Why Kentucky is a World-Class Place for Food Travel
The world knows Kentucky for a certain fried chicken chain—and Kentuckians can fry up a mean bird—but the state’s food traditions are really much broader, more complex and hyper-regional.
Kentucky is geographically diverse, which means a broad supply of food that leads to a wide range of offerings. Like most of America, Kentucky was settled by immigrants from places such as England, Ireland, Wales, Germany, and France. All brought their local traditions, which ended up in our food.
If you’re unsure, just ask a local. All Louisvillians are familiar with bratwurst and German potato salad, but also Benedictine spread (a cucumber and cream cheese spread created by local cookbook author and caterer Jennie Carter Benedict in the early 20th century), as well as the Hot Brown, an open-faced sandwich created at the Brown Hotel. Head east to Lexington and further into the Appalachian Mountains and you’ll find lots of vegetables, apples, pork, spoonbread, chow chow, beer cheese, and poke sallet. Travel west to Owensboro and Henderson, and you’ll find sorghum, burgoo, mutton barbecue, and "dip," a vinegar marinade beloved by Western Kentuckians.
"There are high standards for eating in Kentucky," says Sarah Fritschner, coordinator of Louisville Farm to Table and former food editor at the Louisville Courier-Journal. “People talk about food a lot and think about food a lot. There are a lot of independent restaurants in the state, and an independent restaurant is going to stamp a personal look on its menu.”
Kristin Smith, owner and chef at Wrigley’s Tap Room and Eatery in Corbin, Ky., takes farm-to-table sourcing seriously. Smith is also a sixth-generation farmer in Whitley County, and sources much of her restaurant’s food from her own farm as well as those around her. She said that while the term "farm to table" is overused and a bit of a fad, she believes in it because it’s the Appalachian way of life.
"We have a long heritage of raising hogs in the area and putting up country hams," Smith says. “My grandfather did it, and his grandfather did it before him, so that’s a tradition we continue to carry on. We like to pair our ham products with bourbon, which comes up from the northern part of the state, and it just all works together because it’s all coming from similar lands and ingredients, and it creates a flavor that we think is extraordinary.”
Like Wrigley’s, restaurants all over Kentucky use bourbon in their food, including steaks, honey, syrup, candy (bourbon balls), bread pudding, and egg nog. If there’s a way to use bourbon, Kentucky cooks will find it. And it will be delicious. Smith says she even uses bourbon in her barbecue sauce. "We don’t call it bourbon barbecue sauce, but it’s in there," she says. “It’s a way of life.”
Patrick Bosley is a third-generation owner of Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro. Moonlite is one of the most popular barbecue restaurants in the state, and it’s particularly famous for its buffet and mutton barbecue.
"Kentucky stands out because it’s between the Midwest and the South," Bosley says. “In Owensboro or Louisville, you get the urban development that will support eating out, but you still have the Southern hospitality.”
Moonlite, like many other Kentucky restaurants, sells burgoo, a uniquely Kentucky food often made with mutton, beef, chicken, cabbage, and potatoes. "It’s one of those funny dishes that no two people make it the same, but when you see it, you know what it is," says Bosley. “Every family or church has a different recipe, and you can enjoy the subtle differences.”
Along with small-town festivals, church picnics are a big draw in Kentucky, especially the Catholic picnics in Owensboro and Louisville. The two areas were both settled by Catholic immigrants, though they were from different places.
Owensboro saw an influx of Welsh immigrants who brought their culture of sheep farming for wool and mutton. When mutton died out as a favored meat, Owensboro’s churches kept the mutton tradition alive, and the church picnics usually include chicken, pork, mutton and burgoo.
In Louisville, church picnics serve chicken and bratwurst as their main specialties. Louisville’s Catholics have a strong German and Irish tradition, which is reflected in their annual festivals.
In the last 20 years, cities in Kentucky have seen a huge boom in local restaurants and foodie culture. Louisville is consistently rated highly as a foodie city, one of the top in the South. But Lexington, Covington, Bowling Green, Richmond, and Paducah all have plenty to offer.
Riverside restaurants in Covington and Newport have a little bit of everything, especially German fare and beer. Out in the country, restaurants in tiny Midway (between Lexington and Frankfort) will make you think you’re still in the big city. At Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, near the Bluegrass region, you’ll find a mix of Shaker and bistro fare in the beautiful surroundings of a restored historic village.
In every corner of Kentucky you can find delicious and unique foods made by Kentuckians of every heritage. Generations of Kentuckians striving to feed their families from the land have created a rich culinary tradition.
Written by Lisa Hornung for RootsRated in partnership with Kentucky Tourism.