As in the Civil War, the Q wars pit brother against brother and region against state. Whether you spell it barbecue, barbeque, bar-b-q, BBQ, or just plain Q, that scrumptious dish sparks rabid fans across Kentucky, most of whom swear their way is the only way to cook it, eat it, and sauce it.
The Q issues are limitless: mutton, pulled pork, chicken, or ribs? Vinegar or mustard sauce? Open-pit, gas cooker, or backyard grill? Molasses baked beans or tomato-sauced pintos? Corn on the cob or cornbread? Where does burgoo fit in?
One thing is clear: Kentucky offers opportunities galore to help you decide. Barbecue festivals abound. Part of the proceeds—often a significant part—usually goes to charity.
Every Memorial Day Weekend, thousands of motorcycles rumble into Elizabethtown for BBQ, Blues & Bikes. This year, the kickoff event—the Thunder Into E-Town motorcycle ride—donated the proceeds from its entry fees to the Wounded Warrior Project.
Some festivals, like the International Bar-B-Q Festival in Owensboro, an institution since 1978, feature nonprofit and church-affiliated teams going grill-to-grill to raise money for various local charities and school programs and to win the Governor’s Cup for best barbecue.
Come September, pungent smells from 80,000 pounds of smoking pork and chicken will permeate Paducah for three days at its 20th Barbeque on the River. Some 40,000 attended last year’s event, with $448,000 distributed.
“Our mission is to cook the best barbecue in the world, draw the largest crowd, and raise the most money possible for charity,” says festival co-founder Susie Coiner.
Around 40 teams, some serious big-riggers from Kentucky and out-of-state, vie in hot competition while the crowd can purchase the delicious goods. The festival has become a small business incubator, with some participants starting their own lines of sauces and rubs.
Paducah police officer Will Gilbert and his barbecue teammates, competing as The Regulators BBQ, have won awards at numerous competitions, including Barbeque on the River. The Kevil team now caters and offers a line of its own Regulators BBQ “Kentucky Sauce.” (For more info click www.regulatorsbbqllc.com or call 270-994-1028.)
“We had a barbecue pit on the family farm in Carlisle,” Gilbert says. “My dad gave me his sauce recipe as a birthday gift and suggested entering Barbeque on the River as a fund-raiser for police charities. We won, and it’s taken off from there.”
Only four years old, the Kentucky State BBQ Festival last year was rated a Top 20 Event in the U.S. by the Southeast Tourism Society. Founded by Cindy and Brad Simmons, who own Lucky Dog BBQ, a catering company in Danville, the September event fills Constitution Square with nationally recognized big-rig pitmasters, such as Mike Mills, “The Legend” of barbecue, and Shane Draper of Cunningham—located in far western Kentucky in Carlisle County—whose big rig is “32 feet of barbecue battle wagon.”
“What makes this festival different is that it’s an eating event and not a competition,” Cindy explains. “People get to come and enjoy these celebrity pitmasters’ food.”
Held in Springfield in October, the Jim Beam BBQ Classic is the last of seven Kansas City Barbecue Society-sanctioned events in the Jim Beam Bluegrass Barbecue Showdown that determine the Kentucky Champion.
By its nature, barbecue breeds characters. Micah “Red” Seavers is pitmaster at his family’s Southern Red’s BBQ in the old Pilot Oak Grocery Store in Water Valley in Graves County, serving chicken and 24-hour, open-pit beef brisket, pork, and ribs in this 1940s gas station. (They were the first-place winners of the Kentucky Living 2014 Best in Kentucky “Nonfranchise Barbecue” category.)
He laughs. “People say, ‘Man, there’s actually a restaurant in here?’ But our health department score has never been below 97!”
So what’s the secret to good barbecue? A few experts weigh in.
Six-time grand champion at Barbeque on the River in Paducah, James F. Stovall is owner and pitmaster of Larry, Darrell & Darrell in Mayfield. He’s been smoking meats for 30 years. And never in a gas cooker.
“In western Kentucky we smoke the meat first over an open pit to get that old-school, hickory wood-smoked flavor,” says Stovall. “You can actually taste the smoke flavor in the meat before you add sauce.”
Western Kentucky University English professor Wes Berry, aka The Hungry Professor, concurs. He wolfed down barbecue statewide while writing The Kentucky Barbecue Book.
“You can use sauce, but why spend 24 hours lovingly smoking a piece…and cover it with sauce?” says Berry, who gained 25 pounds doing research.
