North America Dispatch #31: The Greatest (Chowhounding) Story Ever Told
Lawrenceburg, Berea, Corbin, and Mount Vernon, Kentucky
It’s day three of the Bourbon Festival (for previous reports, use the links in the sidebar). Listen as JB and I plot our day (and JB reveals his pick for “the perfect bourbon”) in podcast #1: MP3
This morning we took a great tour of Four Roses Distillery (1224 Bonds Mill Road, Lawrenceburg, Kentucky; 502-839-3436), which makes some of my favorite bourbons (they don’t reveal which brands they produce on contract, but I’m pretty sure Bulleit, which I particularly love, is among them). Master distiller Jim Rutledge is a legend, and he gave a neat presentation on the ins and outs of bourbon over a surprisingly good buffet breakfast. Lots of people attended— it’s finally starting to feel like a real bourbon festival!
Seeing this sign, as we drove in, was a big moment for JB, who idolizes Four Roses:
Hear part of Jim Rutledge’s presentation (caution: suitable only for extreme bourbon geeks) in podcast #2: MP3
The pre-bourbon porridge:
(I’m kidding. We were actually invited by the tour guide to stick our fingers into the vats for samples. The flavor was yeasty/starchy and totally unbourbon-like.)
Here’s the “beer still” (undistilled bourbon is called “beer” ... and that’s what it is at this point—a mildly alcoholic beverage brewed from grain):
See the beer still in action, in video #1: Movie file
After Four Roses, we blundered into quality frozen custard at Mollie’s (2901 Richmond Road, #160, Lexington, Kentucky; 859-269-0133), across the street from fabulous Liquor Barn (3040 Richmond Road, Lexington, Kentucky; 859-269-4170), the place to buy bourbon. Some errant custardy woojoo pulled me into the plasticky shopping strip, and it was good stuff.
Frozen-custard aficionados ought to check out CustardList.com, which lists custard stands nationwide. While it’s incomplete and bare bones, I love that a fellow custard lover takes the trouble.
Then came the most twisted and epic day of chowhounding of my entire life.
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I was very excited to drive way down to Berea, Kentucky, for the 10th Annual Spoonbread Festival. Spoonbread is sort of a cornmeal souffle, something I’ve been cooking, myself, since the age of eight … without ever having tried anyone else’s. During previous travels in the South, I’ve always looked for it, but there’s a specific spoonbread belt I’ve never managed to pass through. Berea, its seems, is ground zero, hence the festival.
We arrived in town and came upon a large festival in a lovely park, but could find no spoonbread. As usual, food service was dominated by carnival concessionaires hawking blooming onions, funnel cakes, and the other drabness that’s supplanted regional foods at American fairs.
How could there be no spoonbread at a spoonbread festival? It seemed impossible. But finally, off in a corner, hardly noticeable among the zillions of booths offering kitsch, trinkets, and come-ons of various sorts, was a small spoonbread tent. A gloomy woman therein fecklessly scooped dryish spoonbread out of a rice cooker. The crowds stayed away. It was expensive. And it wasn’t very good. This was spoonbread made fast, cheap, and sans an iota of love or care.
But, hey, one bad spoonbread concession needn’t destroy one’s morale when one is at a spoonbread festival! So JB and I amiably walked around, trying to find the rest of the spoonbread. But there wasn’t any. And that’s when we started getting annoyed.
We heard the Boone Tavern might be serving spoonbread back in town, and so we rushed off to go try some. But as we exited the park, we were collared by a trinket-selling young woman named Tammy who was attired in very natural fibers. Tammy could not imagine why anyone would leave such a great scene so early.
“Well, we were sort of hoping for some spoonbread,” I explained, figuring this eminently reasonable statement might satisfy Tammy’s curiosity.
But no. “Berea’s about lots more than spoonbread, you know,” she replied, lightly miffed. I looked at JB and JB looked at me, and I gamely inquired, “Like what?”
Tammy replied vaguely about something called a “moonbow” somewhere outside of town (we later learned that this is a nighttime rainbow—the sort of thing young trinket makers go for). For specific fun tips, she perkily suggested I dial 611 for local information, insisting that the operators know lots of really good things for tourists to do.
