Blame the Dutch, who came to western Kentucky in the 1830s and commenced raising sheep among the rolling green hills. They originated the practice of long-smoking the flesh of sheep too old and tough to be sold as meat, a habit that persists today in a barbecue belt that stretches from Owensboro to Paducah. To investigate this phenomenon I recently descended on the region, motoring through a landscape ablaze with spring flowers, including bright red azalea, ghost-faced white dogwood, and perfumey lavender wisteria. I logged 1,000 miles in four days, inspecting over two dozen barbecues and eating in the 13 that looked and smelled the most promising.
I’m pleased to report that the best mutton barbecue is found in Owensboro, a port city of 54,000 on the banks of the Ohio River that saw its heyday in the late 1800s. Located adjacent to the elevators and mills of Owensboro Grain, which fill the air with a malty odor, George’s Bar-B-Q is quite literally on the wrong side of the tracks. At peak periods, it’s parked up with old pickups in a way I associate with the rural barbecues of Texas. The ‘cue reminds me of Texas, too: offered without fanfare and without sauce, though a vinegary “dip” is served on the side. The traditional accompaniments are limited to raw onions, dill pickles, and sliced white bread.
George’s was founded in 1955, and the dining room reflects it. The brown Naugahyde booths are patched over with silver gaffer’s tape, and the menu resembles that of a coffee shop, featuring sandwiches, hamburgers, and a local specialty called catfish fiddlers, in addition to barbecued mutton, pork, chicken, and beef. But enter the door of the adjacent carryout and find an institution that seems more ancient, a smoke-blackened inner sanctum of barbecue with a metal holding cabinet built into the wall, where meat is stacked in dented saucepans. In front stands a vintage Butcher Boy, an electric jigsaw that produces a high-pitched whine as bone is cut. A bill of fare offers several types of mutton—chopped, shoulder, loin, and ribs—dissecting retired sheep with the precision of a veterinary surgeon. Sold by the pound ($8.25) or by the sandwich ($2.99), shoulder is clearly the popular favorite, pulled in thick hanks streaked with yellow fat, smoky and mellow.
I had a conversation with the proprietor, who spoke in the lilting Southern drawl of the area, proudly asserting, “When I bought George’s 15 years ago, I didn’t change a thing.” He smokes his ‘cue for 10 or 11 hours using a combination of hickory and sassafras—a tree common in these parts that lends a sweetness and pungency to the meat. In fact, one of Owensboro’s prime tourist attractions is a sassafras tree, which at 300 is said to be the world’s oldest. Mutton loin ($5.25 per pound) has a Hannibal Lecter quality about it, a pair of chops gruesomely attached to back ribs that radiate from a spine oozing marrow. Ribs are probably my favorite, long meaty bones with skin attached, smoked until they’ve reached the color of mahogany. But the connoisseur’s favorite is a sandwich called “off the pit” ($3.49), filled with meat sliced from the surface of the shoulder just as it’s pulled from the smoke. The mutton is dark, crunchy, and deeply flavorful—and you won’t mind paying the extra 50 cents for the sandwich.