When in Owensboro, eat the mutton

Apr 11, 2018 at 10:37 am

I never really stopped to think what mutton is, truth be told. The only thing I ever really understood about mutton was that Jerry Seinfeld’s character didn’t like it, despite his semi-memorable quote, “Salad’s got nuttin’ on this mutton.”

But when I found myself headed to Owensboro for an afternoon, well, I figured while in the mutton capital of the Midwest, I might as well see what this heretofore mystery meat was all about.

My Owensboro contact, Leslie, told me that the well-known Moonlite Bar-B-Q was the touristy mutton stop in Owensboro, and that Old Hickory Pit Bar-B-Q is “where the locals like to eat.” She had me at “local.”

Meanwhile, however, I had to do some background regarding what this mutton thing is all about. After all, it isn’t a meat you’ll find in many barbecue joints around Louisville.

According to a historical piece on mutton, published last year by TheSpruce.com, mutton came into favor in the Owensboro area in the early 1800s when a tariff made wool production a profitable endeavor. The population of sheep in what then was the western side of the United States rose in response.

But what happened when the older sheep would reach a point at which they no longer produced usable wool for harvest? Well, then they became either a liability or a food source. Problem was, they were too old and tough to eat. That is, apart from extremely slow cooking methods, which of course lent the sheep to barbecuing.

And thus, mutton became as much an historic staple to Owensboro as the Hot Brown is to Louisville.

At Old Hickory Pit, the mutton comes three different ways: chopped, sliced and on rib bones. It is roasted for 12 hours and marinated with a blend of water, vinegar, Worcestershire, lemon juice, salt and pepper.

When I stopped in for my first-ever taste of sheep meat, my server, sympathetic to my innocence, brought me samples of sliced mutton, chopped mutton and the same styles of pork, for comparison. Obviously, I’d had pork a million times over, but I appreciated the notion of the side-by-side taste test.

The chopped mutton was chopped to the point that it actually had a texture of something that might have gone through a blender ever so briefly — chopped so finely that it was almost creamy, like the barbecue you get from a crock at a potluck dinner. I decided to go with a sliced mutton sandwich for my late lunch.

The mutton was served on a standard white bun, topped with a thick onion slice and probably too many pickles. But forget those, which I cast aside momentarily to focus on the meat, because the intense aroma of the mutton struck me immediately.

I’d heard and read about mutton being “gamey” to some, but the aroma was more of a hearty richness. With a generous bite, I confirmed what my samples had suggested, that indeed mutton has a distinctive flavor that perhaps suggests something gamey, but, to me, it is more a hint of organ meat, such as tongue.

Texture-wise, it was similar to brisket, dense but flaky-thick, and with bits of fat still in play. But the flavor surely is its own thing; imagine if you had a nice brisket sandwich, but it’s made from something you shot in the woods.

Better yet, imagine a blend of brisket and pork with a tiny splash of venison — that gets you in the neighborhood, for those who’ve not tried mutton before. Without pinning down the exact flavor (only your taste buds can do that for you), I noted that the cooking process left it plenty firm but also with plenty of juices left to spare; I didn’t get a dry bite at all, and the juices soaked into the bun just enough to keep the experience from any hints of dryness.

When it was all said and done, the flavor I encountered wasn’t nearly as odd as I had anticipated, and maybe that’s because I’m no stranger to liver or venison or tongue.

If you like brisket, you’ll surely like mutton, with its bolder profile and equally hearty texture.

But try to avoid the superfluous mutton rhymes, because nuttin’ good can come from that. (I am so sorry. Sincerely.)