I steered the conversation back to spoonbread—a bad idea, as it only stirred up further contempt at our presumption to attend a spoonbread festival expecting spoonbread. How had we heard about the festival, she asked; was it over the Internet? Well, yes, actually it was. Tammy let forth a peal of scornful laughter, the origins of which I still don’t fully understand.
As if on cue, some crusty older dude with military bearing showed up. Tammy told us he worked at the nerve-agent factory. I asked him whether touring the factory might be one of the fun local activities we ought to enjoy in Berea. Tammy’s Rumsfeldian friend shook his head no with a stone face. We could try to get in, he remarked, but we’d likely be shot.
And off we went to the Boone Tavern.
The Boone Tavern (not a real tavern in this dry county) is the expensive restaurant in the quaint Boone Tavern Hotel. Its menu includes shrimp orecchiette and sorghum glazed salmon atop sweet potato risotto but no mention of spoonbread. And it was closed, anyway.
Thus ended our stay in Berea: scorned by Tammy, bereft of spoonbread, and … hungry. Especially JB, who is not accustomed to missing lunch.
Fortunately, I had a backup plan. Harland Sanders was embittered for years about how KFC had dragged his name in the mud with its miserable fried chicken. The colonel’s chicken, I’d heard, was actually wonderful. At the Harland Sanders Cafe, folks cooked, as one lonely little point of light amid the franchise glop metastasizing around the world, his great original recipe. I’d always wanted to go. And it was only another hour south.
Hear JB and I grouse as we set out from Berea to the Harland Sanders Cafe in podcast #3: MP3
... and watch video of the entire spoonbread catastrophe:
2: The drive into Berea: Movie file
3: Hot on the trail: Movie file
4: Explaining my fascination with spoonbread: Movie file
5: So where’s the freakin’ spoonbread? Movie file
6: Spoonbread scored … sort of: Movie file
7: The wrong recipe: Movie file
8: JB picks morosely at his spoonbread: Movie file
9: Regrouping … and the indignation mounts: Movie file
10: The Boone Tavern:
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The drive seemed to take forever, and we finally pulled into scruffy Corbin, ravenously hungry. It was easy to spot from afar: the Harland Sanders Cafe! How exciting!
We went in, and I got a bad feeling when I saw a kitchen encased behind plexiglass, as in a museum.
So was there any food at all? We slowly worked our way around the curving lines of the Harland Sanders Cafe, past a wall of framed photographs of the colonel and his early restaurants, past the restrooms, and … gack. I turned a corner and spotted the very last thing I wanted to see:
Sullen, dead-eyed kids in fast-food uniforms and headsets asked if they could take my order, sir. I stood before them frozen and unable to reply, my jaw slack and mouth agape. Their inured reaction to my staring indicated that countless others had stood in this spot in a similar state of crestfallen paralysis. The tiles beneath my feet were bleached white from the bitter tears of my fellow chicken pilgrims.
The Harland Sanders Cafe had been gotten to. This one holdout, this small point of light, had been snuffed and paved over with dreck. There never was an original recipe. This is the good chicken. Once again: MAY I TAKE YOUR ORDER, SIR?
Deeply traumatized, we got back in the car and drove silently to Main Street, Corbin, where a Chowhound poster had tipped me to the Fad, a place serving pool hall chili—a nearly extinct regional food. I couldn’t find it, so I tried calling an old number, and some deaf old coot answered.
“Hi, is this the Fad?”
“I’M … LOOKING … FOR … THE … FAD!”
“Yes, THE FAD!!”
“The Fad’s been closed for 16 years!”
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Have you ever been in a car where the temperature plunges and you know your passenger is thinking murderous thoughts and there’s nothing you can say or do to restore even a modicum of sunny good feelings? This was one of those times.
We had now driven hundreds of miles, going most of the day without eating a thing. I, as a professional food writer, can time-shift my meals with ease. JB cannot. And JB never really wanted to leave the Bourbon Festival. And JB knew the Harland Sanders Cafe would be a sham. He’d warned me!
