Reader Jillian asks if we have any other unique foods here in Louisville. Well Jillian, it’s taken me a while to learn them, but yes indeed we do. The odd thing is that so few are directly related to the Kentucky Derby. You’d think that as the home of one of the world’s best-known sporting events we’d have gone hog-wild with Kentucky Derby…everything…ages ago. But no. Derby Pie(®) is the only well-known edible thing we have with the world “derby” slapped on it.
Which is not to say that there isn’t a whole lot else here that’s unique and interesting. The first odd food I noticed on arrival nine years ago was the rolled oyster. Though you see fewer and fewer of them around these days, they’re a relic of the oyster craze that swept America in the 1880’s. Sure, most people don’t associate Kentucky with sea coasts and mollusk farms, but 125 years ago oysters were very easy to get here. Louisville was a straight shot by steamboat from the gulf…just head up the Mississippi River and hang a right when you get to the Ohio. Most of our whiskey took the reverse route to ready markets in New Orleans. In fact a leading theory as to why Kentucky bourbon is called “bourbon” is because a whole lot of it was sold on Bourbon Street. Anyway, it was an Italian immigrant by the name of Philip Mazzoni who invented the rolled oyster, a fist-sized deep fried hushpuppy sort of thing made of one or two cooked oysters held together with moist cracker crumbs. Mazzoni’s last mainstay location was less than a mile from where I’m sitting now. Alas it closed about two years ago, but the tradition of the rolled oyster endures.
Another food oddity here is a bright green savory dip by the name of Benedictine. This crazy stuff was the brainchild of one Jennie Benedict, a famous caterer here back in about 1900. It’s a mixture of grated cucumber, onion and cream cheese, finished with a drop of green food coloring that gives it the gentle tint of a 60’s pillbox hat. Less lovingly made, it glows like nuclear runoff. You see a lot of it at Derby parties.
Next on the list is the Kentucky Hot Brown, an open-faced ham and turkey sandwich covered with mornay sauce and baked. The Hot Brown is a product of Louisville’s famous Brown hotel, where legend has it, it was served late at night to guests returning from plays, concerts or bar crawls. That might explain all the odd garnishes that once adorned it, everything from bacon, tomatoes and pimentos to canned peaches.
Oh, did you know that I recently attained the rank of Colonel? It’s true. A couple of years ago Mrs. Pastry pulled a few strings and had me designated a Kentucky Colonel, which is the title Colonel Sanders carried. The Kentucky Colonels are what you might call a non-martial honor guard for the governor. Back in 1813 when the Kentucky Colonels were first created, they did serve military roles, however since about 1920 they’ve been known for philanthropy, picnics and a legendary three-meat stew called “burgoo”, essentially Kentucky’s answer to gumbo.
Speaking of meat, did you know a little thing called the cheeseburger was invented in Louisville as well? It’s the God’s honest truth. The cheeseburger first appeared on a printed menu at a place called Kaelin’s, a neighborhood restaurant that was also about a mile from where I’m sitting now at Joe Pastry World Headquarters. Kaelin’s also closed around two years ago. These days it’s (yet another) Irish-style pub. Sigh.
So let’s see now…ah yes, there’s another important garnish you’ll want to have handy if you’re planning on steak Kentucky style: pickled walnuts. They can be sprinkled on alone or as a component of Lousville’s famous Henry Bain steak sauce, a mixture of pickled walnuts, Worchestershire sauce, Tabasco and chili sauce. Who was Henry Bain you ask? A waiter at the Pendennis Country Club. He’s said to have invented the sauce that carries his name in 1881.
Here I should insert that folks in Louisville are big fans of nuts just generally. Walnuts and especially salted pecans are big here, probably because they match so beautifully with bourbon.
Sweet-wise, other than the horse race pie, the only other sugary things that hail specifically from Louisville are “majestics”, basically caramels filled with marshmallow. They were named for a famous Shakespearean actress of the late 19th century, one Helena Modjeska.
I could broaden the discussion to Kentucky in general and talk about bourbon, mutton cookouts and Kentucky black dip barbecue sauce, however I hope I’ve given you a sense for the food traditions here, Jillian. More than you thought probably, yes? And a nice refutation to the claims you hear that all the Outback Steak Houses and Hooters along our highways are homogenizing our local cuisines. Nope, there’s plenty of good stuff out there if you’re willing to look for it. I hear they make a mean fried brain sandwich just up the road in Evansville. I gotta get up there one of these days.