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A bonanza of barbecue

Owensboro’s parish picnics bring on the mutton

Mutton and sop, politics and parish picnics—here, in the “Barbecue Capital of the World,” these components converge over an open pit to carry on a tradition that simmered even before this western Kentucky town was incorporated as Owensborough in 1817.

“The first recorded community barbecue was July 4, 1834,” says Sharon NeSmith, quoting a 1991 article in the local Messenger-Inquirer. NeSmith has co-chaired the International Bar-B-Q Festival since 2012. “But many believe barbecue was introduced as early as 1797 with Bill Smothers, who operated a tavern and served meals to the keelboat men on the Ohio River.”

By the 1840s, politicians were involved in the festivals; in fact, an 1844 barbecue was thrown in honor of a Whig party presidential nominee, Kentucky’s own Henry Clay, and his running mate. Within 40 years, area churches were ladling up barbecues as community fund-raising events.

Today, this barbecue-centric town annually keeps up the finger-licking festivities with no fewer than 22 parish barbecue picnics. The International Bar-B-Q Festival kicks things off in early May and the picnics, held at Catholic churches all over Daviess County, run through September. On the menu? Mutton, mutton, burgoo, and more mutton.

Shannon Wetzel, executive director of Visit Owensboro, sets the scene: “Well before sunrise, the church grounds glow from the hickory fires in several long cooking pits. Once the fires burn down, the cooking team lays the meat over the fragrant smoke to begin the slow-cooking process. The aromas entice churchgoers and neighbors for hours until serving begins.”

“This is real good Owensboro barbecue,” says Todd Johnson, a member of the St. Stephen Cathedral cooking team who oversaw the team from its inception through its first nine years. Johnson grew up watching his dad, Horse Johnson, cook 500 to 1,000 chickens at a time on open pits for St. Martin’s parish picnic. He learned how to make his dad’s barbecue recipe, when to flip the meat, how to tell it was done and ready to be removed, and when to put the dip on.

“With your Catholic church parishes, being involved in the church picnics is part of it,” says Johnson. “You just don’t get good barbecue like this every day; they only have these church picnics once a year.”

Just ask Bruce Tucker, who has been involved with the Precious Blood cooking team for about 25 years, the last 20 as captain. The cooking team itself has been involved with the International Bar-B-Q Festival since its inception, and Precious Blood Church, which was founded in 1960, has had a parish picnic for about 55 years.

“As our cooking team has gotten older, we have changed quite a bit of our picnic operations,” Tucker admits. “We cook 10 75-gallon kettles of burgoo at our picnic and have installed automatic stirrers. In the past, we would assign three workers per kettle to stir manually. We have also updated our portable pits to a dedicated trailer and designed them to be as manageable as possible for setting them up.”

These were necessary accommodations as the team cooks 2,500 pounds of mutton, 800 pounds of pork, and 600 chickens—in addition to the 10 kettles of burgoo.

“Although we’ve made changes to equipment, the recipes and process of cooking have changed very little,” he adds. “We are very proud of everything we cook and take great pride in the quality of our barbecue.”

Kenny Nash is part of the St. Mary of the Woods cooking team, which holds the very last parish picnic of the season. The challenges: Will there be enough help? Are people tired of church picnics? Will more come than expected because it is the last picnic?

“The last picnic is always interesting,” says Nash. “If you order too much then you have it left over; if you don’t order enough, people get left out and may not come back next year. You pick a number and let God handle the rest.”

Even though St. Mary Magdalene’s won the 2015 and 2016 Governor’s Cup at Owensboro’s International Bar-B-Q Festival, Andy Grant, a member of this parish’s cooking team, says the parishes really don’t compete with one another—well, maybe at the festival, he admits, but not the picnics.

“We are like one big family and we all have a passion to cook good barbecue,” he says. “I believe that’s what truly makes good barbecue.”

Adds Nash: “It’s satisfying knowing we are carrying on the picnics that have been going on for generations for everyone to get together and visit and have some good food.”

Sauce or sop?
“The words ‘barbecue sauce’ and ‘dip’ are used interchangeably, depending on who you speak to,” says Sharon NeSmith, co-chair of Owensboro’s International Bar-B-Q Festival. For the uninitiated, the word “sop” is used to describe “applying the sauce or dip and sometimes as another word for dip, as in, ‘I am going to sop the chickens.’”

Barbecue buzz
According to the first brochure published to promote the International Bar-B-Q Festival in 1979, barbecue had slow-cooked its way into Owensboro culture more than 150 years before. The festival was “an attempt to bring together the atmosphere of a country church picnic and the excitement of an urban street festival.”

Burgoo is a meaty stew that originated in pioneer days. Along with barbecue mutton, it is one of the region’s traditional foods. Photo: Visit Owensboro

Owensboro burgoo recipe

Making burgoo in Owensboro is often a social event. It is served at all 22 Catholic parish picnics during the summer and all year long at local restaurants, including Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn and Old Hickory Bar-B-Q. According to tradition, no two burgoo recipes are the same but all are shrouded in secrecy.

Many cooks in Owensboro start with the recipe below and add their own secret ingredients. That is the beauty of burgoo—it can be modified as you like.

