Barbecued Mutton at the Moonlight Cafe

My friend Tom Jamison and I were spending some time wandering around Murfreesboro, Tennessee, near Nashville, which, as you might know, is great ‘cue country. Tom had just moved into an old farmhouse outside town, and I was helping him break in the kitchen by splattering grease around and dripping barbecue sauce on the newly sanded counters. We’d been sampling pulled pork - long-cooked shredded pig meat with hot sauce slathered on — for about a week when we heard about a place in Owensboro, Kentucky, called the Moonlight Café that served great barbecued mutton. We had had enough of pork, for that week anyway, so we decided to "get an early start" so that we could have either a late lunch or, if we showed up too late, an early dinner. We figured we could kill an hour or two watching the Ohio River float by if we had to wait for dinner. We had neglected to find out, though, that it’s almost 300 miles from Murfreesboro to Owensboro.

Our plan was to get on the road about eight o’clock on a Sunday morning, but what with sampling the local home-smoked bacon and backyard eggs, we didn’t get rolling till about ten or so. Tom may be a bit slow starting, but he’s no slouch on the road. We soon reached our cruising speed of 75 miles an hour on the winding country roads. After whizzing through tiny hamlets and past many a country store and farmhouse, we arrived at the Moonlight Café at exactly 3:01 p.m. The time was significant, since it turned out they don’t serve Sunday dinner — only lunch — and they close at 3 p.m. sharp. The doors were locked and the shades were drawn.

We pounded on the door until a kindly looking lady opened it up. She explained that they were closed, but I begged shamelessly, telling her that I had come all the way from California to taste her food. She relented, apologized that the fried chicken was sold out, but opined that they probably had a bit of barbecued mutton left. We said that that would be all right with us, so she ushered us into the biggest buffet I had even seen. The 30-foot table was still set up with salads (more Jell-O salads than you could ever imagine), hot side dishes like the eternal macaroni and cheese, collard greens, braised cabbage, green beans, black-eyed peas, and creamed corn. And then there were barbecued pork ribs, platters of pulled pork, and a whole mound of barbecued mutton with bowls of smoky sauce on the side. As we headed for the table, I noticed a table of equal size next door filled with desserts.

The mutton was falling off the bone, very smoky and tangy, especially delicious when doused with the spicy sauce. We sampled around, of course, passing up the macaroni and the Jell-O salads. The pork ribs were fantastic, succulent, and sweet in a tomato-y sauce, and we tasted a bit of the pulled pork, just for comparison’s sake. We averted our eyes from the dessert table, although Tom whispered longingly, "I think there’s pecan pie over there, and peach cobbler and ambrosia cake." I silenced him with an imperious (and somewhat greasy) hand: "Let’s not get carried away; we might spoil our dinner."

After a tour of the kitchen, which had a huge smoke oven that could easily handle a whole herd of sheep, and a peek in the walk-in fridge loaded with 150-pound sheep carcasses, we paid the bill. I think it came to less than $15 for us both. We then headed for the Ohio River. We wanted to say we’d been to Ohio, and besides, there was this place I’d heard about that served great barbecued goat. After all, we still had dinner to think about.

"The Complete Meat Cookbook"
by Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly
Chef Aidells recommends Vande Rose Farms for quality pork.