Did you know that a Lexington bakery provides loaves of fresh-baked bread to the elephants whenever a circus comes to town? Or that a home in Old Louisville used to be a brothel until the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union bought it and painted it pink to turn away men? Who knew you could pick up such information on food tours of Kentucky’s two largest cities?
Day One: Louisville
It was a blustery weekend in February when I began my assignment to cover the only food tours in Louisville and Lexington. Leslie Burke of City Taste Tours of Louisville picked me up at the corner of Second and Liberty in a tour bus. I was greeted by Cliff, Mona and Mina, who were celebrating Mona’s birthday by taking her on the tour. Valentine’s Day decorations were still hanging in the bus, soon to be replaced by St. Patrick’s Day shamrocks.
“This bus allows me to go year-round, and I can create my own little world,” said Burke, a real estate entrepreneur who launched City Taste Tours after taking a similar tour in Savannah, Ga. “I am a very creative woman in a bad economy. I didn’t sleep for days to develop ideas for the business.”
She made initial contacts with area hotels and concierges who were eager to offer their guests a new option for seeing the city.
“Everyone loves a tour,” Burke said. “I love what I do, and I get to show new friends the city every day.”
So on that cold, windy day in February, Burke, my three new friends and I embarked on a tour that would, ironically, begin by crossing the river into Jeffersonville, Ind. With the downtown skyline disappearing in the background, Burke turned off the Clark Memorial Bridge onto Spring Street, where we pulled in front of Schimpff’s Confectionery. There, we sampled chocolates and red hots.
(Dessert first? I should have signed my children out of school and taken them with me. Nah, I’ll rub it in later. Man, I love my job.)
When we got back on the bus, Burke had greens and a Mazzoni’s rolled oyster waiting for us. As we noshed on these famous Louisville bites, Burke drove along the Ohio River pointing out historic landmarks along the Louisville skyline, as well as great places to visit, such as the Muhammad Ali Center, the KFC Yum! Center and Waterfront Park. Cliff, Mona and Mina remarked how they would like to visit some of these places when we crossed back into Louisville.
Next stop: Theatre Square—but not before passing Fourth Street Live, The Seelbach Hotel and the Wig Shop District, one of the country’s largest collections of wig shops. (Who knew?)
In Theatre Square, we were treated to the famous Hot Brown and a bottle of Kentucky’s own Ale-8-One soft drink at Bluegrass Brewing Company. (I can sense a food coma setting in if these delectable samples continue. Oh, and do they continue.)
We made our way to Old Louisville, where we learned about the infamous pink house, the Southern Exposition (1883-1887) and the resulting construction of Victorian-era homes in St. James Court. There, we were permitted to take a quick tour of the Conrad Caldwell House. Before we drove off, we sampled a local wine. (Yep, I love my job.)
Back on the road, Sammy Davis Jr.’s “The Candy Man” played, and we were eager to see where Burke’s sweet tooth would take us. How about Nord’s Bakery in Louisville’s Germantown neighborhood? Just stepping into the small corner shop makes your mouth water with all the sweet smells of goodness assaulting your senses.
My German blood was stirring at the thought of a butterkuchen. Instead, Burke provided us with a buttercream-topped doughnut and to our surprise and hesitancy, a bacon doughnut. (Now, I know bacon makes everything better, but this was pushing the limits!) Each of the four of us slowly brought a doughnut to our lips as Burke looked on with a knowing smile. Yeah, it was pure heaven. My toes were tingling at the perfect marriage of sweet and salty. (I did purchase a butterkuchen to share with my family later that evening. I love my job.)
The trip from Germantown to the Highlands is a little fuzzy due to the sugar high that followed the bacon doughnut … but my mind instantly cleared when we pulled in front of Kizito Cookies. Beautiful Ugandan crafts and clothes greeted us at the storefront. Elizabeth Namusoke Kizito brings these treasures to sell from visits to her homeland of Uganda. (I purchased a carved wooden bunny for my daughter, beaded ankle chains for my sons and a mini-lamellophone—or thumb piano—for my husband.)
