Fancy Farm: unfiltered politics and spicy barbecue worth the trip

August 2, 2014

140802FancyFarm-TE0027 Jim Weise, a retired Army lawyer from Elizabethtown, campaigns for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell at the Fancy Farm Picnic. Photo by Tom Eblen



FANCY FARM — This time each year, I am often asked why I drive four hours to a tiny town and sit in sweltering heat to hear politicians make wisecracks and partisan crowds scream at them. It can’t just be for the barbecue.

No, I tell them, it isn’t just for the barbecue. But my share of the nine tons of spicy pork and mutton, home-grown vegetables and homemade pies prepared by the good folks of St. Jerome Parish is always worth the drive.

I go to the Fancy Farm Picnic because, in this age of big-money lobbyists and TV attack ads, it is the only place where Kentucky’s most powerful politicians must face voters from both sides, the press and each other in a setting they can’t control.

The 134th annual picnic Saturday did not disappoint. And the stars of the show — Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes — performed well under pressure.

Partisan activists come in from all over the region to crowd under a metal roof — Democratics on one side, Republicans on the other — wave signs, cheer their candidates and boo their opponents. This year’s crowd was reportedly the biggest in history, but it did a better job than usual of heeding organizers’ pleas for civility.

The main attraction was the Senate race, because it is the first time in decades that Democrats have a shot at beating the longest-serving senator in Kentucky history.

Polls show McConnell and Grimes essentially tied with an undecided electorate of less than 10 percent.

McConnell is an old pro on the Fancy Farm stump, and he focused his remarks on trying to paint Grimes as an inexperienced novice and puppet of liberals and President Barack Obama. He likened her lack of experience for high office to Obama, who ran for the presidency while in his first term as a senator from Illinois.

“He was only two years into his first job when he started campaigning for the next one. Sound familiar?” McConnell said of Obama. “He really didn’t have any qualifications at all. Sound familiar?”

I had to wonder if McConnell’s comments made his Republican colleague, Sen. Rand Paul, squirm in his seat on the stage. Paul, an eye surgeon, was elected in 2010 with no previous government experience, and he is now actively pursuing presidential ambitions.

Grimes, 35, was 6 years old when McConnell, 72, first took office in 1985. But she showed no respect for her elder. She accused him of being a Washington obstructionist who is out of touch with working Kentuckians and their needs. She said creating jobs, raising the minimum wage and legislation requiring equal pay for women would be her priorities.

Will Fancy Farm change the Senate race? Probably not, because neither candidate made any serious missteps. As the old saying goes, a good Fancy Farm performance doesn’t really help a candidate, but a bad performance can ruin a campaign.

The picnic gave an early preview of next year’s governor’s race, with Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway promoting his candidacy and Republican Agriculture Commissioner Jamie Comer making his bid official.

State Auditor Adam Edelen, who decided against running for governor next year, is still one of the Democrats’ best stump speakers and clearly sees a future for himself in politics. Appearances by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and former Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo made people wonder if they are eyeing bigger ambitions.

Sure, Fancy Farm might be nothing more than a lot of political theater packaged with great food. But it sure beats TV attack ads.

A beautiful state, forever challenged to live up to its potential

September 28, 2013

Indian Fort Mountain, Berea. Photo by Tom Eblen

The view from Indian Fort Mountain near Berea. Photo by Tom Eblen


Every state is unique. So what makes Kentucky so special?

To begin to answer that question, you must go back to 1750, when the first land-hungry white Virginians crossed the Appalachian mountains to see what was on the other side. What they found created quite a buzz.

John Filson, who published the first book about Kentucky in 1784, boasted that it was “the new Eden … like the land of promise, flowing with milk and honey.” A frontier preacher is said to have explained heaven to his flock as “a Kentucky of a place.”

Of course, this was long before strip mining and strip malls.

Still, people continue to be awed by Kentucky’s beauty: lush mountains, rolling meadows, scenic rivers, vast limestone caves and manicured horse farms.

Kentucky’s fertile land has always made it an agriculture powerhouse. The Bluegrass region’s karst geology and calcium-rich soil is the foundation for two signature industries: strong-boned horses and pure water for bourbon whiskey.

