Little did the three Mangelos children know that their precious lamb didn't have a snowball's chance of surviving until Easter.
"We'd pick the lamb up," John P. Mangelos recalled of the animal his father would bring to the family's Ripon home before Orthodox Easter.
"We'd name it Snowball and then we'd leave for school and we'd never make the connection with Snowball ..." he said. "Dad would actually butcher the lamb right there in the yard."
Spring lamb is a traditional Greek dish during Orthodox Easter, which falls on April 27, and a natural choice for Easter as well, which is Sunday.
"More Greeks probably do leg of lamb," said Mangelos. "When I was growing up, it was a matter of economy. We didn't have a lot of money and lamb was inexpensive."
That's no longer the case. According to a butcher in the Dale Road O'Brien's Market meat department, leg of lamb runs $5.99 a pound. A bone-in or boneless spiral-cut honey ham is $3.69 per pound while turkey is $1.19 a pound.
The store has ample stock, but suggests ordering ahead. The legs of lamb average 5½ to 9½ pounds, the butcher said.
When buying lamb, the authors of "Lobel's Prime-Time Grilling" write: "Never buy lamb with dark red meat, yellowish fat, or pure white bones; these indicate an older animal whose texture will be tough and flavor overly intense."
Look for pink, firm and lean meat; external fat that is firm, white and not too thick; and bones that are moist and healthfully red, according to the book's authors and New York's Madison Avenue butchers Stanley, Leon, Evan, Mark and David Lobel.
Until about five years ago, the Mangeloses ordered a live lamb. And until 1991, it was the family patriarch who slaughtered the lamb and then took it to a meat service to be cut and packaged. But Paul Mangelos passed away 17 years ago and the man in Ripon who raised the lambs has moved on.
"I don't know anyone who raises lamb," said Katherine Mangelos, 80. "It's better when it's fresh."
Most lamb in the supermarket is 6 to 8 months old, according to "Lobel's Prime Time Grilling." The lamb the Mangeloses purchased was about 6 or 7 weeks old, making it not quite as tender as a hothouse lamb, which is about 2 weeks old and still on mother's milk.
Though son John is the restaurateur — he owns the venerable Barnwood in Ripon, where lamb chops is one of his signature dishes — it will be his mother, Katherine, who prepares Easter dinner next month for her extended brood of 17, including son Joseph and daughter Ella Jo Mangelos-Velthoen. That's tradition.
But it is John Mangelos who explains in detail how to prepare lamb.
"Lamb is generally not served real rare," said Mangelos, 53.
Greeks will take a knife and make slits in the meat, Mangelos said. "They'll put garlic in each slit and rub (the meat) with olive oil. They have salt, (cracked black) pepper and rosemary. They'll rub it down with that."
Katherine Mangelos infuses leg of lamb with a dozen garlic cloves and uses salt, pepper and oregano, which, like rosemary, is a common ingredient in her ancestral Crete.
On a nice day, the lamb can go on the grill. Or, it can be placed in a roasting pan, tented and baked for about an hour at 375 degrees.
"And then untent and cook to about 148 degrees," said Mangelos.
"Normally, leg of lamb will take three hours to make," he said. It requires regular basting.
Mangelos suggests peeling and slicing potatoes in half and putting them in the bottom of the roasting pan with a yellow onion.
The Mangeloses' lamb dinners are memorable. Snowball, though, is just a memory.
Bee staff writer Sharon K. Ghag can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2340.