Friday, September 24, 2010

Kentucky Food: The Madison Diner

When I'm on the road I do my best to find a local mom'n'pop eatery, the kind of place where the old timers and real locals go. I was wandering around Richmond last week looking for such a place why my wife was in a meeting, when I stumbled across the Madison Diner. It's a tiny little place on Big Hill Road just outside of downtown proper. It didn't look like much from the outside, and doesn't even have much of a sign, but it had a good mix of vehicles in the parking lot. I look for a place that mostly has pick-up trucks, old clunkers, and a few late model sedans. That combination tells you that the portions are good (big ol' boys in trucks need quantity), the price is right (cheap cars mean they need to stretch a dollar), and the service is great (old people are picky and drive big cars). Another good thing to look for is a sign that says "breakfast all day", which generally means real down-home cookin'.

The Madison did not dissapoint. The older lady who told me to sit anywear quickly cleared off my table, brought me some coffee, and asked me about the book I was reading (which was for work and not worth discussing). She sounded like a diner waitress should, with lots of "honeys" and "darlins". The other patrons were just about right as well, lots of old men talking politics and high school sports, and big families (and by big I mean obese) eating waffles with extra has browns and hot sauce. It was only about 10 in the morning but I'd had an early breakfast so I ordered a "Bill's Spicy Burger" with fries. The burger was pretty good, although not particularly spice, as were the fries, and the bill was only $7, which included the coke I had. They didn't charge for the coffee, which they refilled about 5 times while I read and listened to the old codgers around me solve the world's problems. After about 1 1/2 hours I finally went up to pay. I gave the old feller at the register my credit card, who was probably "Bill", and he apologetically told me their machine was busted. When I told him I didn't have any cash, he said "don't worry 'bout it, take care of it next time you come in." Since I'm not in Madison County very often I pratically had to beg him to give me the address of the place so I could mail him a check. He was just going to let it slide!

These are the kind of places we all need to visit more often. They're owned by real people, and pretty much all their profits stay right in the community. It's a crime that there are more fast food joints in the Commonwealth than home cookin' restaurants.

Madison Diner on Urbanspoon

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Kentucky Places: Tom Dorman State Nature Preserve

This site is dedicated to the "real" Kentucky, not the homogenized world most of us live in but the parts of the state that are unique. Unfortunately, when it comes to the natural world all we really have left are the scraps. The Kentucky that Daniel Boone first encountered has long been clear-cut or plowed under, and is now being paved over as you read this. However we do still have a few scraps to remind us of what used to be. One of my favorite scraps close to Lexington is the Tom Dorman State Nature Preserve. The Dorman is almost 1000 forested acres right on the Kentucky River in Garrard County just outside of Nicholasville on US 27. Although it's only 30 minutes from Man O' War Boulevard it seems secluded - I've rarely encountered anyone else hiking there. You get some great views of the Palisades, the giant limestone cliffs along the river that are the reason none of the big towns in Central Kentucky are located right on the river.

Here's what you do: pack a lunch and hike the main loop trail clockwise out of the parking lot. After 10-15 minutes, you'll see a sign for the the ridge trail, which dead ends about 1/4 mile from the loop. Take the ridge trail until it ends (you'll see another sign) and eat you lunch on the huge boulders at the end of the trail, overlooking the river. When you're done with your lunch (and your nap), return the way you came until you reach the loop trail again, then continue on the loop clockwise once again. The trail will take you down to the river's edge (where you can take another nap) then it'll lead you back to your car alond an old pioneer road. I've been told by locals that this road was used during colonial/pioneer times to reach a ferry located on the river before there was a bridge.

The Nature Conservancy also owns several preserves nearby, but the Dorman is the largest and the best place to hike. As an aside, the Tom Dorman State Nature Preserve is owned by a state government agency that you've probably never heard of, the Kentucky State Nature Preserve Commission. The KSNPC is responsible for protecting Kentucky's endangered species and most significant natural areas. They are definately worthy of your support if you care anything about retaining some of Kentucky's last unique places. The best way you can do that is get a nature license plate the next time you register your car, it only costs $10 extra (tax deductible) and the KSNPC gets the money and uses it to buy fantastic places like the Dorman!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Kentucky Places: Hunt-Morgan House

