In Kentucky, you can get a porcupine hickory-smoked for five bucks. A squirrel or a frog will set you back just $2.50. I had no idea that one could kill an animal and then bring it to a place that would smoke it for a fee until I road-tripped to Kentucky last week with my family.
I travel because I’m curious by nature and I like to know how people live in other parts of the country and the world. But America is huge and it’s easy to get lulled into the notion that you have to leave the country in order to experience another culture. Within an hour of arriving in Kentucky last week, I was reminded of how very wrong that assumption is.
Owensboro is only 360 miles due south from my home in suburban Chicago, but the people who live there inhabit a very different world than the one I live in. In Evanston, my adopted hometown, people with extensive record collections and cars made in Scandinavia pay $4 for fancy cups of coffee and $3 for croissants at the weekly farmers market and shell out big bucks for organic treats at either of two Whole Foods locations that are only a half- mile apart along Evanston’s Chicago Avenue.
Old Hickory BBQ was our first stop in the state after spending much of the day driving south from Chicago and it was a perfect introduction to one of America’s most distinctive, and for my taste, interesting states. Coming from Chicago, where you have to clear out your 401k to get a sandwich in some places, everything on the menu appeared to be ridiculously cheap- sandwiches were around $4 and platters including two sides were about $8. The place was moderately full but if it were transported to Chicago with the same prices, there would be a 9-hour wait to get in.
Kentucky’s BBQ specialty is mutton but I was most interested in the burgoo, a stew native to the region that is usually mutton-based. I went up to the take out counter, where many of the BBQ specialties are on display, and Jordan, one of the kitchen staffers, gave me a taste and offered to show me the restaurant smokehouse after our meal (see video below).
I loved the burgoo and everything else I tried and was elated when the bill came. $22 for our family of four, or less than we sometimes spend at McDonald’s. And as soon as I stepped into the smokehouse, I was overcome by the glorious smell of smoking meat. Jordan yanked open one of the smoke chambers and gave us a little tour of the meats people had brought in for 24 hour smoke sessions.
“Here are some pork butts,” he said. “Over there we’ve got some deer hind quarters.”
He said that he’d seen people bring in just about every type of animal you could imagine: squirrel, possum, porcupine, raccoons, frogs, and goats among others. And he confirmed my suspicion that Owensboro wasn’t much of a hotbed for vegetarians. I’m not a hunter and I tend to limit my meat intake but I would have loved to have strung up a hammock in the smokehouse and just enjoyed the seductive smell of grilled meats for hours.
The following night, while staying in a cheap motel in Beaver Dam, forty minutes southeast of Owensboro, and I got another taste of the hunting culture. The hotel’s free breakfast starts at 4:45 A.M. to accommodate the hunters, who filled the place to capacity on the first Saturday night of the deer-hunting season. It turns out that Kentucky has a huge deer population and hunters converge on the state from far and wide. We heard them chattering excitedly in the hotel corridor at 4:15 A.M.
Despite the sleep interruption, we didn’t emerge for breakfast around 9 A.M and the breakfast room was empty until a camouflaged foursome came in and began filling up on biscuits and gravy.
“Seems like you guys are the only hunters who slept in,” I said to a bleary eyed young man with a hunters knife hanging in a long sheath from his belt.
“Oh no,” he replied. “We were down here right at 4:45. We went out hunting and we’re back for our second breakfast now.”
“Did you get any deer?” I asked.
“I saw one,” he said. “But she was too young. I just couldn’t do it.”
The young man explained that deer hunters, like photographers, need to be out at dusk and dawn to stalk their prey. I asked him a whole host of dumb questions that anyone who grew up in Kentucky would already know the answer to, but then was able to show off a little of my own newfound knowledge as well.
“You know,” I said. “There’s a place in Owensboro that’ll smoke a porcupine for just five bucks.”
[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]