I'm greedy therefore I am

They don't hold back in Kentucky. They know a pork chop when they see one. And a maggot. Could this be the Bourbon talking or is there something deeper going on in Nelson County?

You never know when culture shock will bite. There you are, thinking you've got the measure of a country, you're turning out of side roads onto the proper side of the main one, you've mastered the use of "y'all" and learned not to fear doggy bags, and suddenly some tiny detail turns everything on its head, reminds you that you are, after all, a stranger in a foreign country.

You never know when culture shock will bite. There you are, thinking you've got the measure of a country, you're turning out of side roads onto the proper side of the main one, you've mastered the use of "y'all" and learned not to fear doggy bags, and suddenly some tiny detail turns everything on its head, reminds you that you are, after all, a stranger in a foreign country.

In Kentucky, it was the night crawlers. There we were, barrelling down startlingly well-maintained B-roads through trimmed and primped woodland. Passing swatches of manicured pasture dotted with miniature Little Red Barns and neatly divided by strings of Pure Brilliant White wooden fencing. Oohing with delight at the ante-bellum clapboard houses whose very trees bear date plaques. And then I realised that a post-party overdose of a peanut-based snack called Nutter Butter (I had a couple of dozen in my suitcase as gifts) had left me severely dehydrated, and we started to hunt for a supply of America's dominant export.

In a tidy, small settlement we found a gas station on whose forecourt stood a vending machine. I piled out of the van, ran across the sunlit concrete and slipped a handful of change into the slot. Ran my eye down the choices. Rubbed my eyes and gaped open-mouthed. For instead of a multiple choice of sugar-free, caffeine-free, flavour-free cola, it offered some eight types of fishing bait. I mean, I knew that in Tokyo you could buy soiled knickers from vending machines, but only in America could you find one that offered you your choice of maggot.

Creepy-crawlies aren't the best things to be thinking about in the morning in the middle of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. The hospitality of Nelson County flows so freely, and measures are so robust, that even the strongest stomach can feel a little, well, delicate before it gets wrapped round a side of ribs and a bunch of fries at lunchtime. I gazed in nauseous wonder at this purveyor of squiggly horror for a moment, then sloped back to the van.

Kentucky is a place of contradictions, and most of them are related, one way or another, to the bourbon industry. For despite the fact that the state is the epicentre of production for the national drink, large swathes of it are dry. You can buy any number of long worms, but you can't get the hard stuff, or even the medium stuff, in many counties. And it shows.

As you cross the lines between wet and dry, it's like passing through the poor relations' section at a wedding. They're keeping up appearances, but everything's ready-to-wear, hair more obviously home-cut, figures less buffed and toned with the help of personal trainers. This is where trailer homes hide shamefacedly in woodland, where passing strangers greet you with gummy smiles.

And all because, six-odd decades ago, the inhabitants stuck by the letter of the law while next door in Nelson County, the likes of Jim Beam were smuggling their way to riches. Alcohol may be the curse of the working classes, but for the distributors, it's a bit of a blessing.

You get none of that in Nelson County. The area around Bardstown, epicentre of the bourbon industry, is conspicuously comfortable: a land of hobby-farms and plantation dwellings. It's hardly surprising, then, that Bardstown's inhabitants should want to hold an annual celebration of that which keeps its porches pristine.

And so the bourbon festival: an orgy of mutual back-slapping, big hair, marketing, dressing up, flesh-pressing, man-made fibres and coloured lights. Oh, and the consumption of vast quantities of food and alcohol at every opportunity. The statewide consumption of hairspray doubles overnight, local pharmacists run out of dyspepsia treatments and analgesics, caterers raid the sex shops for black-and-white maids' uniforms, ruffle manufacturers countrywide celebrate the makings of another bumper year as the matrons of Bardstown dress their generous bosoms. For the natives of Nelson County like to party, and they like to party in style.

Throughout the four-day festival, I dipped in and out of culture shock. We shuttled from distillery to distillery, peering into 30ft-deep mash barrels over whose contents carbon dioxide hangs in a visible pall like a heat wave. We contemplated the eerily beautiful gloom of giant warehouses where the slumbers of spiders are disturbed by the thunderous rumble of barrels being turned, resettling.

We gurgled in astonishment as corporate film after corporate film spun tales of "Oldtime" (somewhere, presumably, between Antique time and Slightly Shop-soiled time) and repainted the criminals of the prohibition era as latter-day pilgrims in search of freedom and the American way. We donned protective eyewear and stuck the necks of bottles into a machine that coated them in the red, plasticky wax of Makers' Mark. We made notes to tell our grannies about the shine on Labrot and Graham's elephantine copper stills, sniggered as we passed Knob Creek.

Passing a sports field on the outskirts of Bardstown, we came across a tight-packed crowd gathered around a PA system, chugging beer from the can and letting out roars of approval. We parked up and went over. Among the crowd, I recognised a few of the people whose frilled and starched tuxedos I had been admiring the previous night. Now, they were turned out in well-pressed jeans, work shirts. I strained to see over the heads of my statuesque beef-fed companions. "What's going on?" I asked vaguely to the air. "It's a barrel roll," the man next to me replied, as though this was sufficient explanation. "Say, are y'all from New York?"

In a fenced-off area in the middle of the crowd, teams of four men (and, of course, gutsy li'l ladies) in baseball hats bearing the logos of Five Roses, Buffalo Trace, Brown Forman, rolled barrels along pre-laid wooden tracks. As they turned corners, manoeuvred them into a mocked-up warehouse shelf, the crowd would applaude enthusiastically.

Like most sports whose rules are beyond one's comprehension, it remained interesting for about three minutes. Though Kentucky's notorious humidity had given way to a lighter, autumnal heat, it was still quite heavy for a mere limey. I retired to the shade of a large white van and concentrated on watching the punters drift to and from the food and souvenir stalls.

