But, did you know about BBQ mutton in Kentucky? Specifically, in Owensboro.
Thanks to the tariff of 1816, wool production in the then Western United States became profitable and suddenly people found themselves with a lot of sheep on their hands. Any story of the origin of barbecue starts with a meat that is too tough and undesirable to be sold for a profit. Mutton barbecue is no different. Aging sheep who no longer produced good wool became a virtually unlimited resource, but the meat was too tough and too strong tasting to be worth anything so people turned to the tried and true methods of low and slow cooking. In the early days a whole sheep would be cooked for long hours over a low fire. A mixture of salt water would be mopped over it and it would be served up with a dipping sauce of vinegar and hot peppers and stuck between a couple slices of bread. In Kentucky this "sauce" is called a dip, specifically Mutton Dip or Vinegar Dip (Source).Because it's a thing, I wanted to check it out. So, we went to the most famous restaurant for it: Moonlite Bar-B-Que.
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.
Mutton is sheep, and it's a staple on Moonlite's buffet menu. So, that made for an easy choice.
The buffet had mutton in a few different ways, none of which I became a big fan of. It has a particular flavor to it - not quite gamey, maybe a little old?
But that didn't stop me from getting my plate full of other goodies, like dressing, mac & cheese and I even got to try sorghum syrup.
Lots of other things were on the buffet - like catfish, burgoo and liver. Different from my typical comfort food choices.
So, definitely cool that they have their own version of BBQ.
But, for me, personally, I might stick to pulled pork or brisket.