Sunday, August 3, 2003

Little town's big effort makes for fun, food, politics

By Joe Biesk
The Associated Press

FANCY FARM, Ky. - Politics is the draw, but the annual Fancy Farm Picnic is actually about money.

All the steamy political rhetoric and steaming piles of barbecued pork and mutton, serve to help ensure the financial well-being of St. Jerome Parish, a Catholic enclave in Graves County.

While the church community manages its bills from what it collects in weekly donations, the 123-year-old picnic helps a lot, the Rev. Delma Clemons, church pastor, said Saturday.

Last year, the parish picnic took in about $180,000, Clemons said. After its expenses, St. Jerome took in about half that.

"Any income goes to the church for its ministries," Clemons said. "Many in the faith community contribute their time and effort for the picnic, more so than in the Sunday collections."

Each year, church members dedicate their time and efforts to help to put on the political picnic that's long been a western Kentucky mainstay.

Families from within the church community handle different chores - each of them equally vital - to putting on the event.

Some cook, some sell food and others handle the bingo and other carnival-type games. And some of the various duties have been passed on from generation to generation.

Food stands here sell hamburgers, hot dogs, hand-dipped ice cream and other fair foods. But the barbecued mutton and pulled pork are easily the main attraction.

Eddie Carico, of Fancy Farm, manages the picnic's enormous barbecue pits. Carico said he's volunteered to work at the picnic for more than 35 years, and has barbecued for the past 25.

To get the meat cooked juicy and just right is no easy feat, said Carico, a lifelong St. Jerome parishioner.

This year, volunteers started prepping coals in giant steel barrels about 7 a.m. Friday. They burned about 120 bundles of hickory wood - each weighing about 500 to 600 pounds - to get the perfect heat.

From there, workers shoveled the smoldering hot coals from the steel barrels to the grills where the food was slow-cooked for hours.

"It's hot," Carico said. "But we had about 22 to 24 people helping us - same ones every year."

At about 8 a.m. Friday, the meat arrived: 9,200 pounds of pork, 8,600 pounds of mutton.

The first round wasn't finished cooking until around 4 a.m. Saturday, he said. By afternoon, volunteers were still cooking.

"It takes everybody to get it done right," Carico said. "There's not an easy job here for a one-day picnic as big as this."

Bobby Thomas, 35, and a lifelong parishioner, said he and his family work the bingo tent - which outside of politics is arguably one of the picnic's largest attractions.

Thomas said his great-great grandparents worked at the picnic and passed down the tradition.

"It's a good chance to be able to meet with family and friends," Thomas said. "It's also a good fund-raiser."

Shelley Wilford, a 25-year-old nursing student, lives in Mayfield, about 10 miles east of Fancy Farm. She's been coming to the yearly picnics since she was a little girl.

Wilford said she comes for the fun, the food and to see old friends. The politics are just a sideshow she said she mostly ignores.

"It's kind of a school reunion, a family reunion," Wilford said. "I don't know much about the politicians. I don't pay much attention to them."

Even though the people who put on the event work hard, it's a source of pride in the community, Carico said. Church members enjoy being hospitable and being the center of the state's attention for the weekend, he said.

"This has been going on for 123 years and we take pride in it. I don't want to see in my lifetime us stop having this picnic," Carico said. "It would be terrible. It's hard work, but it's just one day."

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