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A fresh take on an Owensboro festival is bringing national attention to a little-known Kentucky delicacy

A black kettle bearing the slogan "Bar-B-Q Capital of the World" sits outside of the Moonlight Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro Kentucky
Jacob Martin
WKU Public Radio
A black kettle bearing the slogan "Bar-B-Q Capital of the World" sits outside of the Moonlight Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro, Kentucky

For many people, thinking about Kentucky brings to mind horse racing, Kentucky bourbon, or Bluegrass music. But in the western part of the state, there’s something flavorful and delicious that will make your mouth water that a lot of people don't necessarily associate with the Bluegrass state.

I’m talking about barbecue. More specifically, a style of barbecue that’s unique to a certain part of the state.

Owensboro sits on the banks of the Ohio River across from Indiana. It’s the self-proclaimed Bluegrass capital of the world and home to the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, but the city also has its hand in the barbecue world with its own unique take on the cuisine. It hosts an international barbecue festival that brings thousands of tourists to the city eager to taste the city’s unique style of barbecue.

If you visit or ask around, it's easy to find it is a point of pride for many locals and something they care about deeply.

Patrick Bosley is the third-generation owner of Moonlight Bar-B-Q Inn, an Owensboro staple that’s been serving plates of tangy, juicy meats since 1949. He said the culture and history of barbecue in Owensboro goes far deeper than just something to be cooked and eaten.

“Barbecue is both a verb and a noun, it’s something you eat and something you do,” Bosley said. “And I think as long as Owenboro remains a town, we’ll have barbecue.”

What makes Owensboro’s barbecue different?

Simply put, it’s the meat itself.

Owensboro is known for a specific style of barbecue using slow-cooked mutton, which is meat from a mature sheep that’s at least one year old. At one time mutton was popular along Americans, but began to fall out of vogue in favor of beef and pork after World War II.

According to Bosley, if you’re eating barbecue in Owensboro you’d better be ordering the mutton.

“It’s mutton, it's all about mutton,” Bosley said. “When you talk about Owensboro or western Kentucky barbecue, they’re talking about mutton, and when they talk about a barbecue sauce, it’s one we call ‘dip.’”

A hearty plate of barbecued mutton shoulder and ribs along with chopped chicken, beef barbecue, and a bottle of homemade 'dip'
Jacob Martin
WKU Public Radio
A hearty plate of barbecued mutton shoulder and ribs along with chopped chicken, beef barbecue, and a bottle of homemade 'dip'

In Owensboro, mutton is slow-cooked over hickory wood for hours and marinated in a spicy ‘dip’, an acidic, vinegar-based sauce with salt, pepper, and whatever special spices are desired. It’s a practice that spans generations in Owensboro and other southern counties in the state, with recipes, cooking styles, and methods being handed down from generation to generation.

The history of Owensboro is the history of its food.

The history of cooking mutton in the area also tells the story of the history of Owensboro and the people who make up the community.

Cooking mutton goes back to some of the earliest Welsh settlements in the western Kentucky town. Before the industrial revolution, farmers relied heavily on sheep livestock for the wool produced by the animals. When sheep were mature and stopped producing wool, farmers couldn’t afford to discard their livestock, so they began slowly cooking and smoking the tough meat to make it more tender.

Dave Kirk, director of the Owensboro Visitor Bureau, said the early settlers relied on the Ohio River as a trading post for livestock and other goods.

“The Ohio River had sheep crossings, that's why we have mutton,” Kirk said. “It was a sheep crossing and when they didn't have any more need for wool or the sheep stopped producing, they were like, ‘Heck, let’s smoke it, cook it over hickory wood for hours.’ Then you add some vinegar to tenderize it and that's where you get western barbecue-style meat.”

In addition to those Welsh settlements, Daviess County also has a large number of Catholic parishes, which reflects the county's early German Catholic population. Those parishes often hosted picnics and fundraisers where barbecue and burgoo, a hearty soup of mutton, vegetables, and whatever else might be around, were served to the community.

According to Bosley, it was these community events that continued the tradition of barbecue in Owensboro.

“Catholics played a really big part in keeping the mutton tradition going in this area because they had big church picnics,” Bosley said. “You do that with a barn raising, a church picnic, a family get-together and that's how the mutton tradition in this area got started. There’s still church picnics every summer and local parishes will serve mutton and they’ll serve burgoo.”

Those church celebrations eventually turned into an official, but friendly, competition in 1979. The International Barbeque Festival brought thousands of tourists to Owensboro and featured musical performances, square dancing, car shows, and of course, barbecue, including a competition for church cooking teams with bragging rights at stake for the best barbecue in the county.

Two members of Our Lady of Lourdes cooking team tend to their barbecue
Owensboro Daviess County Convention & Visitors Bureau
Two members of Our Lady of Lourdes cooking team tend to their barbecue

The festival is now known as, BBQ and Barrels, and is being held May 12-13. The rebranded event has added a new element many Kentuckians are familiar with: Kentucky bourbon.

The event in downtown Owensboro pairs 19 barbecue vendors and bourbon from 35 Kentucky distillers together to celebrate the rich history each offers the commonwealth.

According to Kirk, bourbon and barbecue go hand in hand.

“The two just pair really well together,” he said. “I don't know if it's something about the sweet and spicy of the barbecue and how that pairs a lot with bourbon, it kind of has those same elements of the oak and hickory and those aromas.”

Keeping with tradition, the event still features local church cooking teams and a barbecue cooking competition. This year, over 40 amateur cooking teams from different cities in Kentucky and Indiana will be firing up their grills for the Backyard BBQ Cook-Off, with bragging rights and prize money on the line.

John Jones has been cooking barbecue for 45 years and has been eating Owensboro barbecue his whole life. In 2015 his team took home first place in the competition. He said the tradition is about celebrating the barbecue culture, but there's also pride on the line when it comes to barbecue.

“We expect to compete. We want to have fun, don't get me wrong, but we want to compete and place well.”

Jones, an avid sports fan, said he likens his cooking team to his favorite professional football team, the Dallas Cowboys. He adds that while he believes his cooking is just as good as the Super Bowl winners, it’s ultimately all about the fun of the process.

“It means a lot to me because I’ve been blessed to be around some great cooks throughout my life,” Jones said. “I take pride in cooking the meats or making the burgoo or assisting at our local church. It's just great to get people together, cook and have fun.”

Whether you’re cooking or eating, if you ask Bosley about the future of the Owensboro barbecue, he said he hopes it continues to bring people together.

“I hope it doesn't change, I’d like to think that it brings people together and it's just that comradery that’s rare these days.”

Jacob Martin is a Reporter at WKU Public Radio. He joined the newsroom from Kansas City, where he covered the city’s underserved communities and general assignments at NPR member station, KCUR. A Louisville native, he spent seven years living in Brooklyn, New York before moving back to Kentucky. Email him at
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