Book Review: ‘A Culinary History of Kentucky’, by Fiona Young-Brown
“If, beyond the pearly gates, I am permitted to select my place at the table,
it will be among Kentuckians.” ~Thomas D. Clark
Fiona Young-Brown has given us a fine survey of Kentucky’s storied cuisine. Tracing back to Kentucky’s American Indian roots through the early settler days of Daniel Boone, statehood, and the development of modern cooking methods, A Culinary History of Kentucky provides history, recipes, and context to the development of the cuisine Kentuckians recognize today.
A transplant from England married to a native Kentuckian (one born in Clay County, no less!), Young-Brown is able to deliver an outsider’s objectivity coupled with hometown insight. It’s a combination that adds insight to our own understanding of something like Kentucky culinary staple beer cheese when Young-Brown writes of her childhood experience with the similar Welsh “rabbit,” or rarebit, in England.
We also benefit from a historical discussion of the development of Kentucky cooking methods. For example, the baking of common items today like pies was not possible for the open fire cooks of Eastern Kentucky until modern ovens became common during the twentieth century. Young-Brown writes, “This also helps to explain why corn bread was made in a skillet over the fire and why, in some rural areas, biscuits and other baked goods did not become popular until well into the twentieth century.”
Kentucky specialities such as spoonbread, the Hot Brown, burgoo, country ham, and Kern’s Derby Pie all make an appearance. Young-Brown gives the story behind each, and where it fits into Kentucky foodways. She also shows a sensitivity to the strong regional differences in the state. We read about Eastern Kentucky’s soup beans, cornbread and milk, and chili buns, and Western Kentucky’s mutton barbecue and burgoo.
No book on Kentucky food would be complete without the Colonel making an appearance. Worldwide, no food is more associated with the Bluegrass state than Kentucky Fried Chicken. In a great Kentucky food history mash-up, “Western Kentucky food reviewer Duncan Hines reviewed the Sanders Cafe in 1935, noting its ‘sizzling steaks, fried chicken, country ham, and hot biscuits.’” Still, it was another two decades before Sanders was forced by circumstance—the road was rerouted away from his cafe—to start the fried chicken franchise that would propel him into universal fame.
Anyone writing about Kentucky food quickly realizes the embarrassment of riches that presents itself. Young-Brown has well organized the culinary vastness to bring order to our journey. And along the way she provides numerous recipes, many drawn from historical sources. (One of my minor quibbles is that I would have liked for the recipes to have been differentiated from the narrative in some way, perhaps placed in a box on the page.)
Whether cook or simply curious eater, anyone interested in Kentucky and Southern foodways will want to pick up Fiona Young-Brown’s A Culinary History of Kentucky. If you are a Kentuckian you will certainly recognize your own table, either past or present, on these pages. And most everyone will find some new dishes to add to your own culinary history.
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