Originally, Kentucky was considered the West. When the Civil War came, this citadel of slavery remained in the Union. Once the Union won, many Kentuckians sided with the Confederacy. Go figure.

But Kentucky has often been a paradox. For example, 95 percent of all bourbon whiskey (and, really, all that’s worth drinking) is made in Kentucky. Yet, you can’t legally buy it in more than one-third of the state’s 120 counties. Of course, that doesn’t mean a lot of it isn’t consumed there.

Kentuckians love to eat, too, from spicy Western Kentucky barbecue to the delicately flavored cucumber spread of Louisville known as benedictine. Ask people on the other side of the world what they know about Kentucky and they are likely to reply: “Ah, Kentucky Fried Chicken!”

Kentuckians tend to be friendly, independent, fun-loving, stubborn and resistant to change. The local cultures we have created vary widely from the Cumberland mountains to the Jackson Purchase. The common denominator seems to be a passion for basketball.

Unless we are from one of the state’s larger cities, Kentuckians tend to identify themselves by their native county. And we have more and smaller counties than almost any state.

But we still love our little towns. We have given many of them colorful names, such as Red Bird, Hi Hat, Cutshin, Mousie and Fancy Farm. Occasionally, imagination has failed us and we have copied the names of European cities, but we have insisted on pronouncing them differently.

During its first decades of statehood, Kentucky was often a national leader and innovator. But the state seems never to have fully recovered from the Civil War and the human slavery that caused it. For a century and a half, Kentucky’s progress has always seemed like three steps forward, two steps back.

Still, some of us think Kentucky is capable of being a national leader rather than a persistent laggard. Kentuckians are hard workers, blessed with a central location, abundant resources and a beautiful place to live — when we don’t insist on messing it up.

The name Kentucky is derived from languages of the American Indian tribes we took this land from, but nobody is sure what it really meant. Some say it meant “dark and bloody ground.” Others say, “the land of tomorrow.” While a lot has happened to support the first theory, I choose to believe the second.

Now, would somebody please pass the barbecue and freshen my bourbon? We have a lot of work to do after dinner.


‘7 Habits’ work in life, business — why not politics?

August 11, 2010

Before I left for the Fancy Farm Picnic on Saturday, I stopped by the public library to borrow some audio books for the five-hour drive to Graves County and the five-hour drive back.

One was leadership consultant Stephen Covey lecturing on his best-selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey has sold millions of copies of his book, and some of America’s most successful executives have said those “habits” transformed their lives and companies.

As I drove down the Western Kentucky Parkway listening to Covey, I was struck by two thoughts: The first was that the success habits he recommends for people and organizations are just common sense. The second was that American politics violates every one of them.

I would soon hear ample evidence of that, both from the politicians who spoke at the annual church picnic that kicks off Kentucky’s fall campaign season and from the thousands of partisans who cheered and jeered them.

This could help explain why, rather than being “highly effective,” government has become increasingly dysfunctional. Take, for example, the U.S. Senate, where the main warriors at this year’s Fancy Farm Picnic — Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Rand Paul — hope to serve.

Last week’s issue of The New Yorker magazine had a fascinating piece about the Senate by journalist George Packer. The article, “The Empty Chamber,” described how the legislative body that the Founding Fathers intended as a place for reasoned debate has become hobbled by the destructive behavior of Republicans and Democrats alike. Many senators seem more concerned with money, power and petty politics than with governing.

Consider Covey’s seven recommended habits in the context of today’s political environment:

■ Be proactive. Don’t wait for a crisis to react, Covey says. Politicians are the most reactive people on the planet, afraid to take a stand or make a tough decision unless public opinion, often in response to a crisis, forces them to. As a result, many complex problems just keep getting bigger.

■ Begin with the end in mind. Covey asks his audience to imagine what they would like others to say about them when they die. Given the large egos of many politicians, you would think they would want something better than “he/she was a money-grubbing tool of corporate interests.”

■ Put first things first. Peace, prosperity and justice, anyone?

