Terry Stinnett smiles through the sweet-smelling hickory haze that shrouds downtown Owensboro, Kentucky. Terry runs Our Lady of Lourdes Cooking Team, on of 11 culinary squads competing in the Owensboro International Bar-B-Q Festival. He has just been asked a question that many barbecue chefs would consider an outrageous invasion of privacy: "Whats your secret?" "Hard work," Terry replies solemnly. "Sweat. Years of experience." "Friendly sheep," adds teammate Johnny Collignon.
Thats right, sheep. In this northwestern Kentucky town, the barbecue meat of choice is mutton. Area farmers used to raise a lot of sheep, but these days, youd have to look pretty hard to find one in Daviess County. Locals, however, havent lost their taste for the distinctive sweet flavor of mutton.
In 1979, Owensboro began sharing its speciality with the world. That first festival drew an estimated 15,000 mutton gluttons. Crowds now swell to approximately 40,000 people in a city of 56,000. It all happens the second weekend in May.
Along downtown streets that overlook the Ohio River, cooking teams of 20 to 50 people set up enormous portable pits 4 feet wide and 75 feet or more in length. "You want green wood," advises Johnny Collignon. "Oak, hickory, and a little bit of sassafras not much."
Cooks patrol the blistering-hot pits with garden hoses. "If you get a flame, you get a hose and knock that flame down," says Johnny. "Cause flame will sear the meat, crust it so it wont draw the flavor down in it."
Other team members use ordinary floor mops to bast the meat with a vinegary concoction known as "dip". Every team has its own recipe. "But if its not cooked right, " says Bill Glenn of the Lourdes team, "the dip isnt going to help."
In midafternoon come the reckoning. The judges chew, swallow, consider. Our Lady of Lourdes wins th burgoo and chicken competitions, but fails to place in what the awards announcer calls "the all-important mutton category." The overall championship for combined mutton-chicken-burgoo scores goes to St. Mary Magdalene. Our Lady of Lourdes, a four-time champion, finishes third this year.
May their sheep just werent quite friendly enough. Steve Millburg
For more information: Owensboro-Daviess County Tourism Commission (270)926-1100 or 1-800-489-1131.
CUE TIPS Barbecue is a year-round obsession in Owensboro. From the end of May through mid September, area Catholic churches sponsor immense weekend barbecue picnics. Contact the Owensboro-Daviess County Tourism Commission for a schedule.
And here are three of our favorite barbecue joints:
Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn: Serves up to 20,000 pounds of meat a week. Most customers graze at the buffet, available at lunch and dinner. (270) 684-8143.
Old Hickory Bar-B-Q: May be even more popular among Owensboro folks than the Moonlite. Beloved for both mutton and pork. (270) 926-9000.
Shady Rest Barbecue Inn: Little Mary had some lamb Wont you have some too?" invites the menu. Owensboros oldest barbecue restaurant. (270) 926-8234.
WMTH CORPORATION PO BOX 51153 BOWLING GREEN, KY 42102 PHONE (270) 792-5300 FAX 721-0004