Don't let the fact that this story involves road food and a 1950 cookbook fool you. The cookbook is a masterpiece of mid-century illustration, the restaurants and inns end up telling more stories than the landscape, and before it's over a ghost in a wedding dress appears and I wake up screaming.
The cookbook is the key to it all. I discovered the Ford Motor Company's Favorite Recipes from Famous Eating Places as a 12-year-old, and in one afternoon it changed forever my view of the open road. Its glove-compartment-sized pages held recipes from the menus of restaurants across America, each accompanied by a brief description and a painting or drawing from a regional artist, commissioned by Ford. This guide for highway travelers (it just masqueraded as a cookbook) was both promotional and visionary, for its lush watercolors and quirky pen-and-ink renderings—intended, of course, to lure people to their cars—commemorated a wayside civilization almost unrecognizably different from today's interstate highway experience.
After too many years of wondering, I determined to find what was left of Ford's storybook nation of welcoming façades and gracious byway dining, as recommended in the (eventual) eight editions of the guide. I closed my eyes, pointed to an open U.S. road map, landed in Kentucky's bluegrass country, and rented a Mustang convertible.
I also called Mary. She's an old college friend, and as we roared out of the Lexington airport, she threw her hands up above the windshield and let out a starting-gun "Woo-hoo!"
We drove to my first Ford selection, just south of downtown Lexington, under overcast skies.
Mary's a good sport, but she stared at me as we pulled up to the Campbell House Inn, a phony-colonial hotel that looked exhausted. This was lunch?
The grounds were scruffy, a far cry from the manicured lawn and shrubs in the guide. We walked through a nondescript lobby. But I exhaled when we entered the dining room, its linens and chandeliers in time-capsule condition. A friendly waitress kept our iced-tea glasses brimming as we went back and forth to the buffet for tender pot roast, corn bread fried flat as pancakes, and mixed-berry cobbler—food as unpretentious as it was satisfying. Mary smiled. I was vindicated.
Heading south, we left the state highway for a freewheeling, no-shoulders back road. Hardscrabble yards tended by billy goats gave way to undulating hillsides, and at Valley View we sloshed across the Kentucky River on a three-car paddle-wheel ferry.
We had reservations in Berea at the Boone Tavern Hotel, a dignified 1909 inn staffed mostly by college students. I'd packed a blazer for places like this one, with its handsome, wide-planked floors, proud archival photographs, and handcrafted furniture. But youth is a powerful cult, and like a too tight face-lift there were odd, inappropriate updates everywhere: wall-to-wall carpeting and cheap lithographs of Paris upstairs, pasta Alfredo and a scrapped dress code in the dining room. Ford's whimsical 1950 line drawing of the inn looked increasingly right—charming, but a little off.
At bedtime, Mary called for an extra blanket, which a student brought. Mary looked at it and told him the truth: "This blanket seems really old." He replied enthusiastically, "It's a historic hotel!"
In the morning (more clouds), we took a solitary drive west along curves saturated in green. Pungent, new-mown hay lay in bales everywhere, and the road seemed as intoxicated by it as we were, twisting lazily past white frame houses, dilapidated farms, and slow-blinking cows. We passed through Danville, a gorgeous town of movie-set houses that had two stars: Freddie's, a snappy Italian restaurant where we ate lasagna and pondered Kentucky's dry counties, and Burke's Bakery, where I'm sure Aunt Bee shops.
I know the car thought we were idiots. I drove ridiculously slowly, almost coasting, as we rambled and detoured, singing off-key to radio ballads. In Harrodsburg we stopped at the Beaumont Inn, an 1845 Greek Revival mansion run today by descendants of the inn's original owners.