Kentucky cuisine is comforting, substantive, and brings with it the weight of tradition. It wonâ€™t make you run like a Thoroughbred, but add some Henry Bain sauce, and throw in a mint julep or an Ale-8, and it will make watching the nags run even more enjoyable.
You canâ€™t go too far into the stateâ€™s culinary heritage without encountering the keyword â€œfried.â€ Fried catfish. Fried chicken. Country fried steak. Hushpuppies (fried). But our gardens yield fresher morsels: green beans, okra, greens, tomatoes. Tomatoes for the Hot Brown being crafted by your grandmother, or down the road in the kitchen at The English Grill.
Irish immigrants brought us burgoo (a spin-off of Mulligan stew), and just as it is a food of the people, made with whatever vegetables and meats happen to be on handâ€”formerly venison, squirrel, or opossum; currently pork, chicken or muttonâ€”so too is it, traditionally, a communal meal, perfect for civic gatherings. And best served with a nice side of another Bluegrass standard, cornbread. Letâ€™s not forget Kentucky country ham with its famous dry-rub curing, corn pudding, Benedictine, hickory smoked pork or mutton barbecue (rather than beef).
From Lawrenceburg (burgoo) to Berea (spoonbread), from Louisville (Benedictine, rolled oysters, and the Hot Brown) to Owensboro (Barbecue), from Corbin (fried chicken) to Prospect (Derby Pie), to parts unknown (the mint julep), whether youâ€™re throwing together a picnic or sitting down to a four-diamond dinner, Kentucky culinary heritage canâ€™t help but satisfy.
Everyone has their favorite fried chicken. We donâ€™t need to explain what this heavenly gift is and where it comes from, because we all know. Dark meat, white meat, drum stick, thigh, breast. We know our favorite go-to as well â€“ KFC, Indiâ€™s, Chicken King. Heck, you probably prefer your grandmotherâ€™s own recipe. Fried chicken is comforting, warm, crispy, delicious, sinful, and (for good reasons and bad) Kentucky through and through.
Other than horses, what do you think of when you think of the Kentucky Derby? The Mint Julep of course â€“ the staple of Derby festivities and the quintessential Southern drink to get you good and tipsy on a balmy summerâ€™s afternoon.
While the origins of this sweet and boozy concoction might be shrouded in mystery with the first mention of a julep coming at the tail-end of the 18th century, and made with either gin, brandy or whiskey, todayâ€™s version is very much a bourbon drink.Â
But need it be only a Derby drink? Not according to Beth Anne Burrows, assistant general manager at Down One Bourbon Bar.
â€œWhen you make something as delicious as this then you should drink it all the time.â€
In fact Burrows has her own take on the classic which she terms â€œThe Ginger Bear Julep,â€ which consists of a blackberry shrub (blackberries, ginger) as well as a vinegar reduction, served with mint and a hint of ginger liqueur. As for the bourbon, she fancies a Henry McKenna single barrel 100 proof.
So why not go out and enjoy this Kentucky classic all year around, rather than wait for the ponies to get to the starting gate, during the first week of May.
It took over 100 years for one of Louisvilleâ€™s most recognizable flavors to hit the dinner tables outside of its origins at the historic Pendennis Club.
Born in 1863, Henry Bain was one of the earliest employees of the club when it was situated above Rossâ€™ Grocery Store, on the present site of the Seelbach Hotel, where he worked as an elevator boy. By the 1880s heâ€™d become the clubâ€™s maitreâ€™d, and an integral part of the club where the cityâ€™s â€œSocietyâ€ gathered. It was also around this time that he developed the sauce that would bear his name to accompany the steaks served on the premises and with game animals. Little else is known about the man described by Kentucky tycoon Barry Bingham Sr., who met Bain as a child and described his â€œperfect manners, and remarkable memory for names.â€
So while we know relatively little about Henry Bain himself, we know one thing for sure â€“ that his sauce containing: sugar, vinegar, mango, spices, raisins, onion, garlic, Worcestershire sauce and a plethora of other ingredients is pretty darn delicious and works when lathered on almost anything.
â€œBurgoo has a lot of spices, and a lot of meat,â€ explains Ethan Egger chef at Frankfort Avenue Beer Depot. â€œWe use chicken, we use pork and brisket too in there.â€
Gone are the days of making burgoo with opossums, squirrels and whatever else with a heartbeat you could get your hands on. Now mutton, beef and chicken are the order of the day, as well as an abundance of spices and go to any local barbecue joint and youâ€™ll see a different take on the stew-y classic.
Today, burgoo is also a civic dish, with fundraisers often being the place where people bring their selected ingredient to contribute to the recipe. Itâ€™s a dish for which too many cooks definitely donâ€™t spoil the broth. Wherever you go in Kentucky, you will find a regional take on this bluegrass classic.