The drive out of Corbin (where there’s nothing to eat) was silent and depressing. My sullen passenger was ruing the day he’d left his comfortable California existence (and wife and children, who’d been calling his cell phone hourly to reestablish his sense of guilt re: the abandonment) to tag along on my nutty adventures. So I had to make good.
“JB,” I intoned, after clearing my throat, “I’d like to assure you that by the time this day is over, you will have eaten something extravagantly wonderful. We may be in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but rural empty space between here and Bardstown, but I will find us something sublime. I will pull something out of a hat. Trust me.” JB grunted crankily.
Onward I drove, in the silent, angry car, turning up the radio to drown out the tumult broadcasting from JB’s vacant gastric tract. I did, however, record podcast #4 (with JB bravely feigning optimism for the listening audience): MP3
I stayed off highways, threading my way through small towns and shopping strips, craning my neck to scan storefronts with the catlike alertness of a Manhattanite seeking a parking space. Flop sweat beaded on my brow. Finally, after driving through the chowless main drag of Mount Vernon, Kentucky, I came to a four-way-stop intersection.
I let the car to my left go. I let the car straight ahead of me go. A car approached to the right, and, figuring it was my right of way, I proceeded. The car, which was not planning on stopping, hit the brakes too late, and we collided. It turned out that I was in the wrong. This was a three-way, not four-way, intersection, after all.
The other car had nary a scratch, but the driver, a terrified girl driving a loaner, insisted on calling the police. In time, a cruiser glided into the frame and a late-middle-age patrolman in sunglasses got out. Slowly.
While JB and I watched from across the street, the policeman, without so much as glancing at us, interviewed the driver, went over her paperwork, and took down a report. Sometime during those 45 minutes, JB muttered something to me under his breath that I couldn’t quite make out. Bake off my muffin tins? “Take off your bourbon pin!” he hissed at me, and I realized I was still wearing my Bourbon Festival lapel pin. In a dry county. At the scene of a traffic accident. My God.
I snatched violently at the pin and chucked it into a trash can (along with a small portion of my shirt), and eventually the cop turned his head to fix us with a stare. The woman drove away. The officer slowly—oh, so slowly—proceeded to walk toward us, with jaw set. I flashed on every bad movie I’d ever seen. JB started to shake a little.
After crossing the street as if it were a four-mile trek through tobacco juice (paying no attention to traffic, which stopped to allow his brooding passage), he approached JB and me, extended his hand, and smiled widely. “Bill Barrett!” he boomed. “Jim Leff!” I answered, hesitantly. A tiny voice next to me whimpered, “Uh, JB Leibovitch.”
Officer Bill proceeded to take down our information. Very slowly. Officer Bill isn’t one for paperwork, but he gamely plowed through the procedure, double- and triple-checking numbers and addresses. All my papers were laid out on the hood of my car, including, last and all the way to the right, my insurance card—which I noted, with no small panic, had expired two weeks earlier. I knew that JB noticed this, because his shaking had increased. I was worried his sneakers might stamp cracks into the concrete sidewalk.
Officer Bill was so friendly and engaging, though, that I nearly forgot this looming disaster and just enjoyed his conversation. JB was wondering how long it would take me to steer the conversation to food, but I didn’t need to. Officer Bill, you see, is a serious food lover. Without knowing a thing about me, he began pelting me with chow tips.
“You were in Berea? Did you get a chance to try that pizzeria just off the square? I think their crust is something special!”
“No, didn’t get there. We were trying to find spoonbread at the spoonbread festival … I can’t find spoonbread back home.”
“Where are you from?”
“Really? I used to live in Jersey. There was this sensational Italian bakery … damn, what was the name?”
And on it went. I never expected to meet such a kindred spirit under such conditions. But conditions were about to change, because Officer Bill was moments away from setting eyes on my expired insurance card, and I couldn’t handle the tension any more.
“Oh no!” I exclaimed. “I see my insurance card’s expired!”