■ Think “win-win.” This is a big one. In today’s political environment, even an honest change of mind is labeled “flip- flopping” or “waffling.” Compromise is called weakness. America is pretty evenly split between red and blue — in the case of the 2000 presidential election, remarkably so. Yet politics is increasingly a zero-sum game. In the Senate, whichever party is out of power wages a war of obstruction against the party in power. They simply fight to regain control, at which point the other party will do the same to them.

■ Seek to understand, then to be understood. What politician today seeks to understand the other party’s concerns? After all, that might change a mind, lead to compromise or accidently create a “win-win.”

■ Synergize. “To put it simply, synergy means ‘two heads are better than one,'” Covey says. Again, this is an alien concept in politics. Many would rather walk barefoot over broken glass than admit that someone in the other party has a good idea.

■ Sharpen the saw. This is not the same as sharpening the knife so you can stick it in your opponent’s back. Covey is talking about expanding your mind through reading, study and social interaction. In The New Yorker, Packer pointed out that bitter partisanship in the Senate has increased as social interaction between Democrats and Republicans has decreased. It is easier to call the person across the aisle Satan’s henchman if you never play golf together or share a meal.

But we can’t just blame the politicians. They often are responding to voters who marinate their minds in segments of the media that have discovered there are big profits to be made by dishing up distortion, propaganda and extremism.

America would be more successful if politicians — and the voters who elect them — applied Covey’s seven habits, which have been so successful in business and personal development, to politics and governance.

“We already know,” Covey says as I roll down the highway toward Fancy Farm, “that what is common sense is not common practice.”

Photo gallery from today’s Fancy Farm politicking

August 7, 2010

Here’s a gallery of photos I took today at the 130th annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County in far western Kentucky. After a lunch of barbecued mutton and pork, fresh vegetables and homemade pies, Kentucky politicians spoke while their fans cheered and detractors heckled. The main attractions were Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Rand Paul, who are running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican Jim Bunning.

Kentuckians love a good story – and storyteller

November 6, 2009

Kentucky doesn’t just produce writers; it celebrates them.

The biggest annual celebration is Saturday, when about 200 writers — 150 of whom are Kentuckians — will gather at the Frankfort Convention Center for the 28th annual Kentucky Book Fair.

Authors will sit behind long rows of tables so thousands of readers can stop by, meet them, buy their books and get their autographs.

This year’s lineup includes pop ular Kentucky writers Silas House, Erik Reece, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, Thomas Parrish, Richard Taylor and David Dick.

Also there will be retired Courier-Journal columnist Byron Crawford, who has put together a 30-year collection of his work in Kentucky Footnotes, and journalist Leslie Guttman of Lexington, who writes about a year in the life of a race horse hospital in Equine ER.

Coach Rich Brooks and co-author Tom Leach will sign their book, Rich Tradition: How Rich Brooks Revived the Football Fortunes of the Kentucky Wildcats.

And retired Keeneland chairman Ted Bassett will autograph his memoir.

National authors at the fair will include George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, who has written a book about Abraham Lincoln.

“I’m always so proud to live in a state that supports literature the way Kentucky does, and the Kentucky Book Fair is real proof of that,” said House, who will sign his new novel, Eli the Good.

“Everywhere I go, all over the country, people assume that Kentuckians are illiterate,” House said. “And I always take that as an opportunity to correct them and tell them about our long literary history and how great the support for writers is in our state.”

When you think about that tradition and support, it makes perfect sense. Writing is about telling stories, and there are few things Kentuckians love more than a good story — and storyteller.

Jesse Stuart and me at his home, summer 1963. Photo by Marion Eblen

I’m the son of a school librarian and a bookstore manager. Writers, especially Kentucky writers, enjoyed celebrity status in our home. My first memorable encounter with that celebrity came the summer I turned 5, when my mother’s parents came up from far Western Kentucky for a visit.

My grandparents were Jesse Stuart fans and wanted to see the Greenup County he wrote about. While my father was at work one day, my mother took us to Greenup, thinking we could drive past Stuart’s home. What she didn’t know was that the narrow gravel road ended at his home.

It didn’t look as if anyone was home, so before she turned the car around, my grandparents urged her to look in the window beside the front door. When she did, Stuart looked back. Then he opened the door and invited us in to visit.