â€œItâ€™s just a good hearty soup,â€ adds Egger. â€œEspecially because all of our meat is smoked in-house.â€
In 2006 Matt Jamie started Bourbon Barrel Foods because he realized that there was a glaring opportunity for using the world-class ingredients that Kentucky had to offer to create something unique and wonderful. The result was Bluegrass Soy Sauce â€“ made with homegrown non-GMO soybeans, soft red winter wheat, and using limestone filtered Kentucky water â€“just as bourbon is. Aged for a year in repurposed bourbon barrels Jamie and his team created a smoky sauce perfect with any dish with all the added subtlety and sweetness of Kentucky bourbon itself.
Bourbon balls are unique to Kentucky. While similar to truffles, itâ€™s the cream rather than theÂ chocolate center that makes them unique – that and the bourbon that gives them their unique taste. While similar desserts may have existed in the past, the story goes that Ruth Booe of Frankfort, Ky., invented the chocolates in 1938 having spent two years perfecting the recipe in her shop Rebecca Ruth Candy.
So where can you get the best bourbon balls in Louisville? Well, why not head down to Cellar Door Chocolates where owner Erika Chavez-Graziano has her own take on the Kentucky classic with an even creamier center and a multitude of flavors.
â€œWe actually call ours buttercreams,â€ she explains. â€œTheyâ€™re so good because theyâ€™re so creamy and thereâ€™s no solid center, perfect for pairing with bourbon.â€
Everyone loves cucumbers right? Yep. Cream cheese? Sure thing. So when you combine the two you get Benedictine spread, another classic Southern culinary gem invented right here on our doorstep.
The brainchild of Jennie Benedict, a local restaurateur and businesswoman, the Benedictine sandwich was invented while Benedict built a career as the editor of the Courier-Journalâ€™s household department, as well as running her restaurant â€œBenedictâ€™s,â€ on South Fourth Street, which opened in 1900 and sold in 1925. Today, the Benedictine spread is a favorite amongst anyone who craves a rich, creamy and cool addition to their sandwiches or recipes.Â Â
One fine example is the â€œQueen Anneâ€ sandwich at The Cafe. â€œItâ€™s made with homemade Benedictine spread, fresh cucumber slices, lettuce and bacon, served on artisan walnut wheat bread,â€ explains Sal Rubino, owner of The Cafe.
Created in 1926 by Frederick Schmidt, chef at The Brown Hotel the Hot Brown is the king of iconic Louisville and, arguably, of iconic Kentucky food. Sure, fried chicken is a close second, but that can be found in a lot of places. But the Hot Brown? Where is better than the place of its origin, the place where dancers in the 1920s would shimmy and shake all night in the hotelâ€™s Bluegrass Room, wanting something quick and easy to eat at the end of the night.
The Hot Brown is a devilishly simple creation â€“ an open face turkey breast sandwich, served with bacon, tomatoes, topped with elegant Mornay sauce and garnished with parsley. Best of all, the recipe has never changed: Turkey breast, oven-roasted for 45 hours, cut, portioned and made into the delicious dish we all know and love.
According to Kelsey Long, purchasing manager at The Brown Hotel, and formerly the chef of J Grahams Cafe and Banquet, itâ€™s undoubtedly the favorite item at the hotel, and when they add up the numbers at the end of the year theyâ€™re said to be staggering. So whatâ€™s the key to the dishâ€™s success?
â€œThe key is the Mornay [sauce],â€ explains Long. â€œItâ€™s creamy, delicious and there is that slight hint of nutmeg that ties it all together.â€
Back in 1884, five brothers moved to Louisville from Genoa, Italy. They were the Mazzoni brothers, and together they set up taverns in various spots around town. One thing that united them was rolled oysters â€“ a dish that brother Philip served to drinkers in his tavern on the corner of Third and Market with every beverage. When Prohibition was passed in 1919, Mazzoniâ€™s Cafe remained open as a restaurant and carried on serving the dish for the next 125 years until it closed in 2008.
Two or three raw oysters rolled in batter and bread crumbs to create a ball of salty, gooey splendor, now available in virtually any fish fry in the city. Be sure to go get your hands on one ASAP.
If the Mint Julep is the iconic Derby drink then the Derby Pie is the dessert equivalent. Invented by the Kern family, owners of the Melrose Inn in Prospect, Ky., in 1950.Â Â
The pie consists of walnuts, chocolate, bourbon (of course) and is awesome. After all, when you combine those ingredients, how could it not be? Today, Kernâ€™s Kitchen is the only place to get the authentic recipe for Derby Pie as it was intended over half a century ago.