Dishing it out at Fancy Farm

FRANKFORT — A tiny Western Kentucky church will be at the center of Kentucky's political spotlight again Saturday when it hosts an annual picnic known for spicy barbecue, fiery political speeches and sweltering summer heat.

Politicians have flocked to St. Jerome Parish in the community of Fancy Farm for the annual get-together for 129 years. That will continue this year with at least seven U.S. Senate candidates or potential candidates trading barbs as they jockey for votes.

"We hope the political speeches are as spicy as the barbecue sauce," event organizer Mark Wilson said. "That's always our aim and objective."

Wilson said Republicans Trey Grayson and Rand Paul, both of whom have formed exploratory committees to look at possible runs for U.S. Senate, are on the list of speakers, as is fellow Republican Bill Johnson, a Western Kentucky businessman who has entered the race. The man whose job they want, incumbent Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, hadn't said as of Friday whether he will be at the event.

On the Democratic side of the Senate race, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo and Attorney General Jack Conway have committed to speak at the event, as has former U.S. Customs agent Darlene Fitzgerald Price. Louisville businessman Maurice Sweeney, who is considering a run for the Democratic nomination, also will take part.

Although politics is a major draw, the Fancy Farm picnic is a fund-raiser for the tiny Catholic church that serves a sparsely populated farming community in far Western Kentucky. Wilson said the event will draw more than 10,000 people and generate about $250,000, primarily from the sales of picnic food, a vehicle raffle and bingo games.

Each year, church members organize the picnic that involves nearly every family in the parish in some way. Cooking and dishing out food are the biggest chores. Food stands sell hamburgers, hot dogs and hand-dipped ice cream, but the barbecued mutton and pulled pork are the mainstay.

After lunch is served and the midday temperature peaks, sweaty politicians, as well as their supporters and detractors, will gather in an open pavilion for an afternoon that's been known to include mudslinging, name-calling and heckling.

A holdover from the days before mass communications, when politicians had to seek out crowds, Fancy Farm has historically been the place where candidates kicked off their campaigns.

Scott Lasley, a political scientist at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, said the widespread news coverage of the event makes it a must-attend, especially for lesser-known candidates needing to get their messages out.

"It's one of the few examples of real good political theater that we have," Lasley said. "It's more of a freewheeling environment that doesn't happen much in today's politics."

Some politicians tend to enjoy the atmosphere more than others.

"The key is to take it for what it is," Lasley said. "If you're going to be thin-skinned, you're not going to enjoy it. You have to like the give and take."