Nothing quite gets me as fired up and nerdy as talking about the War Between the States, except maybe talking about barbecue. I was raised on stories of how the Yankees burned my great-grandmother's family farm near Colesburg, even though after the war she married a Union soldier. Of course, like many Kentuckians, I have ancestors on both sides of the war (there are dozens of Union and Confederate privates and even a few Confederate generals and congressmen in my family tree) but I've always been more interested in Confederate history; I guess I'm a sucker for a Lost Cause.
When most folks think of Kentucky during the war (if they think of it at all) the first name that comes to mind is General John Hunt Morgan, the Thunderbolt of the Confederacy. Morgan was the epitomy of the Southern cavalier, tall in the saddle, feather in his hat, point Van Dyke on his chin, gallantly riding against the Yankee horde who invaded his beloved Commonwealth. Morgan spent most of the war blowing up bridges and railroads, just generally harassing Union troops and forcing them to waste a lot of time, money, and manpower they would otherwise have used to fight the Confederate Army of Tennessee. A lot of old-timers in Kentucky will tell you they have relatives who rode with Morgan, and there's even a club for them to join the "Morgan's Men Association". I don't belong myself, but as THE old-timer I got to tell you that I have a few ancestors who were in the 8th Kentucky Cavalry CS under Morgan, and one of Morgan's uncles-by-marriage is even in my family tree!
There are a whole bunch of books on Morgan and his men, some of which I'll get around to reviewing one of these days. All over the Commonwealth, from Hopkinsville to Mt Sterling, you can find historical highways markers detailing the exploits of Morgan's Raiders as they hassled the Yanks from behind enemy lines, but if you want a first-hand experience walking in his footsteps you need to visit the Hunt-Morgan House in Lexington. Owned by the non-profit Bluegrass Trust for Historic Preservation, the house was built in 1815 by Morgan's maternal grandfather and saved from the bulldozers in 1955 by a group of preservation minded citizens. Since then the home has been restored to its antebellum glory and it's waiting for you to come and tour it. In addition to the home and period furnishings the house contains a small War Between the States museum complete with saddles and sabres. The coolest items incude General Basil Duke's coat and a scale model of the Morgan statue that graces the Fayette County Courthouse lawn. The house is open seven days a week for guided tours, which cost $7 per adult. There is also a small gift shop for all of your antebellum souvenir needs, and you can even rent out the formal garden for weddings.

I guess I should mention that this isn't really Morgan's house, but his grandfather's and then his mother's. He never lived here as an adult, he lived in a house across the street (which, I should mention, he bought from the very same uncle-by-marriage whi is in my family tree, Colonel Thomas Hart). That house was torn down in 1955 and turned into a lovely parking lot. If it wasn't for the folks at the Bluegrass Trust, this home would also be a parking lot. Which is why you should join.

Kentucky Food: Midway's Affordable Eats

Midway is a tourist town, pure and simple; the entire downtown consists of one block of high-end restaurants and gift shops. It's a great destination for "red hat ladies" and wealthy horse breeders, but not much there for regular folks on a budget. Most of the restaurants are excellent, but none are really affordable. That is, until about a month ago when a few new places opened within 100 feet of each other.

The Wonderland Book Cafe is a really nice little place focusing on breakfast and light lunch. It's really the only decent breakfast in town - Wallace Station isn't really "in town" and the Quirk (or whatever they're calling it now) isn't very good. Your best bet is the "Farmer's Breakfast", a pretty hearty omlette served with bacon and homemade bread. The vast majority of the food is locally produced, from the veggies to the eggs. They have several coffees to choose from, which is self-serve. The bookstore part is really just several book cases around the dining room, mostly full of kid's books. In fact, the Wonderland's focus is being kid-friendly; if you bring your kids to town, this is where you want to take them when they get bored out of their mind in the decorator shops.

Also opening recently is the Grey Goose, a pizza place that originated in Lexington on Jefferson Street. It's as good as any pizza I've ever had, with hand-tossed crusts and fresh toppings. I'm not going to spend much time talking about it, though, because if you come to a quaint little railroad town in Central Kentucky you need to get a Hot Brown or some burgoo, not eat a pizza. You can do that anywhere. Keep it real! Same goes for the new Italian place across the street, Jimmy D's. Its got pretty good burgers, as well as spaghetti and other Northeastern big-city food. Like the Grey Goose, the quality is there and the price is good, but if you're visiting Midway for the first time you really should hit one of the more traditional Kentucky places like Darlin' Jeans, or my favorite, Bistro La Belle . Darlin' Jean's Apple Cobbler Cafe is the most unpretentious, down home style place in Midway, and it's still fairly upscale. It's the kind of place my 75-year old mother thinks is "charming". The hot brown is pretty good, and the debris is excellent, and everything is served by a great staff at affordable prices. The Bistro isn't remotely affordable, but it's the best food in town, most of it with a unique spin on traditional Southern cuisine - ignore the girly name and get the fried chicken livers followed by some shrimp and grits or lamb sliders! And if you are a drinker make sure to order an old-fashioned or whatever bourbon-based drink special they have, they have a great mixologist who really knows how to treat Kentucky's signature beverage.