I had just learned to do somersaults, and, much to my mother’s horror, Stuart encouraged me to practice on the braided rug in his living room. I was barefoot, so when he took us to see the cabin where he wrote, he carried me out there, giving my mother a Kodak moment.

Writers such as Stuart and James Still found rich material in the people and places of Eastern Kentucky, just as Mason has explored the land and psyche of her native Jackson Purchase region, in far Western Kentucky.

I asked Mason last week about the importance of Kentucky writers, past and future. As you might expect, her response was well worth reading:

“Kentuckians have been confused about our identity, who we are and how others see us, what we have here and what there is in the larger world. Sometimes we feel smugly superior, sometimes inferior. Kentucky writers have always walked a tightrope between Kentucky and the Outside.

“Now even though the boundary lines are easing, and Kentucky is part of the wider mainstream, our writers can continue to lead the way on the most critical issues of our time, because we can write firsthand with passion and with historical perspective about what is happening to the land and its people. Our land of contrasts is an example and a warning to the rest of the world.”


Kentucky Book Fair

When: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Nov. 7.

Where: Frankfort Convention Center, 405 Mero St., Frankfort.

Admission: Free.

Learn more: (502) 564-8300, Ext. 297. (there is list of all participating authors).

You had to look hard for substance at Fancy Farm

August 2, 2009

FANCY FARM — The governor was vacationing in Florida. Members of Congress were working in Washington. The audience was smaller and less rowdy than usual. Even the traditionally oppressive heat stayed away from this year’s Fancy Farm Picnic.

With no statewide elections this year, the best reason to make the long drive to Graves County on Saturday was the barbecue, fresh vegetables and homemade pies prepared by the families of St. Jerome parish.

The focus of this year’s political speaking was the 2010 U.S. Senate race, which turned into a wide-open contest last week, when Republican incumbent Jim Bunning, 77, became the last person in Kentucky to realize it was time for him to retire.

Three Republicans and four Democrats who are seeking their parties’ nominations for the seat next May spoke to the crowd. I found them all disappointing. Click here to hear the speeches.

Democrat supporter Thomas Kirby of Clinton was among those at the 129th annual Fancy Farm Picnic. Photo by Tom Eblen

Democrat supporter Thomas Kirby of Clinton was among those at the 129th annual Fancy Farm Picnic. Photo by Tom Eblen

When they weren’t beating up on each other, the Democrats were blaming eight years of Republican government for the nation’s economic problems. The Republicans were stoking fear about what might happen as a result of Democrats’ efforts to solve those problems.

The sharpest words came from the two Democratic frontrunners, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo and Attorney General Jack Conway.

Mongiardo, a Hazard physician and coal industry advocate, tried to portray himself as the candidate of the common man. He attacked Conway, of Louisville, for his Duke University education and alleged “silver spoon” background.

Then Mongiardo tried to link Conway to President Barack Obama’s “cap-and-trade” legislation, which is designed to reduce pollution from burning coal. It was a stretch. Besides, Fancy Farm seemed like an odd place to argue, in essence, that concerns about man-made climate change are unfounded.

Western Kentucky’s trees remain bent and broken from last fall’s bizarre hurricane winds and last winter’s crippling ice storm. It’s usually about 100 degrees at the Fancy Farm Picnic. This year, temperatures never left the low 80s, while, across the country, usually balmy Seattle is gripped by a heat wave.

Conway, whose supporters held up signs that said “Mongiardo doesn’t know Jack,” took a few verbal swipes at the doctor and showed he knows how to cuss. The attorney general talked about how much he has worked on consumer-protection issues.

Secretary of State Trey Grayson’s speech was straight from the conservative playbook, complete with sneering references to Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reed and House Speaker Nancy Pelonsi.

Grayson needed to play to the GOP’s conservative base. His main challenger is Bowling Green eye doctor Rand Paul, son of Texas congressman and former presidential candidate Ron Paul, the darling of libertarians.

Paul attacked Republicans and Democrats alike. He talked about balanced budgets and held up a thick stack of paper, saying senators shouldn’t vote on any bill they haven’t fully read. At one point, somebody in the GOP cheering section behind me yelled, “You’re boring!”

