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Mutton Is Just Older, Wiser, Tastier Lamb

By CHARLES PERRY
TIMES STAFF WRITER

June 26 2002

Roast a big piece of meat until half-done. Take it out of the oven, gash it to the bone in several places and rub the cuts with salt and cayenne; save the juices. Then throw this multiply-butterflied chunk of protein, like a folio of steaks bound together, on the grill until good and brown. Add the saved juices to a relish of pickled mushrooms.

"The reader will scarcely need to be told," wrote Eliza Acton in "Modern Cooking for Private Families," "that this is an excellent dish."

The year was 1845. The dish was the Cavalier's Broil. And even though its instructions run counter to much of what we now take for granted in cooking meat, it's so utterly efficient and its flavors so modern, it could have been invented yesterday. In fact, there may not be a better way to cook leg of lamb. The Cavalier's Broil has a dark, tasty crust, a juicy medium-rare interior and an elegant, uncluttered seasoning. Best of all, it needs only 20 minutes on the grill.

It's a traditional recipe for a meat that is scarcely part of our tradition anymore: mutton. You can use lamb instead, just as you can in other mutton recipes of 19th century American cookbooks, but they'd be even better with the real thing. Mutton is richer and meatier than lamb, just as beef is richer and meatier than veal.

These days a lot of people are convinced, without ever having tasted it, that mutton must be coarse, tallowy and rank. But down to the beginning of the 20th century, it was always more popular than lamb, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina being particularly known for their fine mutton. (Where was Scarlett O'Hara going in the first scene of "Gone With the Wind"? To a barbecue of hickory-roasted pork and mutton.)

The typical 19th century American cookbook would include a diagram of the cuts of mutton, but never one for lamb. One reason is that the cuts of lamb didn't matter much. The various parts of mutton might figure in stews and meat pies and other complex dishes, but a lamb went straight to the oven or the roasting spit. "The best way of cooking lamb is to roast it," declared Eliza Leslie in her influential "Directions for Cooking" (1837); "when drest otherwise, it is insipid, and not so good as mutton."

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When Mutton Was King

Back then, by the way, people would have been amazed by the modern cult of rare lamb. "Lamb, like veal and pork, is not eatable unless thoroughly done," wrote Leslie; "no one preferring it rare, as is frequently the case with beef and mutton." Nearly 60 years later, Fannie Farmer would agree.

Of course, much depends on what you mean by "lamb" and "mutton." In the past, a lot of lamb was spring lamb, 6 to 8 weeks old, though the meat of animals up to one year still counted as lamb. The USDA now considers 12 months the dividing line between lamb and mutton. The French raise the bar to 14 months, and on Welsh sheep farms, mutton commonly begins at 18 months. At least everybody agrees that a 5-year-old sheep is probably too old and tough to cook.

There was a whole repertoire of regional mutton dishes, such as Irish stew, Scotch broth and Lancashire hotpot (a casserole of meat layered with potatoes). People of Welsh descent salted legs of mutton like hams. Hotel breakfast menus offered broiled mutton chops; roast saddle of mutton was a special-occasion dish. Even the French knew of Reform cutlets, served at the famous Reform Club in London: butter-sauteed mutton chops in a breading that was half minced ham.

But mutton fell out of favor during the 20th century, even in the British Commonwealth, the traditional home of mutton connoisseurship. "Over the past 40 years, mutton has virtually disappeared from our shops and menus," laments the Web site of Graig Farm, Dolau, Wales. In New Zealand, Horizon Lamb & Mutton reports that it now slaughters four times as many lambs as sheep and sells its mutton mostly to Asia. (In Indian markets you sometimes find New Zealand corned mutton, a canned product invented to satisfy the dietary constraints of Hindus and Muslims.)

Graig Farm blames the decline on changes in farming style and a faster lifestyle. Mutton requires more investment from the farmer, longer aging and more careful handling by the meat industry and longer cooking by the consumer.

All these objections go double in our country, where many people already think lamb is too gamy and fear that mutton will be even worse. (Actually, gaminess can be more noticeable in lamb because it has a milder meat flavor.)

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Real Kentucky Barbecue

The exception to the trend is Owensboro, Ky., located near where Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky meet. To the outside world, Owensboro is probably best known as the hometown of no fewer than 6 NASCAR drivers, including Michael and Darryl Waltrip, or maybe as the headquarters of the International Bluegrass Music Assn. To itself, it's the barbecue capital of the world--and when they say "barbecue" in Owensboro, they mean barbecued mutton.