Now, if you're interested in trying any of these places I suggest trying them soon because I don't see how a town of 1200 can possibly support more than a dozen restaurants for very long, tourism or no.

Wonderland Book Cafe on Urbanspoon Bistro la Belle on Urbanspoon Darlin Jean's Apple Cobbler on Urbanspoon


Unfortunately I was right. The Bistro La Belle closed in January 2011. Hopefully someone else will buy it and keep a similar menu, but since the owner, chef, and mixologist are all moving on it certainly won't be the same...

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Kentucky Food: Wallace Station Deli and Bakery

You may have heard of Midway, an historic little railroad town in the center of thoroughbred horse country located right off of I-64 between Frankfort and Lexington. Downtown is packed with restaurants, but Wallace Station ,located on the outskirts of town, may be the most well-known if only because it was recently featured on the food channel's "Drive-ins, Diners, and Dives". It's really a little upscale to fit in any of those categoris; it's kind of a faux-dive, with gourmet burgers (at gourmet prices). Lots of Lexington folks like to visit at lunch as much to enjoy the horse-farm scenery on Old Frankfort Pike as to enjoy the food. The place has a horse-racing theme, with racing silks and farm logos everywhere, and food named afer famous horses and tracks. The service could be better; for a little place in the middle of rural Kentucky the staff is mostly hipster college-aged kids and not especially friendly. But although I think the place tries a little too hard to be an "upscale dive", the food is very good! They take a lot of care to get locally grown produce as much as possible, for instance. If you're there for lunch get the "Big Brown Burger", it's huge and fresh. Or, much, much better yet, make the trip out on Monday night for the fried chicken (although you better be early or they'll run out)!

Wallace Station Deli and Bakery on Urbanspoon

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Kentucky Places: Blue Licks Battlefield

Blue Licks Battlefield State Park is a great place to visit if you are a Kentucky history buff, ecologist, or fan of mismanagement. Let's start at the beginning, which is several thousand years ago. Huge bison herds, thousands of head strong, congregated at the Licking River mineral licks near what is now the park. These big critters ate most everything in their path and stomped on the rest, creating a pretty barren landscape at this ox-bow. The habitat was so harsh that only pretty specialized plants could survive here. One plant in particular, the Short's goldenrod, is a federally endangered species and is only found in the Blue Licks area (in Kentucky anyway). Jump forward a few centuries to 1782, and this becomes the site of the battle of Blue Licks, the last battle of the Revolutionary War. Daniel Boone led a company of pioneers into a rout at the hands of Shawnee allied with the British, right at the very same spot as the mineral springs and the goldenrod. Most of the pioneers were killed . All of the bison were wiped out at about the same time, and without the heavy grazing and trampling the barren openings started to turn in scrubby woodlands. Jump ahead another century to the Gilded Age and some enterprising locals realized they had something special on their hands. They started bottling "Blue Licks Springs Mineral Water", and tourists came to soak in the springs for a little natural spa rejuvenation. So in this one little spot we have a unique endangered species, a battle featuring Kentucky's most famous pioneer, and an historic tourist attraction.

And now for the mismanagement...

You can't see the mineral springs any more. Because they aren't there anymore. They were blown up and the US Highway 68 bridge across the Licking River was built right on top of them. The bison were slaughtered long ago, as I mentioned, but there are still a few Short's golenrod plants left for you to see. Not many though, because in the 1960s the state bulldozed most of them and built a campground, which is also sitting on top of most of the actual "battlefield" where the fighting took place. RVs with sattelite dishes are now parked where the Shawnee whipped the pioneers. There is a bathroom, with showers, on the spot where Boone's son was killed. You can visit a monument to the fallen Kentuckians at the park, although it isn't at the site where they are buried. They built a parking lot on top the graves long ago.