Mina and Cliff also bought some treasures for their friends and family. I believe Mona was still on a sugar high because she saved her free cookie sample to eat later. The rest of us gobbled ours as soon as we got back on the tour bus.
Then things turned weird. At least they did for me as soon as Burke turned into Cave Hill Cemetery. Now what in the world does a cemetery have to do with food? And why was Burke driving in the center of the roadway and not on the right side of that solid yellow line on the pavement?
Burke explained the yellow painted line leads visitors to the grave of Col. Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. (I had to get out and take a picture of the memorial dedicated to the man who made one of the world’s most perfect foods.)
We also stopped momentarily at the gravesite of confectioner Anton Busath and enjoyed a bite of his famous Modjeska candy. Busath had named the candy for 19th century actress Helena Modjeska, whom Busath had seen when she toured Louisville in the late 1800s.
As hour three drew near, we sadly knew our tour of this Ohio River city would soon come to an end—but not before Burke stopped at a relatively new venture in Butchertown. The Butchertown Market is a late 19th-century building has been home to a leather tanning operation, a soap factory and even a paint shop. It now houses several unique shops that sell everything from quirky books and chocolates to furniture and Louisville’s own Bourbon Barrel Foods. While there, we were able to sample Kentucky Ale and buy Kentucky’s answer to teriyaki: Kentuckyaki, which is made by Bourbon Barrel Foods. Burke took us to storage area where Kentuckyaki, soy sauces and other gourmet sauces and marinades are aged in used bourbon barrels.
Before we left, we were given time to browse the various shops and since I was sweet enough (I sure had a lot of sugar that afternoon) to buy family gifts, I couldn’t resist the pair of earrings on sale for $2 on one of the shop’s clearance tables.
As Burke drove me back to my car that afternoon, I was in a pleasant state of satiety and wished my newfound friends adieu and a happy birthday to Mona. I proceeded to call my husband, his sister and her husband and inform them that if Lexington’s food tour the next day was anything like my trip in Louisville, it was going to be a great weekend.
Day Two: Lexington
“What do I wear?” my husband, Eric, asked me that morning before we were picked up by his sister, Patty, and husband, Dave. Knowing it was a walking tour, I told him sneakers and blue jeans. Yeah, the sneakers were smart. But I should have warned everybody to wear stretch pants because we ate a lot of food that day, and the jeans became uncomfortable as the tour progressed.
Once the four of us arrived in Lexington and parked the car, we met Laura Mize with Bleu Plate Tours at Alfalfa Restaurant on East Main Street, along with a host of other folks eager to see what Lexington had to offer.
This will be the third season of tours for Mize, who cooked up the idea of a walking tour in 2010.
“While walking along the streets of Pasadena, California, during a food tour, I remembered thinking, ‘They should do this in Lexington,’ ” Mize said. “Then I chuckled to myself because who is ‘they?’ It’s me; it’s you; it’s anybody.”
Mize spent the next six months thinking, planning and strategizing before her first tour in August 2010. Soon, popularity—not only with customers, but also restaurants—led her to add more tours.
“I have to say that my tour partners [the restaurants and establishments where we stop for tastings] are wonderful to work with. I felt very blessed to have the vast array of quality, locally owned restaurants join me from the very beginning,” she said. “I’m proud to say that since the very first tour, not a single partner has opted out for the following season.”
Our particular tour that blustery day in February was a bit out of the norm for Mize, since she provides the 1.5-mile walking tour from April through October. But we quickly forgot the chill as we sat down to coffee and Alfalfa’s buttermilk blueberry buckwheat pancakes. Patty and I immediately were dissecting the ingredients to see how we can make this dish at home. (At press time, we still can’t duplicate its goodness.)
