What is Mutton?

Barbecue Mutton - BBQ Mutton at Moonlite Bar B Q Inn

Mut·ton (mut´’n) n. [ME. moton < OFr. moton, a ram, < ML. multo, sheep, prob. of Celt. orgin as in W. mollt, Ir. molt] 1. the flesh of a sheep, esp. a grown sheep, used as food 2. [Rare] a sheep — mut´ ton·y adj.

The Barbecue Mutton Story

“A Pit Above the Rest” — If it’s Not Owensboro Barbecue, It’s not real Barbecue.   

     Owensboro, known early in its history as Yellow Banks, is named for Col. Abraham Owen, a Kentucky legislator and soldier. Owensboro is the county seat of Daviess County, named for soldier-lawyer-orator Col. Joseph Hamilton Daveiss (the “i” and “e” in Daveiss’ name were accidentally switched in the legislation creating the county’s name. Owensboro commands a sweeping view of the Ohio River from its downtown river front. The historic river helped give birth to the city nearly two centuries ago and nurtured its growth by bringing steamboats laden with passengers and goods to the city’s doorstep. Among other things, Owensboro is famous for the International Bar-B-Q Festival, which draws barbecue fans come from all over the world. The Festival held the second weekend in May, help put Owensboro on the map. Every May 20,000 pounds of ewes (female sheep, known as mutton) are cooked over open pits fired by Moonlite Bar-B-Q Booth at the International Bar-B-Q Festival. 

Hickory logs. Different teams of area barbecue cooks compete to see who has the best mutton, chicken and burgoo. Daviess County comes by its claim to barbecue fame naturally. The first barbecue on record here, but probably not the first in county history, was on July 4, 1834. Since then the barbecue fires have been burning almost continuously from summer to summer. Some families are now on their fifth generations of barbecue cooks. Each summer parrish barbecues attract 5,000 or more people to a single picnic. In 1981 parrish cooks estimated that well over 50 tons of mutton, 10,000 chickens, and 4,000 pounds of pork were consumed along with 8,000 gallons of burgoo.

The Popularity of Barbecued Mutton

What distinguished Owensboro’s barbecue from the barbecue in the rest of the world? It’s the local popularity of barbecued mutton. Yet why is barbecued mutton so popular here? There seems to be about as many answers to that question as there are sheep roasting over the pits. Some say that the early Welsh settlers who made Daviess County home raised enormous herds of sheep; so it was only natural that if a barbecue was in order, mutton would be the meat. Agricultural records for early Daviess County seem to support that argument. In 1860, for example, there were more than 11,000 sheep, compared to 6,570 beef cattle, obviously radically different from today’s records. With packs of wild dogs ravaging the farmer’s flock, sheep herding is not as popular in Daviess and surrounding counties as it once was. Instead, the mutton served in Owensboro today probably originated in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota or South Dakota. Others explain the passion for barbecued mutton as an acquired taste that began with the early Roman Catholic picnics, which served mutton because it was the meat parishioners donated. If there had been an abundance of beef cattle, then it would have been beef that was barbecued. Parallel to this explanation is the idea that mutton doesn’t taste good fried or boiled. To some in those early days, barbecuing mutton was the only way that these four-legged creatures were good to eat.

Moonlite Mutton Dip Moonlite’s Mutton Dip — (original recipe, not in use) - Dip for chop mutton & sliced mutton 

1 gallon water
1 2/3 cup worcestershire 
2 1/2 tablespoons black pepper
1/3 cup brown sugar 
1 teaspoon MSG 
1 teaspoon Allspice 
1 teaspoon onion salt 
1 teaspoon garlic 
2 tablespoons salt 
2 tablespoons lemon juice 
1 2/3 cup vinegar  

Mix all ingredients. Bring to boil.