Archive for the Choice Cuts Category

Choice Cuts: Saveur on Louisville Bar Food Classics

Posted in Choice Cuts, Drink, Food, Media on January 6, 2009 by stateofthecommonwealth

(Hot Brown by James Baigrie for Saveur.)

For part four in our irregular series called Choice Cuts (excerpts from longer pieces either by or about Kentuckians), we’re highlighting a fantastic article in the January/February issue of Saveur about classic bar food from Louisville establishments (thanks to Louisville HotBytes forum contributor John Ribar for the tip). In this issue’s Dinner and Drinks column, Beth Kracklauer samples great bar food — from old standbys such as Mazzoni’s rolled oysters (Mazzoni’s has closed but you can still get their oysters at Flabby’s) to new favorites such as the Bristol Bar and Grille’s green chile wontons — and discusses a fair amount of Louisville history and culture in the process (links to recipes are included):

When I was growing up, my family made regular trips to Louisville, Kentucky, for two reasons: visiting my grandmother and eating fried chicken livers. Grandma was what’s known in those parts as a firecracker; she loved a good manhattan and a lively debate, and she would take us around to local neighborhood joints that served up both, along with an array of bar snacks, including the crunchiest fried chicken livers I’ve ever tasted. So, it seemed appropriate that my father and I should pay homage to his mother’s memory on a recent return to Louisville with a tour of some of the city’s most venerable tippling establishments.

Louisville is a drinking town. A social town. The local bourbon industry is one factor; the julep-fueled Kentucky Derby season is another. This is the home of the old-fashioned, that glorious concoction of bourbon, bitters, and orange, and of majestic hotels, like the Seelbach and the Brown, both of which boast grand old bars. But one cannot live on booze alone, and so Louisville’s bars have become great places to eat; they’re where the genial tavern culture of the Midwest meets the fried-food mother lode of the South. The union constitutes one of the country’s best bar-snacking traditions, of which livers are just the beginning.

Some of the bar snacks we sampled are unique to Louisville. Take the rolled oyster, a fist-size cluster of mollusks cloaked in cracker meal and deep-fried; the specialty was invented in the 1880s by the tavern owner Phillip Mazzoni and is served to this day in bars throughout the city. In the late 1970s, the Bristol Bar & Grille began providing its own incentive for ordering another round: green chile wontons, fried parcels filled with jalapeño-spiked melted cheese and served with a cooling guacamole dip. Then there’s the hot brown, an open-face turkey-and-bacon sandwich smothered in mornay sauce. It was created in 1923 as a late-night snack for guests at the Brown Hotel, and the best place to order one is still the bar in the hotel’s elegant lobby.

“There’s a real loyalty to place,” says Amy Evans, an oral historian with the Southern Foodways Alliance, who visited Louisville last year to research its vibrant bar scene. “Folks there tend to be monogamous with their drinking.” My father and I realized almost immediately how true that is. In the historically German neighborhood of Schnitzelburg, which is home to many of the city’s oldest bars, we stopped in at Flabby’s, a cozy, 57-year-old tavern where the bartender knew every patron but us. The crunchy fried chicken livers, piled high in a plastic basket, were amazing. So was the smoky white bean soup around the corner at Check’s Café, where we also tried a sandwich of fried, thick-cut baloney and a Bluegrass Brewing Co. bourbon-barrel stout. And in the nearby Highlands neighborhood, at the friendly half liquor store, half grocery called Morris’ Deli, we made a detour into the walk-in beer cooler before settling at the counter for a succulent shredded lamb and pork sandwich.

Dad and I were gratified to discover that some of Louisville’s most acclaimed chefs are upholding the city’s bar snack traditions. At Lilly’s Bistro, Kathy Cary featured an entire menu of “Kentucky Tapas”. At Jack’s Lounge, Dean Corbett’s fried calamari with caponata complemented bartender Joy Perrine’s infused-bourbon cocktails. We even sampled house-made bison bresaola from the bar menu at Michael Paley’s Proof on Main. Truth be told, were Grandma here today, she might raise an eyebrow at the practice of serving such exotic offerings as bagna cauda at the bar. But after a few bites (and a cocktail, of course), I think she’d recognize their fresh flavors as her kind of food.

