Americans are among the world’s top consumers of beef, pork, and poultry and near the bottom when it comes to sheep. In 2020, according to the US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, on average Americans consumed less than one pound of lamb or mutton — the meat from a mature ram or ewe — per capita. Why does lamb make only seasonal appearances on the American table, as it might have done on yours at Christmas? Why do Americans prefer other meats to lamb? And why, in a famously dynamic country, has this preference lasted for hundreds of years?
The Spanish conquistadors brought the first sheep to North America in the 16th century, when they arrived in present-day New Mexico. In the early 17th century, English, Dutch, and Swedish settlers brought sheep to the East Coast and from there brought sheep elsewhere in North America. Sheep met the settlers’ immediate needs for wool to weave into fabric for cold-weather wear, as well as for meat. Sheep were eaten seasonally in the spring and summer on the farms where they were raised. Beyond that there was little or no market for mutton in the United States.
In the early 19th century, sheep farming developed into a larger industry because of an increased demand for wool in both national and international markets. By 1830 the wool-manufacturing industry occupied an important place in the American economy. This resulted in increased meat output, as sheep were slaughtered at the end of their wool-producing years. At that time, the meat industry was locally concentrated: Farmers sold the animals to nearby butcher shops. For many more years, however, meat was a secondary product to wool.
From the 1860s on, as the nation industrialized, urbanized, and grew wealthier amid a wave of European immigration, demand for mutton rose.
Midwestern meatpackers relied on sheep meat when other meats were scarce. Meatpackers sent buyers to the western states — including California, Texas, and New Mexico — to secure castrated male sheep for slaughter.
Sheep meat markets developed in major cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. Mutton and lamb, more expensive than other meats, were more appealing to the upper classes, so for much of the 19th century, sheep meat was a rich person’s meal.
In the 1880s and 1890s, young lamb meat gained some popularity as a festive food among the upper classes. An industry, known as a “hothouse,” developed on the East Coast and in the Midwest for young lambs, which reached the market by Christmas. Most were slaughtered by early spring. It was a prosperous business that remained seasonal.
Greater production reduced some costs and lowered prices, making sheep meat more affordable for low-income households. But beef and pork production also increased, and those meats became cheaper, too. Beef sold the best. The large meatpackers that had come to dominate the industry after the development of refrigerated railcars focused on beef cattle.
Lamb and mutton’s cachet among the wealthy didn’t last long. Americans came to see mutton as an inferior substitute for beef and pork — you ate it only when there was nothing better available. In popular culture and media, sheep meat was described as unpalatable animal waste. “Many people settled down to the belief that mutton was poor food,” an 1897 article in Ranch and Range informed readers.
Sheep also came to be seen as a meat for immigrants, especially those from Southern and Eastern Europe. American Indian tribes, the Navajos in particular, also embraced lamb. These social and ethnic associations with sheep meat cemented its outsider status. Meanwhile, the meatpacking industry promoted beef as quintessentially American.
The social bias against sheep meat was exacerbated by reports of meatpackers marketing lower-grade mutton and old ewes. Early in the 20th century, some butcher shops passed off gamier goat meat as lamb and mutton. Several sheep-disease outbreaks during the 1890s and early 1900s deepened fears about the safety of eating sheep.
During the First World War, an “eat no meat” campaign in 1917 discouraged eating sheep that were needed for wool. The mature sheep slaughtered during wartime meat shortages didn’t help sheep’s reputation — they had a strong flavor and a tough texture.
Americans’ aversion to lamb and mutton persisted. After the war, the average per capita consumption of sheep meat in the United States was only five pounds per year, versus 67 pounds of beef and 71 pounds of pork. A century later, lamb remains an acquired taste in America, making only seasonal appearances at Easter and Christmas — while wool socks and sweaters remain a gifting staple.
Iker Saitua is assistant professor of economic history at the University of the Basque Country, in Spain. He is author of “Basque Immigrants and Nevada’s Sheep Industry: Geopolitics and the Making of an Agricultural Workforce, 1880-1954.” A version of this essay was originally published by Zócalo Public Square.