Mutton, pork butts and burgoo - an intro to Kentucky barbecue
October 17th, 2012
05:30 PM ET
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Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of barbecue across the United States. We'll be sharing dispatches from their 15th annual Symposium "Barbecue: An Exploration of Pitmaster, Places, Smoke, and Sauce" over the nest few days. Dig in.

Kentuckians have barbecued on a grand scale since our land became a state in 1792, and that tradition continues today with such massive events as the annual political picnic at Fancy Farm (where in 2011 the team at St. Jerome Catholic Church cooked 19,000 pounds of pork and mutton), and at Owensboro’ s International Bar-B-Q Festival, a charity event where cooks stir 75-gallon cauldrons of burgoo and tend open pits groaning with mutton quarters and whole chickens.

What strikes me most about Kentucky barbecue is the variety of meats that individual joints smoke and the localized flavors of its micro-regions. In the western part of our 120-countied state, the preferred barbecue is pulled or chopped pork from whole shoulders or Boston butts, traditionally cooked on masonry pits for 12 to 30 hours over hickory coals. Additionally, many western counties put cured hams (city hams) and precooked turkey breasts on the pits and then slice the smoke-drenched meats thinly for sandwiches.

Sauce styles vary county by county. Bordering the Mississippi River, Hickman County restaurants serve meats without sauce and offer a vinegar and cayenne pepper concoction in plastic squirt bottles at the table. Some McCracken County sauces taste strongly of vinegar and chili powder. Union and Henderson County favor a savory Worcestershire based dip, while over in Christian County to the east the sauces turn again to vinegar and cayenne.

Mutton is our most distinctive claim to barbecue uniqueness, although only 18 out of 160 barbecue places I visited between 2009 and 2012 serve it. The “mutton tree,” as I’ll call it, is concentrated in western Kentucky, with Christian County and Hopkins County forming the trunk, branching out into Union, Henderson, and Daviess counties for the upper foliage. Owensboro is mutton central, with four restaurants serving it, including the famous Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn, which, according to manager Pat Bosley, “semi-trucks it in - 5,000 to 6,000 pounds - two times per week.”

Moonlite Bar-B-Q – Owensboro, KY

Outside this area, you can find mutton in Lexington at J.J. McBrewster’s and in Louisville at Ole Hickory Pit (the owners at both these places have roots in western Kentucky). Mutton is usually basted while cooking over hickory coals and served with a savory Worcestershire sauce-based dip, a thin black potion that also contains vinegar and spices like black pepper and allspice.

A third “major” Kentucky tradition is the Monroe County style dominating barbecue menus in 5 south-central counties: Monroe, Barren, Cumberland, Allen, and Warren. Locals refer to it as “shoulder.” Boston Butts are frozen and cut into thin slices, bone in, with a meat saw. Pitmasters burn down hickory slabs and shovel the coals underneath iron grates that hold dozens of slices of shoulder (and chickens and pork tenderloins), flipping and sopping them with a dip of vinegar, butter, lard, cayenne and black pepper.

If you like spiciness, then order a shoulder plate “dipped”; milder palates might prefer “sprinkled”; idiots like me can ask for “suicide” and get a healthy ladle of sauce skimmed off the top of the dip pot, where the fat and spices mingle. Popular side dishes in this region include vinegar slaw and eggs pickled in this peppery vinegar dip.

Putting mutton on the pits at St. Ann's Catholic Church BBQ Picnic – Morganfield, KY

Beyond these three major styles - long-smoked pulled pork, mutton, and grilled sliced shoulder - you’ll find pockets of micro-regional flavors in the Commonwealth. For instance, barbecue on toast is preferred in counties McCracken, Livingston, Lyon, and Caldwell. Hickory smoked pork or mutton is pulled or chopped and served between slices of toasted bread (raw onions and dill pickles optional).

A popular item in Union and Henderson counties is “chipped” mutton: exterior bark from mutton quarters and pork shoulders is chopped and mixed with a thin tangy sauce, which adds moisture back into the fire-dried meats. Because bark has so much smokiness, “chip” packs a wallop of flavor and is best eaten as a sandwich.

