For a place that doesn’t get a whole lot of national press, Kentucky must have as many claims to fame as any state in the country. There’s thoroughbred horseracing, famous family feuds, bluegrass music, and the nation’s most storied college basketball team. And in the food and drink arena, the Bluegrass State is known for KFC, the Bourbon Trail, mutton BBQ, hot browns, burgoo, and mint juleps, not to mention backwoods Old Kentucky favorites like squirrel and possum.
But I’d never heard of Kentucky as a mecca for donut connoisseurs until I read a piece in the New York Times a few weeks ago. William Grimes described the state as “the last calorie-filled province in an enormous swath of territory where the glazed twist, the apple fritter, the chocolate-iced Long John and the vanilla-cream Bismarck hold sway,” and I was hooked.
Our first stop was Hadorn’s Bakery, an institution in Bardstown, a lovely small town in the heart of bourbon country, for more than 26 years. Hadorn’s didn’t make Grimes’s list but I smelled the place from a block away and noticed the line snaking out the door at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning and figured it had to be good.
I had to recalibrate my order three times while standing in line though, as the hungry individuals standing before me snatched the last of the pumpkin donuts and two other varieties before I could call out my order. But I came away with a half dozen decadent little beauties: two glazed, two chocolate glazed, a caramel glazed and a pretzel donut.
The plain glazed were 60 cents, the others 70 or 80, and they were all light, moist, fresh and melt-in-your mouth treats. On my walk back to the hotel my plan to divvy up the donuts when I got back to the room went up in smoke, and my wife and sons had to battle it out for what I’d left in the bag.
On Sunday morning, I was ready for round two at Burke’s Bakery in Danville, another appealing small town that hosted the Vice Presidential debate in October. Burke’s was part of the NYT piece and also came highly recommended by Stuart Meyer, who produces a show called Small Town Flavor. Meyer featured Burke’s in an episode of their show (see below), and after watching the segment, I was ready to get in my car and make the 8-hour drive before the clip had even ended.
But you never want to digest too much hype before seeing a movie and donuts are the same way. Burke’s doesn’t open until Noon on Sundays and they bake only a few varieties of donuts rather than their usual full assortment, so I was unable to get the coconut frosted special or any of the others I had in mind. I had a crumb donut and a glazed, both quite good and a bargain at 60 and 65 cents, but it wasn’t the this-donut-has-changed-my-life experience I was hoping for.
On Monday morning, I was geared up to try the maple bacon donuts at Nord’s Bakery, a popular neighborhood joint in the Germantown section of Louisville, but my sons, ages 3 and 5, decided to sleep in late, after we dragged them out late three nights in a row. I didn’t have the heart to wake them up but I feared that my chances of getting one of their famous maple bacon donuts were dwindling with each passing minute. Still, as we set off from our hotel around 10 a.m., I felt like we still had a shot since it was a weekday.
But by the time we found the place, alas, the maple bacon donuts were history. I did feel a bit better though when Martha, the young woman at the counter, told me they’d sold out hours ago, rather than mere minutes, and my mood brightened further after I tucked into a crunch nut donut that was full of nutty, coconut goodness.
We repaired to Sunergos Cofffee next door with a bag full of the little treasures, (they don’t mind and their coffee is great) and my 3-year-old son James devoured his chocolate glazed donut so quickly that he tried to attack my wife’s donut while it was still in her mouth – a sure sign that he knew he’d stumbled across a pretty damn good find.
“This kid is like the Homer Simpson of donuts,” my wife complained, trying to restrain him with an outstretched leg.
Nord’s was the clear winner of our Kentucky donut quest – the others were very good but these were sell-your-soul-to-the-devil-for-them good. Like the Rolling Stones song, I didn’t quite get the donuts I wanted, but I learned that the Bluegrass State does indeed have one more little known treasure to be proud of: its forbidden donuts. But if you want to reach donut nirvana in Kentucky, you need to get your donut loving behind out of bed much earlier than I did to get the good stuff.
[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]