Louisville is home to some of the best down-home food you may have never heard of. And that's the endless pot of gold at the end of the culinary rainbow that is regional American cuisine. Just when you think you've wrapped your head (and mouth) around Texas's kolache and New York's knish, traded in mayo for butter on your New England lobster roll, and washed down your thin-crusted New Haven pizza with a Foxson Park soda, someone slides burgoo in front of you … or a rolled oyster … or a Watergate salad. We found ourselves peering over these traditional dishes during our recent travels through the Bluegrass State. Chefs are carrying on tradition by putting these food customs on their menus, and in some cases reviving them and adding modern touches.
Chef Patrick Roney of The Oakroom has truly transformed Kentucky burgoo for a fine-dining setting. Burgoo is a thick stew packed with all manner of meats; the common mix is pork, veal, beef, lamb, and poultry. It's usually made for large gatherings such as family reunions, church socials, and community events. The origins of burgoo are a bit obscured and recipes vary from family to family. Some say it's derived from Welsh settles who ate a porridge of bulgur wheat and the name became bastardized colloquially through the years. Hunters may have started adding wild game and squirrels to it, beginning the tradition of burgoo as a meat stew.
Roney has composed burgoo for the individual guest in his dining room, and it's a special event on a plate. He invites rabbit, wild boar, and venison to the party for his rendition. "The Oakroom has a rich history in Louisville, and I wanted to honor that with some traditional dishes. I love game. The idea [for the burgoo] started dancing around my head when I first started here," says Roney. "Deconstructing the burgoo was pretty easy. I utilize great ingredients and try to keep it homey. Comfort food is very Kentucky, and burgoo is a dish for someone with a big appetite. Every burgoo plate I serve comes back clean and with big smiles from the guest, tickled to have so much game on one plate." The centerpiece of Roney's burgoo is a stuffed Kentucky-fried rabbit leg standing at attention—oh, and there are hush puppies, too.
"Whipped cream, pistachio pudding, crushed pineapple, and walnuts are the traditional ingredients," says Chef Jonathan Exum when describing the classic Watergate salad that he's taken from childhood memory and reinvented for his menu at Wiltshire on Market. "My grandmother used to make it for me. I was trying to think of a way to put it on the menu without whipped cream!" The original Watergate salad was served at the Watergate hotel and became a famed dish only once the hotel became famous for the Presidential scandal.
"The crème fraîche replaces the whip," says Exum, "with house pineapple jam cut in for sweetness. The saffron-blood orange pistachios represent the nuttiness, and the pudding had oranges, so that's where the Sumatra orange comes from. And, of course, I'm not a kid anymore, salads have to have greens. I went with watercress because I love the peppery delicateness of it."
The most obscure food tradition was set down on our table by Chef Michael Paley at Garage Bar. If you've never had a rolled oyster, you have no idea what you're looking at. Is it a croquette? A donut? A hushpuppy? "The rolled oyster isn't necessarily a classic Kentucky dish; it's more of an old tradition of the restaurant Mazzoni's Café, which opened on Third Street in Louisville in 1884," says Paley. "The rolled oyster became a Louisville bar food staple during Prohibition, and Mazzoni's was famous for their preparation." A rolled oyster is about the size of a baseball and is comprised of three oysters hand-rolled together, battered, and deep-fried, usually in lard. "We wanted to have a menu very eclectically Southern," says Paley. "We looked for old staples when thinking of bar snacks. Country ham was a given, also pimento cheese, and boiled peanuts. I really felt like it was time for someone in town to bring back the rolled oyster, since Mazzoni's closed around 2009." It's like taking a bite out of the ocean—if the ocean were crunchy and fatty pigs could swim in it. Paley complements his funky rolled Blue Point oysters with a house hot sauce made with fermented chiles. Merrily we roll a long.