Kentucky BBQ: Bring Your Own Squirrels, Raccoons, Possums And Porcupines

kentucky bbqIn 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.

In Owensboro, people who get their groceries at Wal-Mart and drive pickup trucks can hurl a dead animal onto their trucks and bring it over to the Old Hickory BBQ restaurant, where the good people who run the place have been hickory-smoking meats since 1918. I know we were in a very different place from listening to the rush hour traffic report on the radio: the only traffic tie-up involved a deer carcass.

old hickory bbq in owensboro kentuckyOld 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]

Kentucky’s Forbidden Donuts

donuts nord's bakery louisville doughnutsFor 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.

Regular readers might recall that I’ve gotten into trouble with my wife over the years for taking the family on long detours to Western New York State’s Amish Country in pursuit of donuts. With that unpleasantness in mind, I didn’t insist on hitting all seven donut shops scattered around the central and northern part of the state mentioned in the article. But we were already planning a long-weekend trip to Kentucky when the Times piece came out, so I added donuts to our weekend to-do list.

hadorn's bakery bardstownOur 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.

 burke's bakery danville kentuckyOn 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.

nord's bakery in louisvilleOn 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]

The Scottish Highland Games Head To Kentucky

haggis If you want to join in on the famous Scottish Highland Games but can’t afford the flight across the pond, you can head to Bardstown, Kentucky, this Saturday for their annual take on the event. While many people know of haggis, a Scottish dish containing sheep’s heart, liver and lungs that are stuffed into a sheep’s stomach, as food, Bardstown is using the delicacy for something else: hurling.

All over the world, Highland Games showcase contests requiring brute strength, such as the caber toss, which requires participants to essentially throw a small telephone poll, and tossing blocks weighing 28 to 56 pounds.

“In Scotland, they used to use throwing events to determine their best warriors,” Kerry Overfelt, a three-time North American Highland Games champion and Bardstown resident who helped organize the inaugural Games three years ago, told NCB News’ Overhead Bin. “Most of the events are based on ways to kill people.”

The haggis toss, however, is based more on skill. This goes along with the theme of Bardstown’s events being a bit more lighthearted than the usual Highland Games fare. Children can compete in a mini caber toss using carpet roll cores, while men can enter the Bonniest Knees competition, where blindfolded women decide which male has the sexiest legs under their kilt.

And of course, there’s the haggis toss. It is said the event idea originated from a time when Scottish wives could bring their husbands lunch in the fields and peat bogs. Because they couldn’t easily cross the rivers, the women would toss the haggis to the men, who would catch it in their kilts. For those who think they may vomit from the thought of being covered in sheep guts, don’t worry. Bardstown uses mock haggis, either a beanbag or cornhole. Participants toss the object while standing atop a whiskey barrel.

“We miss out on some of the authenticity by not having an actual haggis,” said Overfelt, “but at the same time, we don’t have to worry about the haggis bursting open.”

[Image via Asta]

Exploring Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail

When the world descends on Louisville for the Kentucky Derby the first weekend in May, those breathtaking thoroughbreds may be first on visitors’ minds, but you can bet bourbon is a close second. Bourbon’s legacy is intertwined with Louisville’s history going back even further than the Derby.

Pioneers in 18th-century Virginia’s Kentucky County found a source of liquid income farming on the 60 acres Thomas Jefferson granted them for raising native corn – they distilled their surplus corn into whiskey. With the local limestone-filtered water and the hardwood trees for barrels, the settlers put their whiskey-making knowledge to work. No matter that the land didn’t suit plowing or traditional rye – they hand-planted and raised indigenous corn. By the late 1700s this area had become part of Kentucky, and thanks to help from the French during the Revolution, one of the counties – one with a great number of the corn whiskey distilleries – was named Bourbon county (today it’s a dry county – go figure).

After the steamboat’s arrival in the Ohio River port town of Louisville in 1811, bourbon found new markets, particularly downriver in New Orleans. Much of the bourbon was shipped out of the original Bourbon county, and some say the Frenchmen reloading the barrels at the Falls of the Ohio (everything had to be unloaded and carried back to the ship on the other side) naturally preferred the name Bourbon.

So what exactly is bourbon, anyway? You may have heard this but it bears repeating. All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. There are some specific requirements about proof, but the gist of it is this: Bourbon is made of more than half corn (at least 51%, though usually much more, among the rye, wheat and barley also used) and it must be aged in new charred-oak barrels. The best way to learn about bourbon, of course is to taste it, and the more open you are to learning from the local bartenders, the more they’ll be happy to impart. Just don’t confuse Jack Daniels Tennessee whiskey with bourbon and you’ll get along fine.Louisville owes its bourbon dominance to Prohibition: Out of the six permits issued in the country during Prohibition to sell whiskey for “medicinal purposes,” four were in Louisville. Still today a third of Kentucky bourbon is distilled in city limits. And a new education and training center andartisan distillery opening this month downtown, the Distilled Spirits Epicenter, will offer hands-on distilling instruction, classes and bottling servicesto small bottlers and those who want to be. Moonshine University, in particular, promises to be fun for enthusiasts.