Burgoo, a stew made from many meats (especially mutton) and vegetables, is found primarily in a funky triangle that runs from Owensboro (the burgoo capital) down to Madisonville, south to Hopkinsville, south to Guthrie, and back to Owensboro. You can find burgoo outside this region, but it’s rare. Eighteen barbecue places - roughly 10% of the 160 I visited - serve burgoo regularly.

Outside the barbecue hotbed of western Kentucky, you’ll find a hodgepodge of local preferences. A few Louisville barbecue places slather on a tomato-based sauce, and this trend continues in the northern and eastern counties, like in Appalachian Floyd County, where local preference is for sauced barbecue.

And in the same counties serving Monroe County style grilled sliced shoulder, you’ll find a menu item called “shredded.” Lovers of naked, smoked meats - beware. “Shredded” means pulled pork swimming in a tomato-based sauce.

Louisville and Lexington are melting pots of barbecue, serving beef brisket, Memphis-style dry-rubbed ribs, and western Kentucky pork and mutton. Indeed, two of the oldest restaurants, Ole Hickory Pit in Louisville and Billy’s Bar-B-Q in Lexington, and newer places like J.J. McBrewster’s and Sarah’s Corner Cafe in Lexington, bill themselves as “West Kentucky-style” establishments.

Two other urban upstarts, Hammerheads and Smoketown USA - both located in the appropriately-named Smoketown area of old Louisville - blew my barbecued mind with smoked lamb ribs, smoked duck, smoked pork belly, and meaty beef ribs. With so many new places opening up in both cities in the past few years, I’d say the future looks promising for barbecue in the Bluegrass.

Today's installment comes courtesy of Wes Berry, author of The Kentucky Barbecue Book, which will be published in the spring of 2013 by the University Press of Kentucky. You can get a taste on Facebook at “Wes Berry’s Kentucky Barbecue Adventures.” Follow him @KYBBQProf

Delve into more barbecue goodness from the Southern Foodways Alliance blog as they prepare for their 2012 symposium, Barbecue: An Exploration of Pitmaster, Places, Smoke, and Sauce

Previously - Mint juleps, bourbon slush, benedictine and burgoo with just a smidge of squirrel, The barbecuing pirates of Tortuga and South Carolina barbeque and the human condition

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soundoff (50 Responses)
  1. Somerset Smoke

    This is a Great article! It cleared some things up for me too. Growing up in South Central KY, we used a variety of styles just like the article indicated and even to this day I am just as likely to switch between vinagear or tomoto based sauces when I fire up the grill/smoker. As it turns out my Mom gave me a recipe for Burgoo that I cook often but we don't call it that. We just call it 'putting on a pot of beans' but the principle is the same.

    Wes, I wonder if you ever had a chance to try Johnny B's before he moved back to Chicago. He still sells sauce and rub in KY but he went out of business a few years ago. You can still find him around at special events.

    May 15, 2014 at 11:15 am |
  2. requin tn pas cher

    Have on's squander your time and energy even on a male/lover,whom isn's ready to squander the occasion done to you.
    requin tn pas cher

    December 12, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  3. CA Girl

    This California Girl married a Daviess County Boy and we catered a portion of our wedding meal from the Moonlite BBQ. We had a late fall, evening wedding and a hot cup of Burgoo along side the delicious mutton and ham sandwiches was perfect for a chilly evening. Loves me that KY BBQ.

    December 9, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
  4. John

    This guy is obviously a city slicker! First rule of authentic delicious BBQ is the cook has burnt down the building a time or two. Case in point, the best pulled pork shoulder and sauce in Western KY is Knoth's BBQ in Lake City, on US62 between the dams now as their original location in Lyon County burned to the ground. Louisville and Lexington BBQ, PLEASE! Better off to just go to Lee's Famous Recipe for your BBQ! And growing up in Lyon Co, whats this toast nonsense? I have been all over that area and NEVER had BBQ offered on toast!

