Choice Cuts: Saveur on Duncan Hines, The Smokey Pig, and Boone Tavern

(above photo of Duncan Hines’ books by James Oseland, from www.saveur.com.)

For part two in our irregular series called Choice Cuts (excerpts from longer pieces either by or about Kentuckians), we’d like to call your attention to the July, 2008 issue of SAVEUR magazine. Specifically, to the cover article, “Adventures in Good Eating,” by Todd Coleman and James Oseland.

This outstanding roadtrip-food article was inspired by someone we actually didn’t know was a Kentuckian until we read the piece today: the one and only Duncan Hines. We’ll let the article speak to its own origins:

By late June, we—that is, Todd Coleman, SAVEUR‘s food editor, and James Oseland, the editor-in-chief—had been planning our trip for months and were finally ready to hit the road. The plan? To drive from Chicago to New York in a wide-ranging arc, stopping at restaurants, diners, taverns, and inns that had been featured in a famous series of culinary guidebooks from the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s and had managed to stay in operation ever since. The books — remarkable compendiums of American eats published annually from 1936 until 1962 — belonged to the once famous but now largely forgotten Adventures in Good Eating series published by the pioneering travel guide writer and cake mix mogul Duncan Hines. We knew that Hines (see The Man and the Mix) and the editors of the guidebook series he founded had helped revolutionize the way Americans ate on the road before the age of the interstate, and we were seized with the urge to follow in Hines’s tire treads. What better way to connect with a fast-fading America, with that part of our culinary landscape that has resisted mass-scale homogenization? And what a great excuse to eat a lot of honest, good food. The idea (all due credit to Todd, who came up with it) appealed both to our sense of nostalgia and to our wanderlust; it also proved difficult to execute: even after narrowing the field by selecting just a single volume from each of the four decades the series was published, we had a list of hundreds of tantalizing possibilities, from the Beaumont Inn, an elegant-sounding country-ham-and-biscuits restaurant in Harrodsburg, Kentucky (from the 1938 edition), to a Lebanon, Ohio, stalwart called the Golden Lamb, which, the 1957 edition noted, once fed such illustrious guests as John Quincy Adams and Charles Dickens. But, as we set about researching these establishments, we were disappointed to find that nearly all had long since closed. And the majority of those that were still in business seemed to have retained little of their original character aside from the business’s name. Felicitously, that left us with a pretty manageable selection of restaurants: about a half dozen of them, lying along a route that zigzagged across Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, and New York. Here is the true and unvarnished account of our journey.

What follows is a fascinating, if disappointingly brief, travelogue that includes two major stops in Kentucky. (We complain about the brevity if only because we feel a good book could be written on Kentucky’s fantastic food by itself.) Bypassing Louisville entirely, Coleman and Oseland head straight to Bowling Green, Duncan Hines’ birthplace and final resting place:

Wednesday (Day 4) Todd is wearing thin white cotton gloves and carrying a tray of old, empty Duncan Hines cake mix boxes. We’re at the library and museum of Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. Duncan Hines was born and raised in this town, and we felt compelled to pay a visit. The university is in the midst of installing a permanent exhibit dedicated to Hines’s life and times called “Recommended by Duncan Hines”, which will feature a life-size mannequin of the man and his actual home test kitchen. We’re sifting through the boxes of ephemera — matchbooks, postcards, ice cream containers, advertisements — that are to be displayed. With us is Cora Jane Spiller, Duncan Hines’s great-niece, who is now 80 years old.

Spiller takes us out to dinner along with a few other Duncan Hines experts and enthusiasts. She tells us she is wearing a dress that once belonged to Clara Hines, Duncan’s wife. “If they can’t be here to drink and toast with us,” Spiller says, referring to Duncan and Clara, “they can be here in clothing.” As Bowling Green no longer harbors a restaurant that was officially recommended by “Uncle Duncan”, we dine instead at the Smokey Pig Bar-B-Q, where we sample sweet and smoky thin-cut pork shoulder and wash it down with Nehi orange soda. Later, Spiller takes us to Duncan Hines’s former home, now a funeral parlor.

Call us foodie philistines (filistines? is that more alliterative?), but we had no idea that Bowling Green has such an interesting food history. And while the Smokey Pig gets good marks from SAVEUR (though no shared recipes), we came across this blogtastic tidbit: http://www.bigbonton.org/2004/11/smoky_pig_bowling_green_kentuc.htm. Hrm. Maybe the missing “e” ruined it. Dunno.

From there, the authors headed east to a Kentucky landmark we’re more acquainted with — Boone Tavern, in Berea:

Thursday (Day 5) We’re rolling across central Kentucky now. We drive down U.S. Highway 127 to State Highway 78 and then over to State Highway 52, on our way to the town of Berea, home to Boone Tavern. Situated on the campus of Berea College (a tuition-free Christian school), the 99-year-old tavern and hotel earned some degree of national fame under the management of Richard T. Hougen, who managed the establishment from 1940 to 1976. During his tenure, he perfected such dishes as Pork Chops the Tricky Way, Chicken Flakes in a Bird’s Nest, Kentucky Chess Pie, and Yeasty Dinner Rolls. The cavernous kitchen is bright and airy and straight out of the 1940s. As with every place we’ve visited so far, many of the employees have been here for a long time. Two of them, Bruce Alcorn and Rawleigh Johnson, have worked in the kitchen for more than 30 years. “I’m just part of the fixtures,” says Alcorn. Alcorn and Johnson remember that back when U.S. 25 was the main thoroughfare — before the nearby interstate was put through — they served 200 to 300 people a day. “Now it’s tweaked down,” says Alcorn. “I’ve seen a lot of changes, competition coming in.” One thing that hasn’t changed is the spoonbread, a creamy corn bread soufflé served before every meal. It appears to be the most popular item served. “People say that the spoonbread isn’t the same as it was way back when,” says Alcorn. “But me and Rawleigh made it back then; nothing’s changed.” We got here just in time; the tavern and hotel are scheduled to undergo an extensive renovation in a couple of months.

Indeed, as the Boone Tavern is set to renovate by next year, its 100th anniversary. While the rest of the article goes on to detail other fine establishments they visited in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, the Kentuckian in us can’t help but think that the two more interesting days they spent on the road were spent in our not-so-little Commonwealth.

As an added bonus, SAVEUR also published the recipe’s for Boone Tavern’s Yeasty Rolls, Spoonbread, and their Kentucky Chess Pie! Yum!

Our previous Choice Cuts installment featuring Wendell Berry’s “Faustian Economics” is available here

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2 Responses to “Choice Cuts: Saveur on Duncan Hines, The Smokey Pig, and Boone Tavern”

  1. Being from the general Bowling Green area I ate at Smokey Pig more than a few times growing up and I always enjoyed it very much.

  2. Alton Brown filmed a segment for the Food Network’s Feasting on Asphalt here in BG a few years ago about Duncan Hines, too! They visited his former home/office. If you ever make it down this way, give me a shout at the Visitors Bureau. I’d love to show you the Duncan Hines Exhibit (www.duncanhinesmuseum.com) and share some more background!

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