Our only point of contention is that, when at Check’s, we always go for their chili! And we’ve never had the fried chicken livers at Flabby’s, but their fried chicken (weekend special on Fridays and Saturdays), chicken wings (Tuesday’s special) and schnitzel sandwich are amazing. We’re lucky, we live right down the street!


Choice Cuts: Big Box Reuse Author on NPR

Posted in Art, Choice Cuts, Development, Economics, Environment, Kentucky Small Towns, Media, Transportation on October 24, 2008 by stateofthecommonwealth

(above image of Julia Christensen’s Big Box Reuse from

It’s been a few days since it aired, but for part three in our irregular series called Choice Cuts (excerpts from longer pieces either by or about Kentuckians), we’d like to bring your attention to a book entitled Big Box Reuse by Bardstown native Julia Christensen (full disclosure: we went to Bard College with Julia back in the 1990s). NPR‘s All Things Considered program ran a profile on Julia’s book this past Monday called “Once A Wal-Mart: The New Lives of Big Boxes,” and you can read the full text here:

Across the country, communities are turning abandoned big-box stores like Kmart and Wal-Mart into churches, schools, libraries — even museums devoted to everything from Spam to Route 66.

Julia Christensen, an artist and professor at Oberlin College, crisscrossed the country to find out how these sprawling structures are being repurposed. Christensen first got the idea to study big boxes in her hometown, Bardstown, Ky., the bourbon capital of the world.

Bardstown has a charming, historic downtown, with little cafes and boutiques. Tourism is a vital part of Bardstown’s economy. People come from all over to visit the distilleries and the 18th century mansion that inspired Stephen Foster to write “My Old Kentucky Home.”

To keep the historic buildings intact, there are very strict design regulations downtown.

But like cities everywhere, the outskirts are a different story. Strip malls are just a few minutes’ drive away. Wal-Mart has already opened and outgrown two buildings here.

Prime Property

What intrigued Christensen is what happened at the site of the first Wal-Mart: A huge space that was also home to a number of other businesses that wanted to be close to Wal-Mart — a bar called Boots and Buckles, a restaurant called Hunan Dynasty, a movie theater. When the Wal-Mart left, so did the other businesses.

But the Wal-Mart lot isn’t empty anymore. Bardstown needed a new courthouse, so eventually the government bought the property, razed the big box and built the Nelson County Justice Center. A few smaller government agencies set up shop nearby. The bar and restaurant area are still vacant.

As for Wal-Mart, it moved into a bigger building across town. About five years ago, it made plans to leave that site and move to a third location. But this time, local officials wanted a say in the matter. Dixie Hibbs was the mayor of Bardstown at the time.

“We know you’re going to build a big building. We’ve seen them. We don’t like them,” Hibbs says. “You’re going to take a prime piece of property and build something we know will be there for 20 years. We want a building that will be pleasing to us.”

In response, Wal-Mart agreed to change the building’s design.

“It looks like a shopping center, not a shopping box,” Hibbs says.

Big Box Reuse

It’s important to note that sometimes, when a big box is left empty, it’s not necessarily the fault of retailers; they don’t always own the buildings themselves; often they lease them.

Christensen says she’s not interested in finding fault with the owners of big boxes. She’s operating on the assumption that they’re here to stay. Instead, she wants to focus on what people do with them when they’re abandoned.

In her new book, Big Box Reuse, Christensen looks at 10 different communities.

In Austin, Minn., Christensen went to a big box that had been renovated into a museum devoted to Spam, the canned meat. In Fayetteville, N.C., she went to a flea market that had once been a Kmart. And in Round Rock, Texas, a group of young entrepreneurs turned an abandoned Wal-Mart into an indoor racecar track. Christensen cites the racecar track for its imaginative use of such a large space — but they couldn’t keep up with the overhead costs and had to close down.

