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Kentucky's Culinary Heritage

Updated on June 6, 2009
The Cumberland River at  Cumberland State Park, Kentucky
The Cumberland River at Cumberland State Park, Kentucky

Early kentuckian foodways

The early Kentucky region formed the western part of the wilderness granted to Virginia under the royal charter of 1609. When the Cumberland Gap, a pass through the appalachian mountains, was discovered in 1750, it opened Kentucky up for exploration and settlement. David Boone passed through the Gap in 1769 and blazed what is now called the wilderness road, further opening the Kentucky frontier. A diverse and unique Kentucky cuisine soon began to develop.

One of the earliest Kentucky dishes, made during this time, was Hunter's Stew, forerunner to Burgoo (*see previous hub on Burgoo). It was made without a recipe and consisted of whatever choice pieces of meat from freshly killed game was available. Deer, elk, bear meat, or wild turkey was cooked in an open kettle over a fire. Dried sage and pepper were added to give it an English flavor.

Colonists from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and Tennessee were the first white settlements in Kentucky in 1774. They brought basic supplies with them; such as, corn meal, smoked ham and bacon, and hard-to-get wheat flour. Corn was planted and used, not only for food, but to make corn whisky. Wheat didn't grow well in Kentucky soil, so the little they had was saved for special biscuits, pies and gingerbread, for company and special occassions. Cornmeal was used for most bread and for mush.

Settlers planted sweet potatoes, carrots, green beans and okra. Green beans simmered all day with bacon was a favorite dish. Eventually these vegetables were added to Hunter's Stew, along with squirrel, possom, rabbit and meat from birds, to create what came to be know as Burgoo.

Like many others, from states settled in America during the frontier period, the first Kentucky pioneers were presented with challenges. Many of these translated into an eclectic and unique cuisine, reflecting the collective heritage of folks hailing from different regions of the globe who eventually called Kentucky home.

More than any other state, the cities and towns of Kentucky exemplify uniqueness in their ways of cooking and using foods. Geographical location and land growth influence food choices. In addition, people and cultures shape the choice of foods and how they are used. Indians, farmers, and pioneers have all contributed significantly to Kentucky's foodways.

Bread traditions

In the 1770s, Kentucky's population was made up of settlers from all sections of the country, so its bread traditions represent a good cross-section of early American foodways. The northern pioneers contributed recipes for brown bread, pumpkin, and yeast batter breads. The southerners had bread traditions made primarily of cornmeal, a legacy from the indians. They made fritters, cornbread and hushpuppies.

Bake ovens were few and far between, so a lot of the breads were cooked in skillets. Many of the breads were designed to be baked, in heavy casserole dishes or Dutch ovens, over the coals of a hearth fire. There was southern spoon bread, Shaker corn sticks, light corn bread. There were also oven-baked breads which used wheat flour, and biscuits of all kinds. Food technology has changed over the years, but but some of today's recipes syill contain remnants of the early pioneer's foodways.

The following tips were found in The American Family Cookbook published in 1870:

Eight Points in making yeast breads

1. You need good wheat flour
2. You need a good miller to grind the wheat
3. Choose a "wetspell" for grinding, as the wheat should not be very dry
4. Sieve the flour before using, to separate particles
5. Use good yeast made from new hops
6. Knead bread thoroughly
7. Do not let bread rise too much; it destroys the sweetness
8. Don't let the oven be too hot or too cool. A "happy medium" must be determined.

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