The Year of Kentucky Food
Bubbling Hot Browns, a bounty of Kentucky Bibb salads, and bourbon – lots and lots of bourbon.
The Bluegrass state is celebrating The Year of Kentucky Food in 2018 and every region in the state has created a Signature Menu boasting their bests – those heritage recipes that rely on what’s available locally combined with a dash of pure Kentucky ingenuity. Practically since statehood in 1792, Kentuckians have loved sitting down to the dinner table. Here’s why.
In the Bourbon, Horses & History region encompassing Louisville, Bardstown and Shelbyville, among other cities, the Signature Menu brings A-list players to the table: Kentucky Bibb salad, the beloved Hot Brown, succotash, and bourbon biscuit pudding. Even the region’s signature beverage, the Old-Fashioned, is based on what Kentucky does best – bourbon.
Find Kentucky Bibb Lettuce on the menu at Shelbyville’s Science Hill Inn, known for serving traditional Kentucky fare. The salad is layered with flavor – artichoke hearts, country ham, turkey, cheese and Bibb lettuce, ripe olives, hearts of palm, bacon and choice of dressing – and served in the historic setting of a former school whose curriculum provided a traditional “gentlelady’s education” (reading, writing and the social graces), along with the study of the sciences.
A couple blocks away at the Bell House Restaurant, you can sink your teeth into a cheesy, bubbly Hot Brown in one of several charming gallery-style dining rooms. This version, featuring sliced turkey on toast points in a delicate Mornay sauce topped with bacon and tomato, is deliciously similar to the one created originally at Louisville’s Brown Hotel in the 1920s.
Hear that bell? That’s the old city fire bell, which now sits proudly in the front yard of the Bell House. Each day the bell is rung in celebration of the pure joy of food – a party that’s been going on in Kentucky since the first explorers tossed their own locally sourced ingredients into the cook-pot.
For dessert, you’ll have to travel a bit further, to the Bourbon Capital of the World in Bardstown and Kurtz Restaurant where a luscious bourbon biscuit pudding is served. Homey, buttery and sauced with fine Kentucky bourbon, it is a signature dish of the restaurant, now owned and operated by the fourth generation of the Kurtz family.
A sigh of satisfaction
Find more culinary cornerstones in Kentucky’s Horses, Bourbon & Boone Region right next door. The Signature Menu starts off with an addictive app: beer cheese. The birthplace of beer cheese is in Winchester and an official Beer Cheese Trail celebrates its ooey-gooey goodness with eight stops and an official Beer Cheese Log.
One of the stops, Hall’s on the River, has been offering hospitality since the late 1700s – although beer cheese itself is of a more recent vintage. Hall’s is home to the Original Snappy Beer Cheese that was created more than 50 years ago, according to legend, by a guy named Joe Allman for his cousin Johnny Allman, who owned restaurants on the Kentucky River. Long story short: Johnny lost a restaurant and his recipes in a card game and George and Gertrude Hall acquired both when the winner of that ill-fated card game passed away. That was in 1965, and the beer cheese has been a menu mainstay ever since.
Next up: Kentucky beef. This region is home to the largest cattle farm in Kentucky, Robert L. Conley Livestock in Georgetown, and Kentucky’s Fort Harrod Beef Festival, which takes place annually in early June in Harrodsburg.
Where’s the beef? Order a perfectly seasoned, mouthwatering Big Daddy Burger at the Olde Bus Station, celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2018 – which is actually a former Greyhound Station – in downtown Harrodsburg. Try a delicious steak made with beef from Black Hawk Farms at Georgetown’s Local Feed. This farm-to-table restaurant is tucked into a former circa 1890s ice house across the street from a landmark connected to one Elijah Craig. (More on him later.)
Among the offerings for sides is spoon bread, a delicacy most connected to Berea and its Spoonbread Festival, which began in 1997 and takes place annually in September. A dessert of bourbon and chocolate sweetens the meal, and these yummies are found in abundance in Georgetown.
No matter where you stroll along downtown’s picture-perfect Victorian-era street, you won’t be far from a bakery, including Sweet & Sassy Ashley’s, Sweet Matriarch’s and More Than Cake, and their tempting confections: bourbon cupcakes, bourbon balls, bourbon cake pops and other sweet, bourbon-laced bites.
Sipping America’s native spirit
Any celebration of Kentucky food would fall short a jigger or two without giving bourbon its due on the menu. Kentucky holds its legends dear, including that of Baptist preacher Rev. Elijah Craig being the first to produce bourbon whiskey in 1789 and doing so (in all likelihood) at Royal Spring Park in Georgetown. (Craig was also the first distiller to use charred oak casks, which gives bourbon its beautiful color and distinctive taste – and for which bourbon aficionados everywhere thank him.)
New distilleries and restaurants continue to add to Kentucky’s bourbon landscape, including one of the state’s newest restaurants, Bourbon Kitchen at 524. Opened on March 1 in Shelbyville, it features a full 50-bourbon bar, signature dishes and an all-inclusive menu featuring locally-sourced ingredients, Kombucha-based mocktails and a welcoming community gathering space.
Among the restaurant’s 50 bourbons are fan faves like Rabbit Hole, Woodford Reserve and Barterhouse Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Signature dishes include a honey bourbon pork chop, espresso bourbon-glazed steak and bourbon Caprese chicken.
The restaurant interior is artistic, personal and funky, with a community table made from reclaimed barn wood, other handmade wooden tables “electrocuted” to imprint a bonsai tree design, an Old Charter Bourbon billboard that previously sat along Interstate 64 and an entire wall is devoted to chalkboard paint and art created by the owners.
In keeping with Kentucky’s tradition of extending hospitality, Bourbon Kitchen at 524 hosts a roster of community events, including a weekly Sunday brunch, monthly live music, date nights and a variety of community-focused parties.
To learn more about the Year of Kentucky Food, visit www.kentuckytourism.com.