Although Kentucky isn't always considered part of the South, its cuisine owes much to Southern cooking traditions. Traditional Kentucky meals are full of flavor, using a plethora of ingredients to create a hearty dishes that will stick with the eater long after the food has disappeared from the plate.
Like states west of the Appalachians, Kentucky was discovered by explorers progressing westward from the original 13 colonies. This meant that prepared foods were hard to come by. Explorers and early settlers usually had to make do with food they could find in the wild. Early settlers living on homesteads found sustainability in the crops they planted. While wheat was difficult to grow in the Kentucky soil, corn was not. Corn became a mainstay for settlers, able to use the crop to provide food for their families as well as a basis for feed for their livestock. But other vegetables – green beans, carrots, potatoes and okra – were grown also, providing a foundation for a basic settler diet. As wheat was in high demand – and also expensive – it was usually used in celebratory dishes or for special reasons.
The settlers also raised animals for meat, with an emphasis on hogs, though sheep were raised as well. This didn't prevent them from hunting for meat, with wild turkey, venison, bear and squirrel being common game. Virtually every part of the animal was put to good use, and often the grease and juices from cooking the meat would be combined with vegetables for a tasty dish. Traditional vegetable stews combined potatoes, corn, okra, and green beans together, simmered along with bacon for a distinctive pleasure.
Many of Kentucky's traditional dishes are desserts and sweets. And who doesn't like dessert, really? But there's more to Kentucky cuisine than simply sugary treats.
The most traditional Kentucky dish seems to be burgoo. If you're wondering about the spelling, you're not alone. If you're wondering about the term itself, again, you're not in the minority. The word "burgoo" is itself an anomaly. Its origins are indeterminate: some believe it a slurred version of "barbecue," others think it a drawl of "bird stew." There's also the camp that says it was a seafaring term for the grain bulgur.
Regardless of the term's origin, there's little dispute about what constitutes the dish. That is to say, burgoo has a limitless number of ways to prepare it; its particular constitution on any given day is utterly dependent on the mindset of the cook. However, it's generally agreed that burgoo will contain at least one meat (and possibly many), of which opossum is a distinct possibility, as well as some combination of corn, beans, potatoes, okra, and tomatoes. There are also a number of spices that flavor the mixture in various and disparate ways.
Aside from the dining adventure that is burgoo, there are a number of treats that count as traditional Kentucky dishes. Among them is a dessert called Chess Pie. The basic ingredients are simple: water, flour, eggs, sugar, butter, and flour. However, many cooks add fruit – strawberries, blueberries – and perhaps lemon juice to add another dimension of flavor. The result is an ingredient-specific dish: Strawberry Chess Pie or Lemon Chess Pie.
We'd be remiss if we didn't mention Derby-Pie, a true Kentucky prize. In fact, the only place where you can find authentic Derby-Pie is in Kentucky – the recipe name is trademarked, and the recipe is a closely guarded secret. Created by George Kern, a restaurant gourmet who died in 1968, along with his parents, today every Derby Pie is made by Kern's Kitchen, run by the family. While the pie is available at various retailers around the Louisville area, Kentucky Derby season increases the demand for the product. And it's tasty, too: consumers find that they simply can't get enough of the chocolate-walnut delicacy, and want the recipe to cook for themselves. Too bad – the only place to get an in-person taste is in Kentucky.
A Kentucky Original
Of course, the Bluegrass State's most famous food business is the always unmistakable Kentucky Fried Chicken (or KFC, as the chain restaurant is now called). Based out of Louisville, KFC has been in business for over 77 years, first opening in Corbin. In 1952, the company began franchising restaurants, awarding the first franchise to Pete Harman of Salt Lake City, Utah. Today the restaurant has over 11,000 locations worldwide, serving almost eight million customers a day.
Fried chicken, grits, greens – all the usual Southern staples make the menu in the Bluegrass State. Whether you're looking for a sweet dessert or a filling main meal, Kentucky is your one-stop destination for down home fare.