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Cook-off Craze

So you think you’re the next Bobby Flay or Kentucky’s own version of the Cake Boss? There are dozens of festivals across the state that will let you try to prove it—all in the pursuit of a blue ribbon and yearlong bragging rights.

We’re talking cook-offs, so whether your specialty is whipping up tasty beer cheese, perfect backyard barbecue, or a mushroom fried to perfection, there’s a festival in Kentucky for you.

Best yet, even if you’re a kitchen klutz, these festivals are worth the trip, offering a mix of live music, kids’ activities, parades, and fun for the whole family.

In Winchester, the annual Beer Cheese Festival—going into its fifth year—celebrates Clark County’s claim to fame as the birthplace of Kentucky’s favorite cracker spread. At the daylong June 8 festival, buy a $5 wristband to taste and vote for the best-tasting beer cheese from commercial makers across the country.

Or get into the action with your own homemade batch and vie for the title of “Best Amateur Beer Cheese.” If winning that title won’t get a crowd at your next get-together, nothing will. The downtown festival also features free live music, food vendors, a kids’ play area, and arts and crafts, including Kentucky Proud items.

“The beer cheese is still the focus, our claim to fame. But we work to make sure there’s something for everyone to take part in,” says Tim Janes, executive director of Winchester First, the festival’s sponsor.

If you’re known for conjuring up mouth-watering catfish, then make plans to attend the 33rd annual Green River Catfish Festival, July 3–6, where the catfish cook-off is open to everyone—and the fish is provided! “You bring your own ingredients and cook the fish onsite,” says Amanda Hatcher, executive director of Morgantown-Butler County Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the festival at the city’s Charles Black Park.

Also enter the festival’s popular fishing contest in nearby Green River for a chance to snag one of roughly 20 tagged fish—for prizes ranging from $100 to $50,000. Or simply stand in line and let the folks of the local Cassia Lodge do the work for you. Their famed catfish plates draw folks from around the region and sell out quickly. The festival also includes a parade, live music, pageant and car show, carnival rides, singing competition, fireworks on the Fourth, and more. “It’s like a reunion for people in this town. People plan their vacations around the festival,” Hatcher says.

Want something a little more offbeat? Try your hand at frying up Kentucky-grown morel mushrooms or a down-home pokeweed dish.

At Harlan’s long-running Poke Sallet Festival, celebrating their 58th year June 6-8, you can enter the poke cook-off and show your skills at serving up this well-loved regional dish.

“It’s certainly different. It’s certainly an acquired taste,” says Dan Mosley, chairman of the Poke Sallet Festival Committee.

Just be careful—if cooked incorrectly, the pokeweed can be toxic. The roots, berries, seeds, mature stems, and roots of pokeweed are poisonous; only the young, tender leaves can be eaten if cooked and prepared in a specific manner.

Select downtown restaurants serve a poke sallet plate that generally includes soup beans and cornbread. Occasionally, poke samples can be found in the festival area, or you can taste the dishes at the cook-off.

If poke isn’t your thing, come anyway for the car show, live music, singing contest, scrapbooking and quilting contests, and more.

In Irvine, the 23rd annual Mountain Mushroom Festival, April 27-28, is a celebration of all things mushroom-related, with morel and shiitake mushroom cooking demonstrations, cook-off, mushroom market, cake decorating contest (mushroom-themed or not), antique tractor show, and even a mushroom hunting contest. Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer gives a morel cooking demo on Saturday.

“It’s the morel mushrooms that are in such demand and that everyone wants. Some people prefer to fry them in a skillet, others cook them in a deep fryer. Almost everyone uses a cornmeal-type mix or flour to coat them,” says Francine Bonny, the festival chair.

Feeling up to the challenge? Enter your own fresh mushroom dishes in the cook-off (you bring a prepared dish, then submit the recipe), or just come to learn from the pros: the festival invites “celebrity” chefs to share mushroom cooking tips throughout the weekend. Not mad for mushrooms? There’s also an agate hunt and gem show, an antiques show, arts and crafts booths, car show, antique tractor show, parade, the popular Fungus 5K, and more.

If finger-licking barbecue or rib-warming chili is more your style, put your pork or pot to the test at the fourth annual Glendale Olde Time Backyard BBQ & Chili Cook-off on July 20. With less stringent rules than Kansas City barbecue competitions, this friendly backyard contest is a perfect first foray into competition cooking, says Bonnie Lush of the Glendale Business Group, which coordinates the festival.

Enter one or two categories—beef brisket, pork shoulder, or chili—or all three for a chance to come home Grand Champion. While you’re there, take in the car show, live music, kids’ activities, crafts and antiques booths, or just soak in the quaint charm of downtown Glendale. If you want to enjoy tasty barbecue and chili without all the work, buy a $5 Tasters Ticket to sample all the competitors’ concoctions and help vote for the People’s Choice Award.

“That award is very coveted,” says Lush. It is, after all, the goal of any cook-off contestant. You can come home with one of five trophies and cash prizes and big-time bragging rights until next year.


April 27-28
Mountain Mushroom Festival
Irvine • (606) 723-2554
Saturday 9 a.m.–7 p.m.; Sunday
10 a.m.–5 p.m.

May 18, 11 a.m.–7 p.m.
Kentucky Wine & Vine Fest
Nicholasville • (859) 881-3820
Admission $25

June 8
Beer Cheese Festival
Winchester • (859) 737-0923
10 a.m.–5 p.m.

June 6–8
Poke Sallet Festival
Harlan • (606) 573-4156
Railroad Depot
Thursday 5–11 p.m.; Friday noon–
11 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m.–11 p.m. or search
Facebook “poke sallet”

July 3–6
Green River Catfish Festival
Morgantown • (270) 526-6827
Admission $3, children under 5 free

June 7–8
Bourbon City BBQ Festival
Bardstown • (502) 348-6221
Friday 5 p.m.–midnight; Saturday
10 a.m.–midnight

July 20
Glendale Olde Time Backyard BBQ & Chili Cook-off
(270) 369-7943
9 a.m.–6 p.m.

September 7–8
Trimble County Apple Festival
Bedford • (502) 255-0363
Saturday 9 a.m.–5 p.m.; Sunday noon–5 p.m.

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