It is Kentucky Derby week, and while mint juleps and big hats abound in the Derby City, inspiring many a local color blog this week, my memories of Louisville start with Bourbon and end at the Brown Hotel.
Louisville is called a lot of things–the northernmost city of the South, or, the southernmost city of the North depending on your political stripes. Locals can’t even agree on the correct pronunciation of the ‘burg–some opting for the Bourbon-dripping “Luh-Vuhl”, or the casually-tossed “Louaville.” I have always preferred the way I learned it from an FBI field officer–the textbook Midwestern “Lou-WEE-ville” with just enough of an upswing on the Louie to feign a knowledge of French diction. After all, the town was named for King Louis XIV back when Kentucky was just another piece of New France. Louisville doesn’t show off her French pedigree like St. Louis or New Orleans. Louisville, detached from empire, sitting on the old antebellum superhighway known as the Ohio River, has aged gracefully. She is a southern belle known for hospitality, horses, Bourbon and most recently, basketball. While the home of Colonel Sanders, Muhammad Ali, and the Louisville Slugger, I was in search of another native on this trip, Hot Brown. While Hot Brown would be an excellent name for a racehorse, the name has been taken by a comfort food dish instead.
The Hot Brown is nothing special. Wars are not going to be fought over it, nor will a Cordon Blu bedeck it. The Hot Brown has its roots as English pub food–a “knife and fork” open face sandwich, deconstructed well before “molecular gastronomy” was in vogue. The dish was first offered on the dinner menu at The Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville around 1923. The Hot Brown was offered up as an alternative to the sauce-and-cheese-sodden Welsh Rarebit. The Hot Brown–with its carved turkey breast, white sauce and bacon–is more of an upscale chipped meat and gravy over toast, known to the colorful GI’s of the “Greatest Generation” as “Shit On A Shingle.” My Appalachian dad’s version was known as the more kid-friendly “Gravy Bites.” In all of its forms, the open faced sandwich is comfort food. And here in regal Louisville, I’d find the Triple-Crown Hot Brown, somewhere.
But where to find the Hot Brown? To my knowledge, the old Brown Hotel was now a Hilton, whose history I will discuss in a moment. With the old Brown Hotel off my radar, I made the slightly careless assumption that the official dish of Louisville could be found in most sit-down restaurants. After all, in other cities around the US, I can find rival claims to the best interpretation of the local classic–Chicago’s deep dish, Philly’s cheesesteaks, and New York’s pizza. My first go at the search was not in Louisville at all, but across the river, at the casinos over in Indiana. A foolish error. What Caesar’s Palace food trough would bother to keep the dish close to authenticity, where the goal was quantity over quality? Certainly the Caesar’s mealy-mouthed version was not the prizewinning Hot Brown of lore?
Back in the Bluegrass State, I redoubled my effort, by trekking through Louisville’s main pedestrian drag–4th Street Live. 4th Street Live is a unique redevelopment–a giant glass canopy shields several blocks of Louisville’s main artery, creating a quasi-open air mall feeling along the old corridor. By day, the corridor is a simple road with a lid. By evening, the road is closed off, and the masses come out under the glass and neon. In concept, the pedestrian feels welcome to wander through. The area is a gathering place for big events, like the city’s Halloween and Derby weekends and free concerts. However, in execution, 4th Street is awash with the usual travel dining suspects–Hard Rock Cafe, TGI Fridays and the newer national chains, such as Howl at the Moon. The Maker’s Lounge–the local pub run by Kentucky’s own Maker’s Mark could offer me dishes as exotic as Hasenpfeffer and Elk, but no Hot Brown. None of those options would lead me to the local delicacy. However, I was starting to wonder if the Hot Brown could be called a local delicacy if no one served it. I continued my amble out of 4th Street Live and into (at the time) a less gentrified segment of downtown Louisville, quickly realizing that I had left the crowds behind. However, by happy accident lay before me the Brown itself, restored to its former glory.
After the Brown Hotel gave to the world its Hot Brown sandwich, the establishment withered and disappeared. The Grande Dame of all hotels in Louisville, hosting Queen Elizabeth, Harry Truman, Elizabeth Taylor and Muhammad Ali in its heyday was not a tourist draw by the 1960’s. Tourists stayed closer to Churchill Downs, and aside for that first week in May when the horses run “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports,” few travelers made Louisville a destination. Hard times shuttered the doors in the 1970’s, and the building became the local school district headquarters. For decades, the Hot Brown was homeless. And like the Dodo bird of sandwiches it is, it almost became extinct. The building became a hotel again in the 80’s–a Hilton–but only in 2006, the time of my visit–did I discover the Brown Hotel, almost like a mirage turning into brick and stone, a ghost back from the dead.
In the lobby bar of the Brown, I found everything I desired in this Kentucky dining excursion. My choice of Bourbons proudly distilled in the Commonwealth began the meal. While everyone knows Maker’s Mark is a go-to on the top shelf, I have always liked the modest complexities of Buffalo Trace–an excellent alternative to Maker’s and a few bucks cheaper. Usually I might cut it with ginger ale and a twist of lime (also known as, snobbishly, an Intellectual), but I sensed I might offend a Kentucky Colonel or two if I did so. So, the beverage came neat. Louisville is the northernmost Southern city after all, so I knew I could sip at the bar without the concern of a busy barkeep to keep the seats and tabs turning over.
Opening the pub fare menu, there before me was the object of my desire, front and center:
THE HOT BROWN $17
A Louisville Tradition since 1926
Roasted Turkey Breast and Toast Points Covered with Sauce Mornay, Pecorino Romano Cheese
Baked Golden Brown and Finished with Bacon and Tomatoes
I can offer no better precis of the dish. Caesar’s Palace over in Indiana erred with a bland sauce topped in Cheddar. Others in Louisville substitute a Cheese-whizesque goo. The Mornay sauce–with a Bechamel base of butter and flour with the cheese folded in gently–offers a aged and musky complexity that helps to embellish the broad canvas of turkey breast. The toast points sop up the sauce, the bacon and tomatoes with their smoked fattiness and acid are a fine garnish that you are welcome to eat. The entire enterprise is baked in a shallow dish. Indeed, a pub food cleaned up for the supper crowd.
However, this invasive platter is designed to put its host organism into a coma. Carbo-loaded bread and gravy, Tryptophan-laced turkey, and the Bourbon cocktails were enough to put down this race horse before the witching hour. Which is fine, as Louisville doesn’t offer much at that hour to begin with, the southern bells retiring for the evening when it is “sleepy time down South.” Or is that “up North?”