So it seems that with the Kentucky Derby almost ready to get under way, every food writer worth their salt and truffles is scribbling frantically about where to find a big hat, a disreputable suit, some moustache wax and a mint julep with which to properly celebrate the big race.
Me? I hate mint juleps. Mint and sugar are terrible things to add to an otherwise delicious glass of straight bourbon whiskey, and frankly, any drink that requires muddling just doesn't seem worth the effort to me. So rather than just sit here and talk more about packed ice versus loose ice or what brand of bourbon makes the best julep, I've decided to break somewhat with tradition and talk about some authentically Kentuckian food to eat in order to pad the belly against all that whiskey.
I'll start off with the most obvious one first...1. Kentucky Fried Chicken
Harlan David Sanders, who, like some kind of Bond villain, is better known simply as "The Colonel," had quite a life before becoming the godfather of fast-food chicken. He was a steamboat pilot and an insurance salesman, worked on the railroad, did a little farming, and fought with the army in Cuba. But it wasn't until he bought a service station in Corbin, Kentucky and started serving fried chicken to customers out of his living quarters in back that the Colonel truly found his calling.
According to wikipedia (the only source I trust for information on fast-food mascots), "He was given the honorary title 'Kentucky Colonel' in 1935 by Governor Ruby Laffoon. He was re-commissioned in 1950 by Governor Lawrence Wetherby. Although he had been a Kentucky Colonel for nearly two decades, it wasn't until after 1950 that Sanders began to look the part, growing his trademark mustache and goatee and donning his white suit and string tie."
If you're looking for Harlan's kind of pressure-fried chicken in Seattle, I'd head over to the Marco Polo Saloon which I believe has the only pressure-frying system in the area. And the fried chicken ain't bad either.
Oh, and I am totally changing my name to "Ruby Laffoon," by the way. That is just awesome.
2. Kentucky Hot Brown
The original Kentucky Hot Brown was served by the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky and consisted of sliced, roasted turkey on white toast, topped with mornay sauce and shredded parmesan cheese. It was then put under the broiler until everything melted and turned brown, and finished with pimento and bacon strips. I kinda want one right now, but can't for the life of me find a single place in Seattle that serves one.
A thick stew (or porridge, if you're British) made in Kentucky with hickory-smoked pork or mutton, corn, lima beans and potatoes. In Kentucky, it is often made almost like chili--a slow-cooked mess of ingredients, heavily spiced and varying in recipe from almost one square foot to the next.
Finding it in Seattle? Good luck. I can't find a single source in the immediate area. But, weirdly, there are several places in Vancouver, B.C. (like Burgoo Bistro, for example) that have it, and many people there who seem obsessed with it.
4. Derby Pie
No really. What IS it? Well, it's basically a chocolate and walnut pie. Or sometimes pecans. Or sometimes other stuff, depending on whose recipe you use.
Sounds like nothing to write home about, right? And yet, this pie is often the center of raging legal controversies that continue to this very day."
People will fight over anything. In Kentucky, they fight over pie. Check out this site for a (fairly) exhaustive history of Derby Pie which, according to my sources, is only really made at Kern's Kitchen in Louisville.
5. Mutton BBQ
There appear to be two places in the world where mutton BBQ is popular: most of Asia and Owensboro, Kentucky. Weird, right? Still, I do dearly love me some hyper-regional culinary lore, and this mutton thing? It comes with a backstory:
"The one truth about barbecue seems to be that people use what they've got. In Texas it's beef, in the Carolinas it's pork, and in Western Kentucky it's mutton. Thanks to the tariff of 1816, wool production in the then Western United States became profitable and suddenly people found themselves with a lot of sheep on their hands..."
You can read the rest of the history of Owensboro mutton BBQ here if you're interested. Or, you can fire up the backyard smoker yourself, lay hands on some lamb and... Well, you know the rest.