In Australia there’s lamb’s fry, in Asia lamb is served as a kebab, and in the U.K. it’s regularly cooked in a curry. Lamb is popular around the world, and in areas such as Central Asia, it’s often the meat of choice. In the United States, however, it’s often overlooked, especially when it comes to barbecue. When people think of barbecue, they usually think of chicken, pork, and beef as the main ingredients. Even turkeys get thrown in a smoker every now and then. The last thing that usually comes to American’s minds when it comes to barbecue is a sheep.
In the United States, lamb has the reputation of being a delicacy. Similar to veal, lamb is usually slaughtered when it is less than a year old. Any sheep older than a year yields meat called mutton. And there are some areas that specialize in mutton dishes and have made strides in the movement to broaden mutton’s appeal.
The state of Kentucky is most closely associated with mutton barbecue, especially in a small portion of western Kentucky. At the heart of it all is Owensboro, the epicenter of mutton barbecue. The story of mutton barbecue begins the same way as many food stories do — with leftovers. Slow cooking with a particular cut of meat is usually a result of excess meat that can’t be sold. In some regions it’s pork, and in others it’s cattle. In early 19th century Kentucky, it was sheep.
Around this time, wool production was extremely successful. Farmers kept sheep until they no longer produced profitable wool, usually coinciding with the age at which the sheep’s meat was no longer desired. With an excess of mutton, farmers had to find a way to utilize all of this meat. Rather than letting it go to waste, they barbecued it.
Barbecued mutton is seasoned with a combination of salt and pepper and cooked for a significant amount of time, usually around 8-12 hours, over a low, even fire. Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn has mastered the process and is known throughout the country for their barbecue mutton. While it isn’t the restaurant’s number one seller, they still manage to go through 10,000 pounds of mutton each week. Mutton tends to be a tough and lean meat; however, when smoked for an extended period of time, the fibers break down and leave the pit master with a tender and flavorful product. Barbecue mutton is commonly served what is known in Kentucky as mutton or vinegar dip, which is typically a combination of Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, lemon juice, salt and pepper. The sauce enhances the natural, gamey flavor of the meat.
Not too far from Moonlite is Kentucky’s other mutton treasure, Old Hickory Pit Bar-B-Q. While Old Hickory may not have quite the celebrity status as Moonlite, they definitely have the experience. The same family has been serving Owensboro’s favorite dish for the last five generations. Old Hickory gives diners the option of having their choice of meat fresh sliced “off the pit,” rather than being pre-sliced, enhancing its authenticity. In keeping with tradition, Old Hickory also offers German rye bread on their menu because of the German heritage of northern Kentucky.
I decided to give a little barbecue lamb a try. While not aged mutton, the lamb shoulder is typically a cut that has trouble finding a home, especially in the barbecue world. Lava Lake Lamb was kind enough to send me a lamb shoulder to experiment with. I seasoned it with nothing other than kosher salt and coarse ground black pepper, then smoked it over charcoal and hickory chips for about 8 hours at 225-250 degrees F. The final product was every bit as tender and smoky as a pork shoulder, while still having the beautifully distinctive flavor that comes with lamb. I used a little of my own Bite and Booze sweet and spicy Louisiana barbecue sauce as a condiment, and then enjoyed an incredible meal. While it may have slightly strayed from traditional Kentucky mutton, I’ll definitely never shy away from smoking a lamb shoulder, that’s for sure!
Jay D. Ducote was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, grew up in Southeast Texas, and now is back in Louisiana where he makes a living eating and drinking, then writing and talking about it. He enjoys cooking a little bit too! Jay competes and judges in both Cajun cooking and professional barbecue tournaments, appeared as a contestant in Season 2 of MasterChef on FOX, hosts two radio shows in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and is currently working on his first book, the “Bite and Booze Cookbook,” which will be published by the LSU Press. You can find Jay on his blog, Bite and Booze, on Facebook, or Twitter. You can also contact him via email at [email protected]