Kentucky Colonels’ Reunion BBQ [classic article]

[As first published in Pulitzer.com] I was extremely honored last year when Gov. Paul Patton of Kentucky named me a Kentucky Colonel, Kentucky’s highest honor. The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels is a philanthropic organization dedicated to aiding the welfare of Kentucky’s citizens. Aside from being a huge fan of all things Kentuckian, I am the agent for Night Train, the famous Southern Rock band from Mossy Jaw, Kentucky.

Most people think about Col. Sanders when they hear about Colonels, and yes, he was made a Kentucky Colonel for bringing acclaim to the Commonwealth with his famous chicken. Though Gov. Isaac Shelby declared his trusted Militia guards to be “Kentucky Colonels” back in 1813, the nonprofit group was founded in 1931. Some of the charities that have benefited from the Kentucky Colonels this year are the American Heart Association of Central Kentucky, Bellewood Presbyterian Home for Children, the Bardstown Community Theater and Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Bluegrass.

Kentucky Colonels reside all over the world, so each year, on the day after the Kentucky Derby, we hold a reunion barbeque. In years past, the party was held at Wickland (Governor’s Mansion to 3 Governors), in Bardstown, KY. This year, it was held on the grounds of the St. Joseph’s Childrens’ Home in Louisville. Now, a minor controversy arose, because some of the Colonels want everything back in Bardstown. The charming town of Bardstown is in Nelson Co., where much of America’s bourbon is made and many of its fine racehorses are born. Indeed, it is the site of Federal Hill, the plantation that inspired Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home”. My guess is the barbeque will return to Bardstown someday, but I’m just a fledgling Colonel — it’s not for me to say!

If you ever get to attend the Colonels’ barbeque, the dress is casually elegant. Most of the women (and men) wear fancy hats. Don’t wear heels, as I did, because they’ll just get lodged in the mud and you’ll end up stripping off your stockings behind a tree and running around barefooted. Our weather was in the upper 80’s and very sunny. With the warm outdoors, the first stop I made was to the mint julep tent. Ah, the famous drink of the Derby and a favorite cocktail of Colonels! I’ve had my fair share of mint julips before, and nobody, but NOBODY makes ‘em as good as the ones at Barbeque. The secret, I think, is having a big, tall glass of crushed ice, with plenty of fresh mint, simple sugar syrup and quality bourbon. Really, think of the proper julep as being a chunkier version of a bourbon snow cone — now that’s refreshing!

Here’s an interesting point about the cocktail tent: they carried many brands of bourbon. You don’t see that at many catered functions! I strongly suspect the reason is, the different companies are still run by some of the old Kentucky families, and they all count many Colonels amongst their corporate officers. So that nobody’s feelings get hurt, each are represented at Barbeque. Thus, there was a choice of Jim Beam, Evan Williams, Makers Mark, Woodford Reserve and Heaven Hill.

Along with cocktails, you can’t forget the tasty food! First, I sampled Kentucky Burgoo. Since you’re probably wondering, Kentucky Burgoo is a traditional stew, now made with lamb, pork, chicken and sometimes beef. It has a tomato and spice base, with little vegetables thrown in. During Daniel Boone’s time (the founder of Kentucky), it most likely contained squirrel, venison, wild turkey and anything else he could lay his hands on. It’s supposed to be “gamy” and lamb definitely gives it that quality.

Then, I sampled the barbeque. The pulled pork or chicken sandwiches were topped with “Mark’s Feed Store BBQ Sauce”, made in Middletown, KY. The Original sauce is thinner and more orange, while Tomato sauce came later, as a result of customers’ demands. The Tomato sauce is thicker with honey. Side dishes included green beans with bacon and homemade potato salad. If you’re going to make potato salad “Kentucky-style”, you’ll use little new red potatoes, big chunks of hard-boiled eggs, poppy seeds, fresh chives, green onions and mayo. Dessert was homemade buttermilk pie, which is sort of a cross between pecan pie minus the nuts and a sugar cookie. Of course, I washed everything down with that favorite quencher of the South, sweet tea.

Besides eatin’ and drinkin’, there’s lots to do at the Colonels’ Barbeque. I met a delightful Colonel involved in the thoroughbred industry and the Robb Report, Robbie Switzer. He introduced me to many re-enactors of famous historical people that he knew. So, introductions went thusly: “This is George Rogers Clark, or also, Mel.” Other re-enactors included Daniel Boone, “Grandpa” Jones (do you remember Hee-Haw?) and Colonel Sanders. We also listened to the live 50’s music of the Monarchs and bluegrass stylings of Kentucky Blue. The Emporium is where you do your souvenir shopping . . .but you’ll want to go early. They ran out of t-shirts in my size (which is a Top State Secret). I did get the special pin commemorating the Barbeque; it’s a point of pride for Colonels to wear all the pins of all the Barbeques they’ve attended over the years.

The Colonels’ Barbeque is one of the most famous parties of the South: if you ever have the chance to go as a Colonel or Colonel’s guest, I hope to see y’all there.

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