The area was settled in the early 1800s by people from Wales, who had sheepherding in their blood. (Even today, there are nearly four sheep per person in Wales--15% of the sheep in the European Union.) On top of that, the tariff of 1816 had encouraged an American wool industry. Between one thing and another, there were more than 11,000 sheep in Daviess County by the 1860s.

From time to time, the herdsmen had to cull older sheep from their flocks, and somehow--locals are vague about how this happened--barbecuing came to be the main way of cooking the meat, though mutton does show up in the local version of Kentucky burgoo, a stew of mixed meats.

Along the way, mutton barbecues became important church fund-raisers. Owensboro's first recorded mutton barbecue, on July 4, 1834, was held at a Baptist church, but local Catholics have been particularly active barbecuers. Mount St. Joseph's convent school alone sells about two tons of barbecued mutton at its annual barbecue. Today there's at least one fund-raising picnic in the Owensboro area nearly every week in May and June.

So the taste for mutton flourished in Owensboro even while it was going into eclipse everywhere else. In fact, it even survived the disappearance of the local sheep industry. Owensboro's half-dozen barbecue restaurants now get their mutton from out of state.

Mutton aside, Owensboro doesn't seem exotic. It's an old, leafy city, fairly large for this part of the country (population 55,000), in the rolling country of the Ohio Valley. But if you take the Parrish Avenue exit from US 60 (Wendell Ford Expressway) on the west side of town and head east four blocks, you'll see the Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn, the biggest mutton dispensary in the country. It moves 10,000 pounds of sheep meat a week.

You can't miss it. Out front there's a black iron pot big enough to boil a hippo in, symbolizing Owensboro's annual World Barbecue Festival, held the second weekend in May. A sign welcomes you to "Owensboro, the World Capital of Barbecue." The huge parking lot is dominated by another that reads, "If It's Not Owensboro Barbecue, It's Not Real Barbecue."

When Hugh and Catherine Bosley bought the Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in 1963, it seated 35; now it seats 350 and has 120 employees, and though chicken, beef and pork have been moving up, mutton still accounts for most of its business.

"About half our customers are from Daviess County," says marketing director Pat Bosley. "But 8% come from out of state. There are pilots who fly in from nearby Air Force bases and have barbecue." The number of out-of-staters is bound to go up--this seems to be the year the outside world has discovered Owensboro, with sizable mentions in the recent "Celebrating Barbecue" by Dotty Griffith (Simon & Schuster) and "The Barbecue America Cookbook" by Rick Browne and Jack Bettridge (Lyons Press).

To the left of the restaurant's busy gift shop (barbecue sauces, Moonlite bill caps, country hams) is the entrance to the butchering operation. Bosley shows a cold room where mutton carcasses hang. "I figure I buy 10% of the fat ewes for sale in the country," he says. "The average lamb might run 70 pounds. I look for a 2-year-old sheep weighing about 150 pounds.

"Mostly they're from what I call the Midwest--Texas, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas. There are only five major plants in the country that slaughter sheep of any age. Two or three are in Texas. They ship most of their mutton to Mexico."

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Mutton by Mail

The reason for having a butchering operation, complete with a resident USDA inspector, on the restaurant's premises is that the Moonlite also sells meat wholesale to restaurants, grocery stores, schools and Wal-Marts from Louisville to Paducah. It doesn't ship raw mutton out of the area, alas.

But it does ship barbecued mutton, cooked for about 12 hours in huge double-deck hickory pits 24 feet long and so deep the cooks have to move the meat around with pitchforks. You can order sliced mutton or chopped mutton, the latter being trimmings, which some people prefer because they include extra-browned bits.

The Owensboro way of serving mutton is on a hamburger bun with barbecue sauce, sliced onions and pickles, accompanied by a thin sauce called "dip"--mostly vinegar, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce and spices. This is about all that's left of America's centuries-old mutton tradition. But sheep meat seems to have struck deep roots in northwestern Kentucky, so Owensboro barbecue should be around a long time.

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Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn, 2840 W. Parrish Ave., Owensboro, KY, (270) 684-8143; (800) 322-8989 Or order online at www.moonlite.com.