All due respect to my stars-and-stripes festooned, firework-loving friends out there, but the Fourth of July has just never quite been my bag.
While part of it is because the combination of six-packs and sparklers always sends my Nervous Nelly brain into high alert, I’d like to think it’s mostly because I’ve always preferred another summertime showcase of barbecue and patriotism—the St. Jerome Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Kentucky.
Fancy Farm is a pinprick of a town in far Western Kentucky: a flat, farmland-covered area of the state that’s rarely explored by those of us who weren’t Bluegrass-born and bred. The majority of the year, it’s fairly sleepy (to say the least), with a blink-and-you-miss-it population of 458.
Its low-key status, though, is flipped on its head the first Saturday every August, when St. Jerome Church hosts their annual picnic. Now 136 years strong, the event (which is mostly just referred to as “Fancy Farm”) holds two beautifully mish-mashed distinctions for the 15,000 or so people who flood in from across the state and country.
First, folks come to eat. Fancy Farm has officially been christened the “World’s Largest Picnic” (c. 1985) by the Guinness Book of World Records, and it’s a title everyone involved takes very seriously. Each year, the community’s barbecue brethren gather elbow-to-elbow along a sprawling row of covered pits and—for the entire length of an always-scorching day—cook a whopping 20,000 pounds of pork and mutton for hungry picnic-goers.
Revelers also gobble up tens of thousands of pounds of side dishes like lima beans and coleslaw, all while playing bingo under fanned-cooled tents or buying raffle tickets for the chance to win a new vehicle. (Surprise! It’s usually a big ‘ol truck.)
The draw for most out-of-towners, though, is politics. The Fancy Farm Picnic is the foremost old school campaigning event in the state, and one of the last places in the country where candidates gather to stump speak. If debates and speeches these days are all about teleprompters and the drudge of saying “the right thing,” stump speaking has one goal and one goal only: to get people all fired up.
There’s a tent revival-like quality to this centuries-old practice, and when politicians take the stage against one another to—live, in person—whip up support from the crowd while espousing their virtues, things get heated very fast. People boo and hiss their opponents. They wave signs and cheer for their favorite candidate. They almost always have food in their mouths.
Just like good barbecue, stump speaking is one part art and one part science, and Fancy Farm can make or break a campaign. Though I had watched the event longingly for years on a public broadcast channel, my first official trip to Fancy Farm came in 2007 as a fledgling staff member on a gubernatorial campaign: We had been a dark horse in the democratic primary some months earlier, and through a stroke of dumb luck or fate, emerged victorious to take on an incumbent governor.
Our candidate was well-studied, whip-smart, and a veteran politician in every sense, but we were a bit of a ragtag crew in those days—and that’s being kind. There was the guy who ate literal mayonnaise sandwiches, and a pair of consultants who looked like Scandinavian Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. There was the septuagenarian who chain-smoked voraciously, drove a drop-trop Sebring, and somehow still had a bad girl edge.
And me? I was young and hungry in every possible sense.
I had grown to appreciate—almost above everything else—how people trotted out food whenever we rolled into town, eager to share the dish that made their community distinctive. Breaking bread together is a means of being able to connect and conjure up the best in people (even when talking policy and promises), and whether we were visiting a soybean farm or attending a fundraiser, no one would even think of letting us leave an event without a little something for the road.
“It’s a long drive back home, you know,” a woman would say, handing me a tin foil-covered meal and patting my hands gently. I would often wait until I was out of sight then wolf it down, thanking the food-giving gods that a stranger remembered—even if I didn’t—that I had forgotten to eat that day.
Most of the time, it’s hard not to laugh when hoity-toity politicians and their lackeys attempt to snack on “regular” foods in an effort to prove that they’re relatable. It often seems unnatural and forced—Joe Biden, in sunglasses, eating an ice cream cone being the cool-as-a-fan exception.
But that isn’t really an issue for politicians weened in Kentucky. Old-hands quickly school young’ns that they better be prepare their stomachs for Fancy Farm in particular, because it isn’t just one walloping barbecue event. Oh, no. It’s a two-day long campaigning culinary challenge—the American Ninja Warrior of politics and dining. You have to eat plentifully over, and over, and over. Not to clean your plate, after all, would be disrespectful.