Three virtual unknowns cast themselves as alternatives to politics as usual: Democrats Darlene Fitzgerald Price, a former U.S. Customs agent from McCreary County, and Maurice Sweeney, a businessman from Jefferson County; and Republican Bill Johnson, a Todd County businessman.

The Fancy Farm crowd is always more interested in heckling than listening, so it’s hard to tell which candidates’ messages might resonate with average voters. For me, the most relevant words came from State Auditor Crit Luallen, once you filtered out her obligatory Democratic partisanship.

Crit Luallen

As citizens have seen jobs disappear, Luallen said, “they have watched banking scandals unfold, the meltdown on Wall Street, the disclosure of extravagant corporate perks and irresponsible spending of their tax dollars by public leaders. The American people have had it up to here. They’ve said enough is enough.”

What voters want is accountability, and she said it is not a partisan issue.

“These are times that demand leaders with integrity to restore trust, leaders with principles to act responsibly, leaders with the courage to take on powerful interests and leaders who will insure accountability for your hard-earned money,” she said.

“It’s time to honor the public’s demands for greater accountability. Every public leader is a guardian of the taxpayer’s trust. And we must all recommit ourselves to honor and hold sacred that trust.”

It was a good speech. But I couldn’t help but think Luallen should have delivered it facing the stage rather than the audience.

Who’s a PolWatchers fan? We find out

August 4, 2008

Ryan Alessi, Jack Brammer and I weren’t the only Herald-Leader folks at the Fancy Farm picnic Saturday. Marketing intern Ashlee Garrett was busy passing out fans advertising the Herald-Leader’s PolWatchers political news blog. News intern Anna Tong helped, and she also decided to see how many Kentucky political figures she could convince to fan themselves with a PolWatchers fan. She made this funny video.

Gov. Steve Beshear was a good sport when intern Anna Tong asked him to pose with a PolWatchers fan. Photo by Tom Eblen

Back from a long weekend in the Jackson Purchase

August 4, 2008

After three days in Fancy Farm, I had to get back on the bicycle this morning to work off some of those calories. Of course, I ate too much barbecue Saturday (and brought home some mutton for the freezer). Truth be told, I got an early start at St. Jerome Catholic Church’s fish fry on Thursday night. Yes, the folks in Fancy Farm can cook catfish as well as they can barbecue pork and mutton.

After a long, hot afternoon Saturday listening to political speeches, and a busy evening writing, sending in photos and preparing audio clips, three friends and I drove to Paducah for a late dinner. Aside from downtown Louisville, I doubt there’s a more-hopping place in Kentucky on a Saturday night than downtown Paducah. The streets were blocked off for pedestrians, and a band was playing down by the Ohio River. Downtown Padacah has restored many of its old commercial buildings as restaurants, shops and lofts. It’s a charming place.

I hope to get back there soon to take a closer look and see what Lexington could learn from Paducah about creatively reusing old buildings, bringing people downtown and using entertainment to pump up the local economy.

Listen to the Fancy Farm speeches

August 3, 2008

Click on each person’s link to hear their speech at the Fancy Farm picnic.

Gov. Steve Beshear

Sen. Mitch McConnell

Bruce Lunsford, McConnell’s Democratic challenger

Sen. Jim Bunning

Fancy Farm: Sometimes, the best politics is local

August 3, 2008

FANCY FARM — I was glad I had just filled up on barbecue, because the political speaking Saturday afternoon at the 128th annual Fancy Farm Picnic was anything but satisfying.

This year’s focus was Democrat Bruce Lunsford’s challenge of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader who has held the seat for 24 years. It was no surprise that Lunsford and other Democrats would come out swinging — or that McConnell wouldn’t even mention Lunsford’s name, leaving that job to fellow Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning.

As always, the thousand or so people who crowded around the stage were mostly partisans who came to shout down speakers from the other party. And, of course, there were costumed characters walking through the crowd.

Young Republicans dressed as Arab sheiks, “thanking” Lunsford for higher oil prices, through some stretch of the political imagination. Young Democrats dressed as characters with the names “Texas Oilman Mitch” and “Bush’s Lapdog Mitch.”

