With a mere 140 miles separating me from the legendary smoked mutton of Owensboro, Kentucky, I couldn't pass up a chance to attend the town's 38th Annual International Bar-B-Q Festival. After all, May is National Barbecue Month (apparently). The wife was heading out of town, so I dropped her off bright and early at the airport and set sail for the land of bourbon and bluegrass.
From the moment I stepped out of my truck, I found myself completely engulfed by a fog of pit smoke so thick that I could barely see or breathe. It was heavenly. Owensboro has played host to this festival since its inception in 1979, and it shows. Thousands of people descend on this town annually on the second Sunday in May hoping to get their fill of sweet, smoky 'que.
Barbecue is serious business in Owensboro, particularly amongst the Daviess County church picnics. In fact, the Governor's Cup main-event cooking teams are all local churches! These pious purveyors of smoked meat dish out pulled pork sandwiches, mutton, burgoo, and other bits of awesomeness prior to the 2:00pm judging, with chicken and other meats to follow once the judges have had enough. Don't worry, there's plenty to go around. Each cooking team prepares about 600 pounds of pork and mutton, 400 chickens, and 60 gallons of burgoo.
For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of visiting Kentucky, perhaps a brief explanation is in order. Burgoo is a spicy stew similar to an Irish stew, which makes sense given the prevalence of Scotch-Irish heritage in the region. It's generally more viscous than soupy, and traditionally includes such meats as venison, squirrel, possum, raccoon, and game fowl. While I've eaten 60% of that list at one point or another, my gastrointestinal tract was hoping for something closer to pork or mutton today. Either way, it would be a great way to warm up on this unusually chilly May morning.
9:30am might seem a little early to start wolfing down several pounds of meat, but barbecue is the breakfast of champions.
St. Pius X
3418 Hwy 144
Owensboro, KY 42303
St. Piux X was the only crew actually serving barbecue when I arrived, despite the advertised 8:00am start time online. They took second place in burgoo and third in chicken and mutton in 2015, plus the award for Team Spirit. They were certainly lively when I walked up. I ordered a pulled pork sandwich and a cup of burgoo to get my day started.
I definitely asked for a pulled pork sandwich, but I'm fairly certain that what I received was mutton. No biggie, I was planning on eating plenty of that today anyway. It was fairly spicy and wonderfully acidic, bordering on sweet. The meat was also really tender. I quickly inhaled the whole thing. If the mutton is this good at the St. Pius X church picnic on June 11, they'll be in good shape.
The burgoo was just the thing to warm my bones. I enjoyed all of the corn mixed in, and there was a nice hit of black pepper in each spoonful. I could also taste some definite chili powder, but it wasn't overpowering by any means.
Our Lady of Lourdes
4029 Frederica St
Owensboro, KY 42301
Next up was Our Lady of Lourdes, who placed second for mutton last year. Their picnic is coming up on June 18, so this would no doubt be good practice for the cooking team. This time I ordered a mutton sandwich on purpose, along with another cup of burgoo stew.
The Lourdes burgoo had more meat than my first sampling and more diced potatoes, too. The spices did a great job of opening up my sinuses, but this cup of stew was definitely more about the meat than the seasoning. I liked that.
Mutton is a bit of an acquired taste, I suppose. The meat had a little gristle in it, which actually helped this sandwich in the texture department. The shredded mutton was tender as can be, and it was nice and salty. It was good, but I guess I just prefer pork and beef for the most part.
3306 Fenmore St
Owensboro, KY 42301
Precious Blood's June 4 church picnic is fast approaching, but the festival is a major fundraiser for them as well. Their burgoo won third
place in 2015, and I could tell they were pulling out all the stops this
year. Burgoo was the first thing they had ready to sell, so I had to
circle around like a hungry vulture until they started slinging
sandwiches, too. Once everything was ready to serve, I ordered a pulled
pork sandwich and a cup of stew.
This was my first bite of pork for the day, and it was superb. I found nice pieces of bark throughout the heap of juicy, tender meat. I loved the tomatoey acidity, as well as the creeping spiciness that took me by surprise.
Precious Blood's burgoo was also really good. The large chunks of potato made it seem the most stew-like thus far. I also tasted what I believed to be hints of lemon, but I could also just be making things up. Either way, it was tasty.
St. Mary of the Woods
10534 Main Cross St
Whitesville, KY 42378
The St. Mary of the Woods crew has only two weeks of downtime between the festival and their May 22 picnic. They were already sold out of burgoo by the time I made it over to their station, so I ordered a sandwich duo of pulled pork and smoked bologna instead.
Wow, this pulled pork sandwich was definitely my favorite of the event. It had beautifully pink smoky bits throughout and a smoky flavor that would be hard to beat anywhere. The meat was also very tender and deliciously juicy, with plenty of bark and well-rendered fat to go around.
The absolutely massive hunk of bologna, aka Oklahoma prime rib, completely dwarfed its bun. One bite and I was five years old again. There was a surprising smokiness, though no real seasoning. Bologna isn't most people's first pick for barbecue, but I found it rather satisfying.
Life Community Church
2767 Veach Rd
Owensboro, KY 42303
Life Community Church is the first Baptist church to ever the festival's Governor's Cup cookoff, which might put them at a bit of a disadvantage. They don't have a barbecue church picnic like their Catholic counterparts either. The profits they earn at the festival will support Sunrise Children's Services, a nonprofit organization that provides care and hope for Kentucky's hurting families and children through ministry (visit https://www.sunrise.org/ for more information or to donate). I ordered myself a pork sandwich and another cup of burgoo.
Their chopped pork sandwich had a nice mild vinegar flavor and just the right amount of salt. There wasn't much smoke to speak of, but it was decently tender. It was a commendable effort, though I doubt they'll take first prize in the Cup.
The burgoo was the thickest I'd eaten all day, and I actually liked that. I also enjoyed the addition of peas to the mixture, and it was pleasantly spicy. Nicely done.
It's admittedly not a fair head-to-head comparison, but of the five competitors I sampled, I would give top pork honors to St. Mary of the Woods, mutton to St. Pius X, and burgoo to Precious Blood. I wanted to try all seven of the Governor's Cup cookoff teams, but by 11:30am St. Mary Magdalene and Blessed Mother, two of the festival's heavy hitters, hadn't started serving yet.
The sustained 20mph winds brought the already frigid temperatures down to a brisk 42 degrees. I'm not normally a wimp in these situations, but I was underdressed for the wind chill and got to a point where I could no longer feel my fingers enough to type out blog notes on my phone or take pictures. After two hours in the elements, it was time to pack it in. It's probably just as well, since I'm not sure I could have eaten much more anyway. As Peter Hathaway Capstick once wrote, "I felt like an anaconda that had engulfed a pig just a little too large."
International Bar-B-Q Festival 2016
Downtown Owensboro, KY