A good barbecue involves every sensory emotion that begins 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 staples of Korean barbecue require it: kalbi with its charcoal-fired sweet soy; pork ribs in sweet fermented chili paste thick enough to be a meal in itself; or those special evenings when relatives were in town, when 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 griddle. My mother would force me to chew Doublemint after every one of those meals. They gave out free sticks at Korean restaurants. We were supposed to hide the joy of our garlic breath from the rest of the world. I always spit mine out as soon as we hit the pavement.
Barbecue is supposed to linger in your mouth; 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. A good barbecue isn’t 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 older than a year. Anything younger is lamb. Mutton is a bit tougher, with more character and age, but less delicate, less desired. Mutton is like that washed-up actor doing infomercials.
There is one place in America, however, where mutton shines. Amid the grain mills and rolling hills of the Ohio Valley, the town of Owensboro, Kentucky, is small, unassuming, and friendly. You would never know it’s home to some of the country’s best barbecue (until you look up and see the sign: “If It’s Not Owensboro Barbecue, It’s Not Real Barbecue”). Here, mutton is simply but diligently cooked: cured in salt and spices, slow-smoked over hickory chips for more than 10 hours until it falls apart to the touch with a burnt crackle of skin. Smoky, tender, tangy, and messy with a vinegary mop of barbecue sauce for dipping.
At the Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro, 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 greens, mac ’n’ cheese, potato salad, and so on. But it’s 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.
In the cavernous dining room, I sat at a table by myself with a plate of mutton and corn with a bib around my neck. Forty minutes and two more trips to the buffet later, my meal was over but my emotions were just beginning to stir. Sitting back with a glaze over my eyes, listening to the clamor of chairs and plates and simple conversation, I could easily have been in one of the brightly lit barbecue 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 satisfaction of the diners as they head for home, and that is a universal feeling.
I awoke and realized that, unlike in 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. It had hardly been touched. I knew the Moonlite was a good place for barbecue, but I knew right then that it was simply a good place to be.
Reprinted from Theme (Feb.-March 2009), a fantastically designed bimonthly magazine that tells stories about contemporary Asian culture (organized around a theme, of course). Nominated for a 2009 Utne Independent Press Award for arts coverage. www.thememagazine.com