Democrats bashed President Bush and his administration; Republicans stirred up fears of what “San Francisco” and “Chicago” liberals might do if they were in charge. Much of the rhetoric focused on oil prices — as if American politicians have much influence on commodity prices in a rapidly changing global economy.

It had to be an eye-glazing experience for the few average voters in attendance. And there probably were a few — people from Fancy Farm and other Western Kentucky towns who came more for the food or the bingo or the car raffle than for the politicians’ speeches.

It seemed like a disappointing afternoon, until the candidates for the local state Senate seat got up to speak. The Republican incumbent, Ken Winters, 74, and his Democratic challenger, Carol Hubbard, 71, took the conversation in a different direction.

Hubbard and Winters talked about the need for better schools and more economic development in the seven rural counties that make up the 1st Senate District. It’s a region that has lost population as factories have moved overseas and farming has declined.

Both mentioned specific school building and renovation projects that were needed, and Hubbard used Gov. Steve Beshear’s presence on the stage to lobby for a stoplight at a nearby intersection. The only point of contention seemed to be whether Democrats or Republicans deserved the most credit for getting Fancy Farm a new school.

Hubbard mentioned that this was his 40th Fancy Farm Picnic. But what went unmentioned — even by his opponent — was his record, both political and criminal. After holding this state Senate seat a generation ago, Hubbard served 16 years in Congress before going to prison for misusing his office for personal gain.

You would have thought Winters, an accomplished educator and former president of Campbellsville University, might have said more about it than this remark at the very end of his speech: “My record is clean. If you want to know more about the other candidates on the stage, including my opponent, you may want to Google us and see what you find.”

Of course, his constituents knew all about Hubbard and probably had formed an opinion of him, one way or another, years ago. I’m sure they cared more about bringing new jobs to the district, building and renovating schools and even getting that new stoplight.

Unlike the old saying, all politics aren’t local. But the most meaningful politics at this year’s Fancy Farm Picnic may have been.

Behind the scenes at Fancy Farm

August 2, 2008

CLICK HERE to see an audio slide show about how members of St. Jerome Catholic Church in the Graves County community of Fancy Farm prepare their annual picnic, which will attract more than 10,000 people Saturday. The show is narrated by Eddie Carrico, above left, of Fancy Farm.

The food makes Fancy Farm’s picnic fancy

August 1, 2008

FANCY FARM — There was a special Mass at 7 a.m. Friday at St. Jerome Catholic Church in this small Graves County town. Then the priest blessed 18,500 pounds of meat, and the people of the parish got cooking.

Of course, they had already been working for weeks. Before the men could put 10,000 pounds of pork and 8,500 pounds of mutton on the long rows of brick and block barbecue pits beside the school yard, the families had to get a lot of other work done.

They had to help pick, shuck and cut 150 gallons of sweet corn. They had to pick bushels of tomatoes and cucumbers from their gardens. They had to boil and peel 800 pounds of potatoes for the potato salad. There were the chickens to fry and the homemade pies to bake.

More than 10,000 people are expected to attend Saturday’s 128th annual Fancy Farm Picnic, which always seems to come on the hottest weekend of the year.

The picnic is famous for the spicy political speeches that will be made Saturday afternoon by candidates for local, state and national office.

At least since A.B. ”Happy“ Chandler came in 1931 and considered it the good-luck charm of his first election as governor, Fancy Farm has been where Kentucky politicians begin the fall campaign by extolling their virtues and blasting their rivals. It’s old-time political theater, as it was before campaign rhetoric was reduced to 30-second attack ads.

”Some come for the political speaking, some come for the food, some come for the bingo and some come for the (bluegrass) bands,“ said Todd Hayden, chairman of the picnic for the past eight years. ”And then the finale of the picnic, you might say, is when we raffle off a car.“

The picnic is a Kentucky tradition and a dandy fund-raiser for St. Jerome, which clears about $100,000 each year, Hayden said. And back in the 1980s, when everybody seemed to want to be in the Guinness Book of World Records, Fancy Farm was formally recognized as the world’s largest one-day picnic.

But for the descendants of the Catholic pioneers from Maryland who settled these rolling, wooded fields in 1826, the picnic is so much more than all of that.

”Just look around at how people work together; they all know their jobs,“ Ralph Stamper said as his lifelong friends and neighbors shuttled hot coals to the barbecue pits from seven huge ”fire barrels“ filled with slabs of hickory.

Fancy Farm natives who have moved away often plan their vacations for this week, so they can come back to help, or attend family or school reunions, Eddie Carrico said. Like his father before him, Carrico, 62, has helped cook picnic barbecue all of his life.

”It’s like a big family reunion,“ he said. ”It helps keep the community together.“

I enjoy the political theater, hate the heat and never cared much for bingo. But what always makes the Fancy Farm picnic worth the drive for me is the food. The $10 all-you-can-eat buffet at the Knights of Columbus hall is easily the commonwealth’s best annual meal.

And I’ve always wondered: How do they do it?

Barbecued mutton is a Western Kentucky peculiarity, made even more peculiar by the fact that there are almost no live sheep here. Fancy Farm’s mutton is trucked in from Iowa and Nebraska.

Once Mass is done and the food is blessed, trucks of mutton and pork are unloaded, the meat cut and placed on wire mesh inside the long barbecue pits. The pits are then covered with sheet-metal panels to keep in the smoke, which must escape through small vents in the pits’ masonry walls.

Hickory coals are then carried with long-handled shovels from the fire barrels to be placed inside the bottom of the pits. Hayden said Fancy Farm’s cooks baste the meat with a thin vinegar-based sauce — the recipe, of course, is a secret — three or four times during cooking.

After more than 16 hours of cooking, the meat is done by about 4 a.m. Then a second crew of church men relieve the cooks to keep the meat warm and cut it up for the big buffet, for the sandwich stands on the picnic grounds and for sale by the pound.

One thing is for sure: By about 6 p.m. Saturday, all of the meat will be gone.

Stamper, who has lived next to the barbecue pits since he was a boy, said there’s something magical about Fancy Farm during picnic weekend each year. So many people. So much food. And the air all over town is thick with sweet smoke.

”When I was a kid, we would put a box fan in our upstairs window and turn it so it would draw the smoky smell into our room,“ he said. ”Mmmm. We would be so hungry by the next morning, we could hardly wait for the picnic to start.“

Live from Fancy Farm: ‘Comment on Kentucky’

August 1, 2008

Kentucky Educational Television’s weekly public affairs show “Comment on Kentucky” broadcast live Friday night from the political speaking arena at Fancy Farm. Host Ferrell Wellman, facing, chats with guests Mark Hebert of Louisville’s WHAS, left, Ronnie Ellis of CNHI newspapers, and Bill Bartleman of the Paducah Sun, hidden. On Saturday afternoon, candidates for state, local and national office will speak to several thousand supporters and hecklers there. Photo by Tom Eblen

They’re cooking up the ‘cue at Fancy Farm

August 1, 2008

Ben Thompson waits Friday morning for more pork shoulders to be brought to the barbecue pit at Fancy Farm. Photo by Tom Eblen

St. Jerome Catholic Church in the small Graves County community of Fancy Farm had a 7 a.m. mass Friday, then the priest blessed the meat and the people of the church got cooking.

They’re working all day and night Friday to prepare 18,500 pounds of barbecued pork and mutton for the more than 10,000 people expected here Saturday for the church’s annual picnic. It’s the Commonwealth’s best meal of the year, and a chance to hear Kentucky politicians take their best verbal shots at each other.

Be sure to get Saturday and Sunday’s Herald-Leader for full coverage of the politics, the food and the scene. And watch this blog, PolWatchers and all weekend for updates.

Moonlighting in far western Kentucky

July 31, 2008

A tug pushes gravel barges up the Mississippi River at Columbus in Hickman County.

Linemen for Galaxy Cablevision work in Milburn in Carlisle County. Photos by Tom Eblen

Kentuckians often describe the length and diversity of their state with the phrase, “From Pikeville to Paducah.” But there’s still a lot of Kentucky west past Paducah. I spent Thursday evening driving past rich fields of corn and pretty little communities along Highway 80 between Mayfield and the Mississippi River. What a sweet summer evening. Once the sun set, the bugs were so thick they sounded like sleet on my windshield.