Where's the Mutton? - Economics of Kentucky BBQ
Photo Credit Stefan Powell
Kentucky is an interesting barbecue region. It is also home to Owensboro, the self proclaimed BBQ Capital of the World. It's hard to imagine how someone arrived at this conclusion given that most people have never heard of Owensboro. It's pretty similar to boxing where you have half a dozen or so fighters all claiming to be heavy weight champions of the world. There certainly isn't a lot of places around the country doing Kentucky style BBQ. The main distinguishing factor of Kentucky BBQ is it's use of mutton. But even that's not state-wide.
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 Co. and Hopkins Co. 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.” 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).
An interview with Frank Gibson, the owner and operator of Thomason's BBQ in Henderson ,KY he notes
… by the time you pull it, you’ll wind up with twenty-five to thirty pounds out of that 150-pound sheep is what we cook every day of that.
Seems like most of the animal is bone and fat. So per cook you're getting a whooping 16.7% yield. That's insane! That's like roasting a whole chicken and ending up with a drumstick worth of meat. For comparison purposes, a pork butt gets a 60% yield after cooking. Even with this extreme shrinkage, the price of the mutton plate is only 3% higher than the pork plate. This is the South here so I'd imagine no one's skimping on the portions either.
Here's a nice little video of BBQ Mutton.