Southern Roadside Kitchens
Inspired by a 1950 collection of recipes from inns across America, Jim Larkin tours Kentucky in search of roadside dining from a simpler time
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.
The next few hours melted one into another as Mary and I explored immaculate hallways filled with antiques and family curios, rocked in the shade of magnolia trees, and sipped illicit cocktails in our bedroom, toasting the Ford guide. At dinner (I wore my blazer), white-aproned waitresses scooped corn pudding and sliced orange-lemon cake made from recipes unchanged for four generations—it was easy to imagine Annie Bell Goddard, the long-dead Beaumont Inn founder, still in the kitchen, giving each bowl of frosting the index-finger test.
After dinner, we played bingo in the front parlor, and before saying good night we drank a Beaumont Cocktail, the inn's bedtime tradition, from a tray placed in the stair hall. The Beaumont Cocktail is a glass of ice water. This was the promised land.
Overnight, the forecast changed. Wispy clouds moseyed across a limitless sky—perfect ragtop weather—and we left reluctantly, bound for the Old Stone Inn in Simpsonville and a Ford-recommended lunch. I had miscalculated miles and minutes, however, and soon we were flying down a two-lane road. We skidded in, at closing. Mary was not smiling. The waitresses thought we were nuts ("We'll eat anything," I said), but they reopened the buffet and we feasted on eggplant casserole, still the house specialty all these years later.
In redeeming myself with the Mustang, I had missed a lot of scenery. We were in horse country now, the rough Appalachian dells long gone, smoothed out into pastureland with stacked-stone walls. And again we were alone, driving an endless S curve. We arrived in Bardstown with farmers' tans and felt right at home. At the Old Talbott Tavern—which looked just as Ford's watercolor promised—we checked into separate rooms, treating ourselves. The Tavern has been around since stagecoach days, and despite generic interior renovations following a 1998 fire, it has retained a slightly spooky charm. We took a stroll and made plans to attend the big-deal local musical about native son Stephen Foster, performed in a nearby state park. We had high hopes of Waiting for Guffman.
At supper, over tasty spare ribs and fried green tomatoes, everything changed. We listened, bug-eyed, as our waiter and the manager told us believe-it-or-not tales about the haunted Old Talbott Tavern, about ghostly apparitions and fleeing guests. My room, apparently, was a sort of spectral playground.
Mary and I whispered throughout the off-off-off-off-Broadway musical, as earnest actors with manic smiles warbled "Su-wan-nee" beneath the stars. We barely noticed when part of the set collapsed: we were too busy figuring out a plan (find a Best Western; sleep in the car) in case chains started clanking.
Bardstown was deserted and moonlit as we pulled up to the hotel after 11. The manager had waited outside to give us some news: we were the only guests, and no staff members ever spent the night. My mind reeled. I heard Scooby-Doo music.
Alone in the shadowy lobby, we simultaneously convulsed when the front desk telephone began ringing mysteriously.
I answered it. Dial tone. "They know we're here," Mary said.
The next hour found me, a latter-day Don Knotts, abandoning my room and moving in with Mary. We watched TV until 1 a.m., muting the sound with each unexplained creak and saying last-words things like how glad we were to be friends.
I don't remember falling asleep, but at one point I was standing out in the hall and felt something brush my hand.
I turned to see a slender woman in a wedding dress, brown hair cascading to her shoulders. A ghost. I began choking on my screams. "Mary! Mary!" I called, trying to wake her. But my yelling woke me up, and I lay hyperventilating in the darkness, Mary breathing softly beside me, her back turned.
The whole sweet, sunny drive back to Lexington was eclipsed by detailed recollections of the night before. I told Mary my dream; she'd only heard me groaning unintelligibly. Soon we were jetting home, high above the interstate highways with their fast-food turnouts, chain hotels, and thronged rest areas. I was fonder than ever of my little color-washed guide. It had given me a journey, not a destination, and shown me that the old roads, new at every turn, are still there, their pleasures simple and individual and, if you're lucky, unchanged.
A couple of days after returning home, I found a Web page titled "Haunted Kentucky." There was a section written by a former Old Talbott Tavern manager. "Several people, including myself," she wrote, "have seen the lady in white. She [is] thin, [with] long, brown wavy hair and...wearing a long, white 1800's dress." I stared at those words for a while, my back tingling, then shut off my computer and called Mary.
Jim Larkin is a New York-based writer and a senior editor of the J. Crew catalogue.
Day 1: 57 miles. Take Highway 68 south out of Lexington. Head southeast on Route 169 and cross the Kentucky River on the Valley View Ferry. Continue on 169 to Highway 25/421 south. Follow 25 to Berea. Day 2: 46 miles. Take Route 21 west out of Berea; the road turns north and ends at Route 52. Follow 52 west to Highway 150; follow 150 into Danville. Leave town on Route 33 north. Turn left onto Route 152 and follow it to Harrodsburg. There, turn left on College Street (Highway 127) to reach the Beaumont Inn. Day 3: 147 miles. Take Highway 68 southwest to Perryville. Take 150 west to Springfield and turn north on Route 55. Follow 55 as far as Highway 60, where you turn west and continue to Simpsonville. Retrace your way back to Route 44, and turn right. Follow 44 to Route 623 to Route 48 to Route 509. From 509, take Highway 31E/150 south and follow it into Bardstown. Day 4: 60 miles. Take Highway 62 from Bardstown back to Lexington.
Copies of the Ford Motor Company's cookbook-travel guides turn up occasionally in used-book stores. Or call Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks in New York (212/989-8962).
Campbell House Inn An ongoing renovation will be completed by the end of the year. Lunch for two $20. 1375 Harrodsburg Rd. (Hwy. 68), Lexington; 800/354-9235 or 859/255-4281; www.campbellhouseinn.com
Boone Tavern Hotel & Restaurant Doubles from $85, dinner for two $40. 100 Main St., Berea; 800/366-9358 or 859/985-3700; www.boonetavernhotel.com
Freddie's Restaurant Lunch for two $20. 126 S. Fourth St., Danville; 859/236-9884
Burke's Bakery 116 W. Main St., Danville; 859/236-5661
Beaumont Inn Doubles from $85, dinner for two $60. 638 Beaumont Inn Dr., Harrodsburg; 800/352-3992 or 859/734-3381; www.beaumontinn.com
Old Stone Inn Lunch for two $30. 6905 Shelbyville Rd. (Hwy. 60), Simpsonville; 502/722-8200
Old Talbott Tavern Doubles from $90, dinner for two $60. 107 Stephen Foster Ave., Bardstown; 800/482-8376 or 502/348-3494; www.talbotts.com