29th Annual Lexington Barbecue Festival
The only city festival I’ve ever been a part of is my hometown’s 4th of July celebration. The sidewalks are lined with crafts and decorations that try to link the passerby with the local businesses and a feeling of community.
When I was preparing myself to see the 29th Annual Lexington Barbecue Festival, an event that I had often heard of in the course of the two month count down, I did not picture Laurel, Delaware. I was expecting a fairground with plenty of parking, not Lexington’s Main Street shutdown from 5th Avenue to 4th Street and a $5 fee for all day parking in the backyard of longtime local, Kep Keply.
I arrived at 4:30pm, ready to spend the last 90 minutes of 2012’s festival with eyes wide open and my voice recorder close at hand so as not to spare a second when experiencing historic Uptown Lexington. Kep Keply was my first interview, and from him I learned that waiting for the end of the festival might have been a good choice if I wanted to see everything the vendors had to offer. “Two hours ago is was so crowded, you wouldn’t have been able to find parking, see the festival, or walk the trail.”
Keply has lived in Lexington since he was a young man, although he hasn’t been to the barbecue festival in years. With each passing year, the need for parking has increased and many community member like Keply charge a small all day fee to visitors so they can park in backyards. And it was here that I learned a community approach to the local festival I had never considered.
When I asked how he felt about the local event, I expected Keply and his neighbors to be rejoicing at the chance to share their community with others. The festival brings people from as far away as Germany and Australia to buy from a huge selection of food and craft vendors. Instead I learned that the event can be frustrating for locals and businesses. There isn’t enough parking, there aren’t enough people to organize a new system of parking, and almost all the businesses in the area of the festival have to close for the festival.
Some businesses, like the Purple Pig Emporium, stayed open; but it’s hard to compete for business with the festival affecting transportation. And there is a question of how cost effective is is for those towns to open on festival days. For the Purple Pig Emporium, the festival was their opportunity as a new store location to get their name out to the public. An art and collection gallery in which artists rent out a space and design to attract customers, the Purple Pig Emporium targets customers looking for something different. The owners were first attracted to Lexington because they saw the town as a growing shopping location. By just a glance in their store, they seemed to have plenty of customers despite the craft and attraction competition outside.
Vendors for the festival are approved by the festival director Stephanie Naser, who is also the daughter of the original Lexington Barbecue Festival, Stephanie Saintsing. Vendors submit a petition to be able to participate the festival. Some of the attractions that stuck out were a Statue Mime, Carnival Tent with an Elephant and Pigs sandcastle and the Farm Animal Race.
White painted face matches the tux and top hat of the Statue Mime who asks for tips to support local art; for a dollar or more, he plays a tune on black guitar an avenue before the Farm Animal Race. Pig and ducks with NASCAR related names (like Number Fourteen, Squealing Tony Stewart) attracted the kids and parents not busy with the kiddie rides or “The Tales of Barnacle Bill: Pirates, Poets and Pretty Maid All in a Row”.
The main attraction I expected was for the barbecue itself. I was looking forward to a competition between barbecue vendors, with a large selection of barbecue styles to choose from. What I found was multiple Lexington barbecue restaurants working together to create fifteen to sixteen thousand pounds of one recipe. Although it didn’t meet my expectation, the people and barbecue I was introduced to were phenomenal. I even saved enough room to try a North Carolina hand lump blue crab cake, a much creamer recipe than I have access to in my hometown.
Seeing the closing down of the 29th Annual Lexington Barbecue Festival allowed me to see the evolution of a local festival from massively populated to the barebones of a closed down town. The stark difference encourages me to want to see the beginning of the festival until it’s peak in 2013.
Kaffee Cope & The 29th Annual Lexington Barbecue Festival
Kaffe Cope, owner of Smokey Joe’s Barbecue, is one of the five Lexington barbecue restaurant owners who has participate in the Lexington Barbecue Festival since it’s creation. Each restaurant contributed fifteen to sixteen thousand pounds of barbecue for this local festival that brings visitors as far as Germany. As the 29th Annual Lexington Barbecue Festival wound down, Cope answered a few questions about the barbecue being served and the festival past and present.
What restaurants participate in the Lexington Barbecue Festival? Why them?
“Smokey Joe’s, Barbecue Center, Speedy’s Barbecue Inc., Jimmy’s Barbecue and Stamey’s Barbecue are all Lexington restaurants. We’ve go so much invested in this event, and even when people say there are other restaurants, you just don’t let another one walk in....We are five restaurants working together as a team.”
When did you start cooking for today’s festival?
“12 o’clock yesterday. We can cook 129 shoulders at my house. We cooked at the restaurant all night long.”
What kind of barbecue is made at the festival?
“Smokey Joe’s barbecue is pit cooked. Pit cooking is an art, and we still have people who know how to pit cook, so that’s what we choose to do at this time. It’s just a different kind of flavor. The slaw is ketchup based; made with ketchup, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. We have Mayo based slaw at our restaurant, but not at the festival.”
What was your first Lexington Barbecue Festival experience like?
“It was a learning experience. And then the next year just washed us out. I mean, the chances you take of it raining after you’ve cooked a tremendous amount of food is always a worry. But we take it. It’s what we do for the community and the economy of the town.”
Some people local forward to the Lexington Barbecue Festival while others feel more resigned about the event. How do you feel about the situation?
“I do not understand that concept. In a town with 10% unemployment rate, why would you not want it to come to town with all the people who are spending money?
How do you prepare for next year?
“We start preparing for next year as soon as this one is over. We usually gage how this year went and then we start in the summer; we’ll talk and then have our first meeting right after Labor Day. We’ve done it so much, it’s really just watching the weather.”
“We’re just so proud of our heritage, and our ability to do this every year.”