Sunday, July 17, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: Kentucky I - That Derby Day Classic

Done (for now) with the Midwest, I head to the Upper South as I explore some of the most famous edible exports that the Bluegrass State has to offer the rest of America.

Official Name: Commonwealth of Kentucky
State Nickname: The Bluegrass State
Admission to the US: June 1, 1792 (#15)
Frankfort (14th largest city)
Other Important Cities: Louisville (largest); Lexington (2nd); Bowling Green (3rd); Owensboro (4th)
Appalachia, South, Upper South; East South Central (US Census)
RAFT Nations: Cornbread & BBQ; Chestnut
Bordered by: Illinois, Indiana & Ohio (north); West Virginia (northeast); Virginia (east); Tennessee (south); Missouri & the Mississippi River (west)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: blackberry (fruit); gray squirrel (wild animal game species); Kentucky spotted bass (fish); milk (drink)
Some Famous & Typical Foods: common Southern foods; Kentucky-specific foods such as burgoo & Derby pie; fried chicken (though not "Kentucky Fried Chicken"); mint julep & Kentucky bourbon

For the most part, the foods of Kentucky are those of the South: catfish, hush puppies, cornbread and (well duh) fried chicken abound. This also includes the foods of Appalachia, which trundles through a massive part of the Bluegrass State (look at Margarita's Appalachian Menu for a bibliography of Appalachian cookbooks, which I will find useful at some point during this State-by-State series). And true, fried chicken is important in Kentucky (even if what the entire world thinks of as "Kentucky Fried Chicken" or, at least in Egypt, as just plain "Kentucky", has a bit more in the way of hydrogenated oils and high fructose syrups). Corbin, Kentucky's most famous son, Col. Harland Sanders, opened his first business in a gas station in 1930. As Jean Anderson points out in her book A Love Affair with Southern Cooking, it wasn't all just fried chicken at first. It was only after the government ran an interstate right through his business that the gears were set in motion for KFC to hit the big time

Still believing in his fried chicken with its secret seasoning blend of eleven herbs and spices, Sanders took to the road in 1952. Crisscrossing the country, he called on restaurant owners and fried batches of chicken... Dozens were impressed enough to cut a deal: Sanders would share his secret recipe and frying technique if they'd pay him a nickel for every order sold. [Anderson 2007: 114]
Finally, a test case for that famous saying, "If I had a nickel for every time..."

Another famous Kentucky classic is pretty tough to find at KFC (unless Pepsi is starting to make them en masse). The mint julep is, by all accounts, a Kentucky Derby classic. Yes, various Southern states lay their own claims to their own juleps, but Kentucky's is the one that everyone keeps going back to. There is a variety of recipes even for Kentucky's take on the mint julep, but it more or less comes back to the same simple formula: Kentucky bourbon, simple syrup and mint. Since I am not well-versed in the art of the cocktail or other liquored drinks, I needed some visual aids. I found one at the website for the Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg, made by Dixon Dedman, which you all can follow below:

I more or less followed Dedman's procedure, since he is showing how to make just one and since it looks so easy when he does it! But I did take a hint from the recipe posted by the Beaumont Inn underneath the video, which shows how to make enough mint juleps for 30 people! I am not drinking that much liquor, but I took a cue from Maker's Mark for how to infuse their bourbon with mint leaves.

The recipe: Mint Julep (Kentucky-Style)

To make a mint julep, you will need the following:

* Kentucky bourbon - yes, it has to be Kentucky bourbon - not rum, brandy or whiskey as they use elsewhere in the South, otherwise it's not the kind you will find at the Kentucky Derby. When I sought out a bottle of Kentucky bourbon, the nice folks at the Wine Source in Hampden gave me some recommendations. The woman I talked to said that she prefers Knob Creek Kentucky Bourbon because of its flavor. However, she pointed out that people with a sweet tooth may prefer the slightly sweeter Maker's Mark, and that is why I went with that brand. Just don't use something cheap. You are making this for the flavor, not for the buzz.
* fresh sprigs of mint - lots of it if you are making a lot of mint juleps. Since the one tiny mint plant I planted in my raised bed at Clifton Park last year has literally taken over the whole damn bed, I am not lacking in fresh mint.
* equal parts water and sugar, which you will use to make a simple syrup. Don't just mix the two in the glass like some sloppy bartenders - make the simple syrup, for corn's sake. It's not as hard as it looks. Note: some folks infuse mint leaves into the simple syrup while cooking it. The Maker's Mark recipe did not suggest that, probably because you will infuse the bourbon itself with your mint.
* crushed ice - okay, it doesn't have to be crushed, but this is preferable.

