By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2006 Gourmet Magazine
I see the food shows on TV where they go all over the place looking for barbecue,” says pitmaster Lowell Jewell, “and I think, ‘Why don’t you come to western Kentucky and eat the real thing?’ ”
Good advice. Following the barbecue trail west of Louisville along the Ohio River and south toward the Land Between the Lakes, you will find an open-pit culture unique to the region and radically diverse from county to county. What you eat and how you eat it suggests a smoked-meat taxonomy as thorny as that of the countless ’cues of the Carolinas.
We used to think of the whole area as mutton territory, but that’s because we ate only in Daviess and Henderson counties, where mutton is king. But drive an hour south and that dusky sheep with its smoke-pit growl is nonexistent. Jack Easley, boss of the esteemed Marion Pit Bar-B-Q down in Crittenden County for 32 years, tried adding mutton to his menu a while back. “Nobody was interested,” he says. Today he serves one thing only: pulled pork. He doesn’t season, baste, or sauce his shoulders while they bathe in smoke for 17 hours; the result is mutton’s polar opposite—meat that is pale and exquisitely tender, with just a whiff of hickory.
Even in the mutton belt there are big differences between Owensboro (self-proclaimed barbecue capital of the world) and Henderson (Stern-proclaimed fried chicken capital of the solar system, thanks to the Bon Ton Mini Mart, which is also renowned for banana pudding that is a delirious swirl of custard, Nilla wafers, bananas, and meringue). For one thing, all the barbecue parlors in Owensboro make a specialty of burgoo, the mulligan stew that food lore says was traditionally made from whatever small critters you could catch. Today it has become a high-spiced, mutton-anchored vegetable soup. As we plowed into what has to be the thickest, most satisfying burgoo in town, in a little lunchroom called George’s, Trish the waitress, born and raised hereabouts, confessed that she felt deprived during the ten years she spent in Memphis. The barbecue they’ve got there may be famous, but nobody serves mutton.
Owensboro’s eating landmarks, which include the gigantic Moonlight Bar-B-Q Inn as well as folksy George’s, offer mutton chopped and sliced and as ribs, but by the time you travel west 25 miles to Henderson (where burgoo is a rarity), another presentation appears on menus: chipped. Chipped is like chopped, but extreme, yielding a fine hash. Pork, beef, ham, and mutton all can be chipped and mixed with sauce. But no one calls it sauce in the northern part of western Kentucky. It’s dip, which is the consistency of natural gravy in the north and more like traditional tomato sauce as you head south. (Meat without any sauce is labeled “off the pit.”) A chipped tray includes meat, pickle, onion, and bread; a chipped platter adds barbecue beans and coleslaw. Or you can have a chipped sandwich, which is always offered on white or rye, the latter resembling Wonder bread with a tan.
For dip with a brash country twang, the place to go in Henderson is Thomason’s Barbecue, where the mutton is so infused with it that the meat falls apart like pot roast. Tipster Louis Hatchett, author of Duncan Hines: The Man Behind the Cake Mix (Hines was a local), brought us to Thomason’s primarily to eat barbecued beans, which are hot and smoky, a little sweet, and mightily enriched with shreds of meat from the pit. Like all other sandwiches in this area, theirs can scarcely be picked up by hand because dip from the meat saturates the lower piece of bread, causing it to disintegrate.
As you go south, the white-versus-rye issue becomes irrelevant because sandwiches come on buns. More importantly, by the time you get to Caldwell County, pulled pork rules. There is no multiple choice of meats; mutton is unheard of. Barbecue means pork shoulder torn into variegated strips and nuggets, some variations soft as velvet, as at the Marion Pit, others threaded with crusty shreds of skin, as at Jewell’s Open Pit Bar-B-Q in Princeton. Around here, you have to make an important decision that is seldom an issue up in mutton country: hot or mild sauce (no longer referred to as dip). Unlike the chipped meats of Henderson, pork is never presauced. It is bunned or plated, then topped with hot or mild.
Sauce in Princeton is unique. At both Lowell Jewell’s place, a town café where locals come to chat and chew, and Heaton’s Citgo & BBQ, located in a large gas station by the interstate, the sauce is rich and red, with a compelling citrus zest. A pile of unbelievably juicy pulled pork gilded with Jewell’s hot version fairly sizzles.
The improbable quest to codify western Kentucky barbecue led us to one clear standout: Peak Bros. Bar-B-Q, in Waverly, a dot-on-the-map town that our guide Louis Hatchett referred to as “the western edge of barbecued muttonland.” Here we ate chipped sandwiches of full-flavored cured ham and hearty mutton, both on rye with raw onion and pickle slices that were bright contrasts to the deep-flavored meat and its potent dip. Debbie Peak, whose father and uncle started the place in 1948, said that chipped is good, but sliced is better. So we got some slices, and they were a revelation. Ham, edged with pepper, was a succulent duet of pork and smoke and was luxuriously tender; the sliced mutton was moist and mellow, with none of the bite typical of the meat.
Our most painful interview ever took place in the Peak Bros. kitchen, with Tony Willett, who has cooked meat here since the early 1970s. The pit door was open and he was busy throwing spice on pork ribs, peeling skin off hams, and turning briskets and hunks of mutton on the grate. Hellish heat and blinding puffs of smoke emanating from the pit didn’t bother him at all, but our eyes teared, our glasses fogged, and our lungs resisted taking in the cloudy air. The fumes of burning wood and cooking meats were penetrating. “When I go home, my wife makes me stay outside until I take off my clothes,” Willett confided. “When I walk into a store, you can hear people say, ’Here comes Peak Brothers.’” The shirts we wore that day came back from the laundry still imbued with smoke-pit perfume.
Willett starts his fire at 3 A.M., first with ash, white oak, and red oak, then finally tossing on hickory logs. Everything he cooks gets vigorously poked with a long fork each time he turns it, and on alternate turns he slathers it with a mix of vinegar, water, and top-secret spices, a process he calls dipping. He explained that dipping is essential for full flavor because when hot meat is poked, it wants to draw in the spices. “Anybody can barbecue,” he declared, “just so long as they know how to dip.”
George’s (permanently closed)
1362 E. 4th Street
Jewell’s Open Pit Bar-B-Q (Permanently closed)
1240 Highway 62 W.
Moonlight Bar-B-Q Inn