Not too long ago, while driving through western Kentucky, I enjoyed my first encounter with one of America’s great micro-regional barbecue specialties: chipped mutton.
Barbecued mutton of any sort is hard enough to find. Of the 160 joints Wes Berry visited when compiling The Kentucky Barbecue Book (2013), he found mutton at just 18. With the exception of a few outliers in Louisville and Lexington, the mutton-cooking zone stretches from Bardwell in the far western part of the state eastward to Russellville and Owensboro, the barbecue mutton capital of the world.
Chipped mutton is even rarer, found only in Union and Henderson counties. It’s usually made from the drier and smokier outside bits of slow-smoked mutton. The meat is chopped into tiny shreds and well dosed with “dip,” which in Kentucky means sauce. At the chipped mutton joints, it tends to be a thin vinegar-based concoction laced with a little tomato and spice.
At Peak Bros. BBQ in Waverly, they start with whole sheep and cook them on a big brick pit with sliding steel doors, reserving the hams for slicing and making chipped mutton from the ribs, shoulders, and neck. At Thomason’s Barbeque in Henderson, they chop in a little pork with the mutton, creating a product they call simply “chip.”
That fine chopping and dip soaking transforms what might otherwise be dry, tough meat into something tender, juicy, and superbly flavorful. It’s particularly delicious on a sandwich, which at Peak Bros. comes on your choice of white, wheat, or rye bread dressed with pickle and onion.
A chipped mutton sandwich on rye is a wonderful thing. The finely-minced meat is soft and juicy, and the onion and pickle add a nice complementary crunch. It brings together a savory array of sharp, bold flavors: the strong, dark richness of mutton, the sharp bite of pickle and onion, and the tang of vinegar-laced dip. Even the rye in the bread adds a little touch of spice.
So don’t be sheepish if you’re passing through western Kentucky: seek out a chipped mutton sandwich and experience an obscure but delightful barbecue treat.