In addition, make sure you also have a straw to slightly bruise the mint as you push it down into the glass, kitchen shears to cut the straw, and a jigger with which to measure the bourbon and simple syrup.

If you don't have crushed ice on hand, go ahead and crush it. I found that neither my blender nor my food processor was very useful for crushing ice - I got a snowball-like consistency at the bottom of the blender and many slightly bruised ice cubes on top in the blender, but that was still better than the food processor which didn't do much more than slightly crack the ice. I finally had to put the ice in a ziploc bag and take a hammer to it on the front porch.

Sometimes the bluntest instrument is the best

To make the simple syrup, take a cup of water and bring it to a boil, and then put in an equal portion of sugar, constantly stirring it over low heat.

It is done when the sugar is completely dissolved the simple syrup is ready. You can tell this by taking a metal spoon and pouring the syrup back into the bowl, looking for crystals. No crystals = simple syrup (there are many places online to find these instructions). During the simmering process you may want to put some mint leaves into the mixture, which you will fish out later. Either way, let the syrup come to room temperature and refrigerate.

If you don't use minty simple syrup, follow Maker's Mark's suggestion (again, on the Beaumont Inn website's mint julep page): take about 40 smallish fresh mint leaves and cover them with Kentucky bourbon.
Let them sit for 15 minutes, then take a cotton cloth (I used a fine cheese cloth)

and put the mint leaves into it and squeeze the life out of those leaves. Dip the sachet into the bourbon a few more times, each time wringing as hard as you can.

Okay, YOU try taking a photo while wringing out a cheese cloth filled with bourbon-soaked mint leaves!

Throw the leaves out and set the minty bourbon aside until ready to use.

To assemble the mint julep, start with a glass. Preferably, you will use a silver mint julep cup, but those can get pricey and I am on a budget.

This assembly is per Maker's Mark:

Fill your glass part way with crushed ice.

Next put in a sprig or two of mint.

Then put more crushed ice in the cup.

The rest comes from the Beaumont Inn video: as Dedman suggests, you can play around with the amounts: use two parts bourbon to one part simple syrup for a stronger mint julep, equal parts of each for a sweeter one.

Again I went sweet (and because I didn't want to get too buzzed here), and used my 1 3/4 oz to 3/4 oz jigger to measure out about 1 3/4 oz each Kentucky bourbon and simple syrup into my glass.

Of course, do not forget to put some of the mint-infused bourbon into the glass - a few spoonfuls should do you.

Take your straw and muddle the mint down towards the bottom of the glass. Put another sprig of mint in for decoration, and powdered sugar if you like. Some recipes suggest that you snip the straw so that it is the same height as the mint sprig.

I have not had a mint julep before. I did have a black-eyed susan once, on Preakness Day, though I was not terribly satisfied with the version I had (note: the black-eyed susan also uses Kentucky bourbon). The mint julep I made was pleasantly sweet and minty, and very cold and refreshing for the hot day on which I made it. Because mine was not as strong, it didn't get me terribly buzzed. I wasn't going for "terribly buzzed" anyway, so I was not disappointed. Again, if you want yours stronger, fill your jigger accordingly. This is a very nice drink and I now finally know how to make it. That and the simple syrup will come in quite handy for other uses (I have some iced tea to make, for example...)


Anderson, Jean. A Love Affair with Southern Cooking: Recipes and Recollections. William Morrow: New York, 2007.

Beaumont Inn. "Recipe: How to Make the Perfect Mint Julep". Video "How to Make a Mint Julep" by Beaumont Inn, featuring Dixon Dedman. Video posted on YouTube by Beaumont Inn (user BeaumontInn) on May 24, 2010.

Hellmann's. "Owensboro Kentucky: Burgoo". From the In Search of Real Food YouTube Series with Dave Lieberman. Posted August 6, 2007.

National Public Radio. "Moonlite Burgoo and Mutton Dip". From the
"Hidden Kitchens" Series. Originally published November 5, 2004.

Lacabe, Marga. "Margarita's Appalachian Menu". Date unknown.

Maker's Mark. "Mint Julep Recipe". Reprinted on the Beaumont Inn website. Date unknown.

Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn. "The Burgoo Soup Story / The Burgoo Recipe". Copyright 1996-2005 The Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn, Inc.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Kentucky" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Kentucky".