There’s the local state representative who hosts a backyard garden party, with country ham and hardtack biscuits piled into salty, wobbling towers. There’s a bean supper for hundreds, where gallons of Northern white beans are cooked up with hunks of glistening fatback. My first year, a live donkey wearing a patriotic vest greeted guests as they arrived.
Historically, a late night party usually occurs somewhere along the line for staffers, and—if you’re lucky—someone might trot out a little bit of moonshine. The morning of Fancy Farm, an old-fashioned, grits-and-eggs breakfast is held in a high school cafeteria, fortifying folks for a day of, yes, more eating. By this point, you will likely encounter a man dressed as Uncle Sam singing “And I’m Proud to Be an American” by Lee Greenwood. It is not a fever dream.
But the real sleeping giant of the Fancy Farm marathon-eating experience (and the entire region’s cuisine), is the barbecue mutton.
In an era where we’ve practically thrown a tickertape parade for every bit of offal out there (hearts! head cheese! liver!) it’s always boggled my mind how mutton has been excluded from this renaissance of funk and chew. Lamb is omnipresent, and even goat isn’t a rarity anymore, but you’d be hard-pressed to find mutton (which is officially categorized as any meat from a castrated ram or ewe over the age of two) in your local neighborhood butcher shop.
People love to describe mutton as gamey, but I’d go a step further: it has an earthiness with almost a Scotch-like, peaty quality. Mutton’s flavor isn’t going to be easily masked or covered up by any sort of sauce, gravy, or curry. Instead, you have to work with mutton’s flavors—on mutton’s terms.
For those who aren’t afraid of a little musk, barbecue mutton slathered in a tangy, peppery baste—as it’s done in most parts across Western Kentucky—is the kind of full-bodied treasure that quickly creates legions of loyal fans. It’s barbecue for grown-ups.
But make no mistake about it: Mutton is a tough meat, and its popularity in the region didn’t exactly come about by choice. Wool was a major industry beginning at the turn of the 19th century, with lambs sheared of their fuzz until they reached old age (read: over 12 months). What to do, then, with the bleating surplus once they reach retirement? Barbecue quickly became the answer, with the mutton meat cooked low and slow to tenderize the difficult protein.
You can eat mutton in a few different ways, technically. It’s the star of a popular regional vegetable-drenched stew known as burgoo, and can be found at a handful of restaurants “chipped” between two pieces of white bread. I don’t do sit-down mutton, though. For me, there’s only one way to eat it: in a crowd—while sweating—fresh from some friendly pit masters in smoke-stained aprons. And there’s no place to do this quite like Fancy Farm.
Every candidate at Fancy Farm has to hustle: Stump speaking and 90 degree glad-handing aren’t for the weak. Incredibly elaborate (mostly good-natured) gags to distract and anger candidates are all over the place throughout the day, not to mention a lot of smack talking. And when the actual speech time rolls around, there’s no group of staffers huddled around Twitter trying to figure out the best way to phrase a sick burn. There’s no do-over. It’s just a politician, a podium, and an entire tent full of people eating potato salad, fanning themselves, and heckling. If you slip up and misspeak—or if you don’t bring the necessary levels of fire and brimstone—no one is there to save you. It’s gloriously vulnerable.
In the sweltering August sun each year, Fancy Farm feels like one of the last remaining places to watch this kind of raw, full-throttle democracy in action. Those seeking office are expected to mill about (largely sans handlers) among the bingo players and thousands of barbecue fans, filling their plates with vinegary sauces and shaking messy hands. Everyone eats off the same Styrofoam, everyone gets to feel like they have a voice.
Watching my candidate that afternoon as he rallied and roared, I knew instinctively that he would win—and everything would change. Soon, none of us would be eating questionable finger sandwiches in a cramped basement office, or going to the tiny town festivals and fairs I had grown to love so dearly. Soon, we wouldn’t be underdogs anymore.
But for a moment, I knew we still had a little bit of that campaign magic left. So I closed my eyes and shoveled a forkful of mutton in my mouth as the crowd hollered and cheered, letting myself sink deep into a full-sensory bite of pure Americana.
Sarah Baird is our newest writer in residence. Please say hello in the comments!