Time and time again you hear the story about how a particular style of barbecue originates with an abundant supply of a particular type of meat that is too tough or gamey to succeed with normal cooking methods. The solution is usually to slow cook over low heat, with a periodic basting in some form of acidic solution to help break down the fibers in the meat and add flavor. While that may sound like an unromantic, slightly scientific description of the process, these methods are actually the magical keys to badass barbecue.
In Western Kentucky, the story is very similar but with one notable difference. Instead of taming the flavors of feral pigs in the Carolinas or tenderizing the shoe leather meat of Texas steers, Kentuckians found themselves with old sheep, and lots of ’em. In the early 1800s, wool production boomed in Kentucky and the Scotch/Irish who had settled in the area brought their expertise into play as prime sheep farmers and textile processors. They also made some mighty fine whiskey, but we’ll save that for a future series.
The wool-producing period of a sheep’s life is considerably shorter than their lifespan. Unfortunately, the shearable duration of a lamb’s years also coincides with the years that he or she is so tenderly delicious. So farmers found themselves with a difficult choice: if you waited until a sheep was done producing wool to eat him, then you were stuck with a tough old mutton with unpleasant tasting meat. But if you slaughtered earlier, then you were missing out on perhaps years of wool production—an eminently renewable resource.
If you’re not a member of the congregation of Our Blessed Lady of the Hickory Log, then your best bet for finding great Kentucky barbecue is to visit Owensboro, which is the mutton capital of the world.
Enter the barbecue geniuses with their smoldering embers and buckets full of salt water, vinegar and peppers. Kentuckians discovered that by cooking these old sheep for hours over a low flame and constantly mopping the meat with this mixture they called a “mutton dip,” they could produce a relatively tender and delightfully flavorful form of barbecue. Traditionally, they cooked sheep whole either on a spit or on a grate over a pit of coals.
Today, some of the best-barbecued mutton in the world is still cooked using these methods —at the reunion barbecues and Catholic church picnics that fill the summer weekend calendars of Western Kentuckians. It is here where mutton is served sliced or pulled, usually accompanied by a soupy meat stew that the locals call Burgoo. If you’re not a member of the congregation of Our Blessed Lady of the Hickory Log, then your best bet for finding great Kentucky barbecue is to visit Owensboro, which is arguably the mutton capital of the world.
This small town in southwest Kentucky is serious about their sheep. Unlike the old days when the mutton they cooked were wool sheep pass their expiration date, restaurants in Owensboro buy their meat from farms that raise them specifically to grow old and flavorful. While these farms also sell the younger lambs that you might find cut into chops or leg of lamb in your local butcher shop, their premier customers are Owensboro establishments like Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn and Old Hickory Bar-B-Q where each restaurant runs through 50-100 head of sheep per week.
Moonlite is probably the more famous of the pair and has been cooking delicious two-year-old ewes for three generations. Moonlite cooks on a large scale with a very successful catering operation and a dining room that seats 350. While mutton and burgoo are the specialties of the house, most diners take advantage of the 40 foot-long buffet that also features barbecued pork, beef and chicken, ribs, a variety of Southern vegetable specialties and numerous decadent desserts. If you leave Moonlite hungry, it’s your own darned fault.
Moonlite purchases their mutton already quartered and cooks them in four custom-designed smokers for up to 18 hours. Trained pitmasters mop the meat with their special vinegar dip, to flavor and help break down the fibrous sinews of the sheep. True to their Highlands heritage, the closest flavor profile to Moonlite’s dip is Worcestershire sauce. Unfortunately, as the restaurant grew, patrons with allergy issues forced Moonlite to remove the anchovy-paste based Worcestershire from their mix and recreate the flavors using other ingredients.
Traditionally, barbecued mutton is served unsauced at the table with the option to add your own amount of dip to your plate, although the table sauce is usually less concentrated and contains a little bit more tomato in the mixture than the cooking dip.
A short drive across town is your other best option for Owensboro mutton, Old Hickory Bar-B-Q. Five generations of the same family have operated Old Hickory since 1918, and generation six has already started to learn to cook from the top of a step stool. Old Hickory processes their own sheep, cutting them into ribs, roasts and quarters on an old band saw before smoking them for 18-22 hours. The best way to order your mutton is “off the pit.” It may cost you $.50 more per order, but the opportunity to have your meat sliced off your choice of ham or hind quarter hot and fresh off the pit is well worth a couple of quarters.
Mutton is served with a choice of white, wheat or German rye bread. The rye is the choice of older patrons and harkens the German heritage of Northern Kentuckians and the residents of Cincinnati that throw such a kickin’ Oktoberfest party.
Now for the most important question—what does barbecued mutton taste like? The flavor is rich and, despite all that mopping, still a little bit gamey. Probably closer to goat than pork, mutton benefits from the tang and heat of the peppers and vinegar in the table sauce the same way that bitter collard greens are mellowed by a similar seasoning. Tender enough to pull into shreds or slice like a brisket, smoked mutton is a very versatile meat that deserves at least a try by any serious barbecue aficionado. Generations of Kentuckians have spent years seeking perfection, and they’re more than happy to share their results with you at places like Moonlite and Old Hickory. I suggest you take them up on their offer.
Moonlite Bar-B-Que Inn
2840 West Parrish Avenue
Owensboro, KY 42301
Old Hickory Bar-B-Que
338 Washington Avenue
Owensboro, KY 42301