It’s hard to know just where to start in writing about the World Chicken Festival in London, Ky. this weekend Sept. 22-25, but perhaps a good place is with the World’s Largest Stainless Steel Skillet, a feature of the popular festival since 1992.
Ten and a half feet in diameter with an eight-foot handle, it’s divided into four cooking areas and weighs 700 pounds — that’s before it’s filled with 300 gallons of cooking oil.
For three days (the skillet rests on Sunday) volunteers tend the 600 quarters of chicken that can be cooked in it at one time. In the 30 years since the first skillet (the current one was built in 1999) was fired up, more than 120,000 chicken dinners have been cooked in its oils.
World Chicken Festival attractions, lineup
But the skillet is by no means the only attraction at the festival.
There is live music concerts throughout the days and into the evenings, including Friday’s headliner 90s band Gin Blossoms and Saturday’s top bill, country music star Tracy Lawrence.
On Sunday afternoon for four hours, Town Center Park will feature a “Gospel Eggstravaganza” with a blend of gospel, cappella, hymns, Americana, folk, and inspirational music.
There are also the traditional festival attractions, including a midway with carnival games and rides, a parade and arts, crafts and plenty of food. There is, of course, the popular Colonel Sanders (note, he was a Kentucky Colonel only, no true military heritage there) look-a-like contest (sponsored by the Sanders Café & Museum in Corbin) but there’s also a family look-a-like contest, a chicken cook-off, a whiskers and beard contest in addition to a hot-wing eating contest, just to name a few.
But what has drawn a lot of attention lately is the rooster tail mullet contest, which went viral online from the festival’s Facebook page a couple of years ago.
For those eager to do something more than strutting like a rooster to burn off the fried chicken, there is also a “Run for the Roost” 5K Saturday morning.
World Chicken Festival becomes one of Kentucky’s largest festivals
The World Chicken Festival was the brainchild of a small group of London and Laurel County neighbors who began thinking in the late-‘80s about how to create an event that would celebrate the region’s connection to fried chicken. In addition to Sanders, whose first restaurant was in nearby Corbin, his nephew, Lee Cummings, also began his Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken in Laurel County. The first World Chicken Festival took place in 1990, the largest skillet was inaugurated two years later (initially it was only a display item but people were so impressed that it was converted into a working skillet), and the egg-citement has continued to grow since.
The festival grew from a relatively local event in its early years to one of Kentucky’s largest festivals by 2019 (there was no festival in 2020 due to COVID) with as many as 100,000 visitors “if the weather is perfect,” said Kelly Burton, a staffer with the London-Laurel County Tourism Commission who coordinates the event with Kim Collier.
The festival was established as a non-profit and works to benefit other community non-profits as well, Burton said. For example, the 84-Lumber Chicken Invasion in a contest sponsored by 84-Lumber which produces wooden chicken cutouts for contestants to decorate and be displayed on the courthouse grounds. It costs a dollar a vote for those who want to weigh in on the best chicken. Proceeds are split between the festival, to cover costs, and the London London Rotary Club.
If you can’t make the festival this year, rest assured it will happen again next year. It’s always the last full weekend in September, taking in Thursday afternoon and evening, all day Friday and Saturday. On Sunday they have to close down 5 p.m., Burton said, “so we can break everything down and make it look like business as usual Monday morning,”
World Chicken Festival
Where: Main Street, downtown London, Ky.
When: Sept. 22-25
Schedule of events: Chickenfestival.com/schedule-at-a-glance