Illustrations by John H Lee
BBQ: the holy trinity of salt, sweet and smoke.
A good barbecue involves every sensory emotion that starts with a steaming mouthful of meat and finishes ten ribs and three root beers later in the cradle of a childhood memory when you could eat to your heart’s delight without worrying about indigestion.
Mine has always been the memory of growing up with the socially unacceptable smell of garlic. All the staples of Korean BBQ require it: like kalbi with its charcoal fired sweet soy or pork ribs in sweet fermented chili paste thick enough to be a meal in itself or those special evenings when relatives were in town, we’d go out and treat ourselves to tripe and shaved cow’s tongue so thin it would curl and wrinkle with blackened heat as soon as it hit the sizzling iron griddle. My mother would force me to chew Doublemint after every one of these meals. They gave them out free at Korean restaurants. We were supposed to hide the joy of our garlic breath from the rest of the world. I always spit my gum out as soon as we hit the pavement.
Barbecue is supposed to linger in your mouth and a good one can stay on for hours. Far from being shameful, barbecue breath is a proclamation, a proud stance, perhaps even a bit subversive. Because a really good barbecue is not just ribs and corn, it ventures into the wild territory of mysterious cuts and farm animals that polite society will never accept. The ribs of a pig? Yes, there is respect in that but when you’re looking to get serious, try mutton. Mutton is sheep bred older than a year. Anything younger is lamb. So mutton is a bit tougher, with more character and age but less delicate, less desired. Yes, mutton is like that washed-up actor doing infomercials.
But there is one place in America where mutton shines. Amidst the grain mills and rolling hills of the Ohio Valley, the town of Owensboro, KY is small, unassuming and friendly. You would never know that it’s home to some of the country’s best BBQ (until you look up and see the sign: “If It’s Not Owensboro Barbecue, It’s Not Real Barbecue”). Here, the mutton is simply but diligently cooked: cured in salt and spices, slow smoked over hickory chips for over ten hours until it falls apart to the touch with a burnt crackle of skin. Smoky, tender, tangy, messy with a vinegary mop of BBQ sauce for dipping. The mutton has a distinctive smell that makes it stand apart from the all too familiar pork and beef. It can only be described as the smell of character, something that comes only with age.
At the Moonlite, the way to go is the buffet. You are likely to eat yourself into a coma if you aren’t careful. Alongside the mutton, there is the requisite beef and pork, not to mention the greens, mac-n-cheese, potato salad and so on. But it is the mutton that keeps everyone coming back. Ten thousand pounds of mutton a week is what the owner told me; the week I was there, they went through ten thousand and twenty pounds.
In the cavernous dining room, I sat there at a table by myself with a plate of mutton, corn and a bibb around my neck. Forty minutes later, and two more trips to the buffet, my meal was over but my emotions were just starting to stir. Sitting back with a glaze over my eyes and listening to the clamor of chairs and heavy plates and simple conversation, I could have easily been in one of those brightly lit barbeque restaurants in the Koreatown of my youth. Mutton? Tripe? How different are they really? You can taste the hard work that goes into it, and that’s all that really counts. You can sense the satisfied laughter of the diners as they head for home and that is a universal feeling. I awoke and realized that, unlike my childhood, I had to drive myself home. It was near closing time. I noticed a bowl of mints on the counter, you know, for your breath. Free. But, it had hardly been touched. I always knew this was a good place for barbecue, but I knew right then that this was simply a good place to be.
Mostly self-taught, Chef Lee started his career in New York City with Clay, a modern Korean restaurant. Fully committed to the farm to table movement, Chef Lee moved to Louisville, KY to take over the helm of 610 Magnolia, a historic European-style restaurant. His work has been profiled in media including Bon Appetit, Gourmet, and The New York Times magazine, The Early Show, and BBC’s The World. His involvement with the Southern Foodways Alliance and The James Beard Foundation has him traveling and cooking around the nation.
For more BBQ Tails, check out Issue 18 for tales involving Hong Kong beaches, Beijing alleyways, Phillippine villages, Texas backroads, and all-American McDonald’s.