More importantly to most visitors, though, Louisville is the center of the universe fortastingbourbon. Whether you’re still recovering from college shots or are a whiskey connoisseur, Louisville’s bourbon scene is as multi-faceted as the spirit itself. A day on the Urban Bourbon Trailcan introduce you to the Louisville beyond the cloying mint juleps and floppy hats of Derby.

First, be smart. Especially if you’re not used to it, bourbon sneaks up on you if you imbibe too fast, don’t drink enough water, or consume on an empty stomach. Stay hydrated, eat at every stop, and seriously, take taxis!

Your day starts at Dish on Market, housed in Louisville’s first color motion picture theater. Marshall, one of the two brothers who own the place, loves to talk history. Ask him to tell you about the building and talk bourbon. Meanwhile, order the Presidential breakfast, inspired by Harry Truman’s purported daily meal of toast, eggs, bacon, fruit, milk, and a shot of whiskey, in this case a generous pour of Old Grandad. “This is not your grandma’s bourbon,” laughs Marshall. You may feel like people are staring as your whiskey fumes waft about. That’s OK. They’re just too chicken to go hardcore this early. But like Marshall’s family motto says, you can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning. The key is to eat your breakfast first so you have a cushion for your bourbon.

Consider exploring the shops of NuLu (go east on Market) before lunch at Avalonon Bardstown Road, where you’ll want to wander later to check out the fun and funky shops. Like every stop on the trail, folks here know their stuff. If you like drama you might opt for the Flaming Pyroses, a Four Roses Manhattan set on fire (with Grand Marnier – “no bourbon was harmed in the making of this drink,” says Ryan, the bartender). For a less potent option, go for the Kentucky Mule, a twist on the classic bourbon and ginger, and familiar to fans of the vodka-based Moscow Mule. A range of lunch options well below $10 leaves you plenty to spend on drinks if you want to spring for the George T. Stagg, a $30 pour of liquid fire that will singe your lashes as you inhale, but burns oh so smoothly.

If it’s not madness at the track (that is, if you’re visiting outside of Derby week), hit the Derby Cafe in the afternoon to study up on your bourbon, and if you must have a mint julep, kick back at the bar.

After a rest, head for the old-fashioned opulence of The Brown Hotel. Piano music in the lobby bar will set the tone for your genteel sipping. Since this is your first evening stop, ease your way in with a Kentucky Cider – the light Basil Hayden joins sparkling apple cider and lemon for a lovely aperitif. Order a small plate or two – a recent option showcased country ham on brioche with a crayfish salsa, the perfect bite to whet your appetite.

A few blocks, and light years away, next up is the bar at Proof on Main. The restaurant for 21C Museum Hotel, repeatedly ranked among the top 10 hotels in the world, this is your “see and be seen” hotspot stop. Craft cocktails are offered with a selection of heartbreakingly delectable snacks. Don’t miss the cured meats plate, lonzino, lardo, and smoked grapes. The bar menu changes seasonally, but you could ask nicely for a Gold Rush for an all-too-easy-to-down honey, lemon and bourbon drink. Sip among the well-heeled crowd, then take a spin around the confrontingly contemporary art collection.

If you’ve paced yourself, you’re ready for dinner. You’re off to Baxter Station, where you’re unlikely to bump into tourists. Instead, this joint serves comfort fare to a regular crowd of its Irish Hill neighbors, families, white-haired long-timers and a sprinkling of hipsters. Traces of its past remain – once a saloon popular with nearby train station employees (no women allowed in those days), then a grocery during Prohibition, and back to a tavern until a rave restaurant review of the food turned it into a restaurant. Leftover door signage to the twinkly-lit back room remains because they don’t see any need to scratch away the past. This is pretense-free food and drink, no craft cocktails or fusion fuss here. The bourbon fried chicken, hot and crispy as nature intended, will fill you up nicely. Try Old Fashioned with Woodford (invented in Louisville) or choose your bourbon neat from the bar-tab friendly list.