A small child brandished a stick of candyfloss twice the size of its head. An azure-haired old woman in crimplene hip-huggers mumbled toothlessly at a nightstick of broiled corn, butter dripping from chin to T-shirt. And waddling at snail's pace across the grass, the two fattest people I have ever seen who were still upright, a husband-and-wife team. I'm not talking no-access-to-the-Met-Bar fat, here: these people wobbled to freedom from a Ripley's Believe It Or Not show. Entire ecosystems must thrive unseen in their long-lost navels. Each clutched in sausage fingers a half-loaf filled with chopped barbecue. Their faces were fixed in a permanent whupped-puppy expression of melancholy.

But you see, I've got my head round the food thing. This sort of obesity isn't simply a question of untrammelled greed: it's cultural. It's a hangover from the settler lifestyle; when you didn't know where the next meal was coming from, you maxed out on calories when you could. If the Culinary Arts: Bourbon Style gourmet cookery seminar I attended is anything to go by, the national cuisine is still dedicated to this end. In the My Old Kentucky Home state park, a celebrated chef from Louisville's top restaurant taught us to cook bourbon-laced cream of barley soup (bacon, bourbon, pearl barley, cream), bourbon-marinated French rib pork chop (14oz chop per head, maple syrup, molasses, bourbon, ham jus) and bourbon chocolate pecan pie.

Apparently, he cooked these delights for President Clinton a while ago. Still, Bill's always had a unassuageable appetite for pork. Me, I had to pop out for air at regular intervals, and keep the car window wound down all the way to the balloon glow.

Now, here's another ritual that left me little the wiser. "You must see the balloon glow," a solid matron assured me in the small settlers' graveyard at My Old Kentucky Home. "Y'all've never seen anything like it. Are y'all from Canada?" So we drove for 45 minutes to another sports pitch. On the trampled grass, two dozen hot-air balloons bobbed gracefully, tethered, in the breeze. The crowd was unusually subdued, faces thrown into hellish masks by the light of flaming gas cylinders, the balloonists insouciant, playing to their audience with pouts and shrugs of feigned disinterest. Their charges were magnificent, rich hues bursting through the dark, thuds of straining silk as zephyrs caught high on their canopies and threw them sideways against restraints. As I was wondering when they were going to take off, everyone powered down their burners and started packing up for the night. Seems there's an entire subculture that drives about the state in vans to do this for 20 minutes on a weekend. Go figure.

There was nothing for it but to party. The festival ends with a magnificent marquee'd gala dinner and dance, but balloon night was Bourbon, Cigars and Jazz night, another chance to work those tuxedos at the open-air theatre, home of Stephen Foster, the Musical!.

This native of Pittsburgh is a Kentucky hero; he wrote the state song, "My Old Kentucky Home", as well as that of Florida, "Old Folks At Home", and the gold-rush anthem, "Oh Susanna". He is held in great reverence; a Kentuckyan will start to sing his works at the drop of a cork, though the "darkies" of the originals have been airbrushed into "people" over the years.

In the bowl of the theatre, Disneyesque scenery of an idealised, pastel-coloured small town behind them, the jazz aficionados had given way to a kicking Cajun band. The air was filled with flying frills, whirling bodies followed, seconds later, by bouffants that retained their shape through humidity and jigging and even flipping upside down in a Lindy hop. Now, this was more like it. Fat, six-inch stogey between my teeth, three fingers of bourbon in hand, I shed my shoes and took to the dance floor: stomped and clapped and punched the air, let rip as the fellas with the big beards pumped their squeeze-boxes. Sweat flew in great gobbets through the night, mascara-coated cheeks, bow ties hung at half-mast.

A pause. The Cajuns conferred, returned to microphones, stamped a couple of times with block heels and launched into another tune. Despite the polka-style rhythm, the wheeze of the airbags, it sounded oddly familiar. Then the whole of Bardstown lined up, slapped hands to breasts, stomachs, hips, backs of heads and I realised that I was witnessing the rebirth of the Macarena. We leapt to the end of a line, followed suit. One-two-one-two-one-two. It's not a hard dance to remember.

I was wiggling beside a blonde in powder-blue, her heavy necklace glued by perspiration to a well-corseted décolletage. She grinned at me, and then started back in amazement as she realised that I knew the steps. As the crowd performed a thumping line-dance stomp and turned in unison so that once again we were side by side, she leaned across, and yelled into my ear. "Say! Y'all know this song?" I nodded. "I didn't know," she shouted, "that they knew this outside of Kentucky!"

Getting there: no direct flights operate between the UK and Kentucky; the closest international gateway is Cincinnati, just across the Ohio border, with daily flights from Gatwick on Delta. Through the discount agent Quest Travel (020-8546 6000), the current fare is £477; slightly cheaper deals, and access from other UK airports, are available on United via Chicago, or Continental via Newark. From Cincinnati, Bardstown is a 100-mile drive; Louisville is closer, but cheap flights are hard to find.

The Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown: runs from 13-17 September. Highlights include: Balloon Glow, 13 Sept; Culinary Art: Bourbon Style Cooking School, 14 Sept; Bourbon Heritage Panel, free Midnight Music party, Bourbon, Cigars and Jazz, and Ky Arts and Crafts Show, all 15 Sept; Bourbon breakfast, World Championship Bourbon Barrel Relay, Bourbon Lunch and Fashion Show, Great Ky Bourbon Tasting and Gala, all 16 Sept. Most evening functions require advance ticket purchase: contact the Bardstown-Nelson Country Tourist Commission on (in US) 800 638-4877 or (from UK) 00 502 348-4877; or e-mail: info@bardstowntourism.com; the festival site is at www.kybourbonfestival.com

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