It’s always a delight to try something one has always heard of, but it is equally delightful to find something one didn’t know existed. So to have both things at one meal was definitely joyous.
I’d first read about Kentucky burgoo as a youngster, looking through some of mom’s cookbooks. The really old cookbooks usually included game in this traditional stew, which is generally made in huge quantities and served at large community gatherings. More current recipes leave out the game, though one suspects that it would still appear in some versions. As a result, when a food conference (International Association of Culinary Professionals) took me to Kentucky, I was excited to see burgoo listed as something one could try during one of the offered food tours. But even more intriguing was the mention of something unfamiliar to me but apparently very traditional in parts of Kentucky: barbecued mutton.
Of course, if one has done any research into barbecue, one encounters the fact that different regions, and even micro-regions, have different specialties, from sauces to preferred animals to specific cuts. But even having read about (and as often as possible, having tried) variations on barbecue traditions, I had never before encountered barbecued mutton.
Most of the several hundred in attendance at the conference had opted for bourbon or fried chicken tours, and only three of us picked mutton and burgoo—which was fine with me, as it gave us more time to talk to our “guide” for the day, Wes Berry, college professor and author of the definitive book on all the various regional Kentucky barbecues.
We headed about 15 miles out of Louisville, to a BBQ shack constructed in 1896 (though renovated by the current owners). Shack in the Back was the name of the venue, and there is indeed a shack in the back—a smokehouse with a couple of large, hard-working smokers pumping out vast quantities of hickory smoke. (My clothes smelled great for days afterwards.) We had a long chat with the owner about the restaurant and got to view fires, coals, and cooking meat. But then we headed for the dining area and got to try a bit of everything.
Worth noting is that not every Kentucky smokehouse makes barbecued mutton these days, so this had been special ordered for our visit. But the burgoo is a regular menu item, as are the house-made andouille sausage, pulled pork, baby back ribs, beef brisket, “turkey ribs,” and smoked salmon. Classic sides included mac and cheese, green beans, baked beans, and fried corn. We started with a plate of crispy pork rinds, and after that, the dishes just kept coming.
Before the trip, I’d done a bit of research, learning that Kentucky has an ideal climate and terrain for raising sheep and that a tariff in 1816 made wool production profitable, which led to keeping sheep until they were older and tougher and therefore more suited to long, slow cooking. I also discovered that Calvin Trillin wrote in a 1977 article in The New Yorker that barbecued mutton is “not bad at all.” I, on the other hand, thought it was quite wonderful, but then I like mutton, and mutton cooked long and slow and saturated with smoke has a lot going for it.
Unlike the other barbecued items we were served, the mutton did not come with barbecue sauce but rather with “Mutton Sauce,” aka “Mutton Dip” or “Black Dip.” Wes explained that it is made from Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, pepper, and vinegar. He noted that some places also add tomato paste, to make it stick better, but what we had was the traditional, tomato-free black dip. It was perfect for the mutton.
The “turkey ribs” should probably also be explained. They are apparently a growing trend. Not ribs at all, they are white turkey meat attached to the scapula, or shoulder blade. The traditional sauce for these is a mayo-based white barbecue sauce. Very tasty. Easy to see why they’re becoming popular.
The Kentucky burgoo was also delicious. Mike, the owner of Shack in the Back, says he cooks it for two days. As one might imagine of anything cooked for so long, it was thick and flavorful, but for me, the chiefest delight was simply that I was in Kentucky eating so iconic and historic a dish.
You may never have thought of Kentucky in terms of barbecue, but now you can. And, of course, don’t forget the burgoo. For someone like me who loves both history and regional specialties, this was a splendid meal.
Oh – and if you want a little more background on Kentucky barbecue, including burgoo (which is traditionally served at big barbecue events, and is therefore associated with BBQ), here’s the introduction from Wes Berry’s book KY BBQ: https://www.southernfoodways.org/oral-history/southern-bbq-trail/kentucky-bbq/