Wrap up your night with dessert at Bourbons Bistro, a mecca for bourbon-lovers with more than 130 selections. Grab a chair at the bar for serious discussion. Tell the bartender what you like – caramel and vanilla, for instance – and he’ll give you a knowledgeable recommendation, like Vintage 17 Year. If you’re not up to straight bourbon, order the Bourbon Cobbler. Dessert in a glass, this sweet cocktail will go down so easily you might find yourself at the bottom tempted to order the 1969 Old Crow, a rare bourbon in a ceramic chess piece – you’ll see the face scowling as he keeps watch over the bar – that costs a cool $125. You might actually see someone order it, and watching a patron sip a drink that spendy is entertainment in and of itself. To finish the night, have the bread pudding. The towering carb-fest not only tastes amazing, but soaks up all that bourbon. You’ll need it – tomorrow is another day in Louisville.

Dana McMahanis a Louisville-based travel, food and fitness writer. Her articles have appeared in Delta Sky magazine,,, the Huffington Post, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, among other outlets. She blogs here.

Celebrate Hillbilly Days In the Home of the Hatfields and McCoys

hillbillyThe term “hillbilly” is widely considered an offensive way to describe a poor, uneducated person from a rural area, but the residents of Pike County, Kentucky, have found a novel way to co-opt the term in order to poke fun at themselves and raise money for a good cause in the process.

April 19 marks the start of Pikesville’s 36th annual Hillbilly Days Festival, a three-day long celebration of Appalachian culture that benefits the Shriner’s Children’s Hospital in nearby Lexington. The event was co-founded by Howard “Dirty Ear” Stratton and Grady “Shady” Kinney in 1977 and has gradually evolved into a major event that draws a host of nationally known musicians and over 100,000 festival goers.

The term hillbilly apparently dates back to Appalachia’s deep Scotch-Irish roots but it gained popularity along with a band called The Hill Billies in the 1920’s. The Hill Billies, who got their start playing in a barbershop – now a museum – in Galax, Virginia, on The Crooked Road (see photo), became popular enough that what we now call country music was called hillbilly music. By the 50’s, hillbilly music was re-branded as Country & Western.

Participants at Hillbilly Days dress up in bib overalls and don straw hats, display Confederate flags, drive pimped-out hillbilly limos and eat traditional hillbilly foods. Pike County is also the former stomping grounds of the legendary Hatfields and McCoys, whose infamous feud in the 1880’s resulted in 13 fatalities. Pike County has a Hatfield and McCoy driving tour and a museum for those who want to learn more about this bloody chapter in Appalachian history.

We spoke to Jimmy Kinney, Grady Shady’s son, to find out more about this intriguing cultural event.hillbilly barber shop galaxHow did this get started?

My dad and his friend, Dirty Ear Stratton got together and decided they wanted to have a parade. They went to a hillbilly parade in Ohio and got the idea to have one here. It was to make money for the Shriners Children’s Hospital in Lexington. It just took off; it grew from a small festival to well over 100,000 people now.

At one time, the term ‘hillbilly’ wasn’t considered insulting. How do you think the phrase has evolved?

It’s gone in different directions. We’re just having some fun and making fun of ourselves. But there’s a fine line. We’ve gotten some criticism about it, but I ask them to think about the good cause we’re raising money for. We can make fun of each other but we don’t let other people make fun of us.

How do people dress up for this?

Bib overalls, old straw hats – you’ll see just about everything.

I understand there’s also a special hillbilly breakfast available at the festival?

Yeah, it’s biscuits and gravy, fried apples, cornbread – all kinds of stuff.

What about hillbilly drinks like moonshine?

Can’t have that now; it’s against that law. When we first got Hillbilly Days going, we did have a member who brewed 114 quarts of moonshine. He was in our city park selling it for $10 per quart. The city police chief came by and told him he couldn’t sell it. So he says, ‘I’m not sellin’ it. I’m givin’ it away for a $10 donation.’

hillbilly limo hillbilly days carWhat goes on at Hillbilly Days?

Great music, five different stages. In the city park, we have old time and traditional bluegrass music. You’ll also hear country music and rock too. We have a big parade on Saturday with lots of hillbilly vehicles. You see vehicles that you wouldn’t even think could run, but they do.

Hillbilly limousines?

Right. People are very proud of them. People build them. They work on them in their garages all year to bring them here. You’ll see cars you’ve never seen before.

I noticed on the website that some participants were flying Confederate flags in previous years. Is the Southern heritage a big part of this event?

We get people from South Carolina and Georgia and around the South for it. But we also get people from all over – New York, Michigan, Canada.

Is it hard to get a hotel room in Pikesville during this event?

Very hard. If you can’t find a room in Pikesville, you might find one in Prestonsburg, which is about 20 miles away.

What is a hillbilly?

A hillbilly is a really fine person. It’s people from this area. Laid back people. People from this part of the country are super. The whole community is great – I can’t imagine a place with better hospitality than Pikeville, Kentucky.