Where’s the Mutton?

Todd Coleman

Working on the recipes for our lamb feature piqued my curiosity about lamb's close cousin mutton, which is the meat of a sheep that's more than two years old. Mutton remains popular in the Middle East, Great Britain, and France, and old cookbooks I consulted suggest that it used to be well loved in the United States, too. But this famously rich, robust meat is hard to come by these days in most parts of the country. I couldn't find a single butcher in New York City, where I live, who sells it, though I did know of one restaurant in town that has mutton on its menu: Keens Steakhouse, a 124-year-old establishment in midtown Manhattan that is famous for its 26-ounce broiled double mutton chop. When I asked Keens's executive sous-chef, Daniel Drucker, where he managed to find fresh mutton, he revealed a surprising truth. "It's not actually mutton," he said. "It's just older lamb." Then I remembered a story I read some years back about the town of Owensboro, Kentucky, where barbecued mutton is a specialty. So, I tracked down Ken Bosley, a co-owner of Owensboro's busiest barbecue joint, the Moonlite Bar-B-Q. He confirmed that he serves real mutton, from sheep raised in Iowa—20,000 pounds of mutton a week, in fact, all of it cooked in a huge, hickory-fired pit smoker. "We'd have a riot if we ran out of mutton," Bosley said, explaining that the local love of the meat could be traced to 18th-century settlers from Wales, a country of fervent mutton lovers. I couldn't get down to Owensboro, so Bosley overnighted me a package of his slow-smoked mutton. It was meltingly tender and had a gamy, smoky tang and a matchless pungency. It was a meat worth searching for, and one that's overdue for a comeback.