It’s no secret that Southerners are a bit particular when it comes to cuisine. From grits and greens to catfish and corn-pone, the typical pantheon of Southern food is painted with broad strokes and a healthy dollop of bacon grease; that is, it takes a lot to out-Southern a Southern cook. In the hills of Kentucky, however, you’ll find a slew of culinary masterpieces that could make even the most well-versed connoisseur of Southern cooking raise an inquisitive brow. If you ever find yourself in the Bluegrass State, be sure to pull over and pop in to take a taste of these Kentucky originals.
Kentucky Burgoo is more a concept than a recipe. Traditionally a community effort, this thick stew is a hodge-podge medley of whatever happens to be available to throw into the pot: meat—originally wild game like venison, squirrel, or the errant opossum, but now typically more domesticated fare like pork or mutton—combined with a neighborly smorgasbord of vegetables, merrily bubbled away in a massive iron kettle for up to thirty hours, and ready to eat when the stirring spoon will stand upright. Stories of how burgoo got its name are as varied as the recipe, though most revolve around the Southern propensity to colloquialize words that don’t sit well on a Dixie tongue (is it a mispronunciation of ragout? bourgout? bulgar? barbeque?). Regardless of its curious moniker, however, a good bowl of burgoo is a staple of any Kentucky gathering.
In the South, a dessert is never just a dessert. Case in point: the Kentucky stack cake, a teetering confection of pancake-thin layers held together with equal parts eggs, apples, and tradition. The stack cake was originally created as a way to help offset the prohibitive financial burden of a wedding cake; each wedding guest would bake and bring a single layer of the cake, which would then be spread thick with dried apples or preserves and plopped atop a growing stack. The result not only fed the crowd but stood as a visual testament to the newlywed’s reputation: the higher the stack, the more popular the couple. Though stack cakes have, for the most part, fallen out of the nuptial circuit, the spirit of competition remains very much alive in the oven-warmed kitchens of Kentucky’s matriarchs, who, with sweet Southern smiles, modest nods, and the steady hands of gunslingers, wage an ongoing battle of epicurean engineering, constantly striving to construct the highest cake.
In the 1920’s, Louisville’s Brown Hotel was hopping, drawing droves of the city’s finest for long nights of dinner and dancing beneath the elegant sparkle of the Crystal Ballroom. The end of the night’s activities always left the revelers looking for a late-night meal, and the hotel’s chef, Fred K. Schmidt, was happy to oblige them. Determined to supply something a bit more elegant than a hum-drum plate of ham and eggs, he created the Hot Brown, a savory, open-faced sandwich substantial enough to require a knife and fork and decadent enough to inspire a swoon. A thick slice of pillowy bread, piled high with thick slices of fresh turkey, bacon, and tomatoes, smothered in a thick mornay sauce, and baked until bubbly brown, the sandwich was, not surprisingly, an instant hit. Today, the tradition continues, both at the Brown Hotel, which still serves up an average of 800 of the sandwiches a week, and in restaurants, cafés, and kitchens across the state, a legend of Kentucky cuisine.
The South is no stranger to barbeque. Slow-cooked pork and beef are the hallmark of southern cooking: fiercely debated, nitpicked, and presented in an infinite variety. What you’ll find roasting away on Kentucky’s spits, pits, and smokers, however, is in a class of its own. When the beginning of the nineteenth century saw a dramatic increase in the profit to be had from wool production, Kentucky’s farmers found themselves in a bit of a quandary: the age at which sheep were the best for wool was also the age at which they were their tastiest. Fortunately for Kentuckians, there are few things—including tough, past their prime sheep—that a long, slow cook over hot hickory coals and a constant mopping “mutton dip” (a special mix of Worcestershire, vinegar, and spices) can’t remedy. A lasting testament to the success of the endeavor, mutton barbeque remains a Kentucky specialty to this day.
A chilled bourbon on a hot day may be delightful, but muddled with mint, splashed with a suggestion of simple syrup, and poured over crushed ice, it’s absolutely divine. Though the first written mention of the Mint Julep dates back to 1803 (described as a pre-dawn dram of pep-in-your-step for field-bound farmers), the twentieth century saw it enter the arena of the upper-crust, a must-have classic at derbies and staple of Southern-summer soirees. It wasn’t long before the mint julep, filled with warming bourbon, topped cooling mint, and served in its requisite, frost-covered pewter cup, became the official drink of the Kentucky Derby’s Churchill Downs. Sweet as picture hat and cool as seersucker, the Mint Julep is pure Kentucky.
Secrets aren’t easy to keep in a small Kentucky town . . . unless, that is, you’re a member of the Kern family, the infamously tight-lipped creators of the Derby-Pie®; their family recipe has been coveted by cooks since Leaudra Kern pulled the first sinfully decadent pie out of the oven over half a century ago. The confection, which originated in the family operated kitchen of Kentucky’s Melrose Inn, is a combination of chocolate chips and crushed walnuts piled atop a sticky-sweet secret filling that softens in the oven and melts in the mouth. Even though today’s Derby-Pies® are produced commercially in Louisville and shipped to all corners of the country, the recipe—and trademarked name—remain fiercely guarded; only the official baker is allowed to see the final combination of ingredients. Attempts to duplicate the unbelievable richness of the pie inevitably meet with disappointment; the only way to get in on a slice of Derby-Pie® is to get it from the source, and that at least, is a Kentucky secret worth sharing.
No discussion of Kentucky’s culinary contributions would be complete without a moment of appreciation for Bourbon Whiskey. Sweet, mellow, and smooth, the unique tenor of Kentucky bourbon is a masterpiece 200 years in the making. From the region’s first distillers, whose innovative use of charred oak barrels lent their whiskey its distinctive honey color and caramelized flavors, to today’s boutique bourbonites that painstakingly tweak single-batch barrels into perfection, each generation has left its stamp, creating what is now known around the globe as “America’s Native Spirit.”