    Do youself a favor on your next LBL vacation, pay a visit to Knoth's and order off the simple menu, pulled pork sandwich and cole slaw. You will not reget the visit. And you can hit Pattie's in Grand Rivers for dinner too!

    October 23, 2012 at 12:54 am |
    • Wes Berry, aka KYBBQProf

      For John, who I THINK suggests the writer of the article is a "city slicker": I'm from the podunk hills of Barren Co., and I've eaten at over 160 BBQ joints in KY. Yes, Knoth's is good. They smoke their shoulders over hardwood coals a decent amount of time. But down the road at Mr. BBQ and More, right down from Patti's, you can taste pork shoulder cooked much longer than at Knoth's (and his building hasn't burned down). And Louisville and Lexington do have some fine barbecue, cooked with lots of wood for that deep down smoky pleasure.

      Furthermore, John writes: "And growing up in Lyon Co, whats this toast nonsense? I have been all over that area and NEVER had BBQ offered on toast!" Well John, you can get pork on toast at your beloved Knoth's. Just saying.

      October 23, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  5. JBHedgehog

    Burgoo with a nice chunk of Okra is the BOMB! The best "experience" I ever had was a steaming cup of it while watching the races at Keenland. So much FUN!

    But as far as "home" is concerned (Lexington/Nicholasville) find your self a real "sugar cured ham". Yeah, it's salt but whatever. Grab a REAL one of those and it'll last you an whole Fall, Winter and part of Spring. The best is real scrambled eggs with the cooked sugar cured ham put into the eggs as it cooks. There's nothing like it.

    And kudos to Billy's. We had it every Sunday evening. Great memories and the most delicate BBQ you can imagine.

    October 22, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  6. Bart Flaster

    I'll never choke my chicken again.

    October 22, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Bart Flaster's rosy palm


      October 22, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  7. Ex-Local

    KY has some decent BBQ, but it's not nearly as good as the 'cue you can find in other parts of the south, the Carolina's and Georgia in particular. I think what sets KY's BBQ apart from the rest is it's uniqueness. You're not going to find burgoo and mutton much outside of the Bluegrass State (though I did find that some places on the Indiana side of the river served it, but it wasn't as good).

    October 22, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Wes Berry, aka KYBBQProf

      To ex-local: I agree that KY BBQ is set apart by it's variety. But they also do variety in Kansas City. So, what really sets KY BBQ apart from the BIG 4 is that 1) we smoke many of God's critters and 2) we still have a lot of old-fashioned masonry pits for "old style" barbecue and 3) we don't sauce it do death and 4) we have many sauce styles, varying county by county, but vinegar and thin sops prevail and 5) well yes, we smoke more mutton than anyone and do it better!

      October 23, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  8. Loyal Northern Democrat

    This is an excellent article! It helps show the killers of vegitables and the unatural acts by non meat eaters. Man is a meat eater. Other are freaks of nature.

    October 22, 2012 at 12:23 am |
    • Kay

      Do you only eat meat? Most meat eaters I know also like a big ear of corn and baked potato with their BBQ, I'd definitely think a person was a freak if they only ate meat. But they probably wouldn't live long enough to laugh at.

      And yes, I eat meat, and vegetables.

      October 22, 2012 at 10:21 am |
  9. Christian

    Without a doubt, my favorite Q in KY is Harned's in Paducah. I live in Maine & travel to Paducah many times a year... the first stop and every lunch while I am on business in @ Harned's. The best ham I have ever had..

    October 20, 2012 at 6:36 am |
    • Wes Berry, aka KYBBQProf

      To Christian: You have good taste! Harned's is mighty fine. I love the deep smokiness of their pork sandwich on toast and their oddball sauce seasoned with, I think, some ancho chili. And while in Paducah, why not grease your arteries with a Paducah chili cheese dog? Oh yes, my friend.

      October 23, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  10. Richard

    I do really like the lamb ribs at Hammerhead's. Baby sheep are so cute and delicious. I hate myself a little.