Once everyone had thoroughly enjoyed this first dish of many, we donned our coats and our complimentary Bleu Plate drawstring backpacks, complete with maps and bottled water, and headed outside to see what food discoveries we would make that day.
As we stopped at Limestone and Main streets, we got a brief history lesson on how and why Lexington was settled. By the early 19th century, it was one of the wealthiest and most cultured towns west of the Allegheny Mountains and had earned the moniker the “Athens of the West.” It’s now also known as the Thoroughbred City and Horse Capital of the World. Most of these tidbits of information we knew since we are as lifelong Kentuckians. But what we didn’t know was that nearby Sunrise Bakery always provides fresh loaves of bread to the elephants of the circus when it comes to town.
While we were digesting that piece of information (and the subsequent wisecracks about elephants and where bread is located on the natural food chain), we ducked from the cold wind into Sam’s Hot Dog Stand on North Limestone Street, where we were treated to bottles of Ale-8-One. The smell of all-beef hot dogs and homemade chili made us want to stay longer, but Mize had something else in mind: Gratz Park Inn.
(This is the only point in the trip where I’m glad I wore jeans because if I had worn elastic-waisted pants, I would have really felt underdressed.) All were using their best table manners as we were seated at an elegant table at Jonathan at Gratz Park inside the well-known inn. That’s when we were presented with fried green tomatoes, a deviled egg and fried black-eyed peas (who knew?). Sure it’s country cooking, but with a definitely gourmet flair that created a lovely eating experience. Chef and owner Jonathan Lundy came out to greet us and wish us well on our tour. His cookbook, Jonathan’s Bluegrass Table: Redefining Kentucky Cuisine, was passed around as Patty and I quickly searched for the recipe for the black-eyed peas. It’s in there, we happily discovered.
But we didn’t have long to memorize the recipe (Patty and I promised each other we would hit the nearest bookstore when we got home), since Mize had another treat in store for us. She took us on a stroll—albeit chilly one—through Gratz Park itself. There we were introduced to the three ugly sisters, or more respectfully, the Goodloe Houses. Built at the turn of the 20th century for the three daughters of Mrs. William Cassius Goodloe, the three houses have different facades but identical floor plans. They were among the last homes built around Gratz Park. Were the daughters ugly? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that’s just the name that legend has apparently given the homes. (I just knew Mize wasn’t being rude when she pointed them out to us.)
Then we pass by the Hunt-Morgan House, built by the first millionaire west of the Alleghenies and home to Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan. Legend has it that the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy” rode his beloved horse, Black Bess, through the house to kiss his mother good-bye.
While we, of course, didn’t have horses to take us to the next stop, my family and I were grateful at this point that we wore sneakers as we walked three blocks to our next destination, Cheapside Bar and Grill. We warmed ourselves on hearty bowls of jalepeño black bean soup, corn sticks with honey butter and a few minutes of the University of Kentucky men’s basketball game. (Cold? What cold?)
“My tours are about local restaurants that are unique to Lexington and reflect our culture,” Mize later said. “I honestly feel there is no better way to experience a city’s culture than the combination of walking the heart of downtown, learning a little local history and tasting the foods that represent the culinary trends and scene among the local restaurants. It’s truly a multi-sensory experience.”
With the soup still tingling on our tongues and our sinuses cleared, we headed for DeSha’s for some self-proclaimed rustic and refined American fare. However, when told we were going to have bread pudding, my heart sank. (Not a fan.) As we sat at a table and were presented with the restaurant’s award-winning bourbon bread pudding, my spirits lifted just a little. (It has bourbon in it? Isn’t that like bacon—makes everything better?) When I slowly lifted a small bite, the bourbon aroma took over my senses and right past my lips it went. For the second time in two days, food made my toes tingle.
“I love my job,” I said to my husband as I fought the urge to lick the bowl.
“We love your job,” my husband, sister-in-law and brother-in-law said.