I should say that most of these horrible deeds were done decades ago. The state park has recently renovated their museum and it is first rate. Their trail system preserves a portion of the bison trace, the trail that migrating buffalo gouged into the earth, and you can still see the Short's goldenrod along it. If you can, the best time to go an visit is during their annual battle reenactment, which coincides with the blooming of the goldenrod. While the preservation of the history and the natural habitats has pretty much been a disaster in the past, they are making efforts to preserve what they have left. And the fried chicken in the lodge buffet isn't bad. Just an hour from Lexington, it's worth the trip on a lazy afternoon.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Kentucky Food: The Dixie Cafe in Tollesboro

There is probably no reason you will ever find yourself in Tollesboro, KY, unless you were born there. Best I can tell the population is about 100. It's about 20 minutes east of Maysville right off the AA parkway, which connects Maysville to Ashland with not much in between except beautiful country. But I find myself driving through there on business several times a year, and when I do I always make sure and hit the Dixie Cafe. It's just a typical small-town diner with good country eatin', good prices, and lots of local color. Every time I go inside the place is pretty full, and the customers all stop eating and stare at me from the time I enter until I sit down. Now, I'm not the most attractive feller in the world, but I'm pretty sure they do that to everybody. But after you start eating they go back to their business. Expect to hear a lot of talking about deer and turkey, and how granny is doing since she got out of the hospital. One time an old feller came up to me and showed me his old driver's liscence, just because the picture was funny. Didn't even try and bum a dime from me or anything, just being friendly. The waitresses are always nice, and cute, which is pretty important to get my return business.

As far as the food goes, I suggest either trying the liver and onions or soup beans and cornbread. Their cornbread is a sign of Kentucky authenticity. It isn't one of those stupid muffins, it's the real thing - fried in a skillet and soaked in butter. Anyplace that tries to serve you a hard muffin and calls it "corn bread" is either owned by a corporation or a Buckeye. I've had some of their specials, which are usually a meat-and-three and come with Sweet Tea (of course) for $5.95 or so. A bargain. Both the fried and baked chicken are pretty good, but you need to get beans and cornbread as sides whatever you get.

I travel all over the state, and these little places are getting harder to find. They are either squeezed out by chains or try to cater to "red hat ladies" and are too fancy and expensive. The Dixie is just right. Of course, I noticed as I ate lunch there today that they have a "For Sale" sign in the window. If you want to enjoy some real Kentucky fixin's you better get there fast before it becomes a Subway.

Kehoe's Dixie Cafe on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 26, 2010

Kentucky People: Jesse Stuart

The first few posts on this blog have been pretty dry, mainly because I've been trying not to editorialize too much. That, of course, makes for a pretty lame blog. Thankfully my topic for this post is something I feel pretty strongly about. You need to read you some Jesse Stuart. Stuart was a schoolteacher in Greenup County, who become a well-respected author and poet in the 1930s. The son of a sharecropper, he studied under Robert Penn Warren (another Kentuckian we don't hear enough about) at Vanderbilt before returning to his native soil of "W-Hollow" to write about traditional Appalachian life, and eventually its struggles with post-war modernization. Anyway, at one time Stuart was mentioned in the same breath with Faulkner and Flannery O'Conner, won a Guggenheim fellowship and went to New York for signings and everything, but now he's kind of forgotten. When my mother was a kid in Elizabethtown Stuart was a household name and Kentuckians read a lot of his work in school (she was born in 1935). I don't really remember reading him much in school (I was born in 1971), and I don't know anyone my age or younger who has really heard of him. It's a pity.

Stuart really did an excellent job of humanizing the mountaineer; all of the hillbilly stereotypes are there (you got your moonshiners, folks married to kin, some toothless and barefoot- the whole nine yards, mainly because they are rooted in truth) but they are presented as neither tragic nor as a joke. Most are honest, hardworking people trying to get by the best they can, although some are pretty low and common. Just like anywhere else, but with better dialects. Although I've lived my whole life in Central Kentucky, my dad was born in an Appalachian coal town and I've spent quite a bit of time in Eastern Kentucky over the years, including Greenup County, and I recognize a lot of people in his characters. I guess what hits close to home for me is thinking about how at least some of my ancestors lived lives like some of these folks, which makes you really stop and think about how easy you have it by comparison.

If Stuart is read at all now, it's mainly his most famous novel Taps for Private Tussie , which is pretty much a comedy, or one of his accounts of teaching like The Thread That Runs So True, neither of which are his best as far as I'm concerned. If you really want to get a taste of the good stuff, pick up a copy of one of his short story collections and read "Men of the Mountains" or "The Sunday Afternoon Hanging". The coolest thing about Stuart is that he loved his land so much he saved up and bought all of the land his family worked on as sharecroppers in W-Hollow, over 700 acres, and donated them to the state as the "Jesse Stuart State Nature Preserve," so after reading his short stories you can actually go and hike around the sites he talks about. If you really get into it, I suggest going to Greenbo Lake State Park for their annual "Jesse Stuart Weekend" in the fall (ask for Paul Verespy when you call, he knows his stuff). If you are a real Kentuckian you owe it to yourself to take a little time off from Facebook and read you some Jesse Stuart!