    October 19, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  11. Evolved One

    Great piece which brought back some wonderful cooking memories for me as I used to stay with friends (they raised competition quarter horses) just north of Dundee slightly south off Highway 54 outside of Whitesville. The mutton ribs bbq is unique to this area and you will not find it much outisde of the Hopkinsville-Owensboro-Madisonville area.

    And yes, just about every Sunday one can find a church picnic or bbq happening and even if you are not from the area you will be heartily welcomed into the food fold and encouraged to partake. That sort of genuine hospitality is something to appreciate in an ever-increasing polarized and hostile world.

    I have traveled all over the american southeast exploring regional bbq (did so for over two years) and I have to admit a great fondness for the mutton ribs as they are done slowly over a hickory base....and for those of us watching the bbqs, well, music and beer do flow....hahahaha....there is something to be said for staying up all night singing and imbibing, turning the meat.

    One time I got to witness from start to finish a proper pig roast....this went on for almost five days as we started with the slaughter of the beast and finished up with the slow pit bbq'd product....yes, this party was a few miles from where I was staying. So many bbq parties and come falltime when my son and I were invited for hunting season I was treated to deer jerky.

    Kentucky is one of those states that can be often maligned but for this world traveler and foodie, western Kentucky holds a special place in her heart. The only drawback was the preponderance of dry counties....hahahah

    I hope to return someday as I know there is still so much to enjoy.

    October 19, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • Wes Berry, aka KYBBQProf

      "Evolved One": Please come back to see us. In western KY you can get the only 2 1/2 pound pork loin chop I've seen at a BBQ joint; and the Hoggy Sandwich at Mr. BBQ and More, with that awesome 24 hour-smoked whole pork shoulder; and the mutton and burgoo; and Paducah dogs; and now, microdistilleries here and there, like in Pembroke. Welcome back!

      October 23, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  12. Silveo

    poor sheep, baby lamb, and cattle. everytime I bike past the animals through Mammoth Cave it is like they are crying to be let out of the electric fences before they get their necks sliced. Not to mention their whole life consists of living inside a small fenced in area until their death sentence.

    October 19, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Loyal Northern Democrat

      I like to pork vegies like you! You scream and squeal!

      October 22, 2012 at 12:25 am |
  13. Jack

    No one even mentioned one of the main ingredients, Lima beans.

    October 19, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • Evolved One

      You are right! Slathered in farm butter and lightly salted and peppered......YUM.....and cornbread of course to accompany every meal.

      October 19, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  14. Joe

    I grew up on chopped mutton sandwiches in Owensboro. The way the meat is prepared, it's totally a regional taste and you just can't get it like that anywhere else–which I was grieved to find out when I moved away. It's so awesome. If you try the buffet at Moonlite restaurant–all I can say is beware–and I mean that in a gooooood way. You better be ready to do some serious eatin'!!

    October 18, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
    • Evolved One

      That place could stand alone as a "church"...of bbq!

      October 19, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  15. Mike

    I remember growing up in Owensboro and every May the church picnics would start, yummmm, burgoo and mutton and chicken. BTW those that really have the craving, Moonlite BarBQ website you can order Burgoo and Mutton and many other items online.

    October 18, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
  16. Brian

    I grew up across the river from Henderson County, in Evansville, IN. Burgoo is popular up here too, but you can primarily find it at festivals and church socials in the fall. I think it's more prevalent then because its a good way to use up excess vegetables at harvest time. I've heard the Hilltop Inn serves it regularly, but apart from that, I can't say I've noticed it full-time on many restaurants' menus.

    As for its contents, I think the article is fairly accurate.

    October 18, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • Ex-Local

      I worked out of Evansville for a few years and remember the Hilltop fondly. I always heard that they had the best burgoo in Indiana, but I was not impressed. Although, they had some excellent fried chicken and other dishes. I haven't been in that area for a few years, but some of the smaller outlying towns used to have joints that would serve up burgoo. I can't recall the names, but I saw burgoo on the menu at a few different places during my time there. But again, that's been years ago.

