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my old Kentucky home, far away

May 1, 2010

When I tell people that I spent a good chunk of my formative years in Kentucky, the response is invariably one of three sentiments.

  1. “Really? I would never have guessed.” (THANKS.)
  2. “Really? Um…what’s that like?”
  3. “Oh, like the Derby.”

One can probably guess which of these phrases gets the most positive feedback.

I’m not going to sugarcoat the fact that there are a lot of things I don’t miss about the Bluegrass state – lack of opportunity in my chosen field (international development), a sometimes crippling provincialism, hardcore, coal-fueled poverty, no public transportation systems to speak of. But there are a lot of things, food-based and otherwise, that I miss about my state, and specifically about Louisville. And there is never a day that such a loss is more acute than on the first Saturday in May.

As I write this, the world’s best horse race is about to go off, and rather than commit myself to a dinner of Hot Browns, mint juleps, spoon bread (or corn pudding), and Derby pie, I am going to eat Korean food. Which, quite honestly, is enough to get me barred from the state. But in an effort to do penance for my heresy, I will attempt to persuade you, the loyal Sturgeon Army, of the virtues of Kentucky’s finest cuisine. (And it does not involve Harlan Sanders.)

  • HOT BROWNS. I was telling someone about these today. To be polite, she looked a bit taken aback. “Oh,” I said, “it sounds kind of like a dirty act, doesn’t it.” Apparently the gospel of the Hot Brown has not spread past Kentucky’s borders. The Hot Brown is a piece of toast, topped with slices of roast turkey (NOT COLD CUTS), tomato, bacon, and an obscene quantity of Mornay sauce, placed under the broiler until it bubbles. It is literally the least healthy thing I can imagine, and I am including fried Snickers bars in that count. It is also one of my favorite foods on Earth, and if all the fat kills you, well, you should be thankful that you chose such a fine way to go.
  • MINT JULEPS. I’m not a huge bourbon person, despite the fact that it’s a huge step up from our old commodity of moonshine. Muddled with mint and mixed with simple syrup, however, its complexity becomes accessible; just as you don’t have to know what goes into breeding a horse to appreciate the beauty of a fast one running, you don’t have to be a bourbon connoisseur to understand that Mint Juleps Taste Good.
  • CORN PUDDING AND SPOON BREAD. These are found other places besides Kentucky, but I learned to appreciate them there, so. Corn pudding is an eggy, buttery tower of richness studded with corn kernels; spoon bread is like that, but a little bit breadier and more stable, and without the corn. I like them both. You will too. The Beaumont Inn’s corn pudding has always proven popular around our house.
  • BUTTERMILK PIE. Tangy. Sweet. Creamy. Crackly. What else do you want from me?
  • FRIED CHICKEN. For the record, I have no interest in what Harlan Sanders’ company produces. However, Kentucky’s chicken pride runs deep. Two counties claim that the Colonel made his permanent residence there. As a result, they hold dueling chicken festivals. The World Chicken Festival (full of eggcitement) is held in Laurel County; neighboring Corbin, Kentucky, hosts the Nibroc Festival in tribute to the Colonel. Nibroc, in case you were wondering, is Corbin spelled backwards. I have had a lot of terrific fried chicken in Kentucky, but none of it came from KFC.
  • THE CHOW WAGON. Food snobs, stop reading now. The Chow Wagon is easily the most ridiculous event of Derby season, beating out even the Derby Foundation Academic Challenge (the nation’s premier competition for junior-varsity quiz bowl teams). During Derby Season, a night is designated during which parking lots are taken over by carnival food. That’s it. There are a lot of high schoolers there. But: fun fact: funnel cakes are still delicious, even if the setting is kind of stupid.

I hope this has inspired you to reconsider your image of Kentuckians as shoeless illiterates. We are shoeless illiterates who can give you the tastiest heart attack imaginable. And on Derby Day, no matter how far we may stray or how much galbi we may eat, our belts will get a little tighter and our eyes a little mistier when we see those horses run.

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