The Last Word

A Hankerin’ for Old Hickory

Kyle Partain
Sheep Industry News Editor

Editor’s Note: Just thinking about writing this story made me hungry. And since I’m guessing there aren’t many vegetarians among the Sheep Industry News readership, you should prepare for the hunger pains that are sure to strike while reading this column.

I skipped breakfast on Sept. 28, 2016. The typical hotel buffet couldn’t grab my attention because my stomach knew we were headed to Old Hickory Bar-B-Que in Owensboro, Ky., for an early lunch. There’s always something cooking at Old Hickory – where the mutton cooks for 22 hours – so the aroma outside the building at 9 a.m. was already enchanting. Once inside, I met fifth-generation owner John Foreman. He talked for half an hour while I tried to pay attention. It’s a good thing I recorded the interview, because it was difficult to concentrate on his answers as my stomach took complete control.

By the time he sat me in a booth and asked what I was hungry for, I was ready to order the entire menu. Instead, John brought me a sampler plate with chopped and sliced mutton, a cup of burgoo soup and a tall glass of sweet, iced tea. He followed it with Bar-B-Que beans, coleslaw and potato salad. He offered pie, but I passed as I was already leaving with a box of leftovers.

Growing up in Arkansas, barbecue was pork. Having lived a lot of years in Texas, I was accustomed to beef, as well. But this was my first experience with mutton barbecue. I sure hope it won’t be my last.

“I’ve heard people call it ‘gamey,’” says John. “But I’ve never seen it that way. To me, it just has a full flavor, a better flavor. That’s what barbecue should be. Pork is good, but it’s very mild. If you set pork and mutton side-by-side, I’m going to take the mutton barbecue every time.”

John’s customers tend to agree. While the restaurant serves beef, chicken, mutton and pork, the mutton far outsells the more traditional meats. Of course, in Owensboro, mutton is the traditional meat of choice. The city’s history with mutton barbecue dates back a hundred years or more, and Old Hickory isn’t the only restaurant in town that serves the regional delicacy.

“Most people, their eyes just light up when they try it for the first time,” he says. “I have maybe one out of 10 customers who will think it’s too strong. We do a lot of catering, and it’s usually a mix of the mutton and pork. It’s rare when we cater something for them to not ask for the mutton. That’s what we’re known for, and we have people coming from all over the world to try it.”

John takes great pride in the fact that a restaurant started in 1918 by his great, great grandfather has now been recognized nationally and internationally on television and in magazines. He won BBQ Pitmasters on Destination America using the same barbecuing methods that have been passed down through the generations. He’s teaching his own children the family ways, as well.

“It’s not like we have some great recipe under lock and key,” he admits. “There’s no big secret to barbecue. A lot of people can barbecue, but there are some little things that we do differently that contribute to our consistency. People tend to overlook little things that are very important.”

While he won’t divulge what those little things are, he offers one simple tip to those barbecuing at home.

“You have to cook it low and slow,” he says. “This isn’t something you can do in four hours. We cook our mutton for 22 hours, which is why we’re always cooking. All barbecue needs to be cooked slow, but it’s especially true with mutton. It takes a little more care.”

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