By the by, if you don't check them out from the library, I also encourage you to buy his books from local sources, like the University Press of Kentucky or the Jesse Stuart Foundation.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Kentucky Places: Carter Caves State Park

Carter Caves State Park near Olive Hill is often overshadowed by its more famous cousin to the West, Mammoth Cave, but it is well worth the visit. Like Mammoth, it is swamped with tourists in the summer, but since they are mostly there for cave tours or at the campground or lodge (neither of which are anything special), you'll pretty much have the trail system all to yourself. If you are really outdoorsy, you need to float Tygart's Creek from Olive Hill down to the park, but you'll have to do it in the winter unless you want to drag your canoe the whole way. It's about a 15 mile trip or so, but the clifflines are fantastic. Winter is the best time to see the cliffs while hiking, too. I suggest checking out the 4Cs trail for a view of some of the rugged backcountry of the park. If you want to go underground but avoid the tourists, they actually do have cave tours all winter, as well. Check out Cascade Caverns which is a pretty nice "tourist cave" with lights, big rooms, and no crawling. The days of crawling tours might be coming to an end anyway because of "White Nose Syndrome", a disease which is wiping out the nation's bat population and is probably spread by people visiting caves (as well as bats flying around, of course).

On your way from I-64 to the park you'll pass a bunch of touristy stuff like "rock shops", where you can buy rocks if you are so inclinded. There's also a little tavern (since Carter County is dry I guess that's not the right word) which usually features the musical stylings of the Git-R-Done Band, which is pretty good. If it's open when you go, there is a little trailer with BBQ and ice cream in the front yard of an old house a couple of miles before the park entrace which has the best food I've found around there.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Kentucky in Print: Simon Bolivar Buckner, Boderland Knight by Arndt M. Stickles

A reprint of a biography first published in 1940, Boderland Knight is a solid (though fairly uncritical) look at one of most important figures of 19th Century Kentucky. Hart County's Simon Bolivar Buckner was a pretty remarkable man, one who all Kentuckians should know about but few do. At the eve of the War Between the States he commanded the Kentucky State Guard, which was the equivalent of today's Kentucky National Guard. At the war's outbreak he was offered a commission with the Union but instead became a Confederate General. He was blamed by some for the disaster at Fort Donelson, which essential gave Western Kentucky and Tennessee to the Union (although most point the finger to his superior officers). At Donelson he was forced to surrender to his old Mexican War compatriot US Grant, but later their friendship warmed enough for Buckner to serve as one of President Grant's pall-bearers. That kind of puts into perspective the bitterness of the war, or lack thereof, felt by the men at the top - I wonder how many folks realize that the head of all Union armed forces and President of the United States actually requested a Confederate General as pall-bearer (two, actually, General Joseph Johnston being the second). The fols who want get hysterical about Confederate monuments and whatnot should think about that. But I digress...

After the war Buckner became an influential newspaperman before he was elected Governor of Kentucky and spearheaded the adoption of a new state constitution, which is actually the Commonwealth's current state constitution. He really played a pivitol role in Kentucky's history for a half-century, but I've met very few who've even heard his name, which is more than a pity. Buckner really was the epitome of old-time Kentucky, he even looked the part! All things considered, Boderland Knight isn't exactly a page-turner, but until someone writes a new bio it'll have to do.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

What's this all about...

This blog is about Kentucky, not about me, but since I'm writing it you should know a little about the source. "Consider the source," as my grandma always used to say. I'm a proud son of Ol' Kentucky, and a student of her to the point of obsession. The sixth generation born in Hardin County, and although I've lived in the Lexington area for 20 years or so, I’ve never called any place else home. My life and family is pretty much as traditional “Kentucky” as you can get. To make a 200-year old story short, my ancestors were here when Kentucky was still a county in Virginia. My forefathers were divided by the War Between the States; some fought for the Confederacy as part of the "Orphan Brigade" in the 6th Mounted Infantry, CS, others rode with Morgan's Raiders in the 8th Kentucky Cavalry, CS, while others fought for the Union and chased Morgan’s Raiders all over the state as part of the 9th Cavalry, US. My family tree has coal miners and politicians, priests and bootleggers. I have degrees in both History and Biology from the University of Kentucky, and my job takes me all over the Commonwealth to work in some of the most beautiful natural areas we have left, in some of the most remote places. Along the way I try and see some of the local color, check out the historic sites and eat in the mom-and-pop diners. My goal is to share some of these trips and stories with you, and encourage you to see them first-hand before they are all paved over. And if you aren’t in Kentucky yourself, I encourage you to enjoy these posts with a tall glass of bourbon in your hand. It’s the next best thing to being here.