Grab your calendar and prepare to celebrate Kentucky’s food heritage
By Katherine Tandy Brown
As if you didn’t know, the holiday season is almost history for another year. So far, you’ve devoured the leftover Halloween candy, made it through Thanksgiving’s triple pie sampler and can still zip your pants. Those visions of sugarplums won’t add inches as long as they stay in your imagination.
So, as a reward, grab your 2017 calendar, hunker down by the fireside, and get ready to pencil in your favorites among Kentucky’s amazing array of annual food festivals. Fortunately, not every month features one, but you can always take home goodies to freeze and sustain you until the next foodie gathering.
Hands down, the commonwealth’s oldest celebration of food is Benton Tater Days, also the oldest continuous trade day in the country. In 1843, West Kentucky farmers brought produce to sell on the town square on court days. That included sweet potatoes, or “taters.” Eventually, this became an annual festival honoring the sweet tater, complete with a parade, horse show, carnival, fiddling contest, gospel singing, pageants, and baking and canning competitions. From March 31 through April 3, 2017 – 170-plus-years later – the festivities continue, with a parade, car show, flea market, carnival rides and stage events. But alas, no taters!
kentuckylake.org; (270) 527-0024
Also a front-runner in longevity, Harlan’s 2017 Poke Sallet Festival, scheduled for June 1-3, will be its 62nd annual event. An Appalachian heritage staple, poke sallet is actually a weed that’s poisonous until boiled, when the greens turn quite tasty. Some folks cook ‘em with eggs and some with bacon grease, according to individual preference. A fun part of the festival is its recipe competition, where creative cooks try new ways of fixing poke sallet, such as poke sallet pancakes and bread, just like zucchini bread but hold the squash and add a mess of greens. Several Harlan restaurants feature poke sallet dinners.
pokesalletfestival.com; (606) 573-4495
The 55th annual Fulton Banana Festival takes to the streets of the Twin Cities – Fulton, Kentucky and Tennessee – in September. Back in the 1880s, the United Fruit Company, now Chiquita, transported bananas from South America to New Orleans, then loaded them onto 162 tons of ice in refrigerated railroad cars for shipping north. Centrally located, Fulton had the only icehouse on the route to Chicago. Eventually, 70 percent of the nation’s bananas passed through Fulton, which became known as the “Banana Capital of the World.” Cashing in on that heritage, the Fultons celebrate with a slew of events that would make Chiquita Banana’s fruit-topped head spin. The schedule includes a Banana Bake-off, Banana Ball (a must-attend social event), Banana Brawl (muscular men take each other on in a ring), Banana Bowl (football), greased pig contest, doggie pageant, Banana Car rides, and the crowd fave, a one-ton banana pudding (the world’s largest) for all to dig into.
thebananafestival.com; (270) 472-9000
Not to be outdone, the Casey County Apple Festival (CCAF) features the world’s largest apple pie, a luscious 10 feet wide, that’s served a la mode and is free to all hungry comers. Now in its 43rd incarnation, the festival holds sway Sept. 21-23 in Liberty, where revelers can also share a 10-foot pizza and a 10-foot chocolate chip cookie. A week prior, Miss CCAF and her court of baby, pre-teen and teen royalty are chosen to reign over a Friday parade, Saturday night live headliner concert and fireworks. There’s even a kids’ frog-jumping contest.
(606) 787-5355 or (606) 787-9297
With western Kentucky’s reputation for great barbecue to uphold, the competition at Owensboro’s 38th annual International Bar-B-Q Festival – scheduled this year for May 12-13 – gets more fierce every spring. Six crackerjack cooking teams vie for top honors in the Governor’s Cup, set up 60-foot-long open-fire cooking pits, and rustle up their best mutton, pork and chicken barbecue, and burgoo. After the judging, the goodies all get sold, usually within an hour. And in a Backyard Barbecue competition open to anyone, 35 to 50 wannabe chefs fire up their grills to win cash prizes and bragging rights, cooking foods donated by the festival’s Gold Sponsors. Post-judging, the crowd can sample the results.
“One category is Specialty Food Groups,” explains the event’s director, Sharon NeSmith. “Even barbecued bologna is good!”
Raising lots of money for charities, the festival also includes a beer garden, live music and a Mutton Glutton VIP party, all on the Ohio riverfront.
bbqfest.com; (270) 929-8663
Now in its 28th year, the World Chicken Festival will light up London with all things poultry Sept. 21-24 to celebrate Laurel County’s heritage as the home of Colonel Sanders’ first and original restaurant and of Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken, begun by Lee Cummings, the colonel’s nephew. The festival’s egg-citement includes a rooster crowing, clucking and strutting contest; toilet-lid horseshoes; a Spam-eating contest; redneck joke competition; armpit serenade (yep, it’s just what you think); and kids’ chick-a-lympics. Tuck in your napkin for some egg-cellent chicken cooked in the world’s largest known frying skillet. Oh, and be sure to bring your sense of humor.
chickenfestival.com; (800) 348-0095
Fairly new on the scene, the Fort Harrod Beef Festival, begun in 2005, honors Kentucky’s status as the largest beef cattle state east of the Mississippi. With a focus on that hearty meat, the Harrodsburg event kicks off with the Cattle Crawl progressive dinner and includes a steak and egg breakfast and a Kentucky Proud wine and cheese tasting with beef appetizers. Date TBA.
(800) 355-9192 or (859) 734-4378
Serious foodies will also want to attend the Morgan County Sorghum Festival in West Liberty (MorganCountySorghumFestival.com; (606) 743-3330), the Monroe County Watermelon Festival in Tompkinsville (monroecountyky.com; (270) 487-5505) and the Marion County Country Ham Days in Lebanon (marioncountykychamber.com/ham-days/). ■
Katherine Tandy Brown is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]