Brian Cramer, owner and pitmaster of one of Appalachia’s few barbecue establishments, Pig in a Poke in Prestonsburg and Pikeville, defers to the fact that his barbecued meats are all hand-pulled and side dishes are homemade.
Whatever you pick, Q fans, it’s all good!
Hit a BBQ joint
Someone somewhere in Kentucky is feasting on barbecue all year long. Tuck your napkin in at one of these favorite eateries featured in the story:
Pig in a Poke Prestonsburg and Pikeville
www.piginapokebbq.com, (606) 889-9119 Prestonsburg, (606) 437-9511 Pikeville
Southern Red’s BBQ Pilot Oak
(270) 376-2678, Facebook: Southern-Red’s-BBQ
Larry, Darrell & Darrell Mayfield
Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn Owensboro
www.moonlite.com, (800) 322-8989
Old Hickory Bar-B-Que Owensboro
www.oldhickorybar-b-q.com, (270) 926-9000
Hickory Hill Barbecue Scottsville
www.hhbarbeque.com, (270) 622-0508
Dave’s Sticky Pig Madisonville
www.davesstickypig.com, (270) 326-5100
Mouth watering videos
Go to our YouTube channel to see these informative and fun barbecue videos:
Kentucky Open Pit Barbecue: Tim Russell Style
Russell shows us the old-fashioned open pit barbecue method that he learned from his grandfather for smoking meats.
Kentucky Farm Bureau Bluegrass & Backroads: International Bar-B-Q Festival
A finger-licking good time at the International Bar-B-Q Festival in Owensboro.
Mama Lou’s BBQ, Uno, Kentucky on WBKO Go Local
Wes Berry, author of The Kentucky Barbecue Book, stops in at a small Hart County BBQ joint located in the more than 100-year-old building, where he eats and chats with the mom-and-pop owners about barbecue culture.
Hog Callin’ Contest at Kentucky State Barbecue Festival, Danville
Which hog call do you like best? Check out this fun video of kids and adults snorting their best hog call!
Celebrate all things BBQ
Across the Commonwealth, barbecue festivals abound. Here is a sampling of the major events:
Bands & BBQ at the Point Carrollton
September 5-6, 2014, www.visitcarrolltonky.com, (502) 732-7036
Kentucky State BBQ Festival Danville
September 5-7, 2014, www.kybbqfestival.com, (859) 319-4000; celebrity pitmasters, barbecue demos, live blues, beer/wine garden, hog calling, and bean eating contests
Barbeque on the River Paducah
September 25-27, 2014, www.bbqontheriver.org, (270) 534-5951; team cookoff, barbecue sauces/fixin’s, live music, retail shops
Grillin & Chillin BBQ Cookoff Owensboro
September 26-27, 2014, www.grillinandchillinbbq.com, (270) 929-4177
Jim Beam BBQ Classic Springfield
October 3-4, 2014, www.jimbeambbqclassic.wordpress.com, (859) 336-7773; barbecue cookoff, chili cookoff, bourbon dessert contest, and apple pie moonshine contest
Big Buffalo Crossing BBQ Cook/Off Munfordville
October 17-18, 2014, www.visitmunfordville.com, (270) 524-4752
Grills Gone Wild London
April 10-11, 2015, www.ggwbbq.com, (615) 476-6397
BBQ, Blues & Bikes Elizabethtown
May 23, 2015, www.bbqbluesfest.com, (270) 982-2209; barbecue, blues, bike tour, and Kids Zone
Bourbon City BBQ Festival Bardstown
June 5-6, 2015, www.bourboncitybbqfestival.com, (502) 350-7059; pro cookoff, backyard cookoff, kids’ grilling cookoff, live music, and wine tasting
W.C. Handy Blues & Barbecue Festival Henderson
June 13-20, 2015, www.handyblues.org, (800) 648-3128; one of the largest free music festivals
Barbourville BBQ Cook-Off and Festival
June 19-20, 2015, www.barbourvilletourism.com, (606) 545-9674; festival sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society
Four Roses Bourbon Louisville Blues Brews & BBQ Festival
July 10-12, 2015 *dates subject to change, www.louisvillebluesandbbqfestival.com, (502) 583-0333; barbecue, craft beer, and live blues
Just for Kentucky Living readers, heavenly recipes for Dave’s Sticky Pig’s Baked Beans and Hickory Hill Barbecue’s Kentucky Bourbon Sauce.