“Why can we only get lamb in the US, as opposed to mutton?”
That’s what Bobbie Kramer, a veterinarian near Portland, Oregon, was wondering when she responded to our recent call for reader questions about where their food comes from.
“As a meat eater, I enjoy the flavor and texture of lamb. But I’d love to try mutton. I know that in other parts of the world, lamb and mutton are more economical and popular to raise than cattle,” she writes. “I’ve traveled a fair bit (Australia, New Zealand, Europe and Great Britain) and have friends from parts of the world where small ruminants such as sheep and goats are raised for meat and fiber. My good friend from South Africa tells me how she and her husband miss cooking with mutton, which they find more flavorful and satisfying than lamb. What happens to the mutton-aged sheep here?”
It’s true that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to find mutton—defined as meat from a sheep over two years old—in American grocery stores. “Mutton is not an accessible protein option in the US,” says Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board, an industry group aimed at expanding the market for domestic sheep products. If you’re looking to get your hands on some mutton, “you’d have to go through a specialty butcher shop or directly to a special-order processor,” she says.
Mutton has less tender flesh and a stronger flavor than lamb, which comes from sheep that are less than a year old. (Meat from sheep aged one to two years is generally called “yearling” in the US, and “hogget” elsewhere around the world.) That stronger flavor lends itself to curries, stews and “value-added” products such as spiced sausages, says Wortman, “so most of our mutton goes into value-added products or into specialty ethnic markets at this point.”
Some mutton is exported to Mexico, where it’s braised low and slow, barbacoa-style. Mutton is also often sold at butcher shops that serve communities that have brought a taste for the meat with them from elsewhere, such as new immigrants from Africa, Central America and the Middle East. (Wortman notes that the majority of US lamb and mutton is halal processed.) And in western Kentucky, a tradition of barbecued mutton still holds, although no one is quite sure why.
“There are consumer segments that would raise their hand and say ‘yes, I would prefer a stronger flavor,’ but we just don’t market it in mainstream grocery stories,” says Wortman. “There’s definitely a general hesitation that the minute you label it ‘mutton’ the average consumer has negative connotations with that product.”
So, how did mutton, a widely consumed protein around the world, come to be unmarketable to most Americans?
Sheep were first brought to the southwestern US by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, and flocks grew with the influx of European settlers, who utilized sheep locally for their wool and meat. With rising demand for wool in the 19th century, sheep farming became more industrialized, but the primary focus was on the wool, not the meat. Simply put, mutton was a byproduct of wool production.
Mutton was slaughtered, sold and canned locally, but no large-scale infrastructure arose to source and process sheep meat. “The simplest story is that no commercial meat industry developed around mutton,” says Roger Horowitz, a historian and author of Putting Meat on the American Table. “It seems to me that it was very rural in character.” He points to a can of roast mutton in his collection, dating from the 1890s, as emblematic of the time: It advertised that its contents were both slaughtered and canned “on the range” in Fort McKavett, Texas.
That’s not to say that mutton wasn’t consumed at the dinner table. Mutton chops were featured in cookbooks and restaurant menus from the late 19th and early 20th century, as the population grew and urbanized and demand for protein rose. Lamb was a seasonal product served at Christmas, and for a time, sheep meat was seen as a food for the upper classes. Even first-class passengers on the RMS Titanic were served grilled mutton—for luncheon and breakfast.
Sheep numbers in the US peaked in 1884 at 51 million head. But with the advent of synthetic fibers in the 20th century, wool production began to flag, and sheep numbers—and the availability of mutton—declined. (In 2016, there were five million head of sheep in the US.) Lamb consumption began to dwindle, too: Americans consumed five pounds of lamb per person in 1912. Today, that number is about a pound per person annually.
Pork, Horowitz notes, was more convenient. “Everybody had pigs, and pigs are a lot better to raise for meat because they eat anything.” And when it came to grazing animals, cows just made more sense: They provide far more meat per animal, and demand for beef was—and remains—high.
By the end of World War II, mutton had come to symbolize everything that Americans wanted to leave behind. Men returned from the war swearing they’d never eat another bite of mutton after stomaching tinned army rations that included the notoriously unappetizing “Mutton Stew with Vegetables.” Women were enjoying new appliances that allowed them a modicum of freedom from household chores. Modernity and convenience were all the rage, and mutton, which requires dry aging and long, slow cooking times to become tender, was neither modern nor convenient. If mutton ever really had a heyday, by midcentury, it was over.
“I joke sometimes that I do lamb by day and sheep by night,” says Cody Heimke, who, in addition to managing the Niman Ranch lamb program, raises a heritage breed of Shropshire sheep on his property in south central Wisconsin. The flock of about 50 head are raised primarily for breeding, but Shropshires were at one time the most popular sheep in the world, primarily because of the quality of their mutton. “[The] breed of sheep doesn’t really matter when it comes to the flavor of lamb, but it does when it comes to the taste of mutton,” he says.
Heimke does “a little bit” of direct lamb and mutton sales when he has sheep to harvest, selling middle cuts to a restaurant in Madison, and utilizing the rest for sausages in varieties such as Bavarian-style, Merguez and spicy Berbere. He acknowledges that there isn’t a lot of demand for mutton. “I got a call this year, somebody looking for mutton, which is rare. I don’t usually get those calls.”
His advice for would-be mutton eaters? “Find somebody at a local farmers market that’s selling lamb. You really gotta find somebody that’s raising sheep and doing direct marketing, and ask them if they’re doing any mutton.”
For his part, Heimke says he enjoys mutton in sausage form. Last year, one of his wholesale clients was looking for ground lamb, but he didn’t have any in stock. “I’m like, ‘Well, what about ground mutton?’ And we [sold] one-pounders of ground mutton,” he says. “I tasted that before I sold any of it, and it was as good or better than any ground lamb I’ve ever had.”
Have you ever eaten mutton? Do you want to try mutton—or not? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
Thanks to Bobbie Kramer for submitting her question for our “Digging In” series. Got a question about where your food comes from? Let us know what you’d like us to investigate next by filling out this form.
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Author: Rose Garrett