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Louisville Food and Drink

Some foods and drinks are unarguably linked to Kentucky. The Bluegrass wrote the book on burgoo, made the mint julep king, and gave birth to the bourbon ball. But several other favorites are specifically Louisvillian in origin.

One such specialty is Benedictine, a spread made of cucumbers and cream cheese. Created by and named after caterer Jennie Benedict, Benedictine remains a popular filling for sandwiches and hors d’oeuvres.

The hot Brown is probably Louisville’s most distinctive dish, though. This open-faced sandwich was invented by Chef Fred K. Schmidt at the Brown Hotel in 1923. Schmidt needed something to satisfy guests who had worked up an appetite at a huge dance at the hotel, but he was bored by the usual late-night fare. So he layered sliced turkey, crisp bacon, toast, savory sauce, and cheese, then put it all under a broiler. Later versions have also included tomatoes, and many local restaurants have evolved their own variations.

It is also claimed (though not without some dispute from others) that the cheeseburger was born in Louisville, with Kaelin’s on Newburg Road being the first to put it on a menu.

Other famous foods with Louisville origins are the rolled oyster, the Modjeska candy, Henry Bain’s sauce, and of course, Derby Pie® by Kern’s Kitchen.

The old-fashioned is considered to be Louisville’s classic cocktail. Some believe the bourbon-based drink was created at the Pendennis Club in the 1880s.

More tasty tidbits:

  • Hot Brown creator Schmidt also introduced the cold Brown, but it never gained a following. The recipe for the original hot Brown is posted on the Brown Hotel Web site.
  • The Modjeska is a marshmallow hand-dipped in liquid caramel, named after a famous Polish actress who caught the eye of local candy maker Anton Busath in the 1870s.
  • Like the old-fashioned, Henry Bain’s sauce was also created at the Pendennis Club. Born more than 100 years ago, this chutney-based condiment was the brainchild of Henry Bain, an African-American headwaiter.
  • Derby Pie was born nearly half a century ago. Though the name seems obvious considering where the pie was created, it was actually pulled from a hat. By 1968, the pie had become so successful that the name was registered with the U.S. Patent Office and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Since then it has been baked and distributed solely by Kern’s Kitchen, a small family operation.
  • Recipes for the mint julep, of course, vary according to personal taste. But here’s an authoritative article on how to mix an old-fashioned.

UPDATE: Kaelin's restaurant closed its doors in February 2009, after operating in Louisville's Highlands neighborhood since 1934.

Program 206
Dining in Louisville, Cousin Willie's Popcorn, food literacy and local food expert Sarah Fritschner. (#206)