      By the way, that is quite an eclectic restaurant. It is "local" to the extreme, or as one guy I met put it, "cozy". I would take clients in there sometimes (often times they were from bigger cities like Chicago) and most of them never knew what to think about the place. LOL!

      October 22, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Wes Berry, aka KYBBQProf

      I hope this content is accurate: I spent 3 years traveling in Kentucky, eating and interviewing pitmasters. The Kentucky Barbecue Book features 100 or so of my favorite places, with detailed descriptions of good eats, atmosphere, and pitmaster lore.

      October 23, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  17. Mike S.

    I'm headed to Kentucky!!!!

    October 18, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Kay

      Come on, we'd love to have ya!

      October 22, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  18. Jay

    There should be a plug for Mark's feed store in the Louisville area. Fantastic chicken and pulled pork!!!

    October 18, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Jim Bunning

      Rye bread! IZZATRITE?

      October 20, 2012 at 4:27 am |
    • KY Q

      Mark's is very good but Bootleg is the best in Louisville, in my opinion. Their main location on Thixton looks like a dump but it's so good.

      October 22, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
    • Wes Berry, aka KYBBQProf

      Jay, I include Mark's Feed Store in my book on Kentucky barbecue. I favor their beef brisket, potato salad (some of the best I've had), onion straws, and wonderful homemade (no kidding) buttermilk pie.

      October 23, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  19. Kira

    As a life-long KY girl, I've always been told that burgoo is a game-meat, such as venison or wild boar, heavy stew made specifically with barley. **shrug**

    October 18, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Tammy from Owensboro, KY

      Burgoo is this area is made with beef, pork, mutton and chicken. I am sure that individuals also use game, but not the commercial restaurants.

      October 18, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
  20. Brad

    Peak Brothers BBQ in Sturgis. Nuff said.

    October 18, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Steve from Owensboro

      Don't you mean Waverly? I've eaten there many times over the years and they are one of the best.

      October 18, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  21. Jerv

    Great read, thank you.

    "Burgoo, a stew made from many meats (especially mutton) and vegetables," never heard of it but I am definitiely going to see if I can get my hands on some.

    October 18, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • M T Nest

      What is mutton??? I have no idea. Lol, I have a feeling it doesn't come from a tree.

      October 18, 2012 at 7:57 am |
      • C'mon People


        October 18, 2012 at 8:15 am |
      • Tammy from Owensboro, KY

        Mutton is sheep.

        October 18, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
        • solomon

          Mutton is goat I thought and lamb is sheep please let me know if I am not correct?

          October 18, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
        • JFGI

          Chevon is goat. Mutton is used to refer to adult goat & sheep. Lamb is baby sheep; cabrito is baby goat.
          Guess how I found out?

          October 18, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
        • Angela Birch

          Mutton is mature sheep as opposed to lamb which is a young lamb. Much stronger taste much sheepier. I love lamb. Mutton can be pretty stongs and almost gamy. Depending on how it is prepared it is utterly horrible or delicious. It needs strong flavors to go with it otherwise the wooly flavor is overwhelming and not in a good way.

          October 19, 2012 at 1:17 am |
    • Tammy from Owensboro, KY

      Burgoo is very good. Tomato based broth and all the meat and vegetable mixtures. A staple at all church picnics and festivals throught Western KY. Also a similar product, would be Brunswick Stew, popluar in the Carolinas and Georgia, but traditionally without mutton.

      October 18, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Mary

      Wow, that article took me back. Hot Browns, barbecue and burgoo, cornbread cooked in spider pans. Those "hardboots" can do amazing things with food. I wonder if they still serve burgoo at Keeneland Race Track? Great for warming up on a brisk fall day!

      October 19, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
      • Bill

        Keeneland has some of the best burgoo around–along with its bread pudding with bourbon sauce.

        October 20, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
      • Wes Berry, aka KYBBQProf

        Mary, Keeneland sure does still serve burgoo. You can see their head chef making it on a Youtube clip. A google search will get you there.

        October 23, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
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