Christensen says cities have a huge incentive to find other uses for these buildings.

“Roads are widened. Stoplights put in. Entire bypasses might be created,” she says. “So all of this invested infrastructure remains after the retailer leaves the building behind.”

Which can make these sites good for repurposing. Take Lebanon, Mo. When a Kmart there went bankrupt, its building was left vacant for three years, and the area became depressed. So the community raised money to turn it into a new and bigger county library.

Cathy Dame, the library’s director, says it took awhile for some people to adjust.

“Sometimes, honestly, it was easier to say, ‘Remember where the shoe section was? That’s our children’s room,’ ” Dame says.

Since the structure was too big for just the library, they broke it up and now share it with a Route 66 museum and a cafe, among other things. And Dame says they are getting a lot of traffic, partly because it’s easy to park.

Dame stresses that the whole project was paid for in private donations, not taxes. Individuals and local businesses all chipped in.

“The comment I kept hearing the board say — and the public say — was how ugly the building was just sitting there,” Dame says. “It was a reminder of a business that went bankrupt. It was just depressing, frankly.”

“With these big-box buildings, they are constructed by the hundreds every year, and they are abandoned by the hundreds every year,” Christensen says. “We’re dealing with a limited resource here. There’s not an endless supply on Earth, so we need to think about what’s going to happen to the future of these structures.”

You can also listen to audio of the story on that page. NPR also published an excerpt from the book on that page. Big Box Reuse is available from MIT Press.

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

Posted in Choice Cuts, Food, Kentucky Small Towns, Media, Transportation on September 10, 2008 by stateofthecommonwealth

(above photo of Duncan Hines’ books by James Oseland, from

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: 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

Choice Cuts: Wendell Berry’s “Faustian Economics” in Harper’s, May ’08

Posted in Art, Choice Cuts, Environment, Labor, Politics on May 7, 2008 by stateofthecommonwealth

We’re starting a new, irregularly-running feature here on State of the Commonwealth, one that we’re calling Choice Cuts. Basically, the gist is we will link and quote from a longer essay, think-piece, article, story, series or just plain ol’ yakety-yak by Kentuckians — either on some aspect of Kentucky or on some issue that affects Kentucky — for your perusal.

And what better way to inaugurate our initial foray into Choice Cuts but with a few thoughts by Wendell Berry, Kentucky’s pre-eminent conservationist, essayist, poet, scholar, and all-around writer?

Faustian Econ 1Econ 3Faustian Econ 2

Berry’s essay “Faustian Economics: Hell hath no limits” in the May, 2008 issue of Harper’s (available only to subscribers) is a fascinating look at what our society’s newfound and fleeting preoccupation on environmental limits may mean for us, culturally:

The general reaction to the apparent end of the era of cheap fossil fuel, as to other readily foreseeable curtailments, has been to delay any sort of reckoning. The strategies of delay, so far, have been a sort of willed oblivion, or visions of large profits to the manufacturers of such ‘biofuels’ as ethanol from corn or switchgrass, or the familiar unscientific faith that ‘science will find an answer.’ The dominant response, in short, is a dogged belief that what we call the American Way of Life will prove somehow indestructible. We will keep on consuming, spending, wasting, and driving, as before, at any cost to anything and everybody but ourselves.

This belief was always indefensible — the real names of global warming are Waste and Greed — and by now it is manifestly foolish. But foolishness on this scale looks disturbingly like a sort of national insanity. We seem to have come to a collective delusion of grandeur, insisting that all of us are ‘free’ to be as conspicuously greedy and wasteful as the most corrupt of kings and queens. (Perhaps by devoting more and more of our already abused cropland to fuel production we will at last cure ourselves of obesity and become fashionably skeletal, hungry but — thank God! — still driving.)…

Berry then goes on to describe American culture’s foolish equation of “limitlessness” with “freedom,” as best illustrated in Kentucky’s pro-coal energy and tax policies:

Even so, that we have founded our present society upon delusional assumptions of limitlessness is easy enough to demonstrate. A recent ‘summit’ in Louisville, Kentucky, was entitled ‘Unbridled Energy: The Industrialization of Kentucky’s Energy Resources.’ Its subjects were ‘clean-coal generation, biofuels, and other cutting-edge applications,’ the conversion of coal to ‘liquid fuels,’ and the likelihood that all this will be ‘environmentally friendly.’