Owensboro Burgoo
1 whole chicken
2 lb pork shoulder
1 lb lamb
4 quarts water
1 Tbsp salt, or to taste
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper, or to taste
4 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 large onion, diced
1 C carrots, peeled and cubed
1/2 C fresh parsley, minced
28-oz can diced tomatoes
2 C fresh, shelled baby lima beans (substitute frozen 10-oz package)
2 medium green peppers, seeded and chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb okra, diced
4 C fresh corn off the cob (substitute 24-oz canned corn)

In a 9-quart or larger pot, combine the chicken, pork, lamb, water, salt, and both black and cayenne pepper. Bring to a boil and then simmer at least 2 hours or until meats are tender. Remove meats, and save stock. Shred meats, discarding chicken skin and all bones.
Return shredded meats to stock. Add next eight ingredients. Bring to boil and stir. Simmer 1-1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. Add okra and corn, simmering another 30 minutes. Add more spices to taste.
Makes about 30 side dishes or 20 main-course servings.


Beyond barbecue
Owensboro/Daviess County’s parish barbecue picnics take place from May through the end of September at 22 Catholic churches. All are within a 45-minute radius of downtown Owensboro. The picnics serve mutton, chicken, pork, and burgoo, and all are welcome. See participating churches at, “Places to Eat.”

Barbecue isn’t the only thing Owensboro has going for it. Check out these family-fun attractions:

Friday After 5 is Owensboro’s insanely popular and free summer concert series that takes place along the Ohio River, from RiverPark Center through Smothers Park to the Owensboro Convention Center. From the first weekend after the International Bar-B-Q Festival through Labor Day, you can catch a variety of live music, children’s events, food vendors, a street fair, and more. (270) 926-1100;

Smothers Park is along the Ohio River in downtown Owensboro and is known for its beautiful fountains and cascading waterfall, a monument to POWs and MIAs from all wars, swinging metal benches, and—the fave among the pint-size set—the accessible Lazy Dayz Children’s Playground. (270) 926-1100;

RiverPark Center overlooks the Ohio River and bustles with activity, including professional Broadway tour productions, Owensboro Symphony Orchestra concerts, free family movies on a gigantic outdoor screen, Friday After 5 music concerts in the summer, bluegrass and gospel music concerts, educational programs, and much more. (270) 926-1100;

Owensboro Museum of Science & History, where kids can romp about the riverboat, train, and tree houses at the PlayZeum and adults can dig into local racing history at the SpeedZeum. Head “underground” to see how coal miners spent their days at the Coal Mine Tour. It’s hands-on, minds-on in the Encounter gallery with magnet bridge building, storytelling at the puppet theater, and lots of experiments. Learn about government at the Wendell H. Ford Government Education Center. Admission: $3 per person. (270) 687-2732;

Owensboro’s parish picnics serve up tradition and food

From May through the end of September, the area’s Catholic parishes celebrate tradition and raise a bit of money, too, at 22 parish barbecue picnics that serve tasty chicken, pork, mutton and burgoo with all the trimmings.

Here’s the 2016 calendar:

May 22
St. Mary of the Woods, Whitesville
Serving at 11 a.m.

June 4
Precious Blood, Owensboro
Booths open at 3 p.m., serving at 4 p.m.

St. Joseph, Leitchfield
Serving at 3 p.m.

June 11
Holy Spirit, Bowling Green
Serving from 4-9 p.m.

St. Pius X, Owensboro
Serving at 4 p.m.

June 18
St. Romuald, Hardinsburg
Serving at 3 p.m.

Our Lady of Lourdes, Owensboro
Serving at 3 pm.

June 25
St. Peter of Antioch, Waverly
Serving at 5 p.m.

July 2
St. Mary Magdalene, Sorgho
Games begin at 3 p.m.; serving at 4 p.m.

St. Anthony the Abbot, Axtel
Serving at 3 p.m.

St. Denis, Fancy Farm
Serving at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.

July 9
Immaculate Conception, Hawesville
Serving at noon

St. Alphonsus, St. Josepf
Booths open at 3 p.m.; serving at 4 p.m.

July 16
St. Charles, Bardwell
Begins at 10 a.m.; lunch 11 a.m.; supper 4:30-7:30 p.m.; raffle drawing 9 p.m.

St. Peter of Alcantara, Stanley
Serving at 4 p.m.

July 23
St. Mary of the Woods, McQuady
Serving at 4 p.m.

Blessed Mother, Owenboro
Serving at 4 p.m.

July 30
St. Paul, Leitchfield
Serving at 3 p.m.

Aug. 2
St. Jerome, Fancy Farm
Serving at 11 a.m.

Blessed Sacrament, Owensboro
Serving from noon-4 p.m.

Aug. 20
Holy Guardian Angles, Irvington
Serving at 3 p.m.

Aug. 21
St. Pius X, Calvert City
Serving at 3 p.m.

Aug. 28
Rosary Chapel, Paducah
Serving at noon

Sept. 9-10
Holy Name of Jesus Fall Festival, Henderson
Friday 5-10 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Sept. 10
St. Agnes, Uniontown
Serving at 4:45 p.m.

St. John the Evangelist, Paducah
Serving at 11 a.m.

Sept. 11
Mount St. Joseph, Maple Mount
Booths open at 10:30 a.m., serving at 11:30 a.m.; picnic ends and raffle drawn at 3 p.m.

Sept. 17
St. Stephen Cathedral, Owensboro
Serving from noon-5 p.m.

Christ the King, Madisonville
Serving from 4-8 p.m.

St. Columbia, Lewisport
Serving at 4 p.m.

Sept. 24
St. Elizabeth, Clarkson
10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Honeyfest Chicken Dinner, silent auction, raffle

Sept. 25
St. Mary of the Woods, Whitesville
Serving at 11 a.m.

For the latest information, including an up-to-date schedule of events in Owensboro and Daviess County, go to or call (270) 926-1100. Stay informed about Owensboro events and happenings through Facebook at

Kathy Witt from July 2016 Issue

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