“Hold on. Just hoooold on a minute. We’re not up to that yet,” said the methodical policeman, who was still wrestling with my registration info. The food schmooze continued, I was starting to sense the launch of a lifelong friendship, and I felt thoroughly ashamed for having fallen prey to stereotyping.
Finally Officer Bill picked up my insurance card and sighed. “You know, if you’re not insured and you tell me you are, we’ll have to subpoena you for passing false information?”
“Yes, Officer Bill. You see, I left on this trip—I’m eating my way across North America for a media company in California—over three weeks ago, so it expired while I was on the road and the new card is surely sitting in my mailbox back home.”
I was way too off-script at this point—I think Officer Bill stopped listening sometime around the point when I mentioned “a media company in California.” And it was after 5 p.m., so my insurance agent had left the office. Officer Bill seemed unsure what to do with me.
“Look,” I said, “I’m perfectly willing to spend the night in jail if need be. All I ask is something great to eat for dinner first. We’re not here for pizza. We need something local. Something like catfish.”
At mention of the word “catfish,” Officer Bill’s eyes lit up. “What day is this?” he asked. “Friday!” JB and I shouted in unison. Officer Bill slapped the hood of my car and told us we had to go immediately to Derby City Truck Stop, on the other side of the interstate, where they fry the heck out of catfish, Fridays only. Hardly able to contain our jubilance, JB and I carefully jotted down the directions, pumped Officer Bill’s hand with deep, affectionate gratitude, and drove off to a rather generic-looking truck stop.
There was no catfish—they were frying up some other fish. We ordered, the plate came, and the fish was fantastic. Just look at it!
Notice JB’s hand in the background of this photo, balled up into a fist of exhilaration:
At this point we recorded podcast #5, running down the day’s highlights and trying to synchronize our level of adoration for Derby City Truck Stop: MP3
After the first order of fish, the revelrous mood sank a bit as we started to doubt our feelings. The dramatic arc of this story demanded a monumental finale. Was the fish truly great, or were we merely willing it to be great? As with most Kentucky restaurants, the Derby City Truck Stop is all-you-can-eat, so we requested another round. And it was even better. We went through order after order, insatiable, refusing to ever stop eating. It was like being on a cosmic escalator of galvanizing chowhound wonderment.
Hear the podcasts we recorded between each supernal round:
Podcast #6—JB recants: The fish isn’t good, it’s “really, really” good, after all: MP3
Podcast #7— No … the fish is actually even better than we thought: MP3
Podcast #8—Fish round 4: MP3
Dessert was even better. Much better, in fact:
Lemon meringue pie with perfect meringue—tight as a nail but gossamer light and instantly melting. Geological striations of luscious custard, sharp and true lemon, and the richest, moistest, crumbliest of graham cracker crusts. Banana pudding was the best I’ve ever had (and this is a dish I’ve had a lot), with banana slices perfectly dovetailing into rich pudding, Nilla Wafers neither saturated nor dry, and more of that incredible meringue.
Hear the giddy dessert podcast: MP3
And then: blackberry cobbler.
In report #29, I explained how sometimes, back in Bardstown, “the wind shifts, and angels puff into your nose. An unearthly aroma of luscious caramel and vanilla sneaks up on you in an undulating wave of divine consolation” from the aging bourbon barrels scattered around town. This blackberry cobbler, though it contained no bourbon, was the sweet embodiment of that indescribable, deeply consoling aroma. I never thought I’d find it in edible form. Even bourbon itself doesn’t fulfill that aromatic promise. But the blackberry cobbler did. I felt utterly complete.
I’d had the perfect meal; a meal so unfathomably delicious that it transformed an agonizing day into a gorgeous operatic crescendo of awed predestination. I would not have changed a single thing.
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NOTE: If you skipped the videos or podcasts from the spoonbread festival, above, you may want to go back and check them out. They really evoke the comical slow burn as events unfolded.
I’m sorry I have no photos or video of Officer Bill, but he will forever be etched in my memory as one of the great heroes of chowhounding. The next time you eat something wonderful, please toast Officer Bill Barrett, Chowhound Paragon.