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International Bar-B-Q Festival in Owensboro

Submitted by on April 27, 2009 – 10:52 pmNo Comment

Barbecue masters and novices alike savor a variety of meats and preparation techniques cooked “slow and low” each year in Owensboro, Ky., for the International Bar-B-Q Festival. The bill of fare includes a signature addition to the usual menu of pork, chicken and beef: mutton.

Set for May 8 and 9 downtown along the Owensboro riverside, the festival can trace its flavorful roots to humble beginnings in 19th century Daviess County.

That’s where the traditional method of preparing barbecued mutton over smoldering hickory wood got started at small Catholic Church picnics that led to the festival competition today. Each parish developed its own recipe for barbecuing mutton, which was readily available in Daviess County because of large flocks of sheep raised in the area.

Now in its 31st year, the International Bar-B-Q Festival has a far-flung reputation for good down-home eatin’ that reflects some of the best of Kentucky’s traditional cuisine. But if not for the rivalry among a dozen small Daviess County churches that were vying to raise funds for their parish activities, Kentucky might be minus its reputation as a great place to eat barbecue.

“We’re the only place in the U.S. that eats much mutton,” said Ken Bosley, the second generation of his family to run Moonlite Bar-B-Q Restaurant in Owensboro and one of the co-founders of the festival more than 30 years ago. “Hickory wood which is plentiful in Kentucky gives chicken, mutton, pork or whatever meat you cook over it a distinctive taste.”

Moonlite, probably Kentucky’s best-known barbecue restaurant, is featured in Real Barbecue, a 2007 book that includes a guide to great barbecue joints. According to authors Vince Staten and Greg Johnson, Kentucky boasts three distinct styles of barbecue cookery. In addition to the Owensboro technique, Kentucky has Western style that features pork shoulder pulled and chopped and grilled on sandwich bread. They also cite a style known as Monroe County barbecue that is sliced pork shoulder dipped in a vinegary sauce. It’s a safe bet that these styles and more will be available for tasting at the festival.

Of course the teams that square off yearly at the International festival have their own preferred sauces and methods of cookery. It’s this kind of fever that makes Kentucky a hotbed for barbecue competition every spring in Owensboro.

According to Mary Stebbins, operations manager at Mark’s Feed Stores, a four-restaurant chain in the Louisville area, Kentucky barbecue just naturally makes a good eating experience. “We hickory smoke all our meat for 13 hours,” she said. “We make patrons feel they’re part of our family. We provide home-cooked meals made fresh from scratch.” Stebbins said this type of restaurant experience reflects the best of “Southern” hospitality that Kentucky is known for. “We make people in boots to bow ties comfortable.” Kentucky Derby time is a popular season for barbecue, as local residents bring out-of-town guests to restaurants to sample regional fare, Stebbins said.

The International Bar-B-Q Festival is a hospitality drenched, aroma wafting, down-home experience. In addition to many restaurants with their own booths, the event features a classic car show, pie-eating and horseshoe-pitching contests, carnival rides and games for kids. Music ranging from country to bluegrass and blues is performed on four stages downtown. There will be a 5K race/walk on Saturday.

The cooking contest pitting eight teams affiliated with Owensboro-region churches will peak with the awarding of the coveted Governor’s Cup on Saturday. Each team cooks up at least 800 chickens, 75 gallons of burgoo and gobs of mutton and pork sold by the pound. All proceeds from these sales go to area charities.

The work of more than 200 volunteers, in addition to about 50 on each cooking team, makes the whole thing possible. “It’s truly a community event,” said Michelle Wright, 2009 festival chair. And the event really is “international,” since some of the 80,000 attendees come from as far away as France and Canada, she added.

If you plan to visit Owensboro for the annual festival, be sure to call ahead to arrange for lodging. Local accommodations fill up fast. (Check out options here.) For more information about sampling great barbecue and plenty of fixings at the festival, visit the website, or call the festival hotline at 270-926-1100 or the Owensboro-Daviess County Tourism Commission at 800-489-1131.

The International Bar-B-Q Festival is just one of many such events that Kentucky hosts throughout the summer. A few of the other yummy offerings include the in Henderson in June, the American Bass Anglers Barbecue Cook-off in Kuttawa in August, and Barbecue on the River in Paducah in September. For information about these and more go to

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