…That human limitlessness is a fantasy means, obviously, that its life expectancy is limited. There is now a growing perception, and not just among a few experts, that we are entering a time of inescapable limits. We are not likely to be granted another world to plunder in compensation for our pillage of this one. Nor are we likely to believe much longer in our ability to outsmart, by means of science and technology, our economic stupidity. The hope that we can cure the ills of industrialism by the homeopathy of more technology seems at last to be losing status. We are, in short, coming under pressure to understand ourselves as limited creatures in a limited world.

…In our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define ‘freedom,’ for example, as an escape from all restraint. But, as my friend Bert Hornback has explained in his book The Wisdom in Words, ‘free’ is etymologically related to ‘friend.’ These words come from the same Indo-European root, which carries the sense of ‘dear’ or ‘beloved.’ We set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. And this suggests that our ‘identity’ is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections.

Berry then looks to Marlowe’s Faustus (of the Tragical History of Doctor Faustus) and Milton’s Satan (of Paradise Lost) for prescient examples of our currently self-obsessed and selfish society, and to art in general for ways to live in a more sustainable way:

If the idea of appropriate limitation seems unacceptable to us, that may be because, like Marlowe’s Faustus and Milton’s Satan, we confuse limits with confinement. But that, as I think Marlowe and Milton and others were trying to tell us, is a great and potentially a fatal mistake. Satan’s fault, as Milton understood it and perhaps with some sympathy, was precisely that he could not tolerate his proper limitation; he could not subordinate himself to anything whatever. Faustus’s error was his unwillingness to remain “Faustus, and a man.” In our age of the world it is not rare to find writers, critics, and teachers of literature, as well as scientists and technicians, who regard Satan’s and Faustus’s defiance as salutary and heroic.

On the contrary, our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible. For example, an ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible. A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure — in addition to its difficulties — that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.

…It is the artists, not the scientists, who have dealt unremittingly with the problem of limits. A painting, however large, must finally be bounded by a frame or a wall. A composer or playwright must reckon, at a minimum, with the capacity of an audience to sit still and pay attention. A story, once begun, must end somewhere within the limits of the writer’s and the reader’s memory. And of course the arts characteristically impose limits that are artificial: the five acts of a play, or the fourteen lines of a sonnet. Within these limits artists achieve elaborations of pattern, of sustaining relationships of parts with one another and with the whole, that may be astonishingly complex. And probably most of us can name a painting, a piece of music, a poem or play or story that still grows in meaning and remains fresh after many years of familiarity.

…The same is true of our arts of land use, our economic arts, which are our arts of living. With these it is once-for-all. We will have no chance to redo our experiments with bad agriculture leading to soil loss. The Appalachian mountains and forests we have destroyed for coal are gone forever. It is now and forevermore too late to use thriftily the first half of the world’s supply of petroleum. In the art of living we can only start again with what remains.

And so, in confronting the phenomenon of ‘peak oil,’ we are really confronting the end of our customary delusion of ‘more.’ Whichever way we turn, from now on, we are going to find a limit beyond which there will be no more. To hit these limits at top speed is not a rational choice. To start slowing down, with the idea of avoiding catastrophe, is a rational choice, and a viable one if we can recover the necessary political sanity. Of course it makes sense to consider alternative energy sources, provided they make sense. But also we will have to re-examine the economic structures of our lives, and conform them to the tolerances and limits of our earthly places. Where there is no more, our one choice is to make the most and the best of what we have.

Any thoughts on our Choice Cuts from Wendell Berry’s “Faustian Economics: Hell hath no limits?” As always, reader comments are welcome and encouraged!