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.
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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.“