If you’re a BBQ lover – whether it’s mutton, chicken, or pork – you’ll be surprised to find where the largest BBQ picnic in the world is held. It’s not in Memphis, Charleston, or even St. Louis. It’s this weekend, in a small town in Graves County, in Western Kentucky, called Fancy Farm. According to the Guiness Book of World Records, 18,000 pounds of meat are consumed at this picnic, bathed in a four generation old family barbecue sauce.
Since 1880, what started as a summer picnic and fundraiser for St. Jerome Catholic Church, the Fancy Farm picnic has become a platform for Kentucky and national politicians to ‘ pork barrel’, ‘chew the fat’, and campaign for election. Now always the first Saturday in August, the Fancy Farm Picnic is a must for U.S. Senators, Congressman, state office holders, past Governors, and any aspiring state politicians. But behind the now political rally, has always been its smoked barbecue.
BBQ prep at the Fancy Farm Picnic.
The Mayfield Monitor of July 31, 1880 had the first notification of the picnic: “There will be a barn dance, picnic, and ‘gander pulling’ at Fancy Farm next Thursday.” Apparently a gander pulling is a Germanic Catholic blood sport – called Gänsereitin in Germany – done around Shrove Tuesday. For this barbaric event, a goose with well-greased neck, is fastened to a pole stretched across a road. A rider on horseback at full gallop, is tasked to grab the neck and pull the goose head off as he goes by.
The gander pulling is no longer performed, but the barbecue is still cooked – slow over 24 hours and bathed in a simple vinegar-based sauce, named after Joseph Carrico, a long time BBQ’er for the event, that also includes salt, sugar, paprika, water, and cayenne. Similar to claims of chocolate in our Cincinnati Chili, the many claims of orange juice in the Fancy Farm BBQ sauce make no sense, for a remote community of Western Kentucky in the 1880s, before modern refrigeration. It wasn’t until pasteurization, modern railroad networks, and an overabundance of oranges started to make it commercially available after 1910.
Apparently the barbecue sauce was given to Joseph’s brother, Ernest “Fat” Corrico by Mark Woodfork, a BBQ helper from Milburn, Kentucky. Southern Living Magazine attended the picnic several years ago and filmed a show for Kentucky Educational Network and included a recipe for the sauce in their cookbook.
Ernest “Fat” Corrico, BBQ preparer at Fancy Farm Picnic for over 40 years.
In the early years of the Fancy Farm picnic, members of the parish made homemade ice cream, churning by hand and covering with old quilts to keep the ice cream cold and firm. All kinds of vegetables were cooked from parish women’s gardens, and chickens were killed, plucked, and fried early in the morning of the picnic. A few days before men killed and dressed sheep and goats and made the pit ready to cook the meat for twenty four hours. Added to the food were fresh squeezed lemonade, and strawberry, peach, and lemon sodas.
Today approximately four hundred pounds each of slaw and potato salad is made by ladies of St. Jerome, along with a variety of salads with home grown peas, beans, corn, tomatoes and homemade pickles as well as a spread of home-made pies. Although the food is donated by members of the parish, they are asked to donate $5 per family for the chicken and meat.
The food stands have been in local families for years, passing from father to son to grandson, with all the associated siblings and in-laws helping along the way. The Carrico family has been in charge of the BBQ’ing since 1906, cooking all the meat on their farm in the ‘locust thicket’, until it was later moved to specially built pits behind the school cafeteria. Now, the fifth generation of the family prepare the meats for the event.
If you’re not so much into the BBQ, you can do to the bean dinner on Friday, which serves 70 pounds of northern white beans, cooked with 100 pounds of hamhock and of course, a bit of bacon grease, at the Kentucky Dam Village Convention Center. You can also go to the Friday night Knights of Columbus all-you-can-eat fish dinner. Whatever one you decide, you can eat very well at the Fancy Farm festivities, and listen to some vigorous campaigning!