Let us sing the praises today of John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich, who one day in 1762 decided to place his lunch between two slices of bread, creating the portable meal that to this day bears his name. “Sandwich,” I mean. Belly up to the bar and call for a ham-and-cheese Montagu, and people will just look at you funny.
Some historians believe the Earl was such a dedicated gambler that he invented the sandwich so he could sustain himself without having to leave the card table to chow down. Others claim that he was merely a workaholic, preferring to work through lunch at his desk in the Admiralty than to break for a more leisurely repast.
Be that as it may, the new delicacy became as much a culinary landmark of Georgian London as, say, small plates or foams are for cutting-edge chefs today. I love sandwiches too, assuming they’re well-made, with a good base of quality bread that’s sturdy enough to hold up under the load of well-chosen toppings, engineered with mayo or sauce to hold things together and an insulating layer of lettuce or cheese to keep the wet bits wet and the dry bits dry.
This week’s report takes us to a trio of fine local eateries in search of splendid sandwiches.
Mutton, a meat that the Fourth Earl of Sandwich surely knew, is said to be dying out in our times, difficult to impossible to find in modern grocery stores and rare in restaurants. Long a mainstay of the English table, mutton — the meat of a mature sheep — owns a bad reputation as a strong, greasy meat with a weird gamey flavor reminiscent of tallow. Even people who love the more delicate gaminess of young lamb look askance at mutton.
But mutton endures, at least as a flickering culinary flame, in the few spots around the world where sheep are farmed. This includes Western Kentucky, from Owensboro to Paducah, perhaps the only region in the world where mutton is used in barbecue.
This is a distinction worth preserving, so I was aghast to learn recently that even in Kentucky’s native home of mutton barbecue, younger folks are reportedly turning it down in favor of pork, chicken or maybe even Mickey D’s.
I figured I should do my part to keep the flame alive, but a road trip to Owensboro seemed a little over the top. Happily, at least two local barbecue eateries feature mutton on their regular menu. Quick as a sheep jumping over the fence, I was off to Ole Hickory Pit (6106 Shepherdsville Road near Newburg, 968-0585) and Bootleg Bar-B-Q (9704 Bardstown Road beyond Fern Creek, 239-2722), where I ate my fill of mutton, and some other good stuff, too.
It’s hard to miss Ole Hickory Pit. Just look out for the giant pink pig statue on the roof, a short distance north of General Electric’s Appliance Park. Carrying on the tradition that his father, Murvin Ramage, began more than a half-century ago with the Plantation Bar-b-que in Paducah, proprietor Ken Ramage and his wife, Sharon, smoke meats the old-fashioned way, with a big pile of hickory logs lying around to prove it.
We enjoyed tender, meaty pork ribs ($9.99 for one pound) served “wet” in a thick, sweet tomato-based sauce; and lots of fine sides including tender and smoky barbecue beans, excellent chopped-cabbage slaw, creamy mac-and-cheese and long-simmered black beans.
The mutton sandwich ($4.50) consisted of finely chopped meat mixed with a tomato-based sauce, spooned onto a simple, white kaiser-style bun. It wasn’t strong-flavored at all, an aspect that many would praise; not gamey, not even lamby, just undifferentiated chopped meat with a faint but distinct earthy character at the back of the palate that tells you this is not beef. Raw white onion and a pickle chip added flavor and crunch, although it would have been nice to get more than one little pickle slice. Bottom line, it’s mutton, but nothing to be afraid of here, folks!
Bootleg Bar-B-Q, which also has eateries on Preston Highway and in Shepherdsville, Ky., occupies a tiny building on a once-rural strip out Bardstown Road that’s rapidly giving way to subdivisions and strip malls.
Like Ole Hickory Pit, the barbecue is artfully done, the mouth-watering result of hours of long, cool smoking. Smoked chicken was very good, glistening mahogany from the smoker, tender, sweet meat with just the right amount of hickory smoke flavor. Ribs ($9.99 for a half-slab dinner) were spectacularly good: dry-rubbed, sauce optional, pink with smoke and very meaty, addictively crispy skin cloaking moist, flavorful meat. These are right up there with the best ribs I ever ate, and would reward the trip out past Fern Creek even if you couldn’t get mutton, too.
Red barbecue beans swam in a thick, slightly sweet, meaty sauce; green beans were the long-cooked, falling-apart country-style standard. Mashed potatoes were a little less successful, lumpy and dry.
The mutton sandwich ($3.99) bears a hefty load of sheepmeat pulled into long-smoked tender shreds, served with a tomato-based sauce built in. Its flavor is distinctly ovine but delicate, more reminiscent of young lamb than mutton. If you like lamb, you certainly won’t be offended by Bootleg’s mutton. The bun was first-rate, thick and firm, the top dusted with crunchy sparkles of cornmeal. The black dip sauce in squeeze bottles is vinegary-tart, not watery but thin and pourable.
(Mutton barbecue can also be had, at least fleetingly, at Barbecue Pitt, the annual fund-raiser for Pitt Academy, 6010 Preston Highway. Watch for it in May!)
Lunch on a bun at Jimmy John’s
Speaking of the Earl of Sandwich, crowds have been lining up all week in St. Matthews, where a new branch of Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches (4000 Shelbyville Road, 894-3331) recently opened in the building long occupied by Edwards Photo.
They’ve completely renovated the spot, painting the outside black with red trim and converting the interior into a hard-edged, noisy but rather upscale fast-food look, with black and red tiles accenting stark white, and a long, glassed-in deli counter staffed by a squadron of wise-cracking guys in black T-shirts with white lettering that makes them look a little like animated Jack Daniel’s labels.
The menu, as the name implies, is all sandwiches, all the time, with about 20 options available as subs (on long, soft torpedo rolls) or club sammies (on good, thick-sliced seven-grain bread), all $3.95 or $4.95 except for “The J.J. Gargantuan,” which presumably lives up to its name and goes for $6.95. I inhaled a “Vito,” an Italian-style sub with salami, capicola ham, provolone, vinaigrette-drenched shredded lettuce and hot green peppers and banana peppers on a sub bun. My bride enjoyed a “Billy Club,” roast beef, ham and provolone cheese with Dijon mustard on a dressed sandwich. And I brought home a splendid vegetarian sandwich, the “Gourmet Veggie Club,” a well-engineered mix of sliced cucumbers and alfalfa sprouts, provolone and avocado spread, lettuce, tomato and mayo on seven-grain. With quality ingredients, made fresh, I’d rank it above Subway or Penn Station, although I’ll be hard pressed to pass by the nearby Meridian Café, my favorite locally owned St. Matthews soup-and-sandwich spot, just a block away.
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