The origins of mutton barbecue

by on April 27, 2010 at 4:01 am in Food and Drink, History | Permalink

Here is one account:

The one truth about barbecue seems to be that people use what they've got. In Texas it's beef, in the Carolinas it's pork, and in Western Kentucky it's mutton. 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.

Call it the Protectionist Theory of Barbecue, plus or minus a bit of hysteresis.  I've seen or heard of mutton barbecue only in Kentucky and then only parts of Kentucky, the southwest and a bit in Lexington.  I wonder if they have mutton barbecue in North Africa or the Middle East.  In general it is an open question why barbecue traditions have for so long been so geographically concentrated.

From The New Yorker, here is another account:

How come this is the only area where mutton is barbecued?" I asked an Owensboro merchant who had been kind enough to give me change for a nickel parking meter.

"I expect because there are so many Catholics here," he said.

I didn't want to appear ignorant. "Yeah," I said. "I suppose that'd do it."

As I was searching my mind for some connection between the Roman rite and mutton consumption, the merchant told me that the large Catholic churches in town have always staged huge picnics that feature barbecue and burgoo–burgoo, another staple of Owensboro barbecue restaurants, being a soupy stew that I, for some reason, had always associated with southern Illinois. In the early days, the church picnics apparently served barbecued goat. In fact, Owensboro might have arrived at barbecued mutton by a process of elimination, since people in the area seem willing to barbecue just about any extant mammal. In western Kentucky, barbecue restaurants normally do "custom cooking" for patrons who have the meat but not the pit, and among the animals that Posh & Pat's offers to barbecue is raccoon. The Shady Rest, one of the most distinguished barbecue joints in Owensboro, has a sign that says "If It Will Fit on the Pit, We Will Barbecue It. It is probably fortunate that the people of the area settled on barbecued mutton as the local delicacy before they had a go at beaver or polecat

In other words, they don't know either.  What would Robin Hanson say?: Something like: "Food isn't about eating!"

I thank Brandon Sheridan for the pointers.

Anonymous coward April 27, 2010 at 4:38 am

In Western and Central Asia, barbecued mutton — shish-kebab or shashlik — is a venerable institution.

Nick April 27, 2010 at 4:49 am

Sounds like a variation on the ‘ram roast’ here in England; a whole ram carcass (although in practice it’s now usually mutton or hoggett) is slow-roasted outdoors on a spit & then carved & served on bread rolls as the centrepiece of a local fair. I don’t know how widespread this is, but I’ve attended annual ram roasts in Cheshire (NW England) & Devon (SW England) over the last 20 years.

Andrew April 27, 2010 at 6:48 am

The best way to eat old sheep is to be a wolf.

Recent transplant April 27, 2010 at 7:50 am

I had never heard of mutton barbecue before moving to Louisville several months ago. My one experience with it was positive. The cooking process and sauce kills much of the gamy taste. It was much more interesting than the pork barbecue I tasted at the same dive restaurant.

Thomas April 27, 2010 at 8:16 am

Gates BBQ in Kansas City serves mutton. Apparently you didn’t sample that on your KC BBQ tour. And for good reason, I expect. The original Mr. Gates was from Kentucky, so that piece fits.

Aaron April 27, 2010 at 9:18 am

As it happens, I just discovered a whole street of Chinese mutton restaurants here in Seoul, South Korea. By the looks of it, the meat is cooked on skewers (similar to Central Asia?). Looking forward to giving it a taste this weekend.

georges April 27, 2010 at 10:36 am

In north Africa, there is a kind the Mutton barbecue called Méchoui (and it´s delicius)

Wayne April 27, 2010 at 12:12 pm

I raised sheep throughout my youth as a 4-H project, and it ruined me on enjoying any form of ovine flesh forever. To me, lamb (and I assume Mutton, though I have never had the stomach to try it) tastes exactly like a wet sheep smells. It’s the esters of capric and caproic acid from oxidized lanolin in the skin and wool that give the “gamey” taste, and I think I am just super sensitive to it. Potent activator of my gag reflex.

Also, my Grandpa used to tell stories about barbecuing raccoon and possum during the depression, when “we couldn’t raise enough corn to fatten a hog. Wouldna’ had meat without it in ’34 or ’35.”

Fred Thompson April 27, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Mutton BBQ used to be very popular on the Navaho Res in AZ/NM.

m3 ds April 28, 2010 at 1:34 am

As far as I know the origins of barbecue in the South, however, are traceable to a period long before the smiling pig became a fixture on Southern roadsides..

Jennifer April 28, 2010 at 7:53 pm

Lawrenceburg, Ky is the Burgoo capital of the year. Older kids tease the younger ones that the burgoo meat was roadkill. Most have know idea it is supposed to be made with mutton (let alone what mutton is).

My parents served goat at their wedding, it was cooked in a hole, nobody knew it was goat. That was in Torrance, CA. My grandfather who often BBQ’d goat in a hole was from Louisianna.

bct grad April 28, 2010 at 8:52 pm

Roasted mutton is traditional in La Gironde (at least near St. Emilion), accompanied , of course, with local wine.

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