I like to take a large jar and fill it with olive oil and a little balsamic vinegar, then add, lemon rinds, fresh basil, fresh oregano, garlic cloves and whole black peppercorns. Let this mixture sit for a few days then apply over the entire surface of the lamb, inside and out. Then I stuff a few whole lemons, onions and garlic inside. It is best to take some heavy cotton thread and a large needle and stitch the body cavity closed to hold this in and to hold the juices from the lamb inside.
The spit cooked lamb has all the flavors of the smoke (and the seasonings you stuffed inside) while the pit roasted lamb will be incredibly tender and juice. Both are a great feast. Either way, once the lamb is done you can carve it up and feed your army.
Carving: Carving a whole lamb can seem pretty intimidating. The trick is to take it in sections. You'll need a large area to work with and several serving dishes or something very large to put the meat into. Start by cutting away the hind legs. The meat should be very tender and should come apart pretty easy. Next, work down through the shoulders and separate out the forearm sections. From here you can start carving up the individual sections. It helps if there are two people carving, but either way, take your time and you won't have any problems.
Roast lamb is a fantastic traditional feast that has been served at family and religious gatherings for thousands of years. It is not only a delicious meal but a significant occasion that celebrates what is truly important in life. So no matter the occasion, when you start to carve that succulent whole lamb, think back to the centuries of traditions that we owe so much too. This